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Ultimate Adventure 2020

Part 1: Into America’s Wilderness

One of the most unique and beloved aspects of Ultimate Adventure is that every year the sponsors, participants, and sometimes even members of staff don't know where the event will be taking place until just a few short weeks before check-in day. We give them just about enough time to make their travel arrangements, but in terms of doing any special preparation to their vehicles, aside from maybe requiring some special deep-water fording capabilities or adding extra fuel or bearproof food storage, we intentionally leave everybody in the dark.

So, for the week-long hardcore off-road wheeling, camping, driving, surviving, and exploring experience that is Ultimate Adventure, you need to really know your machine and how to make it work in almost any terrain. There's no time to go swapping axles or lengthening wheelbase or bobbing your beds and boatsiding your rockers. And the route we've selected means snaking your long-bed crew-cab through a tight rock crawl trail or winching up near-vertical waterfalls in your Willys flatfender or Suzuki Samurai, then that's what you have to make it happen. It's all part and parcel to what is renowned in the industry as the preeminent off-road event of its (or any other) kind.

Since the first UA happened in 1999, the event has crisscrossed the country, hitting every state in the union with exception of Rhode Island and Hawaii. Maybe we'll make it to those states at some point in the future, but given the extreme drive required by most to get to UA2019's starting point in Wasilla, Alaska, it really wasn't possible to place UA2020 farther away from civilization than last year. But that's not to say we didn't come close. True, the journey to our starting point in Montana didn't require participants to cross through an entirely different country to get to the check-in location, but we did manage to avoid major cities, explore extraordinarily remote and beautiful parts of the country, and hit some bucket-list points of interest along the way.

 

CHECK IN: Kalispell

Check-in day in Kalispell, Montana, started sunny and beautiful but quickly grew dark with wildfire smoke as the cronies performed tech inspection, paperwork was checked, and ultimately stickers and windshield banners were applied.

Cronies Keith Bailey and Sam Gillis usually take the lead on tech inspection, ensuring all participant vehicles meet UA's strict list of equipment must-haves. If you're wondering if your vehicle can make the cut, check out fourwheeler.com/ultimate-adventure to see.

When Christian Hazel announced to the group UA2020 check-in would happen in Kalispell, Montana, it was a natural assumption that UA would be rolling through Glacier National Park just a stone's throw away. However, the route that longtime Crony and UA Guide, Trent McGee, plotted for this year's event couldn't accommodate the side trip, so participants were urged to arrive a day early if they wanted to visit the park. Most did, and when check-in day officially got underway the parking lot had been full of awesome 4x4s for about 24 hours. We did have special stipulations to maintain participant health and safety given the global pandemic, so our Paramedic Crony, Clifton Slay, had to pull double duty this year, serving as the event's COVID Safety Officer and performing twice-daily temperature and COVID checks on each and every participant. It was a small price to pay to get UA2020 off the ground, and all the participants quickly fell into the rhythm. Otherwise, everything was as it always is, with our normal vehicle tech inspection, checked paperwork, collected signatures, and handed out stickers and Warn Epic Trail Modular Duffle bags stuffed with T-shirts, sponsor swag, and all sorts of other goodies.

 

