The BLM’s road to Ferguson Lake heads northward from the Imperial Dam LTVA near Yuma, Arizona. This BLM800 gravel road carries the Ferguson name and heads discreetly into the hills. An impulsive desire to see what Ferguson Lake is like quickly leads to wonderment, because the road soon goes up hill and down dale, coming close to needing 4WD in the nose-heavy Ford pickup at times.
I was going to write that, “aside from washboard and rocky bumps here and there, this road is not unduly rugged since high clearance and 4WD are not required”. I was going to write that until some motorhome campers I know here tore the oil pan of their toad (towed car) open on it and came close to being stranded late in the day. Fortunately, some young’uns happened by. The odds of that occurring vary greatly by month.
As a follow-up, I found that the ultimate result for them was a trashed engine. The oil pan and engine oil were replaced, and the car was returned. That’s when the engine failed. My guess is that the oil pump had ingested crud. The normal next stop is the oil filter, but if the pump intake itself gets clogged and that goes unnoticed, oil pressure drops. Or maybe the engine was run dry too long when the oil was first lost, sealing its fate. I only know the end result after additional drive time.
Such a calamity is surprising – the road just isn’t that bad, apart from an occasional dip here and there. Moral of the story: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should. This isn’t Disney World’s Main Street, homogenized so that nothing bad can possibly happen if you beat the crap out of the vehicle you’re driving. Admittedly, today’s cars do a superb job of masking abusive road conditions from the driver. The downside of this improvement is that you may never see the one rock with your name on it, so to speak – the one situation coming that sophisticated technology cannot yet compensate for. Then bang! – surprise and disappointment.
But I digress. You see, it’s some eight miles to Ferguson Lake, as it turns out. There’s no way of knowing that just by the road signs, so it seems like a real journey unless you’re trying to take it fast. See above. When I went halfway up in December and took my time, not a single vehicle was in sight the whole time, about an hour and a half. January was a different story.
Ferguson Road is at points quite a visual reward. Many of the views it provides are inspiring, and if you shut down at the side of the road, the utter absence of sound is, well, something you may not experience in a lifetime. The road goes along through valleys, and winds around mountains in a single lane that, at a couple of points, disappears unseen below what your hood may allow. You have to stick your head out the window to make sure you’re not going to drop a wheel off an unprotected ledge. If the road twists to the right then, that’s not enough. You’d best stop and get out to make sure of where the road goes, because if you don’t keep all four on it, it’s a brief but exciting ride down. It gets wide, it gets narrow, it gets loose, and it gets finely packed. (Mind you, a car or older pickup with fewer “muy macho” styling queues will not have this visibility issue.)
When I made my initial trip on an impulsive whim, I had to wonder just how far away this Ferguson Lake was! There had been no rain for a long time, and it was obvious by my lonely tracks that the Mighty Furd was the only vehicle to drive this road for quite a long while. At least I didn’t have to worry about colliding with another vehicle on the twisty, blind sections. It was rough enough at points to keep speeds down to a walk. The overall narrowness, how the road occasionally disappeared under the big hulk’s hood, the sheer drop-offs with not so much as a berm on the drop side, and the unusually steep climbs and descents got to me, and I turned back without any idea of how close I’d gotten to the lake – the GPS showed nothing ahead.
I found myself unable to leave it alone, though. Except for the labored trail itself ahead, I had seen pristine wilderness with absolutely no sign of man – not even jet trails in the blue sky. The utter absence of movement and sound had given the rock-strewn hills and valleys a sense of timelessness. The natural hazards of a road that the mountainsides had only grudgingly accepted provided a sensation behind the wheel that somehow seemed almost historic. It was a glimpse of Motoring Adventure in some classic sense.
Short of the conestoga wagon that preceded them, the early automobile was the first vehicle to allow true individual cross-country exploration. The bicycle of the late 1800s had been revolutionary, and had primed the pump of the new idea of independent travel for the ordinary person. The lowly bicycle was immensely influential because it broke the mindset that travel was restricted to scheduled mass transit, or to a horse and carriage that only the wealthy could possibly afford. Think “Lewis & Clark on wheels”. With a bicycle, nearly any Jake or Mary could enjoy traveling a few miles out of town to picnic in the shade of their choice, whenever they liked. The effect on the psyche was almost cosmic.
The motor carriage represented kind of a bicycle on steroids, vaulting further ahead the basic concept of independence and free choice. As long as you had packed sufficient gasoline, oil, multiple tires and tubes, wheel bearings, tools and so on, you could turn the tiller or steering wheel any way you liked and see what you had never seen before. The technology was not at all up to the task, but the human spirit was. The challenge and reward was to accept and manage the inherent risks. This type of personal exploration continued along these lines well into the 1920s, and the risks were not minor.
So at the beginning of the last century, a few more adventurous types took their new horseless carriages out of the brick-paved cities to explore the country. They followed aimless tracks and trails, and sometimes none at all. They were not everyman types, but the idle rich, the few young upper-crust gentlemen’s club members who wearied of being quite so idle and who longed for a physical and mental challenge. The automobile was considered to be almost subversive by their elders however, so they first first drove near the city slums so as not to be seen by anyone they knew. Actually, often as not, their chauffeurs drove because of the complexity of the controls. The very few discontents among them lashed food and supplies onto theirs and got out there, somewhere. Road maps were virtually unknown, and signage was nearly nonexistent since there was little need of it. Railroad tracks were the means of transport and commerce then, and straying far from them equated to cow-track wilderness. That was all part of the adventure of it. Good walking shoes, food and water, rough camping equipment, and the ability to wire for money and parts became essentials for the more intrepid souls.
