Overland Cheap Car Challenge Part 3: Death and Canyons
We thought Death Valley was going to be the hard part. We were wrong.
This pair of articles was initially posted on the OG Oppositelock (RIP) on November 11th, 2018, and June 3rd, 2019, and has been adapted from it's original form. Special thanks to Oppo "Just Jeepin'" for creating the backup code that saved this post before it was lost forever.
In May of 2017, my friends and I embarked on an overland cheap car challenge road trip. The pitch was simple: fly to Sacramento, buy three 4x4s for less than $3,000 each, and then take them through California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada using overland routes as much as possible. Whoever survives, wins.
If you want to catch up:
The tl;dr is Taylor ended up with a 1995 Toyota 4Runner 5-Speed, George bough a trash can 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, and I was the foolish of all, having purchased a 2001 Land Rover Discovery II. We’d already put them through their paces in the mountains around Lake Tahoe and Bodie and now we were ready to take on the big one...
We figured if anything was going to kill these cars, Death Valley was it.
We entered the park from the north east, taking Death Valley road in. Initially the road was excellent and surprisingly pretty. We lumbered through some small canyons and remarked that already Death Valley wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Despite actually having been there before, though a very long time ago, I had it in my mind Death Valley was a Lawrence of Arabia style series of dunes and nothingness. In reality it was a beautiful, hilly area with some really unique vegetation.
Our first stop was going to be Crankshaft Junction. It is a semi-famous intersection allegedly famous for well... having a lot of crankshafts at it. It looked pretty cool in pictures but reality was... lacking. We moved on quickly.
A wrong turn brought us to a weird ex-sulfer mine. Well... it wasn’t a wrong turn so much as our topo maps indicated it was a shortcut, but turns out there was no road to be had here. Still, pretty area, though the smell of sulfur was pretty overwhelming.
Unfortunately the next part of the trip was a serious grind. The last part of Death Valley road is arrow straight and 100% the worst washboard I’ve ever encountered. It basically shook our cars to pieces. We tried all kinds of tricks to get through it, and eventually made it, but at what cost? Taylor infamously said “We’re going to destroy something” over the radio and yeah... we probably did.
We eventually hit pavement and were entirely too exited about it, considering we were on an offroad trip.
Our relief, however, was short lived as we quickly turned off the paved road to head to the exit of Titus Canyon. Though the drive through Titus Canyon is one way, which we're doing tomorrow, one can drive up to the exit to get some hiking in.
This area certainly highlights the beauty of Death Valley... and also how out of shape we all were. It wasn’t all that hot but it wasn’t long before our canteens were empty and I was missing the air conditioned comfort of our cheap cars.
Titus Canyon exit deemed a success, a short drive brought us to our hotel in Beatty, Nevada. Not a large town, basically home to a few casinos, it had the benefit of being very close to the beginning of Titus Canyon road, first on our list of stuff to do tomorrow.
We checked into our hotel and immediately set out to find some local food.
Of which there was none.
I don’t personally have anything against Denny’s, but I’ll admit I probably haven’t been to since I was kid. We try to eat local as much as possible on these trips, because why would you not, but today it just wasn't happening? That said, the food was competent, the prices low, and with the day we'd had you couldn't argue with the convenience o being in the hotel.
After some much cleaning up and a change of clothes, we spent the rest of the evening playing blackjack at the only open table in the casino. I wish some of this had made it into the video, because it was an oddly profound moment. The four of us were sitting around a blackjack table, chatting with the dealer and his manager, as a constant stream of regulars and locals filtered through the table. We got to piece together bit of their lives from their conversations with the dealer, but generally were left to our game.
This experience is hard to describe, but at some point in the evening I was like “Holy crap! We’re background noise to these people!” We were the random tourists that you may engage with, but are just... there. It was a very odd “through the looking glass” moment to see us from their perspective. We may have been on this big adventure, but they were just living their lives.
We got a brief glimpse into our own irrelevance and it was cool.
The next morning George burned some daylight strapping some $7 Amazon LED spotlights to the front grill of the Jeep. An act that he still describes as “worth it” though the rest of us thought it was pretty silly.
Still, I can’t picture that Jeep any other way.
Then we headed to breakfast at a local eatery... Wait... no... that one is closed.
Ok how about... no closed too.
Oh hey this one says it is open! Nope... closed.
Dennys it is! Again.
Titus Canyon Road
To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect. We’d seen the tail end of the road the day before, which looked cool, and had heard stories, but we really weren’t prepared for how epic this drive was going to be. End to end, it probably only took us three hours, but every minute of it was awesome.
