This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Ultimate Adventure, so Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road editor Christian Hazel wanted to do something special to celebrate. Having visited 47 of the Lower 48 states over the past 20 years, the UA finally made its way north to Alaska. The goal wasn't to find gold or catch king crab though. The two dozen 4-Wheel & Off-Road readers, sponsors, staff, and cronies at UA were instead searching for the toughest wheeling, idyllically remote locations, and the most beautiful scenery that Alaska is famous for.
For those who are unfamiliar with the UA, it's Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazine's flagship event. The premise of has always been to run what you brung. Hardcore rockcrawling and trails one day, followed by hundreds of miles of road driving to the next destination. All with no trailers allowed! If your rig breaks during the weeklong adventure, you have to figure out how to fix it and get back on the road.
Where do they value that pioneer spirit more than anywhere else? Alaska. Being self-sufficient and knowing your vehicle are critical to success on the Ultimate Adventure each and every year, but this year more than ever due to the remote locations that were visited.
Check in took place in the town of Wasilla, with participants arriving from all four corners of the Lower 48. Despite the distance involved in getting to the starting point this year, everyone arrived on time. And a surprising number of participants elected to eschew trailers altogether, driving their vehicles up through Canada rather than trailering them. Some rigs had travelled over 4,000 miles just to the get to start! Longtime cronies Sam Gillis and Keith Bailey inspected each vehicle for necessary items including rollcages, fire extinguishers, first aid kits, and more. After that it was time for the fun stuff like pizza, stickers, and swag from our UA sponsors.
Sam Gillis and Keith Bailey inspected each vehicle on the trip to ensure that they met all of the UA's strict safety requirements. These include parts like locking differentials, rollcages, and recovery points front and rear. They also check for items such as fire extinguishers, seatbelts, first aid kits, and vehicle registration and insurance.
After completing check-in, participants received their waterproof Rightline Gear 4x4 duffle bag full of T-shirts, stickers, and goodies from all the sponsors. These shirts are exclusive to people who attend the Ultimate Adventure and they become coveted badges of honor after the event, conjuring up memories whenever they are worn.
Day 1: Knik Glacier
The Ultimate Adventure has visited a lot of different terrain over its 20-year history. Sand dunes, ferry rides, countless rockcrawling trails, you name it. One thing we have never done before is visit a glacier. In the Lower 48, glaciers are pretty hard to come by, but in Alaska there are an estimated 100,000. Some of them you can even drive to, like the Knik Glacier. And that is exactly what we did.
Located at the northern end of the Chugach Mountains, the Knik Glacier field averages over 25 miles long and 5 miles across, making it one of the largest glaciers in southcentral Alaska. The Knik Glacier and the head waters of the Knik River are managed under the Knik River Public Use Area (KRPUA) Management Plan as part of the State of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources.
The terrain for Day 1 was not as difficult as in years past, but the trail encompassed water crossings, mud pits, and even sand dunes and silt beds en route to the Knik Glacier. The carnage toll was higher than expected given the easy wheeling for the day. The count included a spark plug wire, a ring-and-pinion (and we suspect was previously damaged), and two sliced tires (neither of them Falken Wildpeak M/Ts, we should mention). As the sun eventually set in Alaska, repairs were taking place and quarters were being fed into car washes in anticipation of Day 2.
Rick Prater joined us on the 2018 UA and was chosen as our returning reader. Only one reader is invited back for a second year, and the person is selected by the cronies. Prater swapped out the 10-bolt front axle in his Willys wagon for a Dana 60 and swapped out his father-in-law for his wife Nicole as his co-driver this year.
The trail to the Knik Glacier makes its way across tidal flats, through the forest, and though standing water. We were surprised at the number of quads, UTVs, and local 4x4s we saw in the area given the depth of the water, but they offer a fast way to access the backcountry for hunters. The area is popular with moose hunters. Although we saw tracks, we didn't see any moose this particular day.
Alaska had gone weeks without rain prior to our visit, which is incredibly rare. While some of the trail to the glacier was covered in water, other parts were dusty and dry, to the point of being silt beds. With no wind, the dust hung in the air and spread the group out over a large area.
