Bringing in 2021 with some off-roading
With 2020 coming to a close, we decided to send it off in our traditional fashion: trail bashing
Starting in 2017 my so-called "Adventure Team" has been getting together to go be out in the middle of nowhere for the week(ish) between Christmas and New Years. In the past we've done a winery in rural Oklahoma, a beautiful backcountry campsite in Big Bend Ranch State Park, and a canyon in New Mexico. This year we decided we weren't going to let 2020 ruin yet another good thing. That said, with the pandemic front and center, we decided to stick close to home and chose the Ouachita and Mark Twain National Forests as our two locations for this trip.
I wrote a big long post about planning, travel, and safety a few weeks ago. The tl;dr is we're going to be staying in two cabins for three nights each and hit trails hub-and-spoke style, rather than our usual string of hotels and motels as we string together a coherent route. We were packing in all food from our respective homes and planned on eating out for zero meals
Time to make a plan and see that the old Landy can handle it!
Pandemically speaking, the food plan worked out really well and we only ended up with one extra trip to the grocery for emergency champagne. Additionally, I was shocked that the few places we went in to (grocery stores and gas stations) mask usage was damn near 100%. Given we can't manage that in big cities, I was really surprised to see it out in the middle of nowhere.
Meet the team!
As it is the first one of these on DriveTribe, it seems only natural I introduce us and our cars!
First off there is me, Akio, an electrical engineer specializing in control systems and embedded design. I'm driving my 2001 Land Rover Discovery II SE7, purchased when the three of us did an off-roading cheap car challenge back in 2017. The Land Rover is pretty much stock with the (in)famous Rover 4.0L v8 mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission (the only spec available in the US), slightly better than stock ground clearance at 8.7 inches, solid front and rear axels, a center locking differential, and a crawl ratio of 29:1.
Up next is my partner George, a computer scientist specializing in high performance computing and security. He is driving his 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. The underdog Jeep is equipped with the woeful 2.4L Tigershark inline 4 mated to the equally vile ZF 9-speed automatic. The Jeep has a slightly better than stock ground clearance of 8.95 inches, fully independent suspension, Jeeps selec terrain traction control with center lock, and a crawl ratio of 19:1. George's toaster is the off-road modified vehicle of the three, sporting aftermarket rock rails.
Last but not least we have Taylor, a graphic designer, web developer, and all around good guy driving his beloved 2015 Nissan XTerra Pro4X. Sporting a 4.0L V6 mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, the Nissan has 9.5 inches of ground clearance, a solid rear axle, factory center and rear locking differentials, and a crawl ratio of 45:1.
This odd trio has been on many trips together and despite the disparity in age and specifications, always managed to stick together and have fun.
Upon completion of the Oklahoma Adventure Trail in April 2018 (Photo: Taylor)
Day 0 - Travel Day
George and I loaded up the cars with all the food, supplies, recovery gear, and warm stuff we thought we'd need for a week of driving around the woods and headed out of Tulsa early Sunday afternoon. I was immediately thankful I'd decided to purchase a new 110Q cooler rather than rely on my old 60Q. With a weeks worth of food in it, the cooler barely had enough room for all our beer and soju! Still, I somehow managed to get everything packed into it and George's travel fridge and five relatively uneventful hours later we were at cabin number one, a neat place just outside Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Shortly after dark Taylor arrived from Austin and, once again, we were together as a team.
Day 1 - Missing trails, roads, and sanity
While these are generally off-road/overland trips, Taylor sometimes makes us go on these things called "hikes". In short, they are off-roading, but done outside a vehicle with your legs as the primary means of propulsion. I don't quite understand the appeal, but as today was going to be one of the warmest and driest days of the trip, we decided to get this infernal "hiking" out of the way early.
But, like all good and proper activities, it started with a little off-roading. It wasn't actually supposed to, but while the trailhead was clearly marked on the park map just off a dirt road, there was no actual trailhead to be found. This will become a theme for the day. After trundling down the dirt road for longer than was reasonable we gave up and selected a different, nearby trail: The Ouachita National Recreation Trail. While I was totally game to "hike" the entirety of this 192 mile trail, we decided on a more modest 5 mile hike from the Highway 7 trailhead to the Moonshine Shelter and back.
