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Team Toad: July 2014 Canyonlands Trip, part 2

Updated Tuesday, 2014-07-29

After leaving the Maze, we headed for Green River to refuel both the Jeep and our stomachs. We stopped at the West Winds Restaurant for dinner. We then drove into Grand Junction so Debbie could fly home to the animals early Friday morning.

While she was flying home, I spent a few hours on the Hotel's Internet to upload part 1 of our Utah trip report.

From Colorado I drove down to Moab and stopped to buy more spring water for the Chaser's water tank, more ice for the small drink cooler I keep in the Jeep, more hygenic wipes for my butt, and more "camping food" AKA glazed donuts.

The last shot is for Kevin Berry, to show him that I do indeed carry a "BFH" in the rig, and just how it is used.


From Moab I drove to the Needles Entrance. I always like to talk to a Ranger in person to find out about the weather, road conditions and whatever helpful information I can get.


But before I even got in the door, I was mesmerized by this fabulous 1986 Jeep CJ-7 parked in the employee parking lot. I made a bee-line for the lot and started snapping away with my iPhone.

I believe it was built for the Park Service by The Four Wheeler of Boulder, Colorado. The Ranger told me her name is "Nellie".


Eventually I tore myself away from Nellie and went inside to check the weather forecast, road conditions, and to speak to the ranger about my itinerary. I'd inadvertently swapped my two desired campsites, but since this was the off-season (heat of summer), both camps were available on the opposite nights, and I got what I wanted instead of what I'd asked for.

The chart on the right is very helpful in understanding the different layers of rock in Canyonlands.


So next I was on my way to Peekaboo Camp at the end of the Salt Creek Jeep trail. The first order of business was to air down from the 40 psi recommended for highway driving to a more traction-friendly pressure. I usually run 20 psi on trail. For sand, I don't bother airing down the trailer (I do air down the trailer for washboard roads or bumpy, rocky trails).

I found these wonderful Coyote Automatic Tire Deflators at the Overland Expo. You screw them onto the valve stem, pull the ring, and they deflate the tire in a couple of minutes to the adjustable destination pressure.

They come in a set of four, and usually by the time I'm ready to put one on the trailer, one of the deflators on the Jeep has already finished. The first few times I used them, I double checked the resulting pressure, and it was always within 1 psi of my goal of 20 psi. I highly recommend them.


The big attraction at Peekaboo Camp is the ancient Indian drawings a few hundred yards away from the camp. I was planning to hike in The Maze, so I loaded my camera gear into my Camelbak Linchpin and made the short walk over to the pictographs. There had been reports of bear activity in the area, so I put my bear spray on my belt and headed out (I'd bought the bear spray for camping in Yellowstone, where it's just about mandatory; it's really overkill for Canyonlands).


The pictographs are in two layers. Ancient people between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago painted large figures on this rock. Someone from the Puebloan Indians painted over those in white figures about 1,000 years ago.

I guess it's every graffiti artist's dream to keep your art up for a thousand years.


Since I was there all decked out in my hiking gear and I had a tripod, I decided to do some self portraits. One shows me "discovering" the ancient drawings, and the next shows me dancing and singing "Putting on the Ritz". The lizard was not impressed.


On the way back to the ranger station the next morning I was able to get a few shots showing the watery areas of the Salt Creek Trail. It was quite slippery in spots, and narrow, but I never really got bogged down or stuck. It was comforting that there were lots of trees around to use as winch points if I did get stuck.

On the way to the ranger station, I stopped at the Roadside Ruin. It's very reminiscent of Mesa Verde, which I highly recommend as a destination.


Walking back to the Jeep I was struck by this vision of Grand Junction Butte (left) and the Island in the Sky (right). This view shows you why it's called "Island in the Sky". It's remarkable that the huge mesa that forms the core of Canyonlands is connected to the rest of the world by a small ridge called "The Neck" that is only a hundred feet across.


On the way to my next camp site, Horsehoof Camp, I was stopped by this sign. Now the Toad Rig is 28 feet long, and even a PhD like me can't pretend to be that far off in his measurements. So I drove back to the ranger station and discussed the route further before getting a tacit approval to proceed. "You are really good at backing up, right?" asked the ranger.