Our destination on Day 1 was the Knik Glacier. You can drive right up to the edge of the glacier, where it was calving due to an unusually warm summer. Despite being comfortably warm during the day, it was at least 10 degrees cooler next to the glacier than it was during our drive on Day 1.
Steven and Kathy Messer drove their Jeep Cherokee Cheif all the way from Arizona to participate in the Ultimate Adventure. They had cut the top off of the fullsize Jeep during the build, only to have to fashion a new top for the weather encountered in Alaska. The Jeep runs a rowdy 525hp LS3 and a six-speed automatic.
One new sponsor this year was IH Parts America. Scouts have plenty of unique features (some may call them quirks), and rather than learn the hard way as we built the Ultimate International, we simply called Jeff Ismail. He is a wealth of knowledge for all things IH, and his Scout II has the best-running 392 engine we have ever witnessed.
Lake George is a glacial lake formed near the face of the Knik Glacier. The lake was historically known for a unique natural phenomenon called a j kulhlaup, an Icelandic term for glacial lake outburst flood. The breakup of the ice dam each spring would send a violent wall of water, ice, and debris down the river valley, causing massive flooding. The j kulhlaup hasn't occurred since 1967 due to glacial recession.
Your author added bypass shocks to his 1977 Ford F-150 shortly before the Ultimate Adventure. The upgraded suspension came in handy not only on the notorious frost heaves of the Yukon and Alaskan roads, but on the whoops found on the road to the Knik Glacier as well.
Ryan Kennelly came up to Alaska to represent Smittybilt, the Official Winch of UA 2019. He drove the company's Jeep Wrangler JL on the trip, which carried the company's new XRC Gen3 winch. The Gen3 boasts a 7hp motor and a load indicator on the controller, which came in handy more than once that week.
Cole Wininger was one of our local invited readers and was nice enough to bring his 5.3L-powered TJ out to UA to haul around our video crew. Running low tire pressure on the trail without beadlock wheels caused him to blow two beads on the way back from the glacier, but with onboard air it didn't take long to reseat the beads and continue on.
A mud hole along the trail swallowed up the Ultimate International, but rather than being avoided, the hole turned into an impromptu optional distraction. Most ended up on the end of a Smittybilt winch, including Fred Williams in the 2015 UA Tug Truck. The issue wasn't the mud hole itself as much as the wall at the end of the pit that stopped forward momentum.
Each year the staff of 4WOR builds a flagship vehicle to lead the Ultimate Adventure. This year it was the Ultimate International, but there were four other past UA builds on the trip as well. They included the CJ-17 from 2010, the 2012 double-ended JK shown here, the UA Tug Truck from 2015, and last year's Derange Rover.
Chris Durham brought a new truck to the UA this year, but it has many of the same design elements that date back to his CJ-10 from 20 years ago. Beyond being blue, and being a Jeep truck, his newest vehicle also has a low-slung stance and a rowdy V-8, just like the CJ-10. This truck sits on a JK frame though, and has a Skyjacker LeDuc series coilover suspension instead of the leaf springs of his old Jeep pickup.
There are several tour companies operating in the Knik area, allowing visitors the opportunity to view the glacier by air via a flightseeing company, an all-terrain vehicle, a jetboat, an airboat charter, or on a guided pack rafting tour. And that's not to mention several rental UTV and ATV vehicles we saw putting around. We didn't need to go that route though; we brought our own rigs to the glacier.
Day 2: Wasilla to Eureka Trail System
Last year in the Northeast, we only wheeled on public lands once as part of the Ultimate Adventure, and all of the camping we did was in campgrounds. The sad fact is there just isn't much public land in New England that is open to motorized recreation. Not the case in Alaska. The group started Day 2 with 100 road miles from Wasilla to the Eureka Road House along the breathtaking Glennallen Highway.
From there the tires were aired down and the hubs were locked and we didn't see pavement the rest of the day. We didn't see another soul either, unless you count moose and bald eagles. We explored 20 miles of the Eureka Trail System, taking Old Man Trail to Flat Creek Trail. This only scratched the surface of the 150 miles of two-track that comprise the Eureka Trail System. Although Eureka was much drier than it usually is this time of year, there are still areas of mud you'll need to negotiate to stay on the two-track trails that wind through the area.
