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Ultimate Adventure 2020

Part 2: Wildlife, National Treasures, and Extreme Wheeling

Warn’s Corby Phillips managed to bust an axle shaft and pop the knuckle off his Ultimate Dana 60, but the UA Cronies had him driving off the trail in no time. Corby found some new shafts and a new U-joint and went wheeling the next day!

We left Ultimate Adventure last month snoozing at camp after climbing to the top of a mountain to visit the incredible McKelvey Lake outside McAllister, Montana. And while unique museums, ghost towns, and abandoned train tunnels were in the event's rear view mirror, that's not to say our bag of surprises was empty. On the contrary, Ultimate Adventure had just been warming up to this point, with visits to several of America's bucket-list destinations in store, as well as some truly world-class wheeling.

 

Day 5: Gold Mine Ghosts, Old Faithful, and Road Day Carnage

We busted camp early on Day 5 with a full day ahead of us. Lonnie and Dillard from Skyjacker are experts at utilizing free space, as their well-packed 1966 Bronco demonstrates.
The Missouri Mill is where the ore from the Missouri Mine further up the mountain was processed off and on from the late 1800s until 1982. The wooden buildings haven't survived the harsh Montana winters, but much of the stamping, power plant, and hydro pumping apparatus are still there.
In all, we logged just under 1,400 miles during Ultimate Adventure 2020, and with a subscription to the onX Offroad App, you'll be able to retrace every on- and off-road mile. Ted and Rory from onX were having a blast, and Rory's 2008 JK didn't suffer one malfunction or miss a beat all week.
Watching Old Faithful erupt during UA2020 was a highlight for many who had never visited Yellowstone National Park before.
Yellowstone was jam-packed with wildlife this year, with several elk, moose, and buffalo sightings. We waited for this big boy to cross the road before proceeding toward Lake Yellowstone and the East Gate.
With Yellowstone in the rear view, we entered Shoshone National Forest. Travis Farmer's '85 G10 van really impressed, not only with its off-road ability, but also its on-road performance, soaking up the miles with no issues at all.
Just before sundown, Tiger called out that the green Quigley van had lost all drive. With Skinny Kenny hanging back, we continued forward, pulling over at the first cell signal so Skyjacker could call ahead to Cody, Wyoming, and have its trailer drive back and pick them up. The problem turned out to be a worn factory selector fork in the NV261 T-case that caused the T-case to immediately pop out of gear into Neutral as soon as any power was applied.
No Ultimate Adventure would be complete without parking lot repairs and the siren song of a Premier Power Welder. Joe Greishop spotted a small crack in his rear shock mount tab and welded it up before it got too big, while others attended to their own vehicular maladies.

We awoke the morning of Day 5 to another chilly early fall Montana morning and wasted no daylight packing up camp. Our site for the night had been down toward the end of the unpaved North Meadow Creek Road, but it would be hours still before we'd see pavement. We backtracked just a bit, finding the turnoff onto South Meadow Creek Road and following it as it shrunk from a two-lane through the valley into a single-track shelf road that followed the rising grade up alongside South Meadow Creek.

With very few turnoffs and 26 wide off-road vehicles, we're fortunate the only people we ran into were a pair of bear hunters on foot. We eventually came to the ruins of the Missouri Mill site in the mountains outside of McAllister, Montana. It was first operational in the late 1800s and in use off and on until the 1980s, and pretty much all of the wooden buildings that supported the milling operations of the Missouri mine further up the mountain had succumbed to the heavy winter snows. Now a mass of nail-strewn timber juxtaposed by evil looking early 20th century stamping, power generating, and water pumping equipment, the Missouri Mill site held plenty or artifacts as well as potential for injury, with Verne Simons discovering his sandals were not as nail-resistant as he thought. We browsed around for a while before loading back up and heading back down the same shelf road we had driven up. After a quick pit stop to air up tires and knock the dust out of air filters, we hit pavement on Highway 287 into Ennis for fuel and then pushed on toward Wyoming.

