It was a quiet Thursday afternoon when we decided to see how far back into the Blue Mountains we could go. We had been up to where the real road ends in order to place a Geocache or two, but we hadn't gone more than 1/2 mile or so. On Thursday, we left the house at 1400 to find where the road ends.
At 1445 we arrived at our lunch spot by our Geocache "Birdhouse in Your Soul" which sits on a little hill top up in the mountains. Most of the road to it is hard packed dirt and is passable by any regular car. It's bumpy, but nothing more than that. The last 1/2 mile to the cache site is a bit rougher, requiring at least moderate clearance and traction (Subaru Outback? Maybe, if you're REALLY good). The start of the 1/2 mile is relatively steep and has a significant "tire-eater" washout the switches sides, making the "straddle" technique harder to employ. The Commander doesn't even work getting up the hill.
Once on top, we had some sub-sandwiches for lunch and made sure our cache was still intact - it was. The cache itself is a birdhouse that is modified NOT to hold birds, but instead holds a little canister for do-dads, trinkets and log for others to sign. From the look of the cache, the birds were intrigued by the fake house and wanted in! Too bad, there was no vacancy.
Next, we started our trip back into the mountains. The trail varies from relatively wide (Jeep and a half) to narrow (barely a Jeep). As we climbed up through the forest, we startled a black bear wandering on the road. He did a double-take looking at the Jeep and then scampered off into the woods. The trail appeared to have been moderately cleared earlier this year and there were numerous trees cut in half to allow passage down the trail. Early on, we found a few mud-holes to splash in and placed a "protective coating" of mud on the Jeep. The trail went up and down through over the mountain ridges.
The terrain on the trail varied between packed dirt and mud slicks in the lower areas, to knotty root covered trails heading up the hills to sharp, loose rocks near the tops. The inclines and declines exhibited the same terrain variances, ensuring that we were never bored. At no time did we require 4LOW to get up or down anything, but we did employ it in order to save on the braking. Sometimes, the trees reached out to touch the Jeep and would often poke their branches through the open windows to say, "Hello."
Some of the turns were tight and had us feeling tippy, but we managed to get by without rolling over. After a couple hours of weaving through trees, around sharp rocks, and over roots, we arrived at the top of yet another hill. It was a nice place for a campsite, but we weren't planning on staying overnight. We planted a Geocache to bring challenge some of the local cachers and then continued on up and down the road.
The trail narrowed as we headed down into a valley and there were dead trees all around us. The area we were in had been severely burned many years ago and the dead trees were like pick up sticks around us. Some had fallen across the road and been cut in half, others hung precariously over us as we motored through. I think the majority of the users of these trails were ATV riders, because there were times when the cut trees were just barely wide enough to allow us through. Too often, the overhanging branches would catch on the bunjee cargo net in the Surco roof rack - note for future reference: remove cargo net before going out into the forest.
It was in this area we experienced our first bit of trail damage. One of the overhanging trees - four inches in diameter - managed to hit the Jeep at just the right spot to slip UNDER the roof rack instead of sliding neatly over like the rest. The crunching and cracking sound alerted us to the problem, but the damage was done. The thick tree branch had popped some of the securing plates of the roof rack out and pushed the whole thing at a funny angle. We stopped the Jeep and got out. It wasn't pretty. If we tried to back out, the branch wanted to scratch the moon-roof glass because of the pressure it was under. We had no choice but to chop it off. With the combat axe, it only took a few minutes to get halfway through the tree, which was also cracking on its own because of the pressure against it. I had to be cautious because I knew that once I chopped through it, it would spring back a bit - and that could be dangerous.
I went around to the other side of the branch so that when it broke, it would push away from me. While I did so, my wife decided to help out and began chopping at it. She only gave it a few swing before it broke free and sprung back at her. Only her lightning-quick reflexes saved her from getting knocked-out - at best - or seriously injured by the branch. It didn't just spring back a few inches, but rather about two feet. She managed to lean back just in time to watch the branch go sailing over her head.
Having narrowly avoided much pain, we removed the offending branch from under the roof rack and did our best to get it back into place and not rattling. At least two of the bolts holding the rack in place were bent almost in half. Nothing was broke too bad and it doesn't even rattle.
Not too much further down the trail and we climbed up a steep incline to arrive at the top of small knoll. The view was fantastic all around. We hid a second cache there just so people will come see it all. There was another trail leading down the opposite side of the knoll, but it was about 1900 and we had no idea where it went - it could have taken us back into town, or it could have just wound us around the mountains some more. Without camping gear and more supplies - and with three kids in back - we couldn't risk not getting back to civilization and so we turned back the way we came.
If you look close, you can see snow capped mountains under the Jeep in the background.
The trail was easier on the way back, although some of the inclines were rougher going up than coming down. While we were trying to avoid another wheel-eating washout, one fallen log took a swipe at the Jeep, putting some new scratches on the rear passenger flare, missing the tire, but punching the plastic behind the tire all the way to inside the bumper. I had to use the ax to pry it back out of there.
We arrived back home at 2200 after our little exploration into the hills. Next time, we'll leave earlier and bring camping gear - just in case. In fact, my biggest concern wasn't ever getting stuck, but ripping out one of the tires with a sharp stick or rock. I only have one of the original Forteras for a spare for the time being.
This afternoon, after hosing the mud off, I noticed that my "Signal Frog" antenna topper lost his antenna!