V6E4 - Rough Terrain and the Grand Plan

Written By Chris Shontz / @Venture4WD

I wasn’t planning on visiting Yosemite National Park as I traveled south, through California - let alone in late January. However, when you find yourself in the vicinity of a National Park, you owe it to yourself to go, as these places are treasures and often yield lasting memories.

Upper Pines Campground, in Yosemite Valley, is very large, and was almost full, despite being mid-winter. It was occupied by tent-campers, RV’ers, van-dwellers, and everyone in-between. The gentleman in the site next to mine was enjoying his hammock, while on the other side, a couple sat next to their crackling campfire.

As if to highlight how distinctly wild Yosemite is, a coyote wandered through the campground, on the prowl for easy pickings. It didn’t seem the least bit concerned by the human presence, as it casually walked around, passing within a few feet of onlookers.


Hiking Yosemite

I wanted to make the most of a single day at Yosemite, so I opted to tackle the strenuous 7 mile, round-trip hike to the Upper Yosemite Falls Overlook. This was 3.5 mile out-and-back with a 3000 foot elevation gain to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls, which overlooks all of Yosemite Valley.

It consists of a series of switchbacks as it winds its way up the mountain between two towering granite walls. The latter half of the ascent is within eyeshot of the Upper Falls which seems to pour over the rock face in slow motion. Near the summit, snow thoroughly covered the ground and the heavily-trodden path was very slick, as many hikers opted to slide down the trail using their coats as sleds.

The ascent took its toll on me! I can usually handle a hearty day-hike fairly well, but there was so much elevation gain, that toward the top, I was panting and wheezing!

The payoff, however, is always worth it. I shared the overlook with a dozen other hikers who were all relaxing and taking in the extraordinary view.


Touring Sportsmobile

I have to admit - I’ve been thinking long and hard about upgrading my current living accomodations (my Jeep) to something more mansion-like, and cavernous, like a van. However, not just any van would suffice. It would have to have a robust four-wheel drive system!

When you think of four-wheel drive camper vans, the first vehicle that might pop into your head is the lifted, locked, and loaded Ford Econoline from Sportsmobile. It features a functional and comfortable interior living space, and a suspension and drivetrain comparable to that of a well-equipped off-roader.

They’re built to spec, but they often feature solid front and rear axles, locking differentials, an Atlas II transfer case, manual locking hubs, and swaybar disconnects - not to mention a suite of heavy duty bumpers, lights, and a 12,000 lb Warn winch.

As I left Yosemite and passed through Fresno, California, I met up with the president of Sportsmobile West, Jonathan Feld, who gave me a tour of their facility, highlighting some of their most recent vehicles, including a very homely Ford Transit with a four-wheel drive conversion by Quigley 4x4, based in York, Pennsylvania.

These vans range from $120,000 to $200,000 depending on how they’re specced, and there is a pre-owned market that hovers closer to the $100,000 price point. As Class-B RVs, these vans qualify for 15-20 year financing.

While I’m not planning on moving out of my Jeep anytime soon, a Sportsmobile is a top contender!


Into the Desert

Following my adventure in Yosemite, it was my intention to spend a good bit of time on the blacktop, driving toward the SoCal desert, where it is warm and dry!

I lost a little bit of daylight during my impromptu visit with Sportsmobile, but that didn’t stop me from pushing southeast. I don’t enjoy trying to find a place to camp in the dark, but the desert of southeastern California is mostly BLM land, so at least it would be easy to find a spot.

I spent one night at the side of a BLM road, and then after doing some exploring the following day, I found a beautiful free campground south of Barstow, California, in Sawtooth Canyon. It’s a bit of a hidden gem, as there are no signs for this campground before one turns off-pavement. There are fire rings, sheltered picnic tables, vault toilets, and even a tastefully landscaped playground in this desert hideaway.

Furthermore, Sawtooth Canyon Campground consists of countless rock formations with small canyons and arches to explore. It’s a haven for rock-climbers, and I suspect that visiting during the winter months is ideal, as the summer is likely too hot.


Vehicle Contemplations

While I was at Sawtooth Canyon, I spent some time looking over my Jeep, and putting some thought into what work it might need to continue to be reliable for this year’s travels. Throughout 2019, it is my plan to work my way east, and then northeast, but not stopping at Maine. I intend to venture as far as I can into Newfoundland and Labrador!

Is this too much to ask of a tired and well-traveled 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with 119k miles on the odometer?

Under the hood, I found that mice had been chewing at my battery cables. The Jeep has a misfire between 1500 and 2000 RPM. The front-end is loose, and death-wobble is becoming more and more prevalent. The clock spring in my steering wheel is broken. Rear locker sensor is broken. One of the factory fog-light bulbs is out. The transmission pan is wet. There is an exhaust rattle.

Some issues are fairly minor, while others might be more involved.

Furthermore, I need some proper self-recovery equipment. I plan to get a winch, traction mats, and replace some of my rigging, such as the 20 year old snatch strap that I still carry with me.

I plan to spend the coming weeks getting ahead of the Jeep’s issues, and working toward the improvements, so when I push into the northeast in the months ahead, I’ll be sufficiently prepared!


The Hills of Calico

To wrap up the week, I set off in the Jeep to explore the desert northeast of Barstow, California, not far from Calico Ghost Town.

These roads were fairly mundane at first - starting with a lightly-traveled gravel route that followed a pole line. However, as I ventured deeper into the BLM land, the roads became rough enough to demand low-range, and thoughtful line-picking.

As I sought a place for camp that night, I discovered a network of old mines and tunnels. These weren’t boarded up and closed-off like most defunct mines. Nevertheless, I knew it was unsafe to go in, so I enjoyed peering down the tunnels and holes while imagining what the place was like in its hay-day...

The desert keeps countless secrets, and relics from days-gone-by. You don’t have to travel far off of the beaten path to look through a window into history.

Just pack up your four-wheel drive and go!