DAY 1: Blacktail Wild Bill OHV Area

Returning UA2019 Reader, Dave Tucker, once again arrived with his vehicle and gear well-sorted and ready to go. This year, Dave brought his son, Ian, to help with driving duties. Ian proved every bit as capable as his dad, and the little green FJ had no trouble over all the hardest lines.
Truth be told, we had our doubts on how Invited Reader, Travis Farmer's '85 G10 van would do, but after the first day those questions vanished. Travis and his co-driver, Cole Conner, were not only well equipped and well experienced, but they embraced all the stereotypes that are part and parcel with an old a van like this, from an underhood PA system that played ice cream truck music to patiently fielding dozens of "van down by the river," jokes.
Longtime UA Crony Sam Gillis took a break from his day job as a Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army to haul Colin Leibold from our video crew around in his Alabama Tube Car. Sam's buggy has proven ultra-reliable UA after UA, with an LS-1 engine, TH400 transmission, Atlas T-case, and 1-ton axles. It never runs hot and is always there to rig a winch line or tow another vehicle in distress.
Four Wheeler TV Host Ian Johnson brought out the Goat Built tube chassis LJ he built on the show to film his final episode of Season 2. Watch for it on Motor Trend On Demand. The "cheater" rig used sticky red-label 42x13.50R20 BFG Krawlers, a full Ultra 4-capable suspension with coilovers and bypass shocks, 1-ton axles, and an Atlas T-case, TH400, and 5.3L engine with an LS1 5.7L rotating assembly and mild cam for an estimated 400ish horsepower.
It's technically not a CJ, but you can't tell that at a glance. Corby Phillips' super clean 2004 LJ Wrangler is running a Durham Motorsports hood with a CJ grille to clear room for 39x13.50R17s on Raceline beadlocks. The factory 4.0L and four-speed auto still motivate the rig, but a 3.8:1 Atlas helps punch up the low range to work with the 5.38-geared Ultimate Dana 60 axles.
Built with the talented help of Curt LeDuc, the 1966 Bronco driven by Lonnie McCurry Jr and Dillard DeLaSalle of Skyjacker once again mopped the course with any obstacles that got in its way. We always appreciate the fact that Skyjacker is one of those companies that fronts its marketing with off-road actions, wheeling its show vehicles out on the trail before putting them in a booth or on a catalog. The sweet exhaust note is every bit as pleasing as the Bronco's outward appearance, and with Dillard spotting and Lonnie behind the wheel, this '66 looks as good wheeling through the trail as it does sitting still.
The mix of imported and native materials, as well as man-made and natural obstacles, made Blacktail Wild Bill OHV area one of the more unusual places UA has visited in recent memory. Quigley's Tiger LeBrun wheeled the company's very large 2010 G2500 Chevy van anywhere the smaller rigs went. The 6.0L is punched up in the horsepower department, and with 1-ton axles and Quigley Custom Driveshafts, Tiger's had no trouble with the big green machine on Day 1, even with some of the tighter spots.
Crony Ken Smith was one of a few participants whose vehicle's weaknesses were pointed out by Blacktail Wild Bill's undulating terrain. All the flexing caused the worn motor mounts on the 1970 K5 Blazer's 350 engine to snap. The bolts were a pain to get to, but Kenny and several helpers eventually got them swapped out, but as it seemed, not without somebody apparently nicking a transmission cooler line, which caused a fireball to erupt under the hood the next morning.

It can be a bit confusing for the uninitiated, but Ultimate Adventure technically doesn't start on check-in day. It's not until Christian calls the now-familiar, "Welcome to UA Day One" that the event clicks into gear, and the UA trail pulls out of the station. We assembled for the first driver's meeting, got our health checks out of the way, and caravanned the 30 or so miles through the town of Kalispell and into the Flathead National Forest. It's unfortunate that smoke from enormous wildfires up the western seaboard had blown our way, almost completely obscuring the wonderful views, but what we could see of this part of Montana was incredible. We arrived at the trailhead to the Blacktail Wild Bill OVH area and met our trail guides, Steve Settle and Bob Thomson, from the Big Sky 4Wheelers club. Big Sky 4Wheelers, along with the Skyliner 4 Wheel Drive Club, were instrumental in getting the trail system to where it is today, which is a mix of natural and man-made obstacles that make use of both native and imported materials. It's a perfect place for off-roaders of every level because the obstacles vary in degree of difficulty, with go-arounds for all of them. One thing we quickly noted was how much flex the Blacktail Wild Bill OHV terrain demanded of the vehicle suspensions, quickly breaking in any new springs and highlighting any areas of weakness. By day's end we had a handful of repairs that needed to be made, and the hotel parking lot was aglow in lights from several participant's LED headlamps long after dark.

