1. home
  2. how to
  3. project trucks
  4. Can Truckin Make a Toyota Highlander Cool? Part 4: The (Off) Road Test

Can Truckin Make a Toyota Highlander Cool? Part 4: The (Off) Road Test

Getting Dirty in the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Who knew that when we took a few days and 1500 bucks and devoted it to a clean old Toyota Highlander that it would turn out to be so popular? Certainly not us! We had a good time doing it, though. And while we have done a few "urban off-roading" excursions, we had yet to take the little SUV anywhere significant- until now.

Every year we take a trip up to Huntington Lake, east of Fresno, CA in the Sierra Nevadas for a little R&R. Boating, mountain biking, shooting guns (okay, they were bb guns), and whatever harmless fun we could get into. We decided to leave all of the other trucks parked for this one and see if the highlander was up to the challenge. For starters this included towing the vintage 1960 Glasspar Citation (you know, one of those little runabouts with a corvette windshield like Elvis used to have) up behind it, as well as taking advantage of some of the fun trails in the area. We planned well and packed well, and we didn't even have to use the cool roof rack we installed (the mountain bike went up in the boat).

We had a leisurely, and totally uneventful trip up, that included the usual stop for BBQ and fuel before heading up the mountain. We dropped the boat in the water and spent the next couple days boating and biking around the lake. But we knew that our buddy Steve had some other plans for the week.

Steve had just purchased a new Toyota Tundra 4x4 from John Cabe Toyota Right here in Long Beach. And since Mr. Cabe himself is a friend of the family and an avid off-roader himself, Steve rolled out of the dealership with Bilstein 6112s, TRD Sway bars, Methods and BFGs along with all the other accoutrement a well-appointed Tundra comes with. Since all the Mexico races were cancelled for the year, including the NORRA 1000 that we have raced a handful of times with our other friend Allan in his four-seater Penhall prerunner buggy, the Tundra had also not yet seen the dirt. Since the men on the trip for the first part of the week also included Allen and more or less made up our race team, we decided to make a day of it and have fun with our respective new toys.

We headed out in the 2020 Tundra and the 2001 Highlander across the mountains toward a 10-mile loop that Steve had heard about as being "easy dirt" and began to head up. We were no farther than the first switchback when a dude in a Tacoma pulling a travel trailer stopped us and told us that he just spent 20 minutes turning around up the mountain because a tree had fallen across a bridge and it was unpassable. Well, we had to see how THAT happens, right? We ventured on, and sure enough, a dead pine fell from just above the road, crossing the bridge and the creek under it. Of course, we were totally unprepared, but why would that stop us? We stared at the tree for a while, broke many of the branches off and threw them into the creek (it's fun) and got our secret weapon on the case- Paccie. Paccie has weird Hulk strength. He can break bones with a handshake. We let him try to move the tree for a minute for fun, then doubled up the boat tie-downs that were thankfully still in the Highlander and hooked it up to the hitch on the Tundra and moved the tree to the side of the road. Don't worry about Paccie's feelings being hurt- he actually moved two other trees off the road throughout the course of the day.

We continued on our course and took just about every side road we were presented with, just for fun. We were definitely on a few that had not been driven on yet this year. We saw tons of views that most don't get to see. And the two trucks handled anything we put in front of them with ease. In fact, at one point, Paccie was complaining that the highlander was TOO comfortable and he didn't feel like we were even off-roading, even though the rutted and rocky roads looked otherwise. We only had to turn back once, but that was because the brush got so thick that Steve decided to spare his brand-new paintjob! It was definitely a solid area of proving grounds for both vehicles' maiden voyages. We headed back down to 7000' to the lake and cabin just in time to pick up the wives and head right back up the mountain in the dirt to Mushroom Rock, a special place to many, to watch the sunset and also catch a glimpse of the NEOWISE comet that would soon pass by. We didn't have our SLR or long lens on hand, but luckily Steve's photographer neighbor, Joyce Harlan did so we got a decent shot of it.

All in all, the newly outfitted Highlander handled beautifully throughout the week, even when a tire blew out on the boat trailer just before heading over the Grapevine on I-5! Hey the whole trip couldn't be perfect, right?