Somehow, in this particular place in 2013, I was sensing faint little glimpses of Motoring Adventure, albeit in a vehicle that goes 10,000 miles before needing to be touched, instead of blowing a tire or losing its ignition in 10. Still, I perceived it, and I couldn’t leave it alone. Ferguson Lake would have to be found, and by motorcar – I mean automobile.
A second try in January yielded considerably different results. I eventually passed a tent and a small car at an impromptu campsite. Nice location, stunning view, and quiet solitude. Later, as the big Ford thumped and bumped along on the rocks, there was a small 4WD SUV quickly approaching from the rear! I thought that was notable, and so as not to hold him up (since his softer suspension was not causing him to lose teeth nor kidneys), I pulled to the side as far as I could and stopped to let him pass. A minute later came a second one, and eventually, a third! They were sightseeing together, apparently.
Another aside: I don’t know if you’ve ever rolled across uneven ground in a heavily-sprung vehicle. I once rode as a passenger in an empty Jeep J-30 pickup (I think it was) right across some farm furrows that had taken a hard set. I was certain at the time that I was receiving serious internal injuries, since the driver was trying to catch some dirt bikers in order to get them to stay quiet on the property for another half-hour. He succeeded nicely. Handy tip: don’t wear a seatbelt in a J-30 unless it looks like you’re going to roll over. Even then, don’t be in a rush.
Ordinary half-ton pickups are, in comparison, not uncomfortable at all, though there is no doubt that you are going over bumps. SUVs are pillow-soft and floaty. Three-quarter and one ton pickups, like the F-250, need much higher air pressure in their tires, and stiffer springs to carry more payload. You might think that this causes the truck to buck and bounce over the rough stuff. That’s not what happens on rough roads unless speeds are insanely high. With today’s better shock absorbers and the advent of firm foam seats replacing coil-spring seats, the passenger movement is now instantaneous. Bang, you’re suddenly up two inches, delivered and held there by the comfy but unforgiving seat. Up and down movement these days isn’t a bounce – it’s a quick, unyielding, muscular punch-and-hold. Even a 1 MPH crawl over slightly rough ground can be surprisingly violent and distinctly unpleasant.
In former times, all you had to worry about was banging your head on the ceiling as you comically bounced up and down in the springy seat. Adding seat belts to this made for a mighty unpleasant combo, since you’d repeatedly launch hard, right into the violent tug of the unforgiving strap. That’s part of what made the J-30 such a treat. These days, there’s no bounce. There’s only a taut up and down, with your vertebrae providing the spring action. End of aside.
The little SUVs drove on, making good time, while I pitched this way and that as the Ford crawled along. Naturally, I was surprised to soon find them parked together on a pull-off at the top of a mountain pass. Then, I wasn’t surprised, because the view from there included most of Ferguson Lake below. It has to be the only lake I know of that isn’t overly developed. No town, and a few houses on the more hospitable side opposite. Ferguson Lake is attached to the Colorado River. Aside from the BLM trail I was on at the south side, there was no north side access trail other than one that seemed to come from the Yuma Army Proving Grounds. I’d come 8 miles from the Imperial Dam LTVA.
A steep dive down toward the lake provided a single trail branch that allowed access to the shoreline. Otherwise, the terrain is too high to approach the shoreline, and much of it simply dives vertically into the water. The only other access point I found was at the end of a spur miles away, where a local hunting clubhouse was located. The rest of the BLM road was much too high, with no appropriate places to pull aside. It’s rough country.
There were a couple of points along the trail where I was sure I’d need to engage 4WD. You see, as I’ve mentioned, the heavy diesel engine and long wheelbase makes the Ford unusually nose-heavy, so it’s comparatively easy to spin the rear wheels. The water tank behind the cab can weigh up to 500 pounds, so that helps a bit. Anyway, I bravely ascended the loose-gravel grades in 2WD, rear tires fighting for traction, and never needed to kick the front drive in, too. You can imagine my chagrin at conquering these intimidating grades on the way in, only to see a front wheel drive subcompact cruising over the same road without a care in the world. Oh well. Let’s just call it “my own personal best” and leave it at that.
It put a good-sized dent in my perception of “Motoring Adventure” for the rest of the trip, however. And it didn’t help when on the way back, two sport-type ATVs flew past like rocket sleds on a test run. Then the three SUVs that had passed me on the way in went by as I once again squeezed over. It wasn’t exactly lonely going this time.
But the trip to Ferguson Lake was immensely enjoyable, as was the lake area itself. It’s certainly worth still another go.
I think I’ll toe my jeep wrangler just for adventures like this.
It’d be worth towing it to this place, JR! There are many powerline maintenance trails and others that are rugged enough that a light, short-wheelbase 4WD is all that’s going to reliably make it through. Several of the regular BLM routes eventually present situations that will hang up the big Ford. In the LTVA, a group of four-wheelers gather once a week to go off-roading. That’s by far the safest way, accompanied by experienced enthusiasts.
I off-road alone most the time but prefer going with a group. It’s just hard to hook up with a group. I use power line maintenance trails here.
This place looks very peaceful. I will need to see this some day.
The quiet of the lake with the surrounding rugged landscape is quite something to experience, Linda. And the utter silence of most areas on the drive in is memorable.