Christian Hazel and Trent McGee led the way through the mud pit with the Cummins R2.8 under boost, and the rest of the group followed. The success rate was about 50 percent for making it through without needing a tug from a VooDoo rope. After that it was a short trip across a few water crossings to our destination for the night: a sand bar along the Little Nelchina River. It was a beautiful spot under a bluff at a bend on the river that was just big enough to fit our group.
A big component of the UA is having a vehicle that is not only capable on the trail but reliable on the road as well. Few have consistently done that as well as Stephen and James Watson from Offroad Design, the event's longest running sponsor. This year they drove their Vortec 454-powered 1999 K20 all the way from Colorado to Alaska and back without issue. The Offroad Design crew is a textbook example of preparation and knowing your machine. They are equipped to handle any situation and carry spares of anything they expect to need on these trips.
Summer is short in Alaska. Although our trip was at the end of August, the foliage was already changing color during out visit. The routes through the Eureka Trail System wind through alders and brush that make it the perfect habitat for wildlife, along with an abundance of water and wild berries.
The Tiny Dancer award went to Rich Fredricks for putting his Bronco into full send mode. We don't know how he managed to keep from rolling after carrying too much speed through this mud hole. At one point it looked like the truck was going to roll on the driver side, then the passenger side, but Fredricks managed to keep it on all fours.
You can't take a Hellcat wheeling, but you can go wheeling with a Hellcat engine. Lonnie McCurry of Skyjacker did just that with the company's new Gladiator, which has a 707hp supercharged 6.2L Hemi under the hood feeding power to a pair of Ultimate Dana 60 crate axles. The company has used the Gladiator as a test bed for its new line of suspension products, which are available now for the JL and JT.
As the saying goes, "Home is where you park it." Our camp for the night on Day 2 was along the Little Nelchina River. This flat, open spot along the river has a well-established two-track path leading to it. It made the perfect spot for the night for the 20 vehicles in our group. Depite the fact many local hunters and off-roaders apparently frequent the spot, we saw no trace of previous human visitation. We made sure to leave the camp in the same condition in which it was left for us.
Day 3: Eureka Trail System to Glennallen
Day 3 of the 2019 Ultimate Adventure started with a huge bull moose walking through our camp along the shores of the Little Nelchina River. Nothing says Alaska more than that, except perhaps a grizzly bear, but we were happy it was only a moose in camp. Temperatures dropped below freezing at night, a first for the UA, so the entire group was anxious to get in their vehicles and get moving to warm up. We continued through the Eureka Trail System, working our way across hills with sweeping vistas in every direction.
One of the early river crossings along the trail hydrolocked the built 460 big-block in the author's F-150, but the cronies jumped in to get the plugs pulled and the oil changed in a hurry. With no damage done to the engine, the air intake was repositioned to keep the issue from repeating itself and the group continued on. It wasn't long though before they became mired in Alaska's famous muskeg. Once you break through the top layer, this dark, smelly mud has no bottom. The Smittybilt winches and VooDoo kinetic recovery straps were working overtime to pull all of the vehicles out of the deep mud and keep the group moving on.
After 100 miles on the pavement and 40 miles of off-road, many of the vehicles were running on fumes, even after refueling with jerrycans along the way. We made our way back to the Eureka Road House, and the gas-powered vehicles fueled up while the Cummins R2.8 diesel rigs aired up their tires and watched. From there we pointed our 4x4s north to Glennallen, our destination for the night.
The Ultimate Adventure is traditionally held at the end of June, but this year Editor Christian Hazel moved the trip to the end of August to allow Trent McGee more unfrozen time to prerun. Since the UA is held in summer, we had never experienced freezing temperatures on it before, but camping along a river in a low-lying area provided the right conditions for frost and ice on Day 2.
Despite having an open top and half-doors, David Tucker hit every mud hole on UA with little regard for his seats and clothes. We never heard a complaint from him or his co-driver, Rob Bonney, all week. We never saw Tucker put a wrench on his Land Cruiser either, which is a testament to how well it was built.
Trent McGee used our 2018 UA vehicle, the Derange Rover, to prerun in Alaska while the Ultimate International was being built back in Phoenix. Then during the trip, tech editor, master fabricator, and wordsmith Verne Simons took over behind the wheel of his Rover to transport members of the video crew.
