CC On The Trail: Trailhead Classics

A true trail head classic

Jeep CJ7 – a true trailhead classic


Being the proud owner of Jeep Wrangler, I rapidly joined a 4WD club, and started hitting the trails. The situation may be different in other parts of the US, but at least in the South East, there are only two types of places where you can really use a Jeep for what it’s capable of. Dedicated OHV (Off Highway Vehicles) Parks, and a few US Forest Roads.

A forest road - as it should be

A forest road – as it should be


The US Forest Roads are primarily built and maintained for the benefit of the professional users of the forest (loggers, US Forest Service teams), and to a lesser extent of the public at large (fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers…) driving “normal” cars and trucks. They are not supposed to be an obstacle course, and if they present sometimes interesting challenges for the driver of a well prepared Jeep, it’s more by accident (generally as a result of uncontrolled and massive erosion) than by design.


A US Forest road transformed by erosion

A US Forest road transformed by erosion


OHV Parks, on the other hand, are areas dedicated to off-road activities. Some parks are built on public land and are managed by the US Forest Service, some are private-public partnerships, some are totally private. Most visitors now drive UTVs and Side by Side vehicles, with drivers of conventional 4×4 vehicles representing a smaller part of the contingent. In the South-East, the parks are located in hilly forest areas (sometimes sold back to local governments after coal mining or logging operations have ceased), and the trails are generally narrow, just large enough for a Jeep Wrangler (a full size pick-up truck would be too long and too large).


a Toyota Tacoma on the same forest road – having a good spotter is essential


Not all those 4×4 vehicles are Jeeps, but the Wrangler was the only game in town for so long that non-Jeeps are a rarity, and generally very old. Jeep models with coil spring suspensions (TJs, JKs and JLs, in short any Wrangler built after 1996) predominate, and they are not really “trail-head classics” yet. Most of them are “built” to a certain degree – generally the older, the more modified the rig is.


Jeep LJ Rubicon - considered the holy grail by the OHV community

Jeep LJ Rubicon – considered the holy grail by the Jeep community


So, let’s look at real Trail Head Classics. First, the “other” Jeeps.

CJs – you don’t see many CJs on the trails anymore – only a few heavily modified rigs are still being wheeled. The rest are collectors now, selling for twenty to thirty thousand dollars. Pampered, and ready for a drive to the trendy bar nearby, but too nice to be battered on the trails.

YJs (the first Jeeps named “Wrangler”, the only ones with the rectangular headlights and the last ones with leaf spring suspensions) don’t get much love with the trendy bar crowd, and are more bangers than classics. The ones you see on the trails are heavily modified, often converted to coil springs for more articulation, and many reach the trailhead on a trailer – they would be too slow on the road in their current state of preparation.


Jeep YJ in action - with a copious lift

Jeep YJ in action – with a copious lift


Like the YJs, Cherokees (the XJ generation) are one of the cheapest ways to get a very capable 4×4 truck, coming with coil spring suspensions and a transfer case, but their station wagon body is more exposed than the narrower tub of a Wrangler, and they are often missing doors and fenders, to the point of not being road-legal anymore.


Jeep Cherokee XJ

Another classic – the Cherokee XJ


The second most represented car make is Toyota. 4Runners are capable and dependable trucks, they have the ground clearance and the articulation needed to pass the obstacles, but they tend to be a bit too large for the trails of the South-East, and often leave pieces of their bodywork on the biggest boulders. Tacomas, like the other pick-up trucks, are a bit too long, and their leaf spring rear suspension is not the best at articulation.


Toyota 4Runner in action

Toyota 4Runner in action


Old Land Cruisers (the J40 series sold from 1960 to 1986) are like the Jeep CJs – a few heavily modified J40s are still being wheeled, but most of them are pampered collectibles. Recent Land Cruisers are big and expensive luxury vehicles (in the US, at least) and I’ve not seen anybody wheeling them.


Toyota Land Cruiser FJ

Toyota Land Cruiser FJ


You can’t mention Toyota without writing about Lexus.


Toyota and Lexus?

Toyota or Lexus?


The GX and LX models are very similar to the Toyota 4Runner and Land Cruiser,  and can share the same attributes (transfer case, coil spring suspension). If their driver is willing to modify them a bit, and does not care too much about preserving the body, there’s not much to stop a lifted GX or LX.


Lexus or Toyota ?

Toyota and Lexus


The rest are curiosities – Land Rover Defenders (the old ones with the straight axles, not the fancy new ones with the air suspensions), Hummers H2, Suzuki Vitara, and rarities like the Steyer Puch Pinzgauer – grace the trails sometimes. Nobody tries to wheel really expensive SUVs (no Mercedes G, no Range Rover, no new-Defender).


Lunch break on a trail - a lone Pinzgauer in a crowd of Jeeps

Lunch break on a trail – a lone Pinzgauer in a crowd of Jeeps


As for cross-overs, we’ve all seen the occasional Jeep Compass at the trailhead – fortunately there’s always somebody kind enough to stop their drivers before they destroy their car on the first obstacle.


Mahindra "Jeep"

Mahindra next to another Land Cruiser


What about the Broncos? Like the Jeep CJs, the old 1st Gen Broncos are classics now, and the following generations are simply too big for the narrow forest trails of the South-East. The current generation Broncos (like most of the Jeep Wranglers) are predominantly used as mall crawlers, but the few you see on the trails are well spec’d, extremely capable, and can give a Wrangler Rubicon a run for its money.


Very few Defenders on the trails-this one is an exception.

Very few Defenders on the trails-this one is an exception.


Access to trails on public lands is the thorniest issue facing the 4×4 crowd – there’s a lot of competition for access (hikers, cyclists, bikers, horse riders, fishermen and hunters), and overuse by vehicles with aggressive knobby tires accelerates erosion. Add the pressure of people living in nearby communities – who don’t like the traffic to the trailheads, factor in budgetary constraints (maintaining trails is expensive), and the Forest Service has the perfect excuse to close an increasing number of trails to motorized traffic.

Private OHV parks are also under threat – with legislatures here and there voting bills requiring unrealistic liability insurance policies from the park operators, and driving them to closure.

Four wheel drive clubs are trying to make off-road driving more broadly accepted by promoting a responsible and respectful behavior on the public trails – but they tend to have a limited influence on the users of UTVs and side by side vehicles, who are not as gregarious as Jeep owners and tend not to join clubs.


A side by side – most people call them RZRs even when they’re not made by Polaris


The best hope of 4WD community lies with local governments in areas badly hit by the evolution of the world economy (closure of coal mines, for instance) – State and County officials are welcoming any initiative that would revitalize those areas, and see OHV parks as a way to bring tourists (and dollars) to their communities.