Campsploring Turned 4-Wheeling
Yesterday, I attempted the trip from my campsite near Cottonwood to Mingus Mountain Recreation Area via fire roads. And yes, “attempted” means that I didn’t make it. As I mentioned in my previous post, the blessing of “Approved for Camping” on any National Forest MVUM implies neither areas usable for camping, nor passable conditions for anything short of a Unimog.
After picking up a package in town, I doubled back to my campsite on NF-593 and then kept going. The shipment didn’t arrive until about 3:30, so that signaled that time might become an issue in making this trek. As soon as West Mingus Avenue’s pavement ran out, I aired down the Mighty Furd’s tires and went for it. My, what a difference. The nature of the ride changes from punishing violence to mimicking a small boat in rough water. At the same time that airing down decreases the point load in the tread area and improves traction, it also exposes the sidewall to potential damage. With decent off-road tires, improved shoulder wraparound and carcass strength tend to make this trade-off worth it. This trail presents a bounty of pointed or otherwise sharp projecting rocks to the tread area, so it quickly became clear that preserving the tires was the prime thing to pay attention to, rather than traction or anything else.
Woof, what a trail. A quarter-mile or so past where I’d camped, a bright yellow late-70’s Chevy 4WD pickup was parked beside a bend in the road, and a couple with a small child stood behind it in the shade of a small tree. They looked relaxed, but I made sure they were stopped here on purpose and were not stranded. Turns out they live “in the valley” and always wanted to see where this trail went, and find out how far they could go. This was just breaktime.
Loose rocks crunching and grinding under the Mighty Furd’s tires, I pressed on only to miss seeing a water erosion rut that had eroded the edge of drop-off. Next thing I knew, the left rear of the truck dropped as if into a hole, and the sound of the left running board hitting the rocks kicked in the instinctual response to hit the gas, and quickly. The low sun’s hazing of the windshield and the angle of the cut had helped mask it from my view. Now I know why early Jeeps had folding windshields. That hazing is all I can think of, since I wasn’t dozing off or distracted in the cab. I’m mindful of the high tire loading that this rig causes, especially when I’m having to drive near the edge of any unprotected dropoff. This is dirt, after all, and dirt edges can give way with enough pressure at the right distance from the edge/ledge.
With that in the back of my mind, and the fact that nearly every yard of this trail is cut into the side of one mountain or another, I instantly pictured that an edge was collapsing under the rear tire. The instinctual answer to that is to vacate the premises ASAP and get that tire elsewhere, fast. The instant the tire dropped and I heard the metallic thwang of the running board, I hit the throttle to get myself and the truck further forward, without thinking about it. This automatic response makes me suspect that deep down in our core survival part of the brain, there’s a gas pedal gene in there somewhere, passed down from primitive man throughout the generations. Perhaps our DNA has from the beginning had a tinge of packrat syndrome, one which includes this drive to press the right foot to the floorboard, eons before a floorboard ever existed. Could it be one of many “I might need this someday” dormant genes waiting to do their thing when necessity calls? Well okay, maybe not.
But I did tap the gas, and the truck jumped clear. In 4WD-low, there’s no such thing as a delayed response. I got out to look at the running board, which appeared unscathed. Then I walked back to survey what I’d missed. Erosion had eaten away the ledge at one spot, but oddly, my tire track in the dirt was only at the start of the erosion, where there wasn’t much of a dip at all. What could possibly cause enough drop to ground out the running board or anything else? Apparently, some good-sized rocks sitting on top of the far side were in just the right place to contact the running board while the rig was dipping. Not long after that, a rock wedged under a tire shot up under the vehicle with a thumping clang. Not having any armoring underneath, I kept an eye on the engine and trans gauges for awhile after that, to make sure that nothing vital had been affected.
My lasting memory of this trail is “Narrow”. Wide enough to let a full-size pickup pass, but in spots, not wide enough to allow dodging rock hazards or even comfortably exit the vehicle to examine the situation ahead. “Submerged Boulders” is another impression, some projecting high enough to be a concern when they can’t be avoided. The drop-offs are very steep throughout, and the two hairpin turns I encountered were complicated by more projecting boulders tall enough to do damage. They also had enough unevenness to require a healthy enough suspension articulation to make things interesting. The Intrepid’s 27′ length and long wheelbase prevented a simple one-shot turn, so backing up a couple of times to reposition was required. In all, this trail was not a pleasant experience. But it was challenging.
The showstopper came immediately after the second hairpin, where impossibly tall boulders eliminated any hope of going further. You’d need a lifted, tall-tire Jeep to get through, a decent ATV, or a motorcycle. That was the end of the road for me in a bone-stock F-250. The good news in this was that the approach started wide, providing an area just big enough to get the Intrepid turned around. Just after I did so, a guy on a dirt bike rode past and weaved through the hazards, no sweat. Dang. Rub it in. The other good news is that I’d have enough daylight time to return to my former campsite. That same hairpin was uneven enough to tilt the Intrepid toward the inside at a fairly crazy angle, but the rig’s low center of gravity prevented any signs of instability.
The shame of it is that I had passed two pull-offs along the way that are usable as campsites, but neither was on public land and so couldn’t be used. On the way back down and close to camp, a guy with a competent-looking ATV was coming the other way and pulled over to let me pass. When I thanked him, he asked where I was from and mentioned that his wife had just hopped a plane for Chicago. They’re RVers staying in the area, and we jabbered a bit before he looked at the Mighty Furd and opined, “No you wouldn’t be able to make it with that.”
“Yup, that’s what I just found out,” I replied.
He added, “There are cougars up here you know, but they won’t bother you.” I had read that both bears and cougars are here, but his comment made me think that trailing here with the e-bike might not be the best idea in the world. Then again, the steep slopes on both sides of this trail at any given point make a chance encounter fairly questionable.
I’d failed in my quest, but tested the limits of both the Intrepid and my own comfort zone. In all, it was 6 miles, taking about two hours. It’s both a trip to remember, and one I wouldn’t care to repeat – not in any vehicle I own, anyways. Once back at camp, I looked up the coming weather forecast, which had changed. I found that, as of now, there’s little need to seek cooler elevations. In fact, Woodchute will be a bit cold for my taste for awhile, so I’m better off where I am for the time being. Funny how that works.
Not surprising is that I used the Garmin VIRB to capture the trip, albeit from one mounted position. It’s not great entertainment, but does define what the 2.9 mile ascent was really like. I’ll see what I can do with the footage to shorten it up.