 

DAY 2: Caruthers Lake

Clifton Slay is one of our long-time UA Cronies, and in addition to being a former Army airborne paratrooper, in his daily life he is a search and rescue paramedic. Needless to say, we're thankful for Clifton's special skillset that has not only kept UA participants healthy and safe, but this year his additional role as COVID Safety Officer was one of the big reasons UA2020 was able to happen.
In addition to donating their time, spending their own money on travel, fuel, and food, and helping UA participants fix mechanical issues, get unstuck, or attending to any other problem that arises, Cronies often represent UA sponsors who are for whatever reason unable to attend the event themselves. This year, Cronies Keith Bailey and Tom Boyd once again stood in for VooDoo Offroad, the Official Recovery Rope of UA2020. Check out VooDoo's Instagram page, @voodoo_offroad for some of their social media handiwork during the event.
The Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana, is an incredible place that covers acres of property jam-packed with all sorts of neat machinery, weaponry, agricultural, industrial, and all sort of other items of Americana. We could devote an entire magazine issue to this place and not do it justice.
In addition to the items of Americana, the Miracle of America Museum has several items of local interest, such as this Ford Model A with a "snowbird" track conversion that allowed it to deliver mail in the Birdseye area west of Helena during the super harsh Montana winters. We bet it'll work equally well in deep mud!
With the Miracle of America Museum in the rear view, we headed up in elevation toward our campsite at Caruthers Lake. Although medically unadvisable, the wildfire smoke was so thick you could look directly at the sun without it seeming much brighter than an orange Harvest moon.
We hit what at first glance appeared to be a mud puddle, but as the olfactory senses came into play it was quickly argued that it was more cow poop than mud. Either way, a few of the video crew members wound up wearing whatever it was thanks to Fred Williams' exposed tires on his little Wrangler, Tube Sock.
Before we had gotten halfway up the 8,000-foot climb, it was time to turn the headlights on. We continued up the trail in darkness, surrounded by tall pines and Aspen trees with chirping squirrels and inquisitive mule deer coming to check us out. Only the last -mile of the trail held any real obstacles, and before long we had made it to the top.
The only non-staff and Crony participants to know the route, Ted Livingston and Rory Edwards of onX Offroad not only had the official UA route built into the onX App, but as Montana locals, they had visited many of the spots before. Their input, along with the onX Offroad App would come in handy at the end of Day 3.

For Day 2, we packed all our gear into vehicles and topped off on groceries because we wouldn't be seeing a hotel again for several days. The excitement started early, with somebody calling out over the radio in a calm, even voice "vehicles on fire." It turned out, Crony Skinny Kenny's 1970 K5 Blazer had suffered a ruptured automatic transmission cooler line, most likely damaged when the motor mounts that both broke on the trail were being repaired. The spraying ATF ignited, resulting in a significant underhood fire that took out the battery, much of the wiring, and melting several hoses and plastic items. Kenny's Army helicopter pilot training must've kicked in because he wasted no time bailing for the shoulder with photographer Harry Wagner riding shotgun, grabbing an extinguisher, and opening the hood. Invited readers Joe Grieshop and Codey Welker had swung in fast behind them along with cronies Keith Bailey and Tom Boyd. With what can only be described as extreme precision, all six of them fought down the fire with several extinguishers from all three vehicles. Kenny later recalled, it was just enough fire-fighting power and if they had one less extinguisher, the Blazer would have burned to the ground. Just a reminder how serious each day behind the wheel on UA can be.

While Keith and Kenny hung back in Kalispell to cut out burned wires and make repairs to the Blazer, the rest of the group carried on to the Miracle of America Museum in Polson, Montana. The museum houses an incredible collection of Americana, from firearms reaching back to the 15th century, vehicles, motorcycles, watercraft, aircraft, blacksmithing gear, war memorabilia of all major U.S. conflicts, home goods, farm equipment, and more. If it's part of what made this country what it is, the Miracle of America Museum has it.

Although many could have spent the whole day exploring the exceptional museum collection, we were burning daylight and our campsite for the night lay almost 200 miles away at the top of a mountain. We hit the back roads and scenic dirt roadways with Caruthers Lake in our sights. Lying between the craggy mountain peaks of Baldy and Mt. Powell, Caruthers Lake sits at roughly 8,000 feet at the terminus of a really fun trail that meanders through the Aspen and pine forests. We arrived by the lake after nightfall, made our dinners, and tucked in for a brisk, windy night.

 

DAY 3: Ghost Town, Train Tunnels, and Wildfires

With a dawn driver's meeting, we lined up and started heading down from our lakeside campsite. We had been nervous about how cold it may get up at 8,000 feet, but other than some high winds that came through in the wee hours, our fears were unfounded.
Readers Joe Grieshop and Codey Welker were a quiet pair, not very talkative but letting their actions speak for them. In addition to being Johnny-on-the-spot with fire extinguishers when a real emergency arose, the pair were squared away and well-versed in living out of a 4x4. And on the trail, you could tell the well-built Scout had been part of Joe's life for almost two decades given how well he knew it.
After a quick fuel stop we headed away from civilization, crossing the Great Divide at Champion Pass before coming to the town of Comet, Montana. Comet was a mining town that supported roughly 100 people. Abandoned in the early 1940s after the mines ran out, many of the buildings still stand and house equipment, though it is private property and you can't venture off the road that cuts through it. We had a quick look around, peeked through a couple windows, and then hit the road even further away from civilization.
From Comet, we left the pine forests of Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the outlying area for steep grassy mountains speckled with pine trees and cattle. It was a shame the smoke started getting thicker and obscuring what was no doubt an incredible view, but we enjoyed it all just the same.
The Boulder Tunnel runs roughly a mile through the ground and is a cool, if not slightly eerie, experience. Most of it is full of standing hub-deep water, which obscures hazards like nail-strewn boards, pieces of metal, and other debris left. The scent of creosote that once coated the railroad tied hangs heavy in the air, but the walls and ceiling are still solid and structurally sound.
Jeff and Zaed Ismail of IH Parts America were one of several father-son teams on this year's Ultimate Adventure. Compared with the configuration it sported for UA2019, Jeff treated his 1973 Scout II to a patriotic paint job, upped the tire size from 35x12.50R15 to 37x12.50R17 Falken Wildpeak M/Ts, and installed a sweet rooftop tent for easier camping.
We had been dealing with increasingly thick smoke as Day 3 wore on, so it was with some trepidation we passed this "Fire Activity Ahead" sign. About mile after passing the sign we were intercepted by a Montana Forestry Service vehicle and told by the driver that the road ahead was closed due to a huge wildfire, which just flared up earlier that day.
For UA2020, Jackson and Stephen Watson selected Offroad Design's UA2500 from ORD's deep stable of vehicles. The 1999 GMC 2500 was built for camping, off-roading, and enjoying Ultimate Adventure. Born from the factory with a Vortec 454 and NV4500 five-speed manual, the truck has been treated to Offroad Design's Magnum box with a driver-drop NP205 and the company's solid-axle conversion kits with a Ford Dana 60 front. The bed was ditched for the fabricated bed housing a 40-gallon Suburban fuel tank, spares, trail gear, and camping equipment. The white work truck didn't miss a beat, and the 40-inch tires offered plenty of clearance for the 1-ton axles.
Along with Tom Boyd, Trent McGee has been on every Ultimate Adventure since the event began in 1999, and since Christian tapped him to do so on UA2017, he has planned the route and served as event co-host and guide. With the route closed ahead, Trent called Rory and Ted up to the front, and with the help of the onX Offroad App, quickly found a suitable campsite for the group that was out of the danger zone of the wildfire and could accommodate all 26 vehicles and 46 participants.

 

We awoke the morning of Day 3 to another smoke-filtered sunrise and wasted no time getting the UA train on the tracks. We had a lot to pack into this day, with hopes of making it to our evening stopping point in time to set up camp before darkness fell. Happily, because we had wheeled our way up to our campsite next to Caruthers Lake, we had the fun task of wheeling back out. With the vehicles still in Low Range from the night before, we headed down, noticing lots of small cabins and remnants from 100 years ago when this area was frequented by gold miners. We got off the mountain and after a brief stop in Deer Lodge, Montana to top off our tanks, we hit the dirt road heading into Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The dirt road climbs and meanders its way up to the Continental Divide across Champion Pass, but this would hardly be the last time UA2020 crossed the Continental Divide. As we descended, we arrived in the town of Comet, Montana. You won't find any gas stations in Comet. Heck, you won't even find a small general store. What you will find is abandoned mining apparatus and the outlying buildings that supported it decades ago before things were shut down and virtually abandoned. Because the town of Comet is private property, we couldn't explore the abandoned buildings but we did pull over and look around from the roadsides, marveling at this old slice of Montana's history. After a brief stay, we continued overland until we came upon a non-descript piece of private land that flanks a really cool hidden piece of history that not a lot of people get to experience.

