Harquahala Mountain: La Paz County Highpoint

My original plan, after visiting Mt. Lemmon and Rice Peak was go head down and climb Mt. Wrightson, the Santa Cruz county highpoint, but for reasons I can’t really explain, I just wasn’t feeling like it. I drove up through the mountains to the east and then circled back around to the west. And then, I just kept driving west.

During the winters I spent in Arizona, especially around the Quartzsite area, I’d really been wanting to hike or drive up Harquahala Mountain, the La Paz county highpoint. I’d heard that although 4 wheel drive is recommended that it doesn’t require high clearance. Sounds just perfect for an XJ! As I reached Gila Bend, I was pretty sure Harquahala was my destination. Darkness fell about the time I reached Buckeye but that didn’t stop us from tackling the approximately ten miles to the summit in the dark. Ruth handled everything masterfully (honestly the road was not that difficult and we did 90+% in two wheel drive and reached just one switchback where 4wd became necessary). Atop the summit, I had my sixth Arizona county highpoint!

At the summit, I realized the battery on my DSLR was dead. I’m super disappointed because the moon was SO BRIGHT that I kind of wanted to play around with some long exposures. Since that didn’t happen, I bundled up (although the breeze was warm) and Sprocket and I enjoyed the twinkling lights of the small towns to our west and of the I-10 corridor.

It was cozy cuddled with Sprocket in the back of the Jeep but as the sun started to rise, I crawled out of bed to take it all in. Absolutely incredible.

After wandering around a bit, we headed down hill, the sun still putting on a spectacular show (and illuminating the beautiful scenery we’d missed driving up in the dark).

This was an amazing drive! It wasn’t technical but the desert mountain views were incredible! It was such an amazing day to wake up and start the day.

Jeeping: Mt. Blanca Road to Lake Como

Labor Day Weekend I called in a favor and asked a friend with a more built up Jeep to drive me up to Lake Como. My FSJ is pretty capable but she’s not going to make it up that road, nor does the old lady need that kind of abuse. We headed up the road under uncertain skies and with a forecast that wasn’t looking particularly promising for a big day or two above treeline but since we’d made the long haul down to south central Colorado, we decided to go for it anyway.

Sprocket started out pretty excited about the ride but after several miles of rough road he was a lot less excited.

Lake Como Road (or Mt. Blanca Road, it seems to be known equally by both names) is better called a Jeep trail than a Jeep road. At many points, it was a lot more rockcrawling than jeeping. While the whole road is really rough and without a very modified Jeep or a buggy it takes some careful maneuvering throughout. The “signature obstacles” on this trail are called Jaws 1, Jaws 2, Jaws 2 1/2, and Jaws 3. They’re really creative with their names.

The photo below wasn’t even from one of the “Jaws”:

As we hung out at the lake in the evening, the skies got more and more cloudy. Since we’d hoped for a big day above treeline to do the Little Bear-Blanca traverse (one of Colorado’s four “Grand Traverses”) things were not looking promising.

As it got later and later, the wind kicked up, it spit rain and was generally pretty miserable. I was hopeful that everything would blow out by morning but we awoke to clouds hovering just above the lake. With the prospect of no views, wet rock, and wind on high ridges nothing about climbing one of the 14ers above the lake sounded like fun and we called it good with a pretty successful jeeping adventure.

Essentially, this wound up being a preview for me of the Lake Como road that I’m almost certain to be hiking next summer in a bid to bag all three of the 14ers gracing the basin.

Colorado 4×4 Roads: Ophir Pass

I hesitate to call Ophir Pass a 4×4 road. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Ophir is a beautiful road and what’s awesome is that with a little bit of ground clearance, just a touch of driving know-how, and maybe airing down your tires a little, Ophir is very manageable. (Full-size vans, I’m looking at you.)

Ophir Pass is the easiest off-highway connection between US 550 “The Million Dollar Highway” or Red Mountain Pass and CO 145 “Lizard Head Pass.” And when I say “easiest,” I mean that this is a pretty darn good gravel road; there is a small creek crossing that is manageable by pretty much any vehicle with a little momentum and airing down will let you make it up the steeper sections.

Ophir Pass is about 10 miles; it takes a little while to drive because you’ll be taking photos and it is gravel, not highway. I’m a little bit astounded that I haven’t driven this yet. I mean, seriously, check out this view:

Because the road isn’t super rough, it gives you a ton of bang for your buck in terms of views without a lot of abuse on your vehicle. It would also make a great return from Black Bear if Imogene is more than you want to bite off.

