One of the more scenic overland destinations in Texas is located within Big Bend National Park in the Texas mountains and basin region. By stitching together a route from the network of 4x4 park roads, a sightseeing overland trip with multiple nights of backcountry camping without ever leaving the park can be formulated. Because I was chasing a comet, BBNP was an ideal destination as it hosts some of the darkest skies in the Lone Star state.
At the beginning of 2015, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) was at its brightest as it passed earth and headed toward the sun. To photograph the comet meant hauling photography and astronomy equipment. This didn’t leave much room for camping gear in my 2007 4Runner. Thankfully, an opportunity arose for me to try the roomy XVenture XV2 off-road trailer, equipped with a James Baroud hardshell roof top tent. The XV2 cargo space is triple that of a typical bucket trailer. A review of this very capable trailer will appear in the next issue.
It was mid-January and the Moon was safely tucked away, ensuring my dark sky pursuit. A spectacular forecast of clear skies, Spring-like temperatures during the day, and high 30s at night added to my excitement. My planned overland route was to start at the northern end of Old Ore Road, a 26 mile 4x4 trail. As I approached the BBNP Persimmon Gap entrance, the Chisos Mountains emerged into view. Within the park’s 801,163 acres, BBNP contains an entire mountain range. At 7,825 ft., Emory Peak towers as the highest point.
Upon arriving at the visitor center, I learned I had to identify and reserve all of my backcountry campsites right then. Not familiar with the 4x4 roads, I abruptly plotted a rather ambitious route that involved 13 miles on Old Ore Road to my first campsite, and then another 33 miles the next day across 3 different 4x4 roads. Fourteen miles lay between the visitor center and the Old Ore Road entrance, and with only 4 hours until sundown, I wasn’t worried because I was fairly sure Old Ore was simply a dirt road.
The XV2 trailer is very rugged. I discovered this when I encountered the difficult terrain on the northern half of Old Ore Road. A simple dirt road, it was not. Twists and turns accompanied the many elevation changes. It was never a dull moment as I crawled over the many large steps and rocks, affirming my decision to air down at the start. The trailer rolled over the obstacles with ease thanks to the 32-inch trail tires and multi-directional hitch system. Much of the terrain kept my speed below 10 mph. There are no bypass routes on Old Ore, and park rules are explicit: do not go off the trail. The vehicle must be able to conquer each crux. While I was enjoying my legitimate off-road adventure, I was growing concerned about reaching the campsite before dark. While I blamed the terrain, the real culprit was me stopping at least 20 times to shoot photos along the way.
The park is sprawling with geological wonders. Every mile brings about new visual treats and intrigue as the landscape changes frequently. It was January, yet yellow flowers and rainbow cacti in full bloom decorated the roadside. Large valleys in the foreground shadowed by distant peaks and the winding road ahead all laid out a captivating scene. As the sun positioned itself to cast light and shadows, I had to stop to take it all in. I knew my photos were taken in vain. There was no way to absorb the moment into a digital image.
I arrived at Telephone Canyon campground just as the sun was setting. The amber glow sufficed for setting up camp and grabbing some photos. To the southeast, a large walled rock formation changed colors rapidly as the sun presented its final light. Setting up the tent was easy: release 4 latches and watch the tent rise. I attached the folding metal counter to the side of the trailer, hooked up the stove for a quick dinner. As darkness crept in, so did the clouds, dashing my hopes of capturing the comet.
Tent camping alone in a desolate wilderness area presents discernment challenges for the senses. Did that growl come from my belly, or outside the tent? More sounds soon followed, only because my brain and ears were now on alert. I tried to reassure myself that it doesn’t matter what fierce critter might be trouncing about because I’m in a tent 6-feet off the ground.
The next day I experienced the tamer southern half of Old Ore. The road did wind and change elevation, but gradually and with a broader span. Off-road clearance was still a vehicle necessity for certain spots.
I finished out the trail and arrived at the busy Rio Grande Village where a Wi-Fi equipped store offered gasoline, showers, and laundry facilities. My one regret was not being able to cross the border, via a
small ferry a few miles away, into the little Mexican village for some shopping and dining. After 9/11, the border crossing was closed. It reopened in April 2013, and now requires a passport. While I had my passport, I was unaware the border crossing is open only on certain days of the week, and it was not one of those days.
Gassed up and emails updated, I headed to my next route, which involved taking the River Road East dirt trail 9.6 miles and turning onto the Glenn Springs 4x4 road for another 10 miles to my reserved campsite. While Glenn Springs Road was rather tame, technical hurdles were plentiful. In the distant west, the Chisos Mountains provided a beautiful scene in the mid-day light.
The Chisos view remained prevalent at the Rice Tanks campsite, but a hill in my immediate background blocked eastward views. The surrounding hills would block out wind, providing me with a stabilized telescope for imaging, but I suspected I was missing something scenic in the east. I cooked a quick meal and set up the telescope.
With the sun setting, I decided to drive out north to see what I was missing. As I went up in elevation, I was able to view the multi-mile long cliff wall to the east just as the sun painted it in pinkish colors. Note to self: get the Chilicotal campground next time, as that site sits high on a hill with a perfect view of the scenery in all directions.
As daylight departed, clear night skies permitted me to capture the bright green comet. As the images appeared on my laptop screen, I knew the chase was complete. The next morning I continued north on Glenn Springs until it intersected with Pine Canyon Road, and headed east back to pavement where my 51 mile route of 4x4 roads came to an end. I plan to return to conquer the other 4x4 roads, hike some of the many designated hiking trails, and relive the existential moments generated by the beauty of Big Bend.
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Photos provided by James Hart
In 2011, James Hart and Lauren Neel took off from San Francisco and headed south of the border seeking adventure in their 1st generation 4Runner. TCT Magazine interviewed them about their fantastic journey. This is the 2nd of a 2-part series. See the January 2015 issue for Part 1.
What were your most dangerous moments?
While in Colombia, we read about a tough mountainous track. This mud road, the width of a large truck, is carved out of the side of a jungle-covered mountain. Adorned by waterfalls and rivers, the road is frequented by rain and fog. Everyone told us to avoid this route, so it was obvious we had to check it out. The steep and winding road was slick with mud and the edge was a 700-foot sheer drop with no guardrails.
Adding to the challenge, it is a primary logging route for illegal wood harvesting. Expect to encounter a huge semi-truck barreling down the mountain loaded to the brim with illegal timber. Might-makes-right on this mountain and since there is not enough room for two trucks, it becomes a scramble to find some way to allow the bigger truck to pass. At times we were reversing down a slippery mud mountain road hugging the cliff edge. Occasionally we could see below a truck shattered into a pieces with cargo flung across the jungle canopy.
It was during one of these maneuvers we experienced the most dangerous time of our entire trip. We were coming around a bend when we saw a huge truck barreling down on us. It was approaching quickly and we did not have time to back-up or hunt for a new spot. I quickly jerked us over to the side of the road, yelling for Lauren to stick her head out the window and tell me how much room I had. She said she could not see any road! In this instant the truck passed within 2-inches of hitting our front bumper. It actually clipped my side-mirror as it roared past, not slowing even a bit. Had that truck been any closer, there is no doubt we would have been knocked off that cliff. I would love to drive that road again…it was epic.
We also traveled on the infamous Bolivian Death Road, where we spotted many memorial crosses. Traffic is lessened since a new highway was recently built. Despite lack of traffic, it was still pretty sketchy with the fog so thick, I could not see past the hood.
Did the 4Runner cause you any moments of panic?
While in the beautiful San Guillermo National Park in Argentina, we made it across a deep river crossing, but the truck stalled on the other side. Water got in the airbox. Fearing hydrolock, I removed the intake, filter, and MAF and let everything dry out. After about 30 minutes, I reinstalled everything and it started right up. Have we mentioned we love this truck? It never lets us down. We camped out in the park for a few days, never seeing another soul. Park rangers informed us the park only gets about 7 visitors per month!
In a remote park along the ridge of the Andes called Paque Lauca, Chile, we saw alpaca, flamingos, and hot springs while we bounced along because we lost a shock mount bolt somewhere on this trail. It was a week before we found a replacement.
Another incident was while driving on the beach in Brazil. We got stuck in the sand and the tide was coming up. We could see where it breaks on the sandbar. Ended up cutting to the left and mashing it, the sandbar broke way and I fell down that berm. Eventually we made it above the tide line.
How many other overland adventurers have you come across?
We have met many fellow adventurers from around the world: Germany, France, Switzerland, South Africa, Czech Republic, Australia, Holland, Argentina, Mexico, United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, and others. The Pan-American Highway has popular campsites everyone goes to and it is easy to spot other overland vehicles on the road. Meeting up with other folks who share similar interests, mindsets, and lifestyle is always a welcome social engagement. It can be difficult to explain to someone back home the intricacies and quirks of extended living inside of a small truck, or the nuances of how to deal with an officer looking for a bribe, but fellow overland folk can relate.
