As much as I like to think of myself as an overlander I’m not, not really. Most of my adventures are day trips or at most weekend trips and i’m hardly ever traveling from one place to the next or over great distance as much as I would like to. Being married with a young family has tempered my dreams from Ushuaia to Anchorage to more realistic pursuits of exploration in the great state of Utah that I call home. So when my uncle called me up and said that he wanted to do the Kokopelli trail and wanted to know if I had 4 days to spare in May I leapt at the opportunity to finally get my overlander badge.
This is a long and winding post, be ye warned.
The Kokopelli is approximately 140 miles (225 km) of trail from Grand Junction Colorado to Moab Utah. There are only a few places on the entire route that are paved, totaling up to a few miles at best, its a true overland route if ever there was one.
As is typically my fashion I spend way too much time and energy in the planning phase, partly because I live by the old scout motto of: “Bring all the stuff you might think you could ever need, plus some candy”.
I get a late start Saturday thanks to a last minute, unplanned an expensive repair cause by bad work by a mechanic about a year ago. The timing actually works out okay though, as my uncle Dan is making his way from southern California and will be roughly where I am around green river, though about an hour behind me.
60 minutes early at first seemed like a drag but as I roll down main street and realized that I had nowhere to be and no one to answer to I decide it’s actually rather nice. I stop in to the local ACE hardware and talk up a few locals and buy some new sunglasses before wandering around taking notice of the amazing old buildings in the area. What a wonderful shift of focus and change of pace to set the tone for the rest of the trip to be able to de-saturate myself from the demands of my everyday life. We meet up and have a great burger at Rays and then head south and then west towards Colorado for our first night camping. Our camp site for the night is next to a pair of VW vans, an old type 2 camper and a type 3 Westfalia snycro, with a the typical VW van loadout; Hippies, kids, dogs and guitars.
That night Dan and I shoot the bull about cars, life and the general stuff you talk about when you don’t really care about impressing anyone.
The next morning at the sharp crack of 10 ish we get underway after meeting up with the rest of the group, and a fillup in nearby Loma. A few miles in and we are past the camp grounds, past the weekend warriors and meeting our first small challenges. Pulling off the trail for a quick lunch at 1230 we are feeling very proud of our progress; must have been like 20 miles already...only we have covered 6 miles. only 130 something miles to go! Around 10 miles in we crest the top of a bluff I named “perspective point” because you can make out trucks on I-70 on one side and see the distant La Sal mountains that should be our route for day 3 on the other. The top of bluff also gives us another gift in amazing views, beautiful track and scenery that have a distinct African vibe...or at I think so, but I’ve only seen it Via YouTube so...
Descending from the bluff onto the valley floor had a feeling of pulling my eye away from a camera viewfinder and finding myself overwhelmed, being freed from the truncated data that such a narrow window affords. Like walking out of a movie, stepping out into the sun and finding that the world is real. Its unfortunate that I lack the photographic or literary skills necessary to show you what how it feels. The sky is bigger, the world larger...its pretty great feeling.
Not far from this moment, the trail shows me the other side of this coin, as a simple looking challenge complicates quickly for Justin in the FJ. A short slope with an off camber pitch leading into a washed out ditch appears in the trail. I watch Justin slip off into the ditch with his attempt and my unjustified sense of invincibility falls with it. In the process of getting out of the ditch, we find that the FJ is dangling its aluminum factory skid plate by a thread, and upon closer inspection the factory steel plate underneath it is also damaged.
Both plates come off, and both plates are strapped to the roof as we continue on. Its a subtle reminder, once again, that it wouldn’t take much to get into trouble and that we were indeed on our own. On the other hand we all came together and proved that we had the skills, knowledge and attitude to meet the challenge of being self sufficient and it felt pretty great. Plus, if you are going to have a breakdown, it might as well be here.
Better here than later in the day when we started climbing back up a bluff that became rockier, windier and closer to the storm that was ever looming in the distance. Late in the day and high on a bluff we start making choices - camp here in the wind but high ground? or continue down into a wash in order to cover more miles and get out of the wind? It was raining on and off and the choice to be made has real consequences. Have a miserable camp, or risk getting wet in a wash.