So I set off to Elephant Hill. The first task was to walk to the first turn, which requires you to drive out onto a rocky circle and turn your vehicle 150 degrees to the right (or 210 degrees to the left) by moving forwards and backwards until you're lined up with the next piece of the trail.


The Ranger said it would take 10 minutes to walk it, and I made it in 8. The space looked like more than enough room for me to turn my rig around, so I walked back down the hill and came back with the Jeep. Since you can jackknife the Chaser past 90 degrees in either direction, you can turn it around in a small space. The above photos show the rig on the turning area.

For anyone driving or hiking the trails in Canyonlands, I highly recommend David Day's book Canyonlands National Park: Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails.


From there it was a rollercoaster ride for me. I'd specifically spec'ed the Toad JK Rig as an "Overland" rig, not a "Rock Crawler". And yet here I found myself on more rocks than I'd ever seen in one place.


I calmed down by remembering that other Jeeps had done this before, and I could usually see their tracks so that I could follow their line down the hill. Along the way I found out a lot more about the Jeep's ability to climb up and down hills. When I was done, I was even more in love with my Jeep.


The biggest obstacle was a double hairpin turn that requires you to drive past the turn, then back down the hill to another spot where you back in and go forward to make the turn. That's all well and good, but I had to do it with a trailer. I made it. The middle two photos show me backing down the hill, and the photo on the right shows me going forward again after completing the two turns.

I won't bore you with pictures of every stair-step or rock ledge that I had to go up or down, but instead I'll refer you to David Day's description of Elephant Hill as "the most challenging jeep road in Canyonlands National Park".


Here are photos of the last obstacle on the way down the Elephant Hill trail: the Slot. I wanted to get out to take pictures, but I couldn't open my doors. So I settled for a shot of the left and right rear view mirrors. This may very well be how Jeep decides how wide to make a Wrangler... any wider and I doubt I would have fit.

After getting down Elephant Hill Road, and passing Devil's Kitchen, you go South on Devil's Lane. After a mile or so of nice, smooth sand, you must pass through a narrow pass called SOB Hill to continue South.

I made it down this turn taking the direct approach. The better method I've since learned (from the North) would be to pull into the bypass, back around the turn, avoiding the step dropoff on the left, and then pull forward on the right.

A little farther south and I came to my destination, the Horsehoof Camp site.


This camp is surrounded by the most amazing rock formation, that presumably resemble horses' hooves. I took daylight pictures, I took night time pictures, I took star and milky way pictures and sunrise pictures. I slept a couple of hours at a time, but it was amazing.

I've been working for months on getting a great photo of the milky way behind some amazing natural feature. This photo is very close to my vision; if only the clouds had been a little less thick.


The "star swirl" photo shows a one hour time lapse of the night sky near the North Pole. The middle shot is an attempt to light the rocks with an LED flashlight (the green color comes from the LED, not the rock itself). The third photo shows a Geminid meteor.


I particularly like the sunrise photo from the next morning. Packing up camp, I struck the colors, and being the old Boy Scout that I am, I folded the flag in proper triangluar fashion before heading back North into the colorful rocks.

To face SOB Hill one more time.


I stopped and walked the the other side to make sure no one was coming. The road was clear. Getting back in the Jeep I again tried the direct approach. I might have made it, but I didn't get the left rear wheel on the rock like I'd planned, and I wound up high-centered. So I got out and used my HiLift to raise each corner and started piling rocks to get loose. I might have made it, but just then a Toyota pickup with three Australians pulled up. They offered to let me use their truck as a winch point, and in an uncharacterstic display of pragmatism, I accepted their help.

From there it was relatively smooth sailing back up the Elephant Hill. OK, it was "smooth", it was still quite rocky and challenging, but having made it down, I was certain that I could make it back up. I was doing better than whoever left these pieces of his bumper on the trail.


Then I saw the massive Cumulo-Nimbus thunderhead coming for me. I gave up taking a side trip to the Confluence Overlook, because I wasn't sure I could climb out if the rocks were wet.