Not far outside of West Yellowstone, Ian Johnson called over the radio to say his transmission had overheated. He came into town on a VooDoo rope behind Skinny Kenny, and while the rest of us topped our tanks and scooted through the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Ian and Kenny stayed behind to effect repairs. You don't bring UA to Yellowstone without seeing its biggest attraction, so we bisected the park, passing elk, buffalo, and moose on a direct route to Old Faithful. We arrived at the geyser 35 minutes before its next eruption, which just happened to coincide with Ian and Kenny's return to the group. With photos and video of Old Faithful in the digital banks, we hit the road again past Lake Yellowstone, out the East Gate, and into Shoshone National Forest with a bunch more wildlife sightings, including a black bear munching on some berries. The road through Shoshone climbs steeply, and just less than an hour outside of Cody, Wyoming, the Quigley van called out over the radio that it had lost all drive. Once again, Skinny Kenny hung back and helped Quigley's Tiger LeBrun, while the rest of the group headed into town. To save Tiger a tow bill, Skyjacker sent its trailer and driver who had been flanking our progress back to get them. Instances such as this are the only real times a trailer is allowed on UA, and by the time the Skyjacker trailer got to them, Tiger had the T-case removed and disassembled for inspection, finding a worn factory shift fork in the NV261 as the culprit. That night in Cody, the hotel parking lot was awash with repairs, with Brody Botts fixing a leaking power steering ram hose, Joe Grieshop welding up a small crack in the rear shock mount tab he found, Ian Johnson adding a second transmission cooler, and about a half dozen other small projects being completed before the parts stores closed for the evening.

 

DAY 6: Badlands, Fossils, and Mt Rushmore

Although UA2017 gets the prize as dustiest Ultimate Adventure on record, UA2020 came in at a strong second. After leaving the civilization of Cody, Wyoming, we headed deep into the badlands of Wyoming through Fenton Pass.
At the appropriate place, Verne Simons stopped the convoy, and we all got out of our vehicles for an impromptu geology and paleontology lesson.
Verne's dad, Dr. Elwyn L Simons, was a world-renowned paleontologist/paleozoologist responsible for a huge body of groundbreaking work. Verne used to spend months at a time living with his family in a tent here as a kid while his dad did field work to expand the understanding of evolution.
We explored around for a while, spotting many fossils which Verne was able to identify. One proved to be of potential scientific significance, so Verne recorded its location with the onX Offroad app and shared it with his brother-in-law in the academic community, so the next time field work is being conducted in the area they can find it. It's important that you look but don't take fossils from this area, as it affects the accuracy of the data used to understand the evolutionary record.
The view from atop Fenton Pass in the Wyoming badlands is spectacular, as this drone shot from our video crew's Colin Leibold highlights.
Fred Williams used the 310 lb-ft from Tube Sock's Cummins R2.8 to haul Brody's SideChick to the 8,500-foot mark through Big Horn National Forest outside of Ten Sleep, Wyoming.
Crazy Woman Canyon Road coming down out of the Big Horn National Forest is one of the prettiest drives any of us could remember doing. It follows Crazy Woman Creek and is speckled with campsites large enough for an RV or several tents. We can see why this place is a local favorite weekend destination.
Christian Hazel strives to incorporate as many bucket list destinations for Ultimate Adventure as Trent McGee can cram into the route. Since the two began working as a team to plan and execute UA in 2016, the event has visited Yosemite National Park, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Washington, the "Into the Wild" Stampeded Trail outside Denali, and this year, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore.

With fresh repairs made and the Quigley van staying behind searching for a replacement NV261 shift fork, the rest of the group pulled out of the parking lot bright and early on the morning of Day 6 and rolled through the town of Cody, past the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and toward the Wyoming Badlands for what turned out to be many of the participants' favorite part of the trip.

This area has a special connection to Tech Editor Verne Simons, who for years spent his childhood summers living in a tent within the Bighorn Basin with his entire family as his dad, world-renown paleontologist/paleozoologist Dr. Elwyn L Simons, did field work for prestigious universities and scientific institutions. Verne himself is well-educated and experienced in this field and took the entire Ultimate Adventure on a class excursion of sorts through this special place, explaining the significance of the geology and providing us a description of the fossilized creatures found in the strata of different eras and epochs. Scientifically, it's a very important place and it's critical that visitors don't remove any fossils as this removes pieces of the mosaic scientists use to derive an accurate representation of life at that time and in turn understand how it evolved.

With the dust of the badlands added to the layers from previous days, we topped the tanks in Worland, Wyoming, and struck out on Highway 16 East, passing through the quaint town of Ten Sleep before the road began climbing mercilessly up past 8,500 feet through the Bighorn National Forest.

It was on this climb that many of the vehicles started dropping like flies. Ian Johnson's transmission overheated in short order, losing the ability to drive. Then the SideChick of Brody Botts overheated, and Jeff Ismail's Scout, which had been battling vapor lock on the injected 392 IH V-8, had to continually slow or stop. Eventually, the rest of the group got to the top and waited while the Dirt Every Day boys busted out the VooDoo Ropes down below to effect rescue. Fred Williams hauled the SideChick up with his Cummins R2.8-powered Tube Sock TJ, and Dave Chappelle dragged Ian's LJ to the top with the comically underpowered, yet capable factory 2.7L four-cylinder and decidedly unfactory 7.17 gears in his MazGrande. After a brief cool down period and dumping a few quarts of ATF in, Ian and the rest were rolling again, and we continued climbing for a short while before hitting the incredibly beautiful Crazy Woman Canyon Road.