We pull over and make our choice; we will continue on into the canyon. 5 minutes later - crunch - more carnage. This time Dan’s front passenger fender has clipped a ledge and pulled off all the plastic tabs holding on his plastic fender to the metal one. Its a bit surreal as he stands there in the light rain, holding his fender in his hands both shocked and accepting. I joke to Dan that since he has a white truck as soon as it gets washed it will have that nice UN fenderless look that some people go for. Without breaking his concentration he points me to the red stains revealed on his freshly exposed metal fender and says “Hey! I’ve earned that dirt, I don’t want to get rid of it.” Dan and his 1995 FZJ80 are a well traveled pair having bought it at 35,000 miles young its seen many a special mod and it sounds like new fenders or a fender delete will be next on the list. Like my 1997 FZJ80, Dan’s is a daily driver and he and I don’t have a lot of interest in a beat up trail rig as a daily. What’s amazing about these 80’s is that mine with 100,000 miles more than Dan’s feels just as fresh and is a wonderfully quite and competent, if thirsty, commuter. Another part goes on the roof, and we continue on our way, making it through the wash without incident as our decision is vindicated in a perfect little camp spot for the night tucked away in the cleft of the cliff and out of the wind.
Wakey Wakey Eggs And Bakey!
Eggs, Bacon and Hot Chocolate great day 2 and we are all pumped to get back on the trail. Today’s big goals are Top of the World, a spur trail to the best views ever, and the infamously difficult rose garden hill. We’ve gone 51 miles now since we set off and the storm that seemed so far away is suddenly much nearer as we move towards it and it moves towards us in equal strides. The dark clouds weigh heavy on my mind because I know that Moab dirt roads aren’t like regular dirt roads, they are actually a kind of clay that when wet becomes a kind of slippery inconsistency that’s probably familiar to you only if you’ve been slimmed on Nickelodeon. In addition, Rose garden hill is steep, steep as in “Rose Garden Hill is to steep as surprise bed spiders are to ‘NOPE!’” Its off camber, rocky and perched on the side of a cliff...the moral of the story is that if its wet its 100% unsafe to attempt. It’s also mandatory if you want to continue on the trail. apprehension and enthusiasm abound in equal measure.
Immediately after leaving camp we are greeted with views of the Colorado river, much more swollen and majestic here is Utah than it is by the time it gets to California and crossing it requires us to get onto Utah 121 briefly to cross at Dewey bridge. Getting back in touch with “civilization” also grants us access to pit toilets at the Dewey bridge campground and oh man...what a treat.
No sooner than we touch dirt again than we see more VW bus action, looks like another T3. I’m convinced that at any given time the majority of working VW vans are within 75 miles of Moab, also black lab puppies.
The road to top of the world is relatively easy and fast and before long we had covered the necessary distance. Off-roading isn’t a spectator sport and doesn’t translate well to pictures and the pictures and video here are no exception, but as the trail got tougher and more interesting we were all having a great time behind the wheel.
Because the trail was a little wet and the steps were big enough and close enough together both Dan and I had to use our front AND rear lockers (in addition to having the center locked) in order to get up and over in parts. I have used lockers plenty but I haven’t ever needed them in order to complete a challenge. As I triumphantly finish a particularly difficult set, suddenly - THUD - dammit. Okay, well I’ll just back off and - Grind - crap!
“Something’s not right”.
I was going through my head thinking of all the things i could have been...busted birfield? broken diff? shock mount? I get out of the truck and look around...well there’s your problem. My rear diff was engaged in chewing up the local strata...yup that’ll do it.
(The rock I fought with...and won)
Backing off the giant rock I somehow didn’t see elicits more lovely noises consistent with the battle of steel vs rock happening bellow until it releases me from its grasp and I continue on. This trail transcends the medium rating pretty quickly, even considering our experience with trails of similar rating in the area.
The trail gains elevation quickly as you go from valley floor to the bluff overlooking fisher valley with a view deserving of the title “top of the world”. What an amazing place.