Moonshine shelter (Photo: Taylor)
We trudged through the woods in relative warmth, as long as we kept moving, and chatted about everything from sports, to cars, to college memories. It was a good time despite not involving the miracle of internal combustion.
Afterwards, we returned to enjoy the miracles of internal combustion.
And heated seats.
The rest of the day was spent bombing down logging roads in what was supposed to be a lazy, uneventful, pretty drive. As per our usual when in a US National Forest, we were following the multiple vehicle use maps (MVUM) which are the official road and enforcement maps for US national parks. The MVUMs mark out which vehicles are allowed where, when, and what level of maintenance to expect on those roads and trails. We'd carefully selected a route to mix in some maintained and un-maintained dirt roads to ease us in to the trip.
That worked out great... until we hit our first locked gate. Though the MVUM is the document of record for park roads, apparently there are no rules or regulations about how accurate they need to be.
The first locked gate of many
We backtracked a couple of miles to a spur that should put us back on track. The track looked like a disused two track, heavily damaged by washout. AKA a lot of fun. However, once again the MVUM incorrectly marked the road as acceptable for highway vehicles. Signs at the fork unequivocally forbade anything but humans and horses from using the trail.
A further backtrack saw us on another well maintained dirt road, nearing the cabin and the end of the day. Things were going very well until we spotted a shortcut through some unmaintained (read: more fun) roads. This was fun until the road just... stopped existing. Better than a locked gate, I guess.
At this point we were getting pretty fed up with being lied to by the MVUM, so we ditched it in favor of our downloaded digital topo maps courtesy of CalTopo. They indicated there was a different road available that should take us back to the highway, cabin, and much needed whiskey.
Unfortunately this brought us to our least favorite of off-road obstacles: the muddy puddle. Why don't we like those? Because at our local off-road vehicle (ORV) park, many of these are completely unnavigable. While they look like a normal puddle on the surface, use and abuse by vehicles more capable than ours means the puddle can sometimes be 3+ feet deep ruts, immediately high centering any of our mostly-stock vehicles. Knowing this, we actually got out and checked the depth, like you're supposed to do anyway, and were pleased to discover the puddle was only a few inches deep. Just a normal mud puddle, easily traversed.
Which we got a lot of practice at, as the trail became more or less continuous puddle as we neared the highway. Still, the depth remained constant and we made good progress without incident as the sun started setting.
Finally we reached a junction of sorts. The trail took a sharp right and descended an extremely steep hill. As I was in the lead and there were clearly not any other options, I continued on without first checking the map. The other two quickly radioed to inform me that we were off route and needed to do a map check. Crap. Well, I don't feel I'm exaggerating when I say this hill was 45% grade, so I continued to the bottom while they explored and attempted to suss out where the road had gone.
Taylor ended up finding what looked like the continuation of the trail through some trees, but was unconvinced it was a road and was convinced it was haunted. After much debate we decided to continue down the hill and use the rough but apparently trafficked trail. With the sun having now fully abandoned us, this was rough and more than a little spooky.
But we eventually plunged through and made it to the highway!
Day 2 - Slow and steady climb (and more locked gates)
For Day 2 we'd decided to make some lazy loops south of Ouachita lake, including through the Sharp Top Mountain Walk-In Turkey Hunting Area, which was closed to hunting and therefore available for driving.
The rote was mostly uneventful, if pretty drive that afforded us many options for taking dramatic photos of the cars.
How dramatic car pictures happen
We only ran into one undocumented locked gate that only lost us a couple of miles... and any remaining faith in the official park maps.
The final trip of the day was to the Lake Ouachita Vista, or Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook depending on which map you trust. We trusted none of them at this point, but that is fairly moot.
In either case, we took the "hard" way there, which involved some fairly steep ascents and a few tight squeezes, but nothing that gave us much pause. When we reached the top, however, we were quite happy with the result!
The theme of this trip seems to be "pictures of us taking pictures" (Photo: George)
Though the twilight was bringing a mist down on the surrounding area, the views were still quite breathtaking. We futzed around the lookout area until approximately sundown and then took the new, easy road back down to the highway and back to the cabin. Tonight we pack up and prepare to move on to our second cabin, located in the Mark Twain National Forest.
