VT Class 4 road – August 2017

While camping in southern Vermont with friends, we had the opportunity to go explore some of the trails Vermont has to offer. We selected a trail fairly close to our campsite, near the southern end of the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests.

I was pretty excited for the trial run of my budget storage system – I was finally able to place tiedowns exactly where I wanted them. The fridge, Goal Zero, Pelican case (containing tools and recovery gear, as well as a few other things), chainsaw and first aid kit are all nicely strapped down.  A proper fire extinguisher mount is on the list as well, but hasn’t been done yet.

We arrived at our campsite on Friday and got settled in. When Saturday rolled around, we needed something to do so the exploration began. We were off to a promising start with a relatively narrow dirt road that vanished into the forest.

The amount of trash on the trail was utterly astonishing.  Just in the first mile or two, we ran across an old house phone, a diaper, old underwear, a Lucas oil bottle, various beverage containers – Dunkin, KFC, Gatorade, and countless cheap beer bottles/cans/cases, as well as larger trash such as a burn pile (with a mattress and wheel, among other nastiness) and various automotive parts.

We filled the only bag we happened to have with us – I may need to figure out how to mount a Trasharoo before I have a tire carrier, because we could have taken a lot more out if we had the space.

Things got a bit wet as we continued on, but poking each puddle with a stick revealed hard ground only a few inches below the surface. We pulled an old pine tree a bit further to the side to make more room in the trail.

The puddles continued for some time.

Clearing this area effortlessly, we started to find sections where a little bit of ground clearance came in handy.  Still nothing too challenging even for a stock SUV, but it was a nice change of pace.

Eventually we came to an old wooden ATV/snowmobile bridge.  It did not look like it would safely bear the weight of the GX and the trail also went around it.  In order to avoid damaging the bridge, we followed the bypass – again after poking it with a stick. The mud seemed tolerable, though I was a bit concerned about the exit – the ruts were fairly deep, with a high grassy mound in between them. It was a tight squeeze between the bank and the bridge, but we made it by.

The ruts on the far side proved to be a problem, though.  My front skidplate bottomed out on the grass and my tires began to spin, so I backed up and gently tried again.  We were unable to get through after a few tries, so in order to avoid destroying the trail and potentially burying the truck, we elected to winch through. A properly sturdy tree was selected and the tree saver was wrapped around it.

The Engo SR9S didn’t break a sweat – a few minutes later, we were clear.

We ended up taking a wrong turn where the trail branched off – fortunately it was noticed before we went too far. We took the opportunity to break for lunch.

After carefully turning around, we headed back the other way to pick up on the right trail.

My 20v Black and Decker chainsaw was used a few times to clean up some small trees that were in the trail, and we managed to kill the only battery I had with me while attempting to cut through a ~9″ hardwood trunk that had fallen far enough into the trail that people had driven around it, causing the trail to become unnecessarily wide.  With a second battery (or enough time to allow this one to cool down), we probably could have finished it up.  Maybe next time.

And then, we came to a small water crossing. According to the map, was the first of two in about a quarter mile of trail.  We decided it’d be prudent to walk ahead and make sure that the second crossing was something we could handle, otherwise we would simply turn around and go back – probably winching our way through the mud once more.

The second water crossing proved to be smaller than some of the puddles we had driven through earlier, so onward we went.  This crossing was easy, with shallow water and a rocky bed providing excellent traction. The climb back up the other side was steep and narrow, requiring spotting and careful driving to avoid widening the trail on the passenger side, or scraping the driver’s side against the tree and hillside.

With that, we were most of the way to a proper dirt road. We picked up the road and made our way back to civilization.

Overall it was a great little trail and I look forward to exploring more of what Vermont has to offer.

Lessons learned: bring more trash bags and more chainsaw batteries.

NH Class 6 road – July 2017

If you’re looking for some off pavement action but don’t have an entire weekend to kill, and also happen to be in New Hampshire, there are numerous Class 6 roads throughout the state.  Similar to Vermont’s Class 4 roads, these are generally not regularly maintained and often have seasonal closures and/or vehicle restrictions.  This particular one was incorporated back in 1804 – the same year Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France – and cost $35,948 to build.  The original road covered terrain now serviced by Route 10 and Route 31, with a shorter stretch that goes through Sullivan and Grafton counties.

With a recently installed Ironman Foam Cell Pro suspension and a shiny new Engo 9000S winch, a good friend and I decided it was time to give the GX a little exercise. He suggested a local class 6, which is known for being a relatively mild trail that slowly escalates in difficulty as you traverse it northwards. Given that east coast wheeling often involves trees in the trail, he packed his chainsaw (just in case) and we headed out. A quick jaunt on the interstate brought us to the southern end of this road.  It started off quite mild – nearly any vehicle would be just fine for the first few miles.

It wasn’t too long before we found our first excuse to break out the chainsaw.  We could have driven up the bank and skirted the tree, but it’s always nice to leave a trail in better condition than you found it – so we took a few minutes to take care of the problem appropriately.

The trail got a bit rougher as we progressed farther north.  Nothing a stock SUV couldn’t handle, but I wouldn’t recommend taking a Miata up here.

Once again, we came across an obstruction.

This was a bit high to cut as it stood, so we pulled it down with the winch first.

As expected, we had no problem – the winch didn’t break a sweat, and once it was within reach we cut the tree up and moved it off of the trail.

Once finished, you never would’ve known we were there, and the trail was clear once more.

The trail became more rocky as we progressed. Again, nothing particularly technical, but a bit more interesting than the dirt two-track that we started with.

The trail started to turn from rock into mud/water – as water crossings are always best avoided when possible, we only went through what seemed relatively trivial.  One long stretch of unknown-depth water was skirted via a parallel trail, but most of it wasn’t too bad.  As it was my buddy’s first time driving on a trail like this, we had to get the obligatory puddle video.

Overall it was an easy trail, but was an entertaining break from the mundane pavement that we usually see.

Until next time – remember to tread lightly and drive safe!

Trans-NJ

After relocating to the east coast, I decided I should put some effort into finding some new places to explore. It’s definitely a different experience with the lack of public land being a massive detriment to exploration, but there is still a lot of fun to be had.

It started with a post on Expedition Portal and ended with a group of fantastic people enjoying a weekend exploring rural New Jersey.  We all met up at High Point State Park. After a quick detour inside to pay, where we were advised that we actually owed nothing since our route didn’t technically take us inside the park, we set out on our journey south.

We took a roundabout path through as many dirt roads we could find, with OverlandNYC running point. Our progress was brought to an abrupt halt when we came across a fairly large tree down in the road, completely blocking our route from shoulder to shoulder. Our lucky lead vehicle’s owner got to use his winch for the first time to pull the tree down the road – we were able to get enough room to safely sneak by on the side of the road. I’ve already ordered a snatch block and tree saver, which would’ve made this endeavor easier.
We continued via a winding route into Andover, NJ where we stopped at Pub 517 for lunch. I had one of the largest steaks I’ve ever been served at a restaurant; once we were all refreshed, we pressed on through a mix of dirt and pavement.
We also found a tunnel.
When we arrived at Spruce Run Recreation Area, it was pouring. Fortunately, the GX460 sharing my campsite was equipped with an awning! I ducked under that for a while until the rain finally subsided, displaying a majestic rainbow for our viewing pleasure.
Since I was alone in my truck for this trip, I didn’t bring a tent. I figured I’d either use the hammock that I’ve had for years and still haven’t used even once, or I’d sleep in the truck. Well, the weather made that decision for me. I am not a fish, therefore I slept inside. It was quite comfortable, with an Exped Synmat resting across my folded down second row seat and my Pelican case for 3rd-row support.
I slept fairly well, though I did wake up a couple of times to a bit more heat and humidity than I’d like, so I started the truck for a few minutes to let the AC knock it down to a reasonable level so I could fall back asleep. When morning arrived, the weather had cleared and everyone packed up to continue south. We spent a fair amount of time driving through beautiful forest, staying on dirt whenever possible.Entering the pine barrens, we found a large sandy playground and basically killed the rest of the day there.
As our sunlight was not going to last forever, we eventually headed to our campsite destination in the Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. I finally used my hammock! Next time, though, I’ll hang one end lower than the other…turns out a horizontal hammock is not quite ideal for comfortable sleep.
Our final day was a bit shorter – we decided to play around in the pine barrens instead of going all the way down to Cape May, which was the original plan. I began to fully appreciate the merits of Weathertech floor mats – they did a fantastic job of keeping my carpet clean. Turns out you pick up a lot of sand over a weekend!
We had our first casualty of the weekend today – a beautiful 5th gen 4Runner lost an upper shock mount. The initial diagnosis was that the upper shock nut may have loosened up, but it didn’t take too much time to determine that was not the case. After determining that it wasn’t going to fall apart, we pressed on. Shortly afterwards, this truck broke from the group and headed home for repair.
We stopped for lunch by a river. Numerous kayaks and canoes passed by – it was a beautiful day to be outside.
The weather held out for us for the rest of the trip. It was an absolutely stunning day.
We wrapped up the trip around mid-afternoon, so everyone would have time to get home and take care of anything that needed to get done before most had to go back to work on Monday. All in all, it was a successful weekend – and to top it off, as soon as I got home a friend mentioned that he had just bought a pressure washer and foam gun, and offered its use. Excellent timing!
I am already looking forward to the next trip. I’m considering NH, VT, or ME; if you have any route suggestions, feel free to let me know on Facebook!

Lessons learned:
1) Bring a spatula. Flipping grilled cheese with a fork is not ideal.
2) Bring recovery gear. Winches are more versatile combined with tree savers and snatch blocks.
3) Hang hammocks at a slight angle, not straight across.

Arizona and New Mexico

Our schedules finally worked out to where we could attend Overland Expo West in Flagstaff, AZ. As numerous other sites have provided coverage of the event, I won’t go into much detail here. In short, it was a fantastic weekend and my truck made it into a FourWheeler.com article – see photos #4 and #5!

The adventure started when I flew into Phoenix from NJ on Wednesday night, with plans to leave by mid/late afternoon on Thursday.  In this time, I had to shop and pack for the entire trip, as well as install the MetalTech OPOR rock sliders on my GX470.  Some cutting and drilling was required to get them to fit with the BudBuilt skids but I managed to get it done!

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We drove up to the Expo from Phoenix on Thursday evening. Registration closed  at 7pm and we arrived a few minutes after the deadline. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the parking attendant told us about free camping in a park a few miles down the road.  This became invaluable later in the weekend, when 50mph gusts across the plains at the site of the Expo were destroying some of the lesser tents.  We decided to drive the ~8 miles in and out each day so we could camp out in the forest at night.

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The weekend went well overall, with one small mishap when a Camel Trophy instructor guided me over an obstacle while teaching left foot braking.  I caught a rock behind the front crossmember and effectively high-centered – couldn’t drive forwards or the front end would drop farther, and as the rock caught itself just behind the crossmember I couldn’t back up.

Fortunately, we had an excited audience of fellow students who were eager to retrieve their recovery gear and dig/lift/figure-it-out!  A few minutes later, all was well.

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The rest of the Expo was fairly uneventful, full of learning and a lot of wind!  We gave the ARB drawer system a workout throughout the weekend – having the ability to easily organize our gear was quite beneficial.

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Once our weekend was concluded, we stopped at Flagstaff for a hotel/shower and a grocery run.  We left Monday morning with a loaded fridge, ready to test our first real trip in the GX!

On Monday morning, we left Flagstaff and began our roundabout journey to San Antonio, TX.  Our goal was to avoid paved roads, using service roads and trails whenever possible.  There is so much beautiful terrain in Arizona…it’s not all desert!

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We began looking for fuel as we approached Blue, AZ – we weren’t low yet, but given how far between stations we were going, it was prudent to try to stay as full as possible.  We found the Blue, AZ post office on a map so figured hey, maybe they’ll have a gas station!  Well, the post office turned out to be a few boxes and posts.  Then we crossed the town’s main intersection…

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Needless to say, we skipped fuel that day.

On Monday night (May 23rd), we arrived in Reserve, New Mexico.  Finally, a gas station!  The experience was almost surreal, with the fill-up process feeling like a flashback to the 80’s.  I first checked with the proprietor, who was standing outside with a broom, to make sure that they accepted credit cards.  They did, so I picked up the fuel filler and slid the giant metal lever over to activate the pump.  The numbers rotated over to zero and I filled the truck, then went inside and told the cashier how much I had pumped.  She charged that amount to my credit card and we were on our way. I grabbed a photo of the gas station on our way out the next morning, after topping off with fuel again.

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It would’ve been nice to stay at our campsite for another day, giving us a day to poke around Reserve and see what was there, but alas – we had places to be.  It was a great site, though – a quietly winding road, paved but not well-traveled at night, snaked by at the bottom of the hill.  We were alone on the hill for the night.

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We found a trail that ended up taking us nowhere productive, but I put two wheels in the air for the first time so it was definitely worth the detour!  Of course, I did it again for video.  Stock height and stock bumpers leave something to be desired as far as approach and departure angles are concerned, but we managed. ATRAC worked wonderfully and the absence of lockers was not a problem, even with two wheels off the ground.  For future trips, a 2″ lift and a bumper trim would be helpful. Overall for a stock vehicle, I really can’t complain.