Something worth keeping in mind is that the actual summit of the pass doesn’t have the best views. It truly is a pass through some walls which means it’s a good plan to look for a break spot on either side of the pass itself. There are pull outs near the top of the west side of the pass and some throughout the eastern side.

This was a great end to a beautiful day of hiking and I’m really glad that I finally drove this route!

Colorado 4X4 Roads: Stony Pass

When I decided to head home from Creede, I had a decision to make: what route would I take? It’s only 50 miles straight line distance between Creede and Ridgway but the highway route goes north to Highway 50 and is over 175 miles! My other options were Engineer Pass, a combination of Cinnamon/California/Hurricane/Corkscrew Passes, or Stony Pass.

I wasn’t really excited about either the Engineer or Cinnamon Pass options because I’ve driven them before and would rather wait to re-drive them until I am going up to hike something. I was down to either the highway route, which was mostly new to me road which would be fine, or Stony Pass (96 miles).

The weather looked promising, despite seeming threatening at Phoenix Park that morning, so I decided that Stony Pass would be my route home. The road all the way up the reservoir was an easy gravel road drive. There was minimal washboarding and barely any potholes and it went really quickly.

Beyond the reservoir, the road deteriorated. There were lots of mud puddles and it was hard to tell just how deep and how muddy some of them were. I hate mud. It makes me nervous when I’m out alone. I’m conservative enough that I don’t feel likely to get stuck on rocks since I can almost always back down something if I can’t get up but mud has the ability to make you actually stuck—especially if, like me, you don’t have a winch. These puddles didn’t really pose too much of a threat but I managed to splash mud all over the Jeep anyway since I was going to “keep up my speed” just to be safe.

Along the way, I ran into a gentleman driving a TJ coming down the road. I backed up into a pullout to let him by when he stopped to get out. “How much further?” he asked. I assumed he was talking about out to the east so I told him, “A-ways.” Turns out he was curious how much further to the top off the pass, the answer to which was also “a-ways.” He’d gotten about a mile further than where we were and turned around because it was “really rough.”

As I’ve discussed before, people’s definition of “rough” varies greatly but I was a little bit nervous since I did not want to drive all the way out and then around on the highway so I just laughed and explained that I lived in Ridgway so I was going to be fairly stubborn about making it over. He shook his head and headed on his way. (Actually, he made the sign of the cross over the hood of the FSJ. I hope he was kidding.)

I continued upward and found his rocky section and had no problem with it—it was simply a sustained (quarter mile?) section of steep and rocky but not anything that needed “crawling” over. The thing that almost made me turn around was actually the mud just before the rocks. I ran into a couple of dirtbikers as I needed to make a crossed up muddy stream crossing and it made me super nervous. Did I mention I hate mud? Seriously, the rocks were a relief!

(I really need to mount the GoPro on the front of the Jeep since capturing what “rough” means photographically is hard when you’re solo and the road demands attention not being a photographer.)

Past the top of the rocky section, it was smooth sailing. There were lots fewer puddles and the road smoothed out a lot. In fact, I’ll probably do this road again, just from the Silverton side and only down to Pole Creek and back.

The road runs right on the northern edge of the Weminuche Wilderness and, along with the adjoining Bear Creek Road and Pole Creek Trail, provides access to some amazing high country.

Even though things had gotten much easier near the top, I heaved a really big sigh of relief when I reached the top. I’d been told by some people that I trusted that the drive from the Silverton side wasn’t that bad (plus it was downhill) so I knew I was home free.

In the end, I’m really glad I drove Stony Pass. Besides the mud (which really wasn’t that bad, I’m just being a whiner) I found it to be something that pretty much any SUV with low range can traverse. There might have been a section or two where a lift might be helpful if you’re not an experienced off road driver but my Jeep only has a small lift and I had no issues.

Creede: Phoenix Park Road

I arrived in Creede mid morning and visited all the galleries and small shops with Sprocket. I also asked anyone I thought might be able give me trail conditions on the Phoenix Park road. At the Forest Service office, the ranger wasn’t particularly helpful but I did pickup a handout that described it as “more difficult.” More difficult isn’t necessarily what one wants to see when you’re driving a vintage Jeep alone but I wasn’t exactly detered. I asked a man who was working at the Historical Society about it and he said he drove it several years ago and it was really rough. Trying to obtain a better read on what it is actually like in comparison to other Colorado trails, I explained that I’m from Ridgway and regularly drive my Cherokee on Engineer Pass.