Its also an amazing view of the storm that we are no longer observing from a distance, but are now right in the thick of and...much to our disappointment...right onto Rose Garden Hill which we can see from the top. Crud.
No sooner had we wrapped up lunch than the slow moving cloud finally reach us and start to open up. In spite of this we decided it would be worthwhile to continue on the trail and find out if RGH was passable or not. At this point we are in a position that we can backtrack to 121 which leads to Moab if needed, once we descend the hill, getting back to civilization would be more difficult.
The road is rough enough that if I had started with this trail, or didn’t know how much abuse a now ancient 260,000 mile Toyota could take I would have driven much slower but with experience gathered yesterday as well as other time, I drive at a nice fast pace. I’m still in amazement that I can smash, rattle and generally beat on this nearly 20 year old truck and yet when I get back on the road, it continues to drive like its just done 10 road miles...”No Biggie” it seems to say.
That Feeling Is Gone
Back on the road we leave the fast bypass and enter the tighter trail once again that leads to the hill, at this point because we had traveled North West in a loop we had escaped the slow moving storm but looping back around we are back in it. We stop at a rock band that presents an opportunity to stop and evaluate more than it presents a challenge. We get out, its raining and we know what that means: This trail is over.
We don’t come to this decision lightly, but when we add up all the factors the math is clear.
1. Rose garden hill was wet, no question
2. Aside from Dan, who had a 42 gallon auxiliary tank installed, all of us are reaching a point with our fuel supplies...last topped off in Loma some 100 + miles away...that are approaching points of do-or-die. We either had sufficient fuel to finish the trail with slim but acceptable margins of reserve or we get bogged down with clay that would sap away those margins until we have neither fuel to continue nor retreat.
3. Although each of our trucks has proven capable, and each of use has either aggressive AT tires or mud tires we have only 1 winch (on Dan’s truck) and no traction boards to help get us moving if we do get bogged.
I said at the beginning that I wasn’t an overlander, and I guess this lack of equipment prep sort of shows it.
That being said an critical part of being an outdoors enthusiast, whether it being skiing, hiking or overlanding is respect for mother nature and respect for the logic that stands as a check to the human factor. Its one thing to push on against all odds when the situation demands it...its quite another to put yourself and others at risk for your own amusement or recreation.
So that’s it, tails tucked, and turned around we head back down the bypass road, which feels 3 times longer going back than it did going forward. We air up our tires at Dewey campground bridge for the long drive back into Moab, utterly disgusted by the mockery of the sunny skies we are airing up under since we have cleared the slow moving storm.
The radio chatter between our 4 vehicles that has been a constant companion throughout the trip was sparse as we covered highway miles we hadn’t planned on.
Back in town we fill our tanks, make a plan and head into the Sand Flats recreation area to pick a campsite. This same road, sand flats road, would have served as the ending point for the trail had we been able to continue. The meager crowds of the campsite feel like an amusement park’s worth of people after our quiet solitude; and our site, though nice, fit our 4 vehicle only just. I actually love the sand flats camping area because its more rugged and interesting than many others, but tonight it feels to me as if its a punishment. Exhausted from 8 long hours in the car and stuck in a quiet contemplation of second guesses I resign myself to sit and think by the fire. We have a good evening, we really do, but the feeling is gone and it taxes my emotions.
Our new plan of attack is, I think, still ambitious; elephant hill and the needles district. I know this trail, having recently done it in November, but what would it be like in the wet?
Heading out of town the skies open completely and rain is abundant. The night before I had checked the radar on my phone and noticed that today the entire State would bet getting wet, but especially us. I feel both vindicated in our decision to avoid the soupy, possibly snowy mess that would have been our fate today...and nervous about the conditions of elephant hill, which is very technical in parts and spends a decent amount of time in a wash. The clouds let up slightly as we travel west towards the ranger station but the roads are soaked and it is clear that everywhere would be wet today. Consulting the rangers who make sure we were equipped with the proper “lift kits and stabilizer kits(?)“ we discover that the headwaters for the wash hadn’t received as much rain and that the trail was open. We decide to go for.
