It was the day after Thanksgiving. My Jeepin’ buddy from California, Robert Yates, had pulled into Phoenix late the previous night and crashed in our spare bedroom. I was up at 4:30 AM, making some coffee and catching a shower before rolling Robert out of bed at 5:00. Today we were running the Charouleau Gap, about 18 miles of trail that winds it way through the Santa Catalina Mountains, in the Coronado National Forest, near Tucson, Arizona. Robert use to live in Tucson, before he developed a taste for wheelin’. He had heard about Charouleau Gap and had always wanted to see it. When I found out that Robert was heading back to Arizona during the holiday, I made arrangements with Hal Loy, President of the Tucson Rough Riders 4×4 club, to hook up with some club members that were going to be running the trail. I was put in touch with Phil, who was leading the trail run. He made Robert and I feel right at home.
The trail covers some beautiful terrain and at this time of the year, it was perfect weather. The sun was shining and by mid-day, I was in my t-shirt. By the time we finished the trail at 6:00 PM, I had a long sleeve shirt on and the heater was running (with the windows open). Another feature of this trail that I rarely get to see is the water crossings. I was not counting, but I would guess that we did somewhere between one and two dozen (usually the same creek). At one point, the water gets up to the rocker panels on a built Jeep, and this obstacle is named the “Car Wash”. There is an option around this section and I opted to take it since Lady did not need a bath and I didn’t wish to test the seals of my driveline components that much.
This picture was taken a couple of hours from the end of the trail. We had just crested the gap and we could see the greater Tucson area off to the west. From this point on, we dumped a lot of altitude as we worked our way out of the mountains.
By the time lunch had rolled around, we made it to an obstacle that is simply referred to as “the step”. What I found out here is that the normal 4.0 trail rating for Charouleau Gap is based on you running the trail from south to north. We were running the trail from north to south. This meant that instead of going down the step, we had to climb up. WOW was my first impression when I saw it. Everyone crossed over the stream to check it out. What adds a touch of difficulty to this obstacle, aside from having to climb it, is that after you cross the stream, you are at the obstacle, wet tires and all.
In this picture, my friend Robert is giving it his best shot. Robert’s TJ is setup similar to Lady in that he runs a rear locker and a LSD in the front. Both of us quickly discovered that the LSD was not going to cut the mustard. In fact, of the 11 vehicles in the group, only two made it over without any assistance. Phil was the first to try and he made it up after a couple of attempts. From there on, all but one would require a tow strap. Everyone gave it multiple tries and those watching from the side lines were quick to add their comments concerning what line they thought was best. Like I told another person, I sure am glad I had gotten to know these drivers so well because I would have hate to have been strapped up this rock by a complete stranger.
About half of the folks had gotten over the step when an XJ with front and rear ARBs hooked up a front tire with a bit too much gas pedal going on. The result was a light bang and the result as a blown front driver side u-joint. A couple of hours later, the repairs were finished and the group headed out again. I always watch the trail repairs since one can always learn something, even if it is at the price of someone else’s breakage. During this episode, I discovered that Harbor Freight sells a nice u-joint tool for only $39.95. I think this item will get added to Lady’s tool box.
Here is a nice little CJ-5 that had more than its share of pucker factor while trying to get over the step. Had it not been for the rear mounted tire carrier, this driver and rig would have gone over backwards. CJ-5s have a shorter wheelbase than do the CJ-7 and Wrangler Jeeps. Climbing a steep ledge like the step can cause the shorter Jeep to lift the front tires and go over backwards. It took several seconds (kind of like watching in slow motion) for the vehicle to lift and gently lay over onto the tire carrier. Once it was realized that it was stable, everyone scrambled for their cameras. A tow strap was gently attached to the front bumper and the slack slowly taken up. The CJ came back down onto all fours and was pulled up over the step.
The last 45 minutes of the trail run, we ran with our lights on as the sun was setting behind the mountains to the west. This section of the trail was a combination of large expanses of exposed bedrock (reminded me a little bit of Moab) and mogul-eroded trail. There would be a few sections that would present a good challenge when running these in the opposite direction.
Overall, the trail holds a wide variety of challenges. A 100 yard long rock garden that lies under water makes for some interesting wheelin’, as do the climbs out of the creek onto bed rock immediately followed by boulders….all while going up hill. The beginning and ending sections of the trail will flex your suspension and then some. I was about 25 yards into the trail and found myself with 3′ of air under the front tire while trying to climb up to the top of a small ridge. Take all of this and put it with great mountain scenery and you have Charouleau Gap Trail…..a great place to spend a day of off-roadin’.