This Jeep was Frank Wininger's first vehicle, but it looked a lot different when he purchased it than it does now. Along with his brother, Cole, Frank was our other local invited reader. He and his family were not only great to have along but helped tremendously before and after as well. Keith Bailey repaid the favor by winching Frank out when the mud got a little too deep.
It was a year of firsts. First time at a glacier, first UA with freezing temperatures, and first time in recent memory that Keith Bailey didn't run out of fuel! Maybe hell froze over as well? He brought his fuel-sipping LJ this year instead of his Hemi-powered Bruiser buggy or super-thirsty V-8 CJ.
The Eureka Trail System is a popular hunting location for caribou, moose, and bear. Our trip barely preceded the start of moose hunting season and it isn't uncommon for Alaskan families to use meat from a moose all through the long winter. We hear it's delicious, but we never found any on the menu at any of the restaurants we hit.
On Day 3 we made a side trip to Monument, which provided a 360-degree view of the Talkeetna Mountains. Rick P w met back up with the group at Monument after replacing the gearset in his Dana 44 front axle back in Wasilla. The side trip was only a few extra miles, but it was uphill to get to the peak and more than one truck had to stop and add fuel to keep going.
Day 4: Glennallen to Kennecott
We woke up on Day 4 to the news that Jessi Combs had lost her life trying to break her own land speed record. It was a somber start to the day, which was overcast and gray, matching our moods. Radio chatter was nonexistent as we followed the Ultimate International to McCarthy, Alaska. The McCarthy Road winds through the Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska's largest park. Once the gateway to precious minerals, it now leads to spectacular scenery and vast wilderness. The road was originally constructed in 1909 as a railway to support the Kennecott Copper Mines. In 1971, a new bridge was constructed over the Copper River and the rail bed was covered with gravel, creating the McCarthy Road.
Our route passed through Chitina and over the Copper River. Pronounced chit-na, the railroad town sprang to life in 1910. It was once bustling as the major stopover and service point for the trains that carried ore from Kennecott to ships in Cordova. Kennecott was our destination for the day, but the road stops at the Kennicott River, 5 miles before the mining town. Yes, the river is spelled differently from the town. The Kennicott Glacier was named after Robert Kennicott by geologist Oscar Rohn, but legend has it that a clerical error got the name of the town wrong, substituting an e for an i.
We took a footbridge across the river and then hopped on vans in the town of McCarthy to reach Kennecott. McCarthy, popularized by the Discovery Channel show Edge of Alaska, was the town at the bottom of the hill with the saloons and brothels, while Kennecott was the company mining town with the stores and chapels. We visited all of them all on Day 4 of the Ultimate Adventure, but there was still a lot more to see on our trip. Check back next month to find out where we went next.
The single-lane bridge over the Kuskulana River was perhaps the most breathtaking sight along the McCarthy Highway. The road surface varied from frost heave and potholes on the pavement to miles of washboard roads to reach McCarthy and Kennecott.
The road to McCarthy passes through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The park and preserve were established in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and are part of the Kluane/Wrangell-St. Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park and preserve comprise the largest area managed by the National Park Service with a total of 13,175,799 acres, an expanse that could encapsulate six Yellowstone National Parks.
The road to McCarthy and Kennecott ends at the Kennicott River. From there we took a footbridge, and then vans took the group 5 miles up to the old mine town. Why vans? There is a bridge that accepts vehicle traffic, but it is privately owned and it was cost-prohibitive for us all to drive our 4x4s up to Kennecott.
The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark includes the land and mining claims that formed the foundation for the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The operation had two components: the mines where ore was extracted from the mountains, and the mill town where the ore was processed.
Legend has it that if you say Rick P w 's name three times (pay-way, pay-way, pay-way) while looking into the rearview mirror of a flatfender, he will appear. We can neither confirm nor deny this legend, but we tried it at Kennecott and this was the result. You decide for yourself.
At the peak of operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill at Kennecott and 300 more in the mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, a general store, a school, a skating rink, a tennis court, a recreation hall, and a dairy. It was the very definition of a company town.
After spending the day at the Kennecott Mine it was time to continue on for more adventures. Where did we go next? Did anyone get eaten by a bear? Check back next month to find out the answers to these questions and more.