Our plan is to get to the top of elephant hill at the least, and asses from there. Boy, what a difference a little rain makes. When I did this trail in November the traction was good and the accent was a piece of cake...easy even...but today was it was not and even the easier parts of the trail are approached with caution as they are off camber and lead to a cliff edge; it wouldn’t take much tire slipping to send a car sideways.
Once on top we decide to continue, the skies looked okay and the trail...while wet... doable. We also meet a new friend from Ohio in a bog stock JK Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited who is speeding up the hill like it was his morning commute...with about as much grace as most people on their morning commute. We offer to allow him to pass but he declins instead asking if this was the way to get to the devils garden campsite he had reserved for the night...it was.
“Shit” as a mumbles back into his Jeep.
um...okay, moving on.
At the top of the hill it appears clear so we cautiously descend, its slippery and rockier than I remember but all goes well. There is, however, not enough room to even turn the corner on a few of the switchbacks (you are asked to pull in and back down) let alone room for passing and just when we had all 4 trucks dangling on the hill like 4 pandas on a vine a rental Jeep with a German couple was heading up. nuts. I ran down and convince them, as best I can, that they need to back up to the wider spot they had just passed to allow us to come down.
Because the Germans are known for being a kind, cheery and warm people...wait no...not that, the other thing; they hate it and grumbled loudly. As did Ohio back there who is still bouncing off the rocks as often as cursing. Something about all this felt so wrong...how could you all be so upset out here? Don’t you know the point of this trail is to bring you happiness in nature? oh well.
I wont go into much detail about the technical challenges required to get to the junction with the campgrounds that Ohio clearly had no idea would require a trail to access other than to say that it is technical and fun...we have a nice time. The squeeze, or “dupont trail” as the ranger called it, is fun as always.
Back on devils lane is where it really gets fun for me. The fast sandy 2 track, the towering features, the intimate canyons...I’m having a ball and I would do that track all day everyday for a year and not get tired of it.
We decide, for the sake of brevity to forgo Chesler Park and the joint trail to skip strait onto the confluence overlook, a short 5 mile spur on more of the amazing 2 track. It’s a pretty great view but the rain had caught us up again and fearing that the accent out of elephant hill was going to be challenge enough as it is, we hastened on and rejoined the main trail, passing a large group of retired Jeepers and their grumpy grandson or something. Lots of grumpy people on this amazing trail...
We are right to be worried about the hill, in the wet it is a formidable challenge, even for my truck with 3 lockers and 33 inch tires. We carefully manage to get each truck up without incident, including Jo’s open diff 3rd gen 4Runner, with careful guiding, and then back down the other side again.
Back to the parking lot to air up once again, and to get high fived and “good job”ed by an octogenarian woman in a heavily modified XJ Cherokee who we passed briefly on the trail...Moab is a strange place.
Back into town by 7 we get a burger at Moab Brewery and decide on our next plan of attack. My plan, originally, was to head strait home, sleep in my bed and be back to work in the morning. Seeing as how it has been another LONG day in the car, its 8 when dinner is done and I genuinely feared for my safety driving home we opt to all camp together on willow flats road.
If I had any reservations left about abandoning our trail for fear of conditions they were swept away on willow flats road. Its become a veritable slip and slide of gooey clay that, although relatively strait and flat, demanded that even our well equipped trucks exercise extreme caution and keep up momentum...I feel [sort of] bad for the Honda’s and such that had camped there before the rain and were now completely stranded until the road dries. It’s so bad that when I get back to work, despite driving 4 hours in the rain there are still INCHES of clay caked to all parts of the cruiser.
I cant even begin to imagine trying to make progress on roads like that if there were anything but flat...yikes.
Back To The Planning Phase
So no, I’m not really an overlander, or maybe I am...whatever. All I know is that I had a great time and I can’t wait to go again. Maze district here I come!
EDIT: I didn’t have the videos linked on this article, but seeing as how its being read and I’m back in town I figured I should include them.