From a cultural awareness standpoint, have your interactions with the various people you’ve met along the way been beneficial?
In America we are constantly blasted by the media, friends, and family that anywhere south of the border is a dangerous, desolate, wasteland—full of wild criminals wanting to kidnap, torture, and execute us. We were a bit apprehensive at first. My research from dozens of other overland travelers assured us we were going to be fine. Yet, we were still scared. How could the mindset in the U.S. be so inaccurate about a place that is right next door?
We crossed the border fully expecting chaos and mayhem. What we found was a polite guard who assisted us and happily welcomed us to his country. Within the first week in Mexico, we had made new friends, visited beautiful places, and eaten delicious foods. We found the people to be so warm, friendly, and giving. We saw no signs of the malicious violence we believed pervaded the entire country. This continued on and on. Danger and violence is out there; however, we have found that if you do not seek trouble, you’ll be okay. Perhaps it is a bit of hippy philosophy, but we found that people are mostly good. Sure, we encountered some who made us wary, but for the most part, the people have been great.
As far as cultural awareness, before this trip I couldn’t spot Ecuador on a map. Now I know the entire history of Ecuador, the current situation involving development of their rainforest, regional dialects and accents, geography, and the best place to get a cocktail in Quito.
What destinations are next?
We are considering an East Coast trip to Canada, then Alaska, and back to California—thus completing the entire Pan-American Highway. After that, make some more money and start planning the next big trip. Australia, South East Asia, Africa? Who knows? It’s a big world out there and we plan to drive the whole damn thing!
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April 2015 issue:
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Beau is our Editor in Chief and co-publisher of LivingOverland.com.
He's an avid outdoor enthusiast who enjoys exploring our National Parks, fly fishing, camping, rock hounding, and hunting. He lives in Wyoming where he is minutes away from the great outdoors. Beau and Krista love to cook; share meals and a glass of wine with friends and family at home or on the trail. He is passionate about travel, the outdoors, and the outdoor lifestyle.
See everything Beau & Krista are doing at LivingOverland.com
The weather was....not perfect, yet the Toyota Cruisers & Trucks crew managed to capture amazing coverage of Overland Expo West 2015!
Despite rain, snow, wind, and mud...plenty of mud, we met friends new and old, shared stories around propane campfires, socilized during happy hours, attended classes, and had one heck of a time gathering amazing Overland information for our readers.
Toyota USA released a new series of videos for their #4runner #keepitwild series. Photographers and athletes sit around a campfire telling stories of adventure. Watch all the videos (even the commercial) below.
Tell us in the comments...where will your #toyota adventure take you?
It's here, so make some time to read this amazing issue of Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine cover to cover!
Our team has gathered some of the best articles you'll see this year for our April 2015 issue, including:
You can also get TCT delivered straight to your iPad or iPhone via the TCT Magazine app. At just $2.99 per issue, or $9.99 for an annual subscription, it's the best way to experience Toyota Cruisers, Trucks, and SUVs. We include videos & slideshows for many articles, and everything is fully interactive!
We're also excited to welcome a new sponsor for this issue: Give a warm welcome to XVenture Trailers!
To get your copy of the
April 2015 issue:
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Their travels and adventures inspire us to step out into the world and truly experience life. We have followed along as they visit remote villages in South America, cross deserts in Africa, and traverse mountain passes in Asia. These are the full-time overlanders traveling in Toyotas. As a way to give back to the community, we would like to share their stories and help connect you, our readers, with their adventures. Please take a moment to learn more about these adventure travelers as they are the ones that inspire us to get out and explore.
Photos by Jared Koronkiewicz and George Labelle
We asked Brian Rogers, President of the Dallas-based Toyota Trail Riders club, to tell us about his 2002 4Runner build, destinations, and anything else he could think of…
Getting involved with the Toyota Trail Riders is what ignited my passion. I have always been an outdoor enthusiast, but after meeting this group, it totally changed my direction. My first modification was a lift so I could try out off-roading. After one trip out to the local trails with these club, I was hooked. I continued to evolve my truck into a more capable rig, with the notion of being out in the wilderness multiple evenings.
In 2011, James Hart and Lauren Neel took off from San Francisco and headed south of the border seeking adventure in their 1st generation 4Runner. TCT Magazine interviewed them about their fantastic journey. This is the first of a 2-part series.