Day 3 - Misty Vistas
After a mostly orderly pack up and load out of the cars, as it turns out we've had a lot of practice and are actually pretty good at this, we had a six hour drive ahead of us to get to the next cabin. Logically that meant we should head straight there, maybe opting to take rural highways vs jumping straight to an interstate. However, we couldn't help but hit a backroad on the way out of the Ouachita National Forest that appeared to run along the top of a ridge and be peppered with vistas. The 40 mile drive would be an excellent send off to the Ouachitas and shouldn't delay us too much, enabling us to still get to the next cabin at a reasonable time.
This was also the day the weather was supposed to turn colder and wetter.
Permission to say "oh cock"?
Apparently the "rain" we were supposed to experience all day came in the form of this misty stuff. On the bright side it the volume of rain was pretty limited, so neither we nor the trails were getting soaked. This had an added side-benefit of keeping the dust down too. Also the puddles full.
While it was disappointing we didn't get to see out any of the vistas, which did look lovely, this spooky misty day was still great. Pretty to look at, not unpleasant to be out in, and made for some great photos!
Eventually we reached the highway and briefly pulled over to stretch our legs and grab some snacks. It was also at this point we noticed Taylor and George's vehicles had taken some unusual trail damage.
Luckily the Rover's "Disco Inferno" plate remained intact. We're guessing during some overzealous puddle driving the force of the water in the front of the vehicles caused the plates to deform/detach. Odd that my Land Rover remained unphased, but I'll take the win.
Without anything to be done about the plates, we soldiered on. And on. And on. In fact we didn't arrive at the new cabin until a little after 8PM. Tried, wet, and cold, we unloaded, prepped up some pho, and executed a strategic strike on the whisky supplies.
Day 4 - New Years Eve
After the hell ride that was yesterday, we decided NYE was going to be easy and lazy. However unlike what happens when we usually say something like that, we kept to it. We started off by hitting a couple of fire towers that were marked on the map. Rarely visiting a fire tower in the US national forest system means actually seeing a fire tower as they've all been abandoned and/or torn down in favor of satellite monitoring and other modern methods. So imagine our surprise when we found that, apparently, all of the fire towers in Missouri are in reasonably good condition with well groomed roads leading up to them.
Apparently the state maintains them as a "backup" and as such they seem to have one of the most complete and well documented modern collection of towers. This has the net effect of being cool, but maybe a little boring too.
After seeing our fill there, we headed over to Alley Spring and Mill, a little state park located near the rented cabin that promised good views and a small hike. One oddity is all the photos online look like they've got some bad photoshop manipulation going on with the water. There is no way it could actually look like that...
Oh it actually looks like that. Like... I'll admit the above photo is edited, but not heavily. In the interest of proving a point, here is the raw with everything as shot.
Keep in mind this is a cloudy day. I can only imagine with it looks like it direct sun!
Anyway, we did the 1.2 mile hike, took a bunch of photos, and then headed back to the cabin for some much needed "doing a whole lot of nothing" before the new year. While George and Taylor set off in search of champagne and a few other odds and ends, I began food prep. Tonight we were doing grilled steaks with roasted brussels sprouts and grilled potatoes with deviled eggs for hors d'oeuvres. Overall a good spread, though I am sad to say my unfamiliarity was gas grills was on full display as I overcooked the steaks. Why anyone puts up with a bad grill is beyond me.
We rung in the new year with champagne and video games, just like our forefathers... or the baby Jesus... or whatever.
Day 5 - Failed Fords
With the weather continuing to be cold and rainy, the plan was to continue our "no hiking" policy and hunt down some interesting looking river fords and the ruins of a mental hospital.
This did not go well.
But it was fun!
We hit a pair of fire towers first, which were as well maintained and easy to access as those from previous days, and then set out to find a ferry crossing marked on our maps. This meant negotiating a field track, which, oddly, none of us had done before. After immediately going sideways in the slick mud of the track, we walked the rest of the trail and determined that while unlikely to take damage, getting stuck here would be a day killer and not really worth it.
Lastly, we went in search of a river ford. While we're not actually great at fording rivers, we've certainly done it before. None of our vehicles have been modified for the process, but I know where the breathers and intakes are on the Land Rover and know the weakest point is the ECU, which is helpfully located under the driver's seat and known for dislike the water ingress typical of a 20 year old Land Rover sitting in a river. The Rover's official fording depth is 20 inches, after which there are a host of precautions recommended. The Renegade has a similar 19 inches, and the Nissan... well Nissan is a little tight lipped about that particular specification, but we assume it is in the same ballpark. Most importantly we've all done it before and subsequently checked fluids (engine, transmission, diff, etc) for water ingress and found none.
I say all that to say that when we reached our first ford we were well qualified to give it a hard "no". The approach was littered with downed trees and the depth seemed to start near 24 inches. Furthermore given our luck with locked gates we had no assurances we wouldn't have to backtrack though it.
Also it was cold.
Luckily the hospital was marked as being nearby, so we figured we'd save some face by visiting that next. Only... the hospital was on the OTHER side of the river. Furthermore the track down to the river was very washed out. While not outside of our abilities, we opted to send the XTerra down to see what was what before the Landy and Jeep fully commit.
I don't think I've ever seen the XTerra get so out of shape on a trail before. Seriously this vehicle is usually so composed!
I think this is a good look for it!
After walking the rest we decided discretion was the better part of valor and moved on again. I know "running away from fun looking obstacles" seems to be a theme here, but with very little daylight available, cold winter weather, and lots of other stuff to do, we take care to pick our battles. These cars nor their drivers have anything to prove.
With light fading we decided to make one last run at the hospital ruins, this time from the correct side of the river. After hitting a trail we quickly encountered our old friend the locked gate. We then took a punt on a road that indicated it would get us within spitting distance of either the ruins or the old ferry.
And it did! SUCCESS!
Welch Spring and Welch Spring Hospital Ruins (Photo: Taylor)
Sort of. Turns out the churning waters of Welch Spring, at which the hospital was built for the benefit of the patients, separated us from the actual site.
No idea why I'm making crazy face in this one. (Photo: Taylor)
With darkness setting in, we had no choice but to take a small "shortcut" through the woods back to the cabin. This turned out to be spooky, but fun, with the only real issues encountered being some... hunters? Guys in mining hats carrying rifles that had apparently decided to drive their F150 into a river. We did not stop to ask questions and they seemed OK with that.
On the way back to the cabin we got a rare treat. In my planning post I'd noted this cabin was located in a dark sky site, which we were very much looking forward to. Unfortunatly, the weather was cloudy our entire stay and we never saw a single star... except for a brief time that evening. Buy the time we'd readied ourselves for the cold, the clouds had already returned, but I can assure you it was very pretty. We need to do more in this country about light pollution, but with so much else on our plates I don't see this being a hot button issue in the foreseeable future.
Back at the cabin I threw together our final meal, stir fry on Friday. Stirfriday.
Day 6 - This kills the road trip
And that is it! With day 5 complete, we began to pack up and and get read to check out of our lovely cabin and hit the road to go home.
The drive back was mostly uneventful, though we had to drive though a lot of winter weather to get there.
But in the end we all made it home safe.
So how does one summarize this trip? I call it a qualified success. Though taking a trip of any sort seems like a indulgence during a global pandemic, we managed to do so safely and with minimal risk. Our preparation and experience meant we didn't have been to encounter any other people yet still ate like kings and had a wonderful time. Despite some literal road blocks, I think we managed to string together some great routes and had a lot of fun.
Regrets? Not really! I think we could have used one more day in Mark Twain, but I also appreciated getting home and not immediately having to go to work, so there is that. I wouldn't have minded hitting some more technical trails, but also willingly ran away from some hard stuff. More daylight would have been nice too, but none of us are early risers, so we were doing good to get out when we did.
The cars, as usual, performed well. The Land Rover has developed a bit of a grumble on start up which I'm attributing to contaminated idler pulley bearings, or similar. Additionally the valve cover gaskets I so carefully replaced years ago are weeping again. Given the labor involved in that process (commonly recommended to do the head gaskets "while you're in there") I'm opting to ignore the issue until it gets worse. The Nissan had no major issues, as you'd expect, and the Jeep was similarly unphased, though it did pick up a few underbelly scrapes.
Both areas of the country were beautiful and on the "must go again". We've spent a lot of time in and around the Ouachita National Forest and always enjoy the experience. My sole complaint was the inaccuracy of the official maps, which is, admittedly, a huge let down. This was our first visit to Mark Twain National Forest and felt too short. At a mere five hours from our base in Tulsa, I can't see us not visiting again soon.