The drive starts off pretty easy, a normal, wide dirt road. Eventually the road begins to narrow as you begin the climb into the Grapevine Mountains. After a short climb, you begin the 4,700 ft descent to the exit.
Along the way, we stopped at the Leadfield Ghost Town, which has a pretty amazing history. I’ll let George fill you in:
"The Leadville Ghost Town is all that remains of a 1920s get-rich-quick scheme perpetrated by world-class grifter and cartoon villain C.C. Julian. Julian emigrated from Canada to California in the early 20s and immediately established himself as a business magnate and man-about-town in LA, the result of a Ponzi scheme in which he sold millions of dollars of shares in a fake oil company, Julian Petroleum. At the height of his largess, he once picked a bar fight with Charlie Chaplin, and lost."
"Unfortunately for Julian, the Corporations Commission caught up with him again and shut down the mining company scam, all but dooming Leadville in the process. He fled to Oklahoma, where he was eventually indicted for mail fraud related to the Julian Oil and Royalties Company, his new fake oil company. He skipped town, ultimately winding up in Shanghai with a fake Irish passport, name, and accent. After a series of failed schemes, and falling victim to several cons himself, he committed suicide in the Shanghai Astor Hotel and was buried in an unmarked grave."
You can’t make this up.
There wasn't much left other than some foundations, a few standing buildings, and the gated entrance to the mine. Still it was a fun stop off before getting into the harder parts of Titus Canyon Road.
The road into the canyon was pretty unbelievable. At the time, we dubbed it “off-road Big Sur” because, to be honest, it was like the ocean-less, dirt road version of Big Sur and Highway 1. The single lane dirt road was draped on the side of the mountains, winding continuously down and down and down to the entrance of Titus Canyon proper.
As for Titus Canyon, there isn’t really a EUREKA! moment when you get there. The walls around you just gradually narrow until you’re finally like oh... yeah... we’re in a canyon.
That said... it was amazing. The canyon was narrow, tall, and so very pretty. Against all odds this is one of the times video does a better job at showing how cool it was as, weirdly, we didn’t do many photo stops.
I did strap a 360 camera to my roof for part of it, which you can view here. (Best viewed on mobile?)
We will be back to Titus Canyon, that is for sure.
Too soon, however, we hit the exit and it was over. Should we go again? No... we probably don't have time. Unusually we were ahead of schedule at this point, it barely being noon, so we had plenty of time to do other stuff.
We opted to go full tourist mode.
First stop was Artists Drive, which is famous for having some very pretty rocks. It certainly lived up the the hype!
I guess the real appeal of Artists Drive is the hiking, which we did not do, so we sort of missed out. Additionally apparently it was very recently converted from dirt road to paved, which allowed us to get our first taste of just how many tourists visit Death Valley.
The place was packed to the brim.
We admired, but not willing to commit to a hike, moved on to our next stop.
Our next stop, Badwater Basin, was even more than Artists Drive, completely packed with tourists. This place is pretty cool, mostly because it really gives you some scale of how weird Death Valley is. On a cliff high above the parking lot there is a sign. It says “Sea Level”.
Yeah, that... breaks my brain a little. This is, in fact, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level and the second lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
We wandered around for a bit and generally admired, but the wind was crazy so we opted to head back to the hotel for the evening.
Zabriski Point, we’re told, is best viewed at sunrise.
We did not view Zabriski Point at sunrise.
We, in fact, didn’t view Zabriski Point at all.
You see... when you’ve spent the last five days feeling like you’re the only people on earth, pulling up to a lookout that has almost no free parking and several tour busses parked can be a bit... jarring. We opted to GTFO as quickly as possible, rather than face our fellow man. Men? Mens? Humans.
It did look very pretty from the parking lot.
Hole In the Wall
The next stop was something called “Hole In the Wall” which, as it sounds like, is allegedly a small passage through a cliff face that is super neat. When this was first pitched in our planning meetings, I was picturing something like the drive-through trees that we did on the first road trip.
No way a Land Rover was going to fit through there.
Turns out we... didn’t have anything to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a cool thing, but the “hole” was actually so large we missed it the first time. It was only on the way back that we realized we were upon it, and only then because it was literally marked on our maps!
Anyway, after unknowingly passing the hole, we pressed on... sure the hole was just around the bend.
What we did come upon was an increasingly difficult road.