This, of course, is all a half truth. I did regularly drive my TJ on Engineer but I’m sure when I said “Cherokee” he pictured an XJ (which is exactly what I wanted him to do) and I’ve never driven my FSJ on Engineer.

However, I did get the information I needed: “It’s steep in some places and rocky in others but never at the same time. I did it in a Jeep Cherokee and had no problems. I sent a man from Texas up there in a Wrangler and he said it was the worst road ever.” This sounded absolutely do-able so Sprocket and I headed up that way.

The lower part of East Willow Creek Road was easy to drive and was really pretty—the road was narrow but not steep or rocky. I almost missed the entrance to Phoenix Park Road because it was tiny, looked like a quad trail, and was unsigned. I checked the map twice and realized that, yup, I was going that way. In low range, I crawled up just fine and then the road turned steeply downhill. I hate hate hate going downhill on the way to somewhere. I always like knowing that the route down gets me out not further in but it really didn’t look that bad. We made it all the way out to within about 1/10th of a mile of the road’s end. There, the road crosses the creek but the creek seems to have taken over the road for quite awhile and it is muddy and just pretty much unnecessary to drive.

In the morning, the sky looked fairly threatening and I didn’t feel like hiking in a torrential rain or, worse, getting caught in a thunderstorm. I hemmed and hawed about it for almost a half hour before driving back down to Creede. The drive out was mostly uneventful and I’ll definitely hike from the end of the road when I make it back down to try Phoenix again!

Phoenix Park Road: ~2 miles of rough road where high-clearance is helpful and at least one steep grade where low range is really helpful. I was able to make it in and out in the FSJ without an issues at full highway tire pressure.

Spring Break in Mexico, Part 5

After we left the observatory, we descended the mountain to just west of Rancho Meling, then turned to the north. The road was in great shape the few miles to Rancho El Coyote and then after that, it got … rough.

Not too long after we passed the ranch and had been dealing with some woops and ruts we ran into a military group in a wash. We asked the way to Mike’s Sky Ranch and then they proceeded to point us in the direction opposite the one I thought we’d take. Fortunately, my map showed both forks eventually meeting up again and continuing towards Mike’s.

The road eventually crested a pass although at points along the way, the road was pretty rough. Somehow photos of rough roads never really do them justice:

After the pass, we cruised along a plateau before dropping steeply into Mike’s Sky Ranch. Did I mention we did our mild rock crawling on these tires?:

Once we left Mike’s (where it appeared no one was around), it didn’t take us long to reach Mexico Highway 3. We made a brief stop at a convenience store to get a drink and some snacks to tide us over until we reached San Felipe. Embracing adventure, when a hitchhiker waved at us, we pulled over and gave him a ride to the junction with Mexico Highway 5 where he continued north to Mexicali and we turned south to San Felipe. Although he didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak Spanish, we were able to communicate that we’d just gone hiking (he asked us if we were “scouts” and it took awhile to figure out that he was thinking along the lines of Boy Scouts) and that he was a heavy equipment mechanic.

Driving down the coast, I found myself staring longingly up at Picacho del Diablo. I hate not reaching goals and this one had stymied me for the time being. I can’t wait to get down and try again.

In town, we sought out a hotel so we could get a shower (nothing like $70 hotels on the beach!) and then set out in search of food. And pineapple drinks. And food. And strawberry daiquiris.

It felt really good to be on the water. I got a touch of food poisoning (ha, a touch) but I will never quit eating street food. It’s too good. (In fact, I didn’t even really slow down on eating it for the duration of the trip. Just kept trying to throw down the calories!).

The next morning, we continued to Algodones where we availed ourselves of the affordable dental checkups, grabbed some more street food, stayed in the nicest $50 hotel room I’ve ever seen and drank margaritas in its courtyard as the sun went down to savor the last of the southern warmth.

Rather than immediately cross back into the States, we drove east on Mexican Highway 2 towards Sonoita. I had my first real Mexican burrito from a vendor in San Louis Rio Colorado and before I knew it, we were in Sonoita crossing the border into Lukeville.

After a quick stop in Ajo to say hello to old friends, we drove all the way to Kayenta, Arizona before calling it a night.

Each and every time I go to another country, I savor the experience and this was no exception. One of the amazing things about living in the southwest is that Mexico just isn’t that far away. I look forward to more adventures!