The Boulder Tunnel, known locally as the Wickes Tunnel, is an abandoned train tunnel roughly between Wickes and Comet that cuts roughly a mile through the terrain south towards Spencer Creek. The line was abandoned decades ago and the tracks pulled up, but with special permission from the land owners, we were able to drive our group of 26 vehicles through the mile-long tunnel and back. Normally gated shut, the Boulder Tunnel is still structurally sound, but not without its hazards. There are boards with exposed nails, debris, and standing water up to 2 feet deep in places. Immediately upon entering the tunnel, the temperature drops, and the damp increases to a degree that can only be described as "Halloweeny." The end of the tunnel lies a mile ahead as a small, white dot that gradually grows in size as you travel toward it, and the smell of creosote still hangs heavy in the air. It was a really cool treat and one more notch in the belt of Ultimate Adventure experiences we're fortunate to share.

All too soon our underground excursion was over, and we headed out towards Boulder with the goal of making it to camp close to the natural attraction known as Ringing Rocks Park. Ringing Rocks is a boulder field just under 125 acres large packed with rocks that ring like a bell when struck with a hammer or similar device. However, that was not to be, as our group was intercepted and turned around by Montana Forest Service members due to a large wildfire that had flared up directly in our intended travel route.

With the help of Montana locals Ted Livingston and Rory Edwards of onX, an impromptu meeting was called at the Ultimate International and thanks to our onX Offroad App, we quickly found a suitable alternate campsite not too far away. It was a bummer to have to cut Ringing Rocks out of the trip, but wildfires hold more danger to those fighting them and those living in their paths than any inconvenience we may hold, so with well wishes to those in harm's way, we backtracked to a great campsite in a valley next to a burbling creek and called Day 3 to a close.

.

DAY 4: McKelvey Lake Trail

After dumping extraneous gear at camp, we hit the McKelvey Lake Trail, which climbs to the lake's nearly 8,800-foot elevation. Invited Reader, Derek Lasini, is the epitome of a well-sorted off-roader who knows his machine inside and out. With no mechanical issues, spares and storage for everything, and tons of nice build features, Derek drove the truck to the event, wheeled all week, and drove the 2001 Silverado home with nary an issue.
There's no missing Brody Botts' "SideChick," as he jokingly calls his 1994 Suzuki Sidekick. As a fabricator by trade, he built the vehicle at his shop Idle Hands Fabrication in Santee, California. There's a GM 4.3L under the hood backed by a simple TH350 transmission and twin Toyota T-cases sending power to a pair of GM CUCV 1-ton axles loaded with 5.38s. Normally on 40s, Brody opted to run the 38x13.50R17 Falken Wildpeak M/Ts and from what we saw, didn't experience any traction related issues the whole week.
The McKelvey Lake Trail features a bit of everything from gentle mud-puddled meadows to bridged creek crossings. The trail eventually starts a steep ascent and as elevations rise, so too does the difficulty of the trail. Much like the Rubicon in California, large rock obstacles litter the center of the trail, while steep edges run off to the side with spectacular drops and views of the valley below and mountains astride.
Ryan Broome bought this 2003 Ford F-150 as a work truck for his dad, but when pops didn't like driving it very much, Ryan took the welder to it. He left the factory 4.6L V-8, auto, and T-case in place, but converted the front to solid axle and upgraded the rear to heavier stuff. Just prior to UA, Ryan converted the front suspension from leaf springs to coilovers and added a bit to the 'cage that covers the rear bed and protects the cab.
Always a crowd favorite (both of them) Dave Chappelle showed up in his freshly finished "MazGrande" Mazda. We're not sure if we call him a Crony or Dirt Every Day Co-Host for this trip because he missed the first day of the event, sauntering like a rock star in a reggae beanie hat after thrashing overtime to get his Mazda finished. We dig the truck. And we dig Dave. Ya, mon.
With several company builds to select from, Randall Speir of Dana grabbed the keys to the company JT Gladiator for UA2020. Maybe the choice was for the rooftop tent of room for tons and tons of gear, but one thing is for sure, the axles have most definitely been upgraded to burly Ultimate Dana 60s. The truck 'wheeled all week with no issues other than a factory upper radiator hose that sprung a pinhole leak from rubbing on an aftermarket hydraulic ram assist fitting.
There are several former mining cabins at the top of McKelvey Lake. They're still in good condition and the inside of one still houses some furniture that seems to be a more recent addition. Gold mining in the area was common in the early 20th century, and we found all sorts of bottles, cans, and other artifacts from this time period in the areas surrounding them.
For those who purchased a fishing license, we had enough time after reaching McKelvey Lake to try their luck with a fly rod. Keith Bailey is an avid angler, and even though he got skunked, he never fails a chance to dip a hook in the water.
Before we headed back down to camp, we took a quick loop further up the mountain to see Mine Lake, which lies just above McKelvey Lake. We were welcomed by this Bull Moose, who emerged from the thick for an afternoon lakefront graze.