In retrospect, this was actually some pretty easy off-roading, but at the time we’d never encountered anything this hard or dangerous. The rocks that comprised about 35% of the trail was in no way stable and would kick with the slightest wheel spin.
We opted to turn around, which was harder than it sounds on the track that was steep and barely the width of a vehicle. I did a three point turn in one of the switchbacks and then backed down a not-road to allow Taylor to do the same. George opted to do a 24-point turn where he was and then back-up to us.
Overall it worked out and we survived. I’d really like to take that trail on knowing what I know now. Maybe some day.
On the way back in we found the hole (heyo) and decided to stop for lunch. I mention it a little in the video, but there was something so strange about this lunch. It was, by far, the most memorable of the trip. Sitting on the tailgate of the Jeep, eating cheap cheese with some cured meat, using the cooler as a cutting board, and sipping appropriate amounts of wine. (Don’t drink and drive kids.) It was very... perfect. We’ve tried to recreate the magic on subsequent trips and failed, but that is OK too...
Dead Man's Pass
Finally it was time to leave Death Valley, something none of us are particularly happy about, but, alas, it had to be. We opted to take an overland route out and enjoyed the heck out of it.
Eventually we reached the top of the pass and stopped for pictures.
Then the Jeep broke down.
Specifically, when George went to start it one of two things would happen. Either nothing at all, or it would crank and then abruptly halt. Either way it sounded very wrong and we feared badness.
I suspected a MAF issue, but luckily it was way more simple than that. The battery terminals on the Jeep were ruined. Like... not sure how he made it this far ruined. My guess is all the shaking earlier in the day was too much for it and... boop.
Luckily it was an easy fix and he later stopped and replaced the terminals entirely.
Wow we messed up here.
So you know how we’d mentioned at this point we’d developed a... distaste for other people? Yeah... how did we think being in the press of humanity that is Vegas.
It was pretty brutal and one of the few things I’d change about this trip.
Imagine you’re in your warm, comfortable bed, drifting in and out of sleep. Then, without warning, you get transported into the middle of a crowded nightclub, still in your pajamas. As the warmth of your bed fades, the loud music pierces into your soul, and the strobing lights dazzle you wonder how you got to this horrible place.
That was about how it felt for me going from Death Valley to Las Vegas. Since leaving Sacramento we’d barely seen other cars, let alone people, so this was... a lot.
Don’t get me wrong, dance clubs, street food, and copious amounts of alcohol (though not in that order) just fine. But this was jarring and the opposite of restful.
We took a day to fill up on booze, good food, and do some minor vehicle repairs, and then headed out of Vegas as quickly as possible.
Finally, we packed up and headed out of Vegas.
The ride out wasn’t as easy as it looks in the video, however. Having grossly underestimated the number of snacks Charlie could put away, our two week supply had lasted less than a week and we needed to top off. On the way out we hit a grocery store, gas station, and pawn shop. The latter because Taylor was still trying to get rid of the massive subwoofer that came with the 4Runner.
As with any stop, it took way longer than we expected, and when we finally got on the road again we were pretty firmly behind scheduled.
Soon enough, however, we reached Hoover Dam. And then we left because I had a minor research fail that I don't want to talk about.
We moved on.
Valley of Fire
We took Lakeside Road along Lake Meade, a beautiful drive which had surprisingly few lake views, given the name. Eventually we arrived at Valley of Fire State Park and immediately noticed three things: beauty, signs, and honey buckets.
Seriously, as beautiful as this place was, it seems like they spent the entirety of every years’ budget erecting signs and places to poop.
Go slow. Bump ahead. No parking on shoulder. No camping on shoulder. Watch for pedestrians.
They went on and on and on, rather spoiling the view and certainly giving the impression that Nevada loved its rules.
After navigating the maze of signs and shitters, we found the trail we were looking for: White Domes Trail. The hike was beautiful, but also shared the park’s general love of signs. That said, I did find my favorite sign ever:
That’s right. Your stacked rocks are graffiti and should be reported. I’m 98% against these things and could probably write a whole series on them, but needless to say I was pretty excited.
Anyway, here are some pictures of the hike!
After the White Domes Trail we hit the Silica Dome, resting place of Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations. Then we were headed to our tacky tasteless horrible interesting accommodations for the evening:
The Casa Blanca Hotel and Casino
George specifically chose this place for his birthday, which was today, with grand ideas of playing cheap blackjack into the wee hours mixed with some semi-responsible drinking.
This did not happen.
Mostly because we were tired, but also because all the cheap tables were packed with people and all the $50+ tables were empty. You’d think they would have figured that one out, but after trolling the floor for a half hour, we bailed back to the room to watch some Better Off Ted and a champagne toast to another year on the planet.
Quote The Big One Unquote - The Arizona Strip and Grand Canyon
I’ve said many parts of this trip would be the “ultimate test”. Death Valley is a beautiful but utterly inhospitable place and we survived. Vegas is... well roughly the same but a little less beautiful. After surviving that, Tahoe, and Bodie, we thought we were in the clear. I mean... the route we were taking is on Google Maps!
A lot of roads are on Google Maps. Not all of them are roads, come to find out.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “That place where people go to wait in line take selfies? That was hard on the cars!?” And yes, it very well might have been as at least one of us probably would have overheated... but no. We were headed to the other side of the Grand Canyon, specifically the part known as the Arizona Strip and the North Rim.
We got a late start out, but as the road became less paved and and more gravel, then eventually dirt, we got gradually more exited. Our route took us past something that was marked “This Cistern” on my maps. It sounds interesting, if a bit ominous, so we stopped.
Turns out it was just that, a water collection device built... at some point, to water cattle. It has since been abandoned, but made a cool place to kill a little time.
I mean... we didn’t have that far to go and plenty of time to do it. Right?
Then things got weird.
I was leading in the Land Rover, heading for BLM 111 which we were planning on taking the whole way there. None of us remember exactly what spooked us. Taylor remembers a ton of no-trespassing signs. I remember a makeshift gateway and signs of occupation. George remembers an actual roadblock of sorts. The video doesn’t really show... much of anything, to be honest. Whatever the cause, we apparently all had the same feeling: Nope! It was an odd thing too, because going back through our dashcam footage I have no record of us discussing turning around.
We just knew it was time to get the hell out of there.
It wouldn’t be until I was doing research for official trip record, after the trip was long over, that I discovered that the area we were driving though was the epicenter of the first Bundy Standoff.
Yeah... from the news.
In retrospect, turning around felt like letting the terrorists win, but our safety procedures were clear: If we encounter any type of road block or resistance, we politely and quickly depart, get to a safe distance, and then re-plan the route to avoid the obstacle. What we're doing was stupid enough and being in the right doesn't protect you from harm, especially out here.
For the last time on the trip, we bravely ran away yet again.
Unfortunately, come to find out that road was pretty critical to our plans. Though there are a lot of roads in the area and ours were chosen seemingly at random, our options were to add a couple hours getting back on-route, or make a completely new route. We opted for the latter, and completely changed the route.
Original route is the lower route, new on the upper.
What followed was a beautiful drive that would push our (lack of) driving skills to the limit.
While we'd chosen our original route pretty much randomly, I would like to stress that we do a lot of planning and prep for these trips, including loading routes into offroad GPS and the like. Now we were basically navigating based on guesses, GPS coordinateness, papers maps, and (god forbid) compasses. It was wild and fun and probably rather dangerous.
As we trundled along our new route, the difficulty gradually ramped up, our pace slowed, and we became more and more nervous. While, again, we plan a lot, we didn't really have a "we couldn't make it to the overnight halt" plan. While the sun was still very much up, it was on its descent and we knew we had a long way to go.
Finally, after turning onto a road worryingly labeled "Nutter Twists Road," we finally got to where we weren't sure we could make it any further. Unfortunately, as we’d just done a very challenging drive up some narrow switchbacks, turning around wasn’t an option. Believe me, we would have if we could have.
We had to push on.
The lack of other viable options certainly added to the tension, but after doing a walk down the trail to make sure it didn’t get any worse, I lined up the Land Rover and went for it.
I couldn’t make it. I kept slipping on the rocks and just peeling out. Basically the small rock ledge we were trying to get up was chocking my front wheel, stopping the Rover dead.
[Sidenote: I would like to stress that we knew nothing about offroading before this trip. Open diffs, traction control, locking center, airing down... just meaningless words to us. This was semi-intentional, but in retrospect we made a lot of newb mistakes. We speculate that if we ever made it back there, this road would not present a challenge though I've read accounts of others finding it challenging.]
Finally, in frustration, I gave it some gas. This, as it turns out, was the missing component to driving the Land Rover. Turns out the way the 4WD is set up in the Land Rover, the traction control needs the wheels to spin in order for the brakes to effectively transfer power to the non-slipping wheels. When I gave it gas, I allowed the wheels to slip enough to catch the wheels and BAM, I was up.
The Jeep was next and I am annoyed to say he made it look easy. The Jeep just sort of trundled up in his bald street tires. This sealed my deep respect for the ZJ.
Then Taylor was up and he was having similar problems to me, except he was driving stick.
After a couple of failed attempts, he got frustrated and attempted to launch his car into space using his right foot as his only weapon against both this hill and his clutch. Still, this sudden aggression gave the 4Runner enough momentum and power to make it up, though I don't think anyone in the group had clean underpants.
Anyone there would swear to you we saw him catch some air, but either way, he was up.
Remember when we thought driving over a fallen tree was exciting?
Alright, time to turn in and... Wait... we still have like... four hours of driving between us and the end!? Oh crap. At that point we called the overnight stop on our sat phone, our regular cell phones having lost signals several hours ago, and let them know we'd be rolling in a lot later than expected.
Lucky for us, I’m happy to say the remainder of the day was very pretty and mostly easy.
The remainder of the DAY was.
Night was.... bad.
It was bad. The final section of the drive, BLM 1063, dropped about 350 feet PER MILE for about three miles.
Pitch black, unkempt switchbacks threatened to send our tired bodies and the cars they inhabited into an unforgiving ravine. Against all odds, however, we made it to the bottom and a quick drive put us at our overnight halt: Bar 10 Ranch.
As soon as I pulled in, around 10PM and slightly ahead of the others due to a literal pack of wild horses (that isn’t a metaphor or a euphemism) in the road, the ranch hands fired up the grill, cooked us some steaks, and laid out a much appreciated dinner spread. They even let us crack open a bottle of wine to help us dull reality a little, though they declined to join as they were on the clock.
It never gets old trying to explain why the three of us showed in three different cars, but is made even more sweet showing up here, at least a hundred miles from the nearest paved road, coming in via roads they usually travel with ATVs.
After dinner we drank by the fire while the ranch hands played guitar for us the other other two guests. It was a perfect end to an imperfect, perfect day.
The Grand Canyon
The next morning we awoke in our covered wagons to the sound of the ranch triangle ringing, signaling it was time for breakfast!
Did I not mention we were staying in covered wagons on a dude ranch?
We were staying in covered wagons on a dude ranch.
Turns out that is basically your only option in this area and it was the correct choice.
While the others showered, I set about investigating a noise I'd been ignoring on the Land Rover. I had suspicions that there was a problems with the Land Rover’s brakes. You see, I’d been hearing a clanging noise since we’d starting getting on the rough stuff. I’d been assuming it was a loose exhaust mount or something, but on the way in to the Grand Canyon I’d notice the sound went away whenever I hit the brakes.
That can't be good.
Rooting around with the front calipers confirmed my suspicions and fears: one of my brake calipers was loose.
Specifically, the right front caliper had lost one of the slide bolts and the carrier was hinging on the other one. Unfortunately, the bolt was nowhere to be found and, obviously, the ranch didn't exactly have a ton of metric bolts just hanging around.
My only option was to pretend it wasn’t a problem. I mean... it’d made it this far...
So we packed up and headed to the rim of the Grand Canyon.
When we told they staff we were planning on driving to the rim they were both confused and worried. Confused because, apparently, most people make the drive in ATVs, not cars, and worried because of the same. We also told the guy in charge the route we'd taken into the ranch, and that pretty much sealed our fate as being thought of as crazy people.
We stuck out and pretty quickly learned why. The road wasn’t as hard as a lot of the stuff we’d done the day before, but it was consistently rough, slow going. Very rough, and very slow. But we soldiered on.
We got to pass the airfield where tourists are flown in from Las Vegas and plopped on ATVs so they don't have to endure the... fun of what we'd gone through the night before. It was pretty neat and on repeat visits might be the way to go.
But the payoff was worth it
Eventually what sure looked like a big 'ol canyon, one might say a great one, came into view.
None of us have ever been to the south rim, but from where we were standing, there was no way we’d want to. We were literally the only people there!
After admiring for a bit, one of our group convinced us to try and make the hike into the canyon. It was terrible and beautiful and we didn’t make it all the way down.
But we also didn’t die so.... win?
Actually that is a pretty good summary of the last couple of days: We’re still alive and the cars are still alive. We are winning this game.
We made it down into the Grand Canyon... but can we make it back out? Will Evan get arrested for forgetting how laws work? Will George finally admit his car is gross? Will Taylor fall in love and keep the 4Runner? I guess you'll have to wait for Part 4, where we finish out the trip and dispose of the cars.
In the interim, here are the videos associated with this post: