Travel & Cars: Off-roading in California for LRO Magazine

In November 2018, I went rock-crawling/ off-roading after reaching out to the Northern California Land Rover Club. I ended writing an article about my experience for Land Rover Owner International, the world’s largest Land Rover magazine with around 25,000 readers per issue. I also provided photos to accompany my writing.

Submitted article:

Fordyce Creek: California Rock-crawling

“Holy moly, look at the smoke pouring out of his Disco”, Andrew excitedly nudges me. Don, Northern California Land Rover Club’s Trip Ambassador, has successfully and seemingly effortlessly just completed a deep river crossing in his heavily modified Discovery. Now, however, smoke is billowing from the bonnet as fluid forms a huge puddle beneath his vehicle. The engine has overheated.

On closer inspection, it turns out the depth and pressure of the water snapped every blade of his stock plastic fan and the car couldn’t cope. Great. We had only just reached the turnaround point for this trip and still had several miles left to go. With no fan removal tool handy (unsurprisingly left at home, 3 hours away), and no other way to get it off, Don leaves the Disco to cool down for a bit. Before long, a call came through on the ham radio.

“I know this sounds like a joke”, Jason begins, “but I’ve also just broken down.” With no problems for the whole first half of the trail, within 2 minutes, 2 of the Land Rovers were badly broken. Now, this is what I expected off-roading to be like.

*

It all started so well. “Jump in”, Robert booms from his P38 Range Rover as he picks me up at 6am in Berkley. I am introduced to his co-pilot, Jason, his nine-year-old son, and we set off to find the trail. “What brings you to California?”, he asks. I tell him how a month prior, sat in my room in the UK, I e-mailed Northern California Land Rover Club (NCLRC) to see if there was any way I could join one of their frequent off-roading trips. To my surprise, the club was more than happy to accommodate me, sent out a few e-mails, and Robert took the bait!

We cross the Bay area, wind through the gorgeous Napa Valley wine region (sadly, with no time for a pit-stop), and eventually pull up to our camping spot in Tahoe National Forest within the Sierra Nevada mountain range. One by one, Robert introduces me to other members of the club, a really diverse bunch with a broad range of careers and interests.

“Some are more serious off-roaders while others are more interested in overlanding trips”, Don explains, handing me a freshly grilled maple-covered sausage for breakfast. “There are also those that pay for mechanics to fix their cars and those that do it themselves. There is no sense of superiority among either group though – everyone has different amounts of time and different skills. We’re just pleased we are able to get everyone together every now and then for some fun!”

Speaking of those who enjoy fixing things for themselves, I go over to Robert and ask him what the worst part of owning a P38 is. He proceeds to explain the problems he has getting aftermarket off-roading parts for it: “Nobody sells rock sliders! So, I made some myself and bolted them on. My tires are also wider than standard so my spare wheel will not fit under the floor. Now, I use that area for my recovery gear and instead built a frame to mount the spare wheel on the back of the car. I share the information online so others can off-road too – it’s a great community.”

Having polished off more toasties and even more sausages, we set off to Pierce Creek campground to find the trail head. Rated ‘extremely difficult’, Fordyce Creek is an 11.6-mile 4×4 trail with an elevation range of 5355’ and 7329’. While it is often overshadowed by the neighbouring Rubicon trail, those who have braved both insist Fordyce is far more difficult. With rocky terrain, 5 winch-hills, and plenty of deep-water crossings, Fordyce Creek is also more dangerous than most off-road adventures. Experienced drivers must find the balance between precision and speed to navigate the whole trail successfully.

In general, rock crawling typically requires a more highly-modified Land Rover. Most of the Land Rovers on the trail have huge tires, locking differentials, upgraded suspension, 4-wheel steering, lowered gearing, winches, rock sliders, and engine modifications to make the most torque possible when driving at a low-speed.

As we pull up to the trail head, a few of the members jump out and begin to let air out of their tires. Those with less-modified vehicles leave their cars at this point. Setting off, the start of the trail is relatively moderate. We effortlessly roll over every rock along the way and though I am surprised at the capabilities of these Land Rovers, I am not all that impressed.

After 15 minutes, I wonder if this is all there is to it. Low and behold, we come to face-to-face with the first real obstacle of the course. “It’s called Driveline hill”, Andrew informs me, “people bust drivelines like crazy here”. Sure enough, I stare in disbelief at the size of the rocks these Rovers planned to tackle. At 5’7, standing against them, the rocks came up to my chest.

Jason bypasses this section and takes the easy route up as his super cute side-kick, a greyhound called Emma follows dutifully behind the vehicle. “I have nothing to prove”, he boldly proclaims, with no evidence to yet back it up just yet!

Don, driving a 4.6L Discovery on 37-inch tires, goes first and decides there are four possible lines, ranging from doable to the near impossible. Choosing the former, I watch on in amazement as he makes crawling look easy as he reaches the top without spinning a single tire.

