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
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
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
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
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!
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/