We awoke on Day 4 to perhaps the coldest morning of the event and beat a hasty retreat from the valley that held our campsite up to the slightly warmer meadow above for our morning health checks. With the sun tamped down behind a fog of wildfire smoke from local and imported sources, we had little respite from the brisk until the late afternoon heat was able to radiate down to ground level, but despite this, we motored across dirt roads and paved single-track blacktop for several hours until we arrived at the quaint little town of Ennis, Montana to fill our fuel tanks and top off on any last minute supplies before we once again departed civilization. And depart it we did.

We dumped our camping gear and extra supplies at our night's campsite at lower elevation off North Meadow Creek Road and lined up to air down for the trek up the mountain to McKelvey Lake.

The trail is best described as a more vertical version of the Rubicon Trail in California, but with much steeper drops off either side, burbling streams and creeks abutting the route, and a whopping change of elevation. As the trail climbs up to the top of the mountain, the terrain gets increasingly steep and the rock obstacles get increasingly hard. There are many man-made bridges covering the deeper stream crossings, and several water crossings and mud fields thrown in for good measure. Before long we had passed three abandoned cabins that lie a few hundred yards from the top of the trail, which is a spectacularly beautiful pair of lakes. The larger of these is McKelvey Lake that's ringed with sandy beaches and sporting unimaginable views of the surrounding peaks. The group took a while to enjoy the sights, dip our toes, and some even put their Montana fishing licenses to use, although nobody caught anything. Slightly higher up from McKelvey Lake is Mine Lake. As we were departing we swung by Mine Lake to check it out and were greeted by a fully grown Bull Moose, peacefully minding his own business and munching on water plants. We descended back towards camp, taking time to peek in the windows of the mining cabins that dot the route and giving thanks to finally be seeing the very beginnings of the thick, brown smoke that had blanketed the sky for the past several days slowly giving way to blue.

Check back next month for the second chapter of Ultimate Adventure 2020 when the on-and off-road carnage really starts!

Source:

Sponsors:
Cummins, 800.286.6467, www.cummins.com/engines/repower
Dana, 800.621.8084, spicerparts.com/applications/crateaxle
Falken Tire, www.falkentire.com/
IH Parts America, 530.274.1795, www.ihpartsamerica.com/
Offroad Design, 970.945.7777, www.offroaddesign.com/
onX Offroad, onxmaps.com/offroad-app
Quick Draw Brand, 513.446.9654, quickdrawbrand.com/
Quigley Motor Company, 800.233.9358, quigley4x4.com/
Skyjacker Suspension, 318.388.0816, skyjacker.com/
VooDoo Offroad, 844.866.3661, www.voodoooffroad.com/
Warn Winch, 800.543.9276, www.warn.com/