In his vehicle, Don has an LT230 transfer case with a Maxi-Drive 4.3:1 low-range gear, and 4.11:1 front and rear diffs. The rear axles are 24-spline fitments, available as an off-the-shelf part. The front axle is a custom build for this Discovery, using Longfield CVs from a Toyota application and custom 24-to-30-spline shafts to mate them to the front 24-spline ARB locker. He’s also had to make some modifications to the housing to make everything fit.

This impressive Land Rover also has an ARB air-locking diff, powered by a P38 compressor. At the back, there’s a Detroit 100% automatic locking differential, providing the ultimate traction. The rear axle has another Longfield CV – ‘which is as close to bulletproof as you can get’, Don reckons.

Although the over-engineered Longfield are unlikely to break, the downside is that if they do, it’s unique and you can’t borrow a spare from another vehicle if one ever does – they’re unique to the Discovery.

Now it’s Andrew’s turn. Also in a heavily-modified Discovery but with less experience, he makes a good few attempts to pass before becoming stuck between the root of a cedar evergreen tree and a sizeable rock. With some careful spotting from club members, “left, left, no, your other left”, he was soon able to clear the section and complete the rest of the obstacle without a hitch.

Speaking to Andrew later, he tells me that he has broken almost every breakable part possible on this Disco! Every time this happens, he replaces it with a heavy-duty version of each offending parts and hopes for the best. “It’s a very expensive hobby”, he tells me, to no surprise.

Continuing on with more moderate terrain, the scenery starts to improve. My stomach churns as I dare to lean out the window and notice the sharp mountain drop to my side. Looking out, I can see Jeffrey Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Sugar Pine and White Fir trees clinging to the mountain face. The sky is bright blue, and the weather is abnormally warm for a November morning. I grip the safety handle a little tighter and squeeze as we bounce back and forth over rocks, seemingly getting closer to the edge each time.

After ricocheting along a while longer, we reach another obstacle: Sunrise Hill. This time, we all tear over the terrain without a hitch – at least, on the way there anyway. At the bottom, we encounter our first river crossing of the trail. Having just watched some buggies cross the river, the drivers inform us that it swallowed his 40” tire. Of course, hearing of this tale of difficulty, and wanting to prove the power of his Landy, Don cannot help himself and decides to give it a go.

Don steps out and rigs a recovery line to the rear of his Discovery in case the worst happens. He jumps back into his car and builds up enough power to create the perfect bow wave and flawlessly crosses through the deep water to make it out with only a little water in the floorboards. On the return, he tells us it felt slightly deeper and the rapids push him around a bit, but he soon declares it an easy crossing and all was well.

Of course, three minutes later, driving back up Sunrise Hill, Don’s Rover overheated, and Jason was jammed solid. It soon transpires that although Jason is the most experienced, it did not mean he could avoid mistakes too. He manages to smash his rear light and snap the driver’s rear axle in the process. Jammed between two rocks, and struggling to set his Rover free, he breaks his front axle as well!

Before long, all of the club rushes to his assistance and set up an extension cable. Together, they winch him clear of the spot so he can work on his car and swap one of his spare axles onto the rear. With a three-wheel drive, he then carefully navigates the rest of the trail back to base.

This camaraderie, Don highlights, is one of his favourite parts of off-roading: “Everybody helps everybody else, whatever you need. Have a hole in your dif and need some oil? No problem. Need a welder? They’ve got you sorted. It’s very common out here in California. Of course, there is also a certain amount of drunken yahoo-ness, but not in our club.”

To continue the trail, Don pulls the connector to the aircon compressor and turns on the air to force the electric fan to run. Turning the heat up to full, he too drives back to base without a hitch. Smart thinking! 

Jason headed straight back to the cabin to set about repairing his front axle only to find no issues. Putting it back together again, he pulls the passenger side apart. Again, no issues. Confused, Don and Jason explore further and soon notice a big crack in the CV cage. Though they could not identify the exact problem, they soon fix it after swapping in another spare. It’s a good job Jason carries 3 on every trail!

By the time we return to base, everybody feels pretty tired, but we soldier on making dinner and a fire for the evening, readying ourselves for the cold night ahead. Around said fire, we drink beers and exchange stories of our adventures as I learn more about the incidents each driver had. Cosying up inside the tent Robert kindly provided me, I nod off, dreaming of the day ahead. Tomorrow, after a day of more crawling, we were to test each Land Rover’s light rig driving Signal Peak trail. The adventure was far from over.

Overall, I found the NCLRC really provided a great introduction to Land Rover clubs. Members showed the initiative and experience required to rock-crawl and the friendliness of the off-roading community. Rock-crawling meanwhile, was an adrenaline-inducing experience made indescribably better by the scenic location and jaw-dropping cliff edges presented by California’s mountaintops. Definitely one to add to the bucket list!