Eventually, with daylight dwindling and the hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, a long way off, we hit high gear and put the hammer down. Well, all but Ian, whose ATF had completely thrown in the towel. With his transmission fluid toasted beyond the point of functioning, Ian rode the VooDoo rope behind Sam Gillis' Alabama Tube Car for a bit over 100 miles until Ian's buddy with a trailer intercepted them and brought Ian into Rapid City, where he could do a full transmission fluid flush. The rest of us enjoyed the spectacular sight of Mt. Rushmore at night before tucking in and getting ready for a tough Day 7.

 

DAY 7: Badlands Badass Wheeling Finale

Iron Mountain Road is an exceptionally serene and scenic drive by itself, but the incredible views of Mt. Rushmore it affords are the icing on the cake!
Bikini Trail got off to a bang (or at least a thumping crunch) with Jeff Ismail taking a bad bounce that resulted in his '73 International Scout II landing on its driver's side. Colt Clewly (green shirt) and Cole Conner (gray shirt) rigged the winch lines with two Warn winches, pulling from above and another from the front to prevent it from rolling backwards. Once righted, Jeff's Scout was able to fire up and move up the trail to flat ground.
Derek Lasini's Silverado has got to be one of the longest vehicles to ever negotiate Bikini Trail, but as he proved all week long, he's capable of piloting the big blue Chevy cleanly pretty much anywhere.
We are very appreciative for the Black Hills 4 Wheelers' hospitality guiding us through the Bikini Trail, which meanders and snakes through a beautiful section of Black Hills country. Ryan Stulc from the club led the group in his highly modified TJ, with Pat Helgesun bringing up the mid-gunner position in his crazy four-wheel-steer buggy, and Jim Sebert expertly spotting our group through increasingly difficult obstacles the trail had in store for us.
Returning Reader Dave Tucker was in his element on Bikini Trail, with the super flexy suspension of his '64 JF40 making sick lines look simple. Dave finished two Ultimate Adventures with us, and aside from mud-fouling an air filter last year and needing to replace some bad rear wheel bearing this year, he didn't have to work on his FJ during UA at all.
With a mix of a flexy Skyjacker suspension, burly Ultimate Dana 60s, good armor, and smart driving, Dana's Randall Speir cleanly piloted the long JT Gladiator through Bikini with no damage at all.
Tommy Boyd hasn't had his own rig on Ultimate Adventure for several years, but that doesn't stop him from hijacking co-driver Keith Bailey's vehicle now and then. The obstacles on Bikini are very three-dimensional, with steep, off-camber climbs often followed by a shard descent. It'll get you if you let your guard down.
Offroad Design's UA2500 is a deceptively intricate build. Looking little more than a SAS'd single-cab with a flat bed, the factory five-speed manual, Vortec big-block mixes the best factory and aftermarket parts into an all-weather monster than can haul down the highway at 80 mph all day or crawl a buggy trail with no damage. Things like a 40-gallon Suburban tank hidden in the bed, full cage, super flexy leaf-spring suspension, and of course any gearing combination you could want, are just the tip of the iceberg for this sick sleeper.
Confession time: Chad McKinney from Quick Draw Brand had never really been on a hardcore off-road trail prior to UA. Talk about trial by fire, both Chad and his 2012 JK Wrangler with a Quick Draw Brand Tremec TR-4050 transmission swap earned their off-road stripes. Only a couple weeks before the event, Chad swapped in a pair of Rubicon axles and T-case, added a 4-inch Skyjacker suspension, mounted the 38-inch Falkens on Warn's new Jackhammer wheels, and protected the whole shebang with MetalCloak fenders, rockers, and undercarriage armor.
Along with Derek Lasini, one of the longest locomotives to pass through Bikini Trail was Ryan Broome's '03 F-150. Other than corkscrewing the rear driveshaft on a rock, Ryan didn't have one issue all week. Plus, he had a Quigley Custom Driveshaft the company built him just prior to the event as a spare, which he installed as soon as he limped the old shaft off the trail.
Having left the on-road overheating issues back in Wyoming, Body Botts and the SideChick proved to be in his element out in the hills of South Dakota. The twin Toyota T-cases provided plenty of low-gear grunt for the little pastel 'Zuk, and with such a diminutive body, we don't think he touched the paint on a rock all week.
Dave Chappelle and his MazGrande both made it through the Bikini Trail with zero problems. With 1-ton axles, bagged suspension, and Skyjacker M95 shocks, Dave's little low-buck, self-fabbed mini monster did exceptionally well despite its underwhelming factory 2.7L engine, five-speed transmission, and T-case with who-knows-what low-range ratio.
Ken Smith definitely earned the UA award for grit and perseverance. After battling breaks, a fire, and hanging back every time one of the participants needed help, he pushed almost three tons of early American iron through the trail without breaking a thing. Although the crowd winced at what sounded like a bunch of sheet metal rumpling, Ken's Blazer made it past this rock outcropping with only some slight pin striping and a very mild crease that you hardly notice.
This was the second time Trent McGee and the Ultimate International had run the Bikini trail for this event. Trent drove the Scout up to Kalispell during his prerun and ran the whole route, afterwards leaving it in South Dakota. Before the event started, he and Verne towed the UALRJ up to Rapid City, stashed the trailer, and then drove both rigs back to the start in Kalispell. Just goes to show, our official UA vehicles aren't just "one-and-done," "flash-in-the-pan" show vehicles that fizzle after one use.
The UALRJ is the fourth Ultimate Adventure vehicle built by Verne Simons and for a fourth year in a row, we didn't have to do any major (or even moderate) work on the official vehicle. It's a testament not only to the mechanical and fabrication skills of Verne, but to the quality of the sponsor components we use to build these things.

