1. home
  2. news
  3. Overlanding and Off Roading in 4x4 Conversion Vans

Overlanding and Off Roading in 4x4 Conversion Vans

We Run Hole In The Rock Trail… In Vans!

Van life is all the rage these days, but most 4x4 conversion vans are used for simple overlanding and few 4x4 conversion vans can be found on technical rockcrawling trails. We don't fault most 4x4 conversion van owners for not wanting to drop of six-foot ledges or crawl through tight chutes. The difficulty factor was upped considerably during out visit, as rain showers made the slickrock live up to its name and filled washes behind us. While the 4x4 conversion vans struggled on some of the obstacles that the Jeep and Toyota on the trip tackled, everyone was happy to pile into the vans at night when it was raining outside (and spoiler: the author jumped into a van to complete the trail when his Toyota broke).

More Videos

Moab not only has amazing rockcrawling, but hotels, breweries, and activities for the entire family that keep us coming back year after year. Sometimes though, you are looking for something a little more remote, away from the crowds and traffic lights. That is what motivated us to visit Hole In The Rock (HITR) Trail, three hours south of Moab near Hall's Crossing on the shores of Lake Powell. Hole In The Rock Trail should not be confused with Hole In The Rock Road, which is on the other side of the Colorado River. The road is graded and accessible by car, while the trail is 70 miles of technical rockcrawling. But rather than covered wagons, we visited Hole In The Rock with the modern equivalent: 4WD vans! Like the original Hole In The Rock travelers, wheeling a van requires patience, ingenuity, and a dash of daring.

"Road impassible when wet"? Or road is passible when wet? We don't necessarily recommend ignoring signs like this, but we ran Hole In The Rock in the rain and it definitely upped the difficulty factor. Make certain you bring plenty of fuel and food in case your trip ends up taking longer than anticipated.

The two have the same origins; a Mormon emigrant trail blazed from Escalante to Bluff in 1879, long before the Colorado River was dammed to create Lake Powell, separating the road to the west and the trail to the east, and requiring both to be run in and back out. The settlers were hoping to complete their journey in six weeks, but the unforgiving slick rock and sheer cliffs took six months to navigate. At one point, where the actual "hole in the rock" is located on the west side of the river, the settlers lowered their wagons 1,000 feet to the river through a crack in the rock.

Several parts of the trail are narrow and off camber. In these spots, a 4x4 conversion van is not necessarily the best choice. A flatfender or Samurai would fit through these sections without issue. There are several steep climbs and drops though where the short wheelbase of a flatfender or Samurai would be at a disadvantage to the 4x4 conversion vans.
Marcus Williams' 4x4 conversion van was at a disadvantage with its long overhang. Fortunately, Marcus is in the business of fabricating custom bumpers for vans. Both his rear bumper, and the one he built for Chris Ridgway, went through extensive testing on Hole In The Rock and emerged unscathed.
The trail used to go through Lake Canyon but the route washed out in 2009 and had to be rerouted. The new trail entrance on Highway 276 is well marked, as is the trail. Although it is not heavily traveled and sometimes difficult to find, rock cairns, rebar, and painted rocks mark the trail.
Trail guide Chris Ridgway advised us all to bring extra fuel on the trip. We fueled up in Hall's Crossing and Chris brough 10 gallons of fuel for his thirsty 351W engine in his 4x4 conversion van. He didn't end up needing the extra gas, but he might next time considering that his fuel tank took some damage and is smaller now than it was when we started the trip.
Our Toyota pickup has significantly less storage space than a 4x4 conversion van, so we had to get creative with our gear. A Synergy Manufacturing Baja Basket holds our Yeti cooler and a weatherproof Hardigg case filled with camping and cooking supplies. The dry bag contains our tent and sleeping bag, and under the Baja Basket there is room for a duffel bag and camp chairs.
Chris Ridgway is a professional guide and driving instructor, leading trips in Utah and Mexico. Chris had a long history in motorsports, from motocross to road racing in the Rolex Series to King of the Hammers. He actually left straight from Hole In The Rock and drove to Mexico, where he navigated for KOH promoter Dave Cole in the Baja 1000.
Brian Giometti cheated and brought a four door JK on the 4x4 conversion van trip. He had no problem going anywhere on Hole In The Rock, including option obstacles. While others slept in their 4x4 conversion vans during the trip to get out of the rain, Brian slept in a hammock strung between his Jeep and a tree with a tarp over the top.
It is difficult to imagine navigating through this terrain over 100 years ago with horses and wagons. Even today, this area is remote and unforgiving. Don't expect to see any other travelers and don't expect your cell phone to work either.
This drop was one of the more challenging spots on Hole In The Rock Trail. And remember, you go out the same way you go in so anything you drop down you have to climb on the return. Marcus Williams' van weighs nearly 11,000 pounds, and it was all on the rear bumper as he slid down this ledge.
See the Toyota pickup pointing the wrong way in the background? Yeah, we grenaded the 8-inch rear end and had to leave the truck and hop in with Chris Ridgway for the remainder of the trip. This is where being in a remote location is a benefit, as everything was exactly as we had left it when we returned to the truck the next day.
Marcy Sutton was covering ground on the trail on her full suspension mountain bike faster than we could possibly drive. Hole In The Rock is a great location not only for rockcrawling but also for mountain biking, hiking, and camping as well.
The trail is just as serpentine as the Colorado River is, snaking around different rock formations and features. When the trail got too narrow, Marcus Williams and Marcy Sutton stopped and set up camp. Our original group of four vehicles was down to two.
Horseshoe Bend is an iconic location on the Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam. The view from the top of the plateau on Hole In The Rock is very similar, although this is actually the San Juan River and not the Colorado. The weather finally broke as we reached the plateau, which was welcomed since there was still more rockcrawling to do.
The Chute is a long canyon similar to Hell's Gate on Hell's Revenge in Moab. It isn't as intimidating as the exposed cliff edges found on the trail, but it will certainly still get your attention. And the bottom of the Chute there are two deep holes that have to be negotiated before climbing out the other side.
Covering 35 miles, it is difficult to complete Hole In The Rock in one day. We did so, but not without some night wheeling to reach our destination. Going in the summer would allow for more daylight, but also risks being unreasonably hot with no shade to be found. A better option would be to spend at least three days on Hole In The Rock.
There are very few trees on Hole In The Rock, and no firewood. This is where bringing a van comes in handy, as we brought our own firewood and it was dry even when we were not. Brian Giometti even brought a cordless chainsaw to cut the wood into bite sized pieces.
Having a 138-inch wheelbase and no rock sliders requires Chris Ridgway to take some creative lines in order to keep the rocker panels off the rocks. Ridgway's 4x4 conversion van has a 14-bolt axle swapped in the rear with an ARB Air Locker and a TTB conversion from Agile Off-Road up front with Dana 50 beams.
Here you can see the grooves cut in the rocks by the Mormon settlers to keep their wagons moving straight. These grooves endure after more than 100 years as evidence of the journey the settlers made across this unforgiving terrain.
This steep ledge was the only place that Chris Ridgway had to winch his 4x4 conversion van. The front axle has an open differential, and even though the 35-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers were fighting for traction, gravity was working against them here.
Thunder storms throughout our journey added to the adventure. The settlers saw just about every season during their six-month crossing of Hole In The Rock. We got a taste of different weather during our trip as well, and it certainly increased the difficult factor on several obstacles.