The mountains to the north of Los Angeles are home to some of the best driving roads in America. I had covered Angeles Crest, Glendora Mountain Road, and Mulholland Drive many times. But it was always in a light, rear-wheel-drive car of some sort, an AE86, Miata, or my 5-speed swapped Cressida wagon. Last weekend, some friends convinced me to go up there and test the limits of a completely different type of vehicle, and I came away with a deep, newfound appreciation for Japanese nostalgic trucks.
Tucked about 10 miles into the mountains along State Route 39 just north of Azusa, California is the San Gabriel Canyon OHV Area. OHV stands for Off-Highway Vehicle, and the space is essentially a giant unpaved playground for 4x4s. The land is owned by the federal government so admission is cheap — just $8 per vehicle buys you an entire day’s worth of fun.
To get there, you must take the San Gabriel Canyon Road, a winding touge teeming with Mazda Miatas, Subaru BRZs, and Toyota 86s. We, however, were driving my 2003 Jeep Wrangler and trying not to hold anyone up. My friend Marcus and I were there to meet up with a few other buds, Josh De Muro in his second-gen Nissan Pathfinder and Lloyd Letherman in his FJ60 Land Cruiser.
I do see the irony being editor-in-chief of JNC and driving the non-Nihon vehicle here, but this Jeep basically fell into my lap for next to nothing. And aside from riding shotgun in an FJ55 through some trails in New Hampshire once, I hadn’t ever been off-roading before. I thought this would be the optimal chance to get some seat time without worrying about exerting catastrophic damage on the JNC team Land Cruiser, and with more experienced friends to bail me out in case I got in trouble.
Once you pay your eight bucks at the guard station, you enter a large, paved staging area. Many people come with their off-roading machines, ATVs, dirtbikes, and god-awful subwoofer-equipped UTVs on trailers, and need a place to unload them. We used the opportunity to air down our tires to 15 psi, to get better traction on slippery surfaces and not feel every rock and pebble on the trails.
Immediately below the staging area lay what could only be described as a skate park for trucks. High-banked dirt mounds, concrete half-pipes and boulders the size of a Suzuki Cappuccino were packed into a tight, man-made section. We didn’t see anyone braving those axle-breakers, though. Instead, we opted to take a trail deeper into the park and see what Mother Nature had to offer.
The park was comprised of