Ian Johnson pulled a late night before Day 7 at a buddy's shop in Rapid City, doing a complete flush of his transmission. The Ultra 4 LJ was working like a charm when Ian got a little too aggressive monkeying around on this obstacle. We quickly got it back onto its wheels and Ian motored right up the obstacle and through the rest of the trail, with the only damage being a slightly cracked windshield. Or do they say "windscreen" in Canada?

Although the terrain on much of UA2020 up to this point had been somewhat moderate by UA standards, Day 7 would most definitely push the hardcore needle into the red. We began by unintentionally lulling participants into a false sense of security, leaving the hotel parking lot and looping them through the serene and peaceful Iron Mountain Road, which is a scenic drive through the mountain opposite Mt. Rushmore. The in-and-out loop carves through solid rock and corkscrews around wooden bridges, providing spectacular views of the monument. Then, we hit the road toward Rapid City to hook up with the Black Hills 4 Wheelers club at the entrance to Bikini Trail. The Black Hills 4 Wheelers help maintain and protect a series of trail systems in and around the Black Hills area, and members Ryan Stulc, Jim Sebert, and Pat Helgeson served as trail guides, helping make sure we'd stay on (and make it through) the trail in a single day. Bikini is more of a buggy-friendly trail, stacking hard-hitting obstacles one after the other with super-tight turns necessary to line up in front of make-or-break obstacles. Rear steer and/or a short-wheelbase is your friend on this trail, so given how many long-wheelbase full-sizes we had on our trip, we knew collectively we'd have to bring our A-game.

The first obstacle is a guardian of sorts, and if you can't make it up that it's best to take the go-around. Unfortunately, while Jeff Ismail in the IH Parts America Scout did actually make the first obstacle, right at the top of it his vehicle took a bad bounce and flopped onto the driver's door. Thankfully it stayed there and didn't barrel roll to the bottom. Some quick work with a trio of Warn winches had Jeff on his tires again. As this was happening, Corby Phillips did what we didn't think was possible and grenaded a Spicer SPL70 U-joint in his Ultimate Dana 60 front axle. Corby had the rear tires wedged and was trying to do a front dig with the wheels turned under throttle when—bang—the grapefruit-sized U-joint fragged, splaying the axle shaft ears and popping the ball joints. With the knuckle/wheel/tire assembly dangling by the tie rod, the Cronies swooped in to rescue. The tire was removed, the knuckle was strapped to the top of the axle, and the axle was ratchet-strapped up to the framerail. With three winches controlling motion and Dirthead Dave's MazGrande pulling, the Jeep was pulled back to level ground and put back together. The obstacles and carnage only intensified from there.

Before the day was halfway over, Travis Farmer's G10 van had developed steering box problems that prevented it from turning right under power; Ian Johnson discovered gravity is a real thing when he flopped his brand-new transmission fluid and the LJ containing it on a big obstacle; Ryan Broome corkscrewed a rear driveshaft in his long-wheelbase F-150, and the UAJKJ driven by Clifton Slay blew a power steering hose on the ram assist cylinder. Of course, we had plenty of other little maladies on other vehicles, but that's not to say we didn't have an awesome day on the trail. The Black Hills is not only one of the most magically scenic places in the U.S., but it also offers some of the very best rock-crawling to be had. The obstacles on Bikini trail are closely spaced, hitting you like a one-two punch that definitely keeps you on your toes. With lots of steep ledge climbs, off-camber turns and super fun ledges, it should be a bucket list destination for anybody who loves serious technical off-roading. For now, enjoy the photos and captions, but for the full feeling of what UA2020 entailed, be sure to catch the five UA2020 video episodes on Motor Trend's YouTube channel during Ultimate Adventure week December 7-11, and watch for it on MotorTrend On Demand.

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/