I came to the spot that looked very steep downhill on the way in, but now it was very steep going uphill. I lined up the Jeep, double checked that my front tires were point straight, and gave it gas. A couple of times I had to spin the tires once to get them warm, but my trusty JK just climbed (and the tires squealed a little), and it pulled the trailer right up the hill.

I made short work of the backward section by backing the trailer up the hill, following the curve of the trail without driving either the Jeep or the trailer over the side, and after making the 150 degree turn at the top, I came down the same entrance hill I'd driven up the day before.

I borrowed a hiker who was getting ready to walk up the trail, and asked him to take the photo of me with the Jeep and the sign. He then had the nerve to ask for a ride up the hill. I politely declined... I'd survived and was ready to find a good meal and a hot shower.


I was scheduled to spent two more nights at Island in the Sky and four nights at The Maze, but the worse-than-forecast weather made me stop and reconsider my plans. I had three issues:
  • My AirLift 1000 had gone out, leaving my rear-end dragging. This may or may not have been a factor in getting high-centered (my skill level being the primary issue, of course).

  • My Freezer wasn't working. That sounds a little whiney, but spending 5 days in the desert with 100+ heat with no reliable source of cold drinks wasn't appealing.

  • The worsening weather. I was there to photograph the night sky, and the monsoon was not helping. As a pilot, my rule is that if a forecast is wrong, it can be very wrong. I certainly didn't want to be deep inside the maze trapped by bad weather.
I stopped back at the ranger station and talked with two of the rangers. There was disagreement as to whether the road to Standing Rocks in the Maze was worse than the Elephant Hill Road, but I wanted my suspension issues sorted out and better weather before heading into the Maze. So I cancelled the rest of my camping reservations and decided to take my trailer back to factory for service.


On the way out I stopped for gas and a cold drink at The Needles Outpost. I didn't really need the gas, and at $6.50 a gallon it's pretty pricey, but I felt it was important to spend some money there when I didn't need them, so that they'd be there in the future if I did need them.

It was Sunday when I decided to head back to the AT Overland Equipment factory to get my freezer working. They were closed, but I figured I'd get as close to Prescott, AZ as I could that night. I passed Mexican Hat on the way.


It turns out the monsoon was in full force... a massive Haboob (a dust and rain storm) pounded Northern Arizona, knocking out power in Tuba City, the third photo above, and causing a traffic snarl on Arizona Highway 89. Planning to drive to Prescott, I only managed to make Flagstaff.

Monday morning I called AT Overland to see if they could help, and knowing that I was over a thousand miles from home they said "Come on down". I was not surprised: they've been incredibly good at customer service for me in the past.

Clint diagnosed the freezer issue very quickly: the tow plug had become corroded and the house battery wasn't being charged. After some battery terminal cleaner, 12 volt power was flowing into the trailer again, and the freezer started working.

I then asked him to recommend the best Jeep suspension shop in the area, and he said it was them. So I discussed stronger rear springs to handle the load of the trailer and he recommended a set of 2-1/2 inch AEV springs. I said, "Do it", and they ordered a pair to be overnighted. I checked into a hotel for a couple of nights, with the plan being that I'd bring the JK back Wednesday to install them.

Update Tuesday, July 29:
This morning I got a call from the Ranger Station at Hans Flat warning me that the road I'd plan to use to get into The Maze had been flooded by strong overnight rains, and the road had the deepest puddles they'd seen in 27 years. So my cancelling over weather seemed to have been the right move, anyway.

Update Wednesday, July 30:
Oh happy day. The new springs arrived today, and the crew at AT Overland Equipment got them installed quickly. They even found and replaced a blown hose in the AirLift and got the air bags working again, too. The stiffer AEV springs bring the bumper up about 1-1/2 inches, and the AirLift brings it up a couple more to bring the rig to level.

I thought about asking them to fix the weather, but I wasn't sure my credit card could cover that bill.

So, now I'm on my way home to plan my return to Canyonlands. Even though I didn't make it to the Doll House, I got some fantastic night shots at Horsehoof, and my successful circumnavigation of the Elephant Hill Road taught me a great deal about just how capable a vehicle the Jeep Wrangler really is. I know that the weakest link in the system is the guy holding the steering wheel, but he's getting better.
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