A Girl’s Guide To Getting Unstuck

Okay, actually, there’s nothing gendered about this guide—the principles of getting your vehicle unstuck are the same whether you’re male or female. Although we might all try our best to avoid finding our vehicles stuck far from pavement it happens to the best of us at times. Dedicated 4x4ers will often have a winch on their vehicle but the rest of us can usually save ourselves from expensive tow bills with minimal equipment:

Step 1: Take your foot off the accelerator.

Mashing your foot into the accelerator is not going to help matters. In fact, a lot of the time you can go from being “kinda stuck” to “really stuck” in a few seconds by spinning your tires in the snow, mud or sand.

Step 2: Visually inspect your situation

Now is the time to figure out why you’re stuck. The main reason is likely that you don’t have enough traction and your tires are simply spinning in place. However, if you’ve already spun the tires enough, you might find that the frame of your vehicle (or at least the axle) is now resting on the ground. If this has happened, it’s time to start digging. I usually carry a short shovel for this purpose but if you don’t have a shovel, get creative. Since the vehicle is already struggling for traction, you don’t want to have to fight any additional friction as well!

Step 3: Air down

If you still have your tires at full highway air pressure, it’s time to change that. Most cars have pressure of about 35-50 psi in the tires. Airing down can be a little bit of an art: there is no hard and fast amount you should air down to. In general, I air down a little bit at a time dropping first to 18-20 psi, reevaluating, then dropping to 15-10 psi. In some situations it might be okay to go as low as 5 psi—much lower than that and you risk unseating your tire from the bead of the wheel. You’ll want to have a low pressure tire gauge since most gauges don’t read accurately below about 20 psi (it can be helpful to have a regular gauge too for airing back up). Let the air out by pushing in the center of the valve stem which lets air pass out of the tires.

I carry a compressor in the Jeep so I’m not near as afraid to air down as I would be otherwise since I have the ability to air the tires back to a better driving pressure once I’m unstuck. Once you’ve aired down your tires, they will experience excess wear running on asphalt and they’ll also get hot increasing chances of a blowout.

(If I’m going to be on dirt roads for an extended period, I’ll often air down to at least 20 psi just for comfort. This can often help prevent getting stuck but it also removes some of your margin of error if you do.)

Step 4: Attempt to extricate

Attempt this step carefully! At this point, I tend to attempt to drive out of the situation with my head hanging out the window alternately checking my front tire and my back tire for traction. Often, airing down your tires will be enough to allow you to “walk out” of your situation, especially if you didn’t bury the vehicle before admitting that you were stuck.

Gently press on the accelerator. If nothing happens, continue on to the next steps. If you’re out, great! Congratulations!

Step 5: Attempt to find additional traction

Your car is stuck because it doesn’t have enough traction so now your job is to find a way to get it more traction. Tree branches can form additional traction. I’ve used a pack as traction. Vehicle floor mats could work as well. Once, I used found carpet strips to give traction on silty mud (reallllly slippery!)

Step 6:  Get moving

Hopefully, by now, you’re mobilizing. Beyond airing down and giving yourself a little bit of extra traction it’s hard to do much else by yourself without a winch.

Faster isn’t always better but once you’re moving again, the gas pedal can be your friend! I once got the van stuck in soft desert wash sand, aired down, and got moving again only to feel myself getting stuck. I gave the van a little extra gas and found that the extra momentum was enough to get me back onto the hardpack.

Step 7: Carrying the tools for help

If you weren’t able to get yourself out, it’s time to start walking towards help or calling for a tow truck. Fortunately, the above tricks usually get you free!

Just in case you run into a friendly stranger who might want to help but isn’t prepared, carrying your own recovery strap and “D-ring” or shackle can be a real life saver! Knowing where your vehicle has a good tow point is always nice before you have to go crawling around in the mud to find it!

Engineer Pass

When thirty minutes after leaving work, even including a pit stop at home to grab your pup and check your mail, you can see this, life is good.

Engineer Pass is often a whole day’s adventure for people visiting the San Juans. A couple of weeks ago, Sprocket and I started over the pass at 6pm to make camp at the Uncompahgre Peak trailhead for the night. Even though for us it’s a standard route to the high country, it definitely didn’t disappoint!

The weather started to turn a bit stormy as we crested the pass. I was glad to be in a jeep rather than on foot:

The leaves falling on the road were also pretty cool looking: