What used to be known a four-wheeling is now known as “Wheeling” by most people in the 4WD community. Overlanding and 4WD overlaps a lot, but are not always enjoyed by people of either community. I enjoy both, and have adopted both in my Overlanding journey. On the vacation we just took over the past two weeks, I was afforded numerous opportunities to go Wheeling.
Medano Pass Primitive Road, Great Sand Dunes National Forest
The Medano Pass Primitive Road was my first real 4WD experience with the Gunship. I’ve done some minor wheeling on the beach and on some dirt roads, but this was, by far, the most technical trail I’ve done yet. It was listed as a “Moderate” in difficulty, and with my military off-road training and experience, I figured I could tackle it.
The trail is 22-miles long and has soft sand, rocks, dirt, and 9 stream crossings. There are some serious inclines and declines, but nothing ridiculous. We took the majority of the trail on our first day before settling down for camping on a primitive campsite that was on the side of the trail. The site itself was spectacular with the Medano Creek gently running about 100 yards from our site with mountains on both sides of the valley making for serene and scenic experience.
On the second day, we ran into our first mechanical issue. While driving the trail carefully and slowly, I noticed five warning lights appearing on the dashboard. Not knowing what these meant, I asked Sherry to look them up as I continued to drive. I also noticed that to drive straight, I had to turn the steering wheel 90 degrees to the left. This was not good.
Sherry confirmed that all the warning indications pointed to stability and traction system failures, and once we cleared the trail, I was able to inspect the suspension as I had to air up our tires. The right front wheel was visibly off-camber and alignment, yet no tie rods appeared to be bent. Whatever happened was major, and we decided to make a detour to Pueblo to spend the night in a hotel to get the Gunship in to the Pueblo Toyota dealer for emergency service.
The dealer’s service department was booked for the day, but they squeezed us in and three hours later, we had the diagnosis: a bent knuckle. These are incredibly hard to bend without bending tie rods first, so I suspected that this must have been defective from the factory for it to bend the way it did. Regardless, the part needed to be brought in from Kansas City, MO, and that was going to take a day or two. Sherry and I pivoted and rented a car and checked into the hotel for another day.
While we waited for the Gunship to have its suspension repaired, we visited Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, and Royal Gorge. The next day, we went out to Cripple Creek when we were called by Pueblo Toyoto telling us that the Gunship was fixed and ready to go. We rushed back to the dealership where we picked up the 4Runner and dropped off the rental car to continue our trip. While we lost two days of sleeping in the tent, it happened to coincide with a freak September snowstorm which had us sleeping in a warm hotel room on two of the coldest nights of our trip. I joked that the Gunship was taking care of us by keeping us out of the tent through the worst of the cold weather.
Eye of the Whale Trail, Arches National Forest
I have to admit that I was a little nervous this time out. For my second major trail, Sherry found the Eye of the Whale Trail which was also listed as a Moderate Technical trail requiring high-clearance 4WD vehicles. The Gunship fits that description, but our last experience on the Medano Pass Trail had me worried about damaging the Gunship again.
I aired down to 30 psi as the trail wasn’t sandy like Medano was. I figured airing down a little would help reduce the likelihood of puncture damage from rocks on the trail and help with making the ride smoother and giving us more traction on the rocky inclines and declines. We then hit the trail.
This trail, while listed as the same difficulty as Medano, seemed a little more technical to me. The inclines were steeper, and the rocky areas were trickier, requiring more thought about which line to take.
I really enjoyed this trail, and while it was the most technical I’ve done (out of the two!), it wasn’t over my ability. When we neared the exit of the trail (it’s also the entrance as we went to the Eye of the Whale arch and turned back around), we saw an Audi Q5 struggling to make it back out of the area we were in. The wheels were spinning as the Q5 tried to make it up the rocky hill, and the driver had to back up and try a different line while “Sending it” to get it out of the high-clearance 4WD area. It reinforced my decision on the 4Runner as I was actually considering a Q5 before settling on the 4Runner. The Q5 is very nice, but definitely not a capable off-roading vehicle.
The best news of this trail was that nothing broke! I drove it carefully and slowly to avoid too much compression of the suspension as my current configuration is heavy with a noticable sag in the rear of the suspension. This trip has highlighted the fact that I need better springs in the back to deal with the extra weight we carry when Overlanding.
6 Mile Canyon Road, Cibola National Forest
Our last Overlanding spot of the trip also provided me with the last trail to go wheeling on. While the 6 Mile Canyon Road itself is not technical or difficult at all (it is, afterall, a gravel road), the turn-offs are dirt or a mix of dirt and rocks and have some difficult spots. The first turn-off we drove on was, based on my previous experience with the two trails, moderate technical with some steep inclines and declines with some tight spots between trees and rocks. I navigated this easily and when we determined that we didn’t like the camp spot, I turned around and went back to the road to look for another spot.
Minutes later, we came across another turn-off that led to a great spot near some beautiful and colorful rocks. I drove up that trail which I would rate as easy and we made it to our camp spot for the night. It was perfect, and while it got really windy in the middle of the night, it was one of our most memorable camp spots of the trip.
This trip was one of the most enjoyable for my wife and I. We not only got to see new things and eat new foods and try new drinks, but we actually had to work together as a team to setup camp, make food, get the tent setup for sleeping before reversing the process each morning. Loading and unloading the Gunship became a routine, and we became very quick and efficient at it.
In many ways, I think our trip was a great exercise in team building. If you can get past two weeks of overlanding without killing each other, I think you’re in good shape. Sherry and I talked about it on the drive home, and while there were a handful of moments where each of us felt some stress, those moments never boiled over into an argument. We were self-aware enough to de-escalate any issue quickly, and in some ways, I think it strengthened our already iron-clad relationship.
As for the “Wheeling” portions of this trip, I was surprised not by how much I enjoyed it, but in how much Sherry enjoyed it. When I told her I was going to get better springs for the rear to make wheeling easier for us in the future, she thought it was a great idea and said she looked forward to doing more of it.
I don’t see Overlanding and Wheeling as mutually exclusive. To the contrary, I think they are both better when done together.