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Lots of driving happened on the 24th.  Our day was split between forest service roads winding through the mountains, where we encountered the Continental Divide trail, and a huge network of dirt roads that went through countless acres of ranches.

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Cows were plentiful – they did appear to be accustomed to vehicle traffic and they were generally quite eager to get out of the way.

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Wednesday brought us to the City of Rocks State Park. They have free showers with park entry, which is quite an excellent find after a week on the road! Beautiful desert gardens and plenty of rock is an inadequately brief description.

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We found another park later on in the day and went for a hike. I am not a huge fan of hiking, so Wendy grabbed this and said she snuck a shot of Josh outside of his natural habitat:

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She loves hiking, and was quite pleased.

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We stayed at a campsite that night. It was set far, far back from the highway and we had a ~20 minute drive from the entrance gate to the actual camping area.  We encountered a rather dumb calf on this road, who appeared quite intent to stand in the road and stare at us. Eventually it decided to hop off the road and go someplace safe. The campsites were pretty decent – we spent the evening listening to our neighbors exuberantly singing karaoke, which was a bit entertaining.

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On Thursday, May 26, we made it to White Sands. It’s a cool place and I highly recommend a visit if you’re in the area.  Even I enjoyed this hike!

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Wendy found a brilliantly colored lizard hiding in the bushes in a valley between the dunes.

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I would probably go here again, especially in the off season when it’s not crowded. We went early in the day, which helped with the crowds – seeing acres of empty parking lots made me think about how busy it would be if they were actually full. I’m glad we went when we did.

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Today I saw the highest elevation to date in this truck – indicated 9550ft (so close to 10k!).  We went off the main paths for a while and found that the trails did not line up with our Delorme atlas or with Google’s maps of the area, but we continued on anyway. I thought we were going to make it through to where we were trying to go, but we ended up at gates only allowing smaller offroad vehicles (maximum width 42″). So…, we turned around and made our way back.  I bought a hatchet a while ago thinking that it may come in handy; today it finally did, aiding in removing a small tree that had fallen across the trail.

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We camped on BLM land after finding a reasonably flat area out of sight of the main road. We successfully nestled our tent in between trees, cow pies and cacti – it fit!

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Our trip wrapped up on the 27th – we spent most of the day on the interstate and arrived in San Antonio, TX. Shortly thereafter we flew to our respective homes, concluding this chapter of exploration. We are hoping to spend two weeks in Colorado next spring, so check back with us then!

Baja, Mexico

Video here!

My first trip into Mexico started with a coolant leak two days before our scheduled departure.

Uh-oh.

Uh-oh.

With the odometer ticking past 211k, my ’97 Lexus LX450 decided it needed a little more maintenance than it had been given so far. As I discovered this on my lunch break at work and had no time to properly diagnose the leak, I promptly ordered an OEM Toyota water pump and hoped for the best. My parts showed up at the Toyota dealer by 9am Friday, so I managed to get Friday off from work and dove into the truck.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a difficult job and I had it wrapped up fairly quickly. Turns out the leak was likely coming from the upper radiator hose, so I replaced that too.

Ewww
Ewww.

But hey, it never hurts to have new OE parts, right? Once we were confirmed leak-free, I was ready to pack up and go.

Day 1:

We left Phoenix on Saturday morning and crossed the Mexican border at San Luis Rio Colorado. Waiting in anticipation for my first time crossing the Mexican border, passports at the ready…we looked at the multiple lanes of traffic backed up and expected to be sitting for hours.  Surprisingly, being accustomed to rumors of US border entry wait times, traffic kept moving and we ended up in an empty lane, with no traffic ahead.  I drove up to the stop sign and stopped; a border guard came over to my truck and asked where we were going.  “Baja,” I replied without much explanation. He glanced up at the 35” spare tire strapped to my roofrack, looked back at me and then waved us on. Good to go. Wow, that was easy.

After a bit, we ran into our first military checkpoint. I was intimidated by these at first, coming from the “Land of the free” – but it was not scary, nor difficult. The first checkpoint was surprisingly quick – the soldier just peered through the back window, saw our stuff, and we were cleared through.  We also found our first taco stand! $1 each, fresh off the grill.

Tacos!
Tacos!

We continued down Highway 5 to Campo Mosqueda, where we stayed the night at a campground next to a lake.

This was the night I learned I don't *quite* fit in the truck with the rear seats folded forward.
First camping night in Rocksquasher!
The next morning
The next morning.

Day 2:

This was a fairly uneventful day.  We continued south on MEX 5, then west on MEX 3 to Mike’s Sky Ranch.

Somewhere during Day 2.
Somewhere during Day 2.

Other than the odor of gasoline, one friendly dog, and one guy working on a dirtbike, it was deserted. We went back to MEX 5 and drove south to San Felipe. We stopped at a little restaurant near the downtown / beachfront strip and, after deliberation on where to stay, camped on a beach by a lighthouse. At this point it would’ve been nice to have the second row in the Cruiser removed entirely instead of just folded forward – I am a bit too tall to comfortably fit, so I had to sleep a bit squashed.

Between a city and a lighthouse, neighbors with a quiet beach.
Between a city and a lighthouse, neighbors with a quiet beach.

Day 3:

Continued south on MEX 5. There was no gas in Puertecitos and no food places open. We did find the ocean, of course.

:D
😀

Scattered around there was an assortment of apparently abandoned, or at least empty, restaurants with ‘open’ painted on them. No people to be seen – reminiscent of a zombie movie.  We continued on to Gonzaga Bay, grabbed a quick lunch and drove inland to Coco’s Corner. The long gravel road would’ve been a blast on a dirtbike or quad, but we managed just fine at a relatively leisurely pace. We found Coco’s corner – a little oasis of livelihood amidst a network of desolate dirt roads. We met Coco and his cats, and he recruited us into attaching some adhesive tape to a license plate to add to his collection.

Wendy helping Coco
Wendy helping Coco!

Coco had amassed an impressive collection of international currency, various license plates, and assorted undergarments dangling from the rafters in his shack.  We signed the guestbook and continued to MEX 1, then drove north to El Rosario where we finally found a gas station with fuel!  Total distance between working stations was approximately 250 miles, making me thankful for the 10 gallons I had strapped to our roofrack. We had dinner at a famous restaurant, the name of which I can’t recall (honestly I preferred street vendor food over many sit-down establishments). We rented a campsite at an RV park in town and had the entire RV lot to ourselves. I fell asleep to the sound of fireworks nearby.

Day 4:

I woke up to a rooster who insisted it was morning before I was ready.  We drove out and tried to find beach in El Rosario, but couldn’t figure out the correlation between the (sometimes inaccurate) map we had brought along, and the maze of unmarked roads. We relinquished defeat, knowing we could find another beach later on.  A GPS would be helpful for the next trip – mental note.  We headed north on MEX 1 and found what looked like a broken bridge, abandoned after the new road was created. I tried to climb it anyway…

...didn’t quite make it, but almost!
…didn’t quite make it, but almost!

At the end of the day, we walked through a mission / hotel and spent some time on their absolutely gorgeous beach.

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Wendy’s footprints make a beeline for the ocean.

We then left the highway in favor of a little dirt road that paralleled the coast until we located a campsite.

This was one of Josh's favorite parts of this trip.
This was one of Josh’s favorite parts of this trip.

For the lofty sum of 60 pesos (approximately $4 USD), we stayed there and enjoyed the sunset.

Sunsets in mud!
Sunsets in mud!

Day 5:

We departed the campsite after taking a plethora of photographs of the beach and the derelict shipwreck. We drove north, further up the coastal trail, but had to go inland around the bay.

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Happyjosh is happy.

We ended up back in town on MEX 1. We topped off the truck, found some food, then returned back to the beach road and promptly got lost in Baja.

I'm not lost, we're right here!
I’m not lost, we’re right here! I think.

After a couple of hours with neither of us admitting to the other how scared we actually were, we retraced our steps back to MEX 1 and went north to Santo Tomas. We took a long road out to the coast again (just can’t get enough of the beaches!) then back once more to MEX 1.

Overlooking China Point
Overlooking the beach.
weeeeeeeeeee
weeeeeeeeeee

Wrapping up the trip, we drove north to Ensenada where we found a car wash and a taco stand. We camped at a small campsite (Campsite #5), which is perched on a cliff side overlooking the ocean. Awaking to a windy storm and hearing the metal roof of our little shelter, next to where we parked, I decided to move the truck.  I gained a safe distance and looked back to see the metal roofing doubled over in a “U”, apparently only held down by a pile of rocks. Phew!

Day 6:

Christmas Day! Nothing particularly eventful today – we drove north through Ensenada and took MEX 3 up to Tecate.

View from the highway
View from the highway.

We crossed the border into the United States – this was the first time on this trip where we needed our passports!

All in all, we had a great trip and I am looking forward to the next time we’re able to spend some time visiting the beaches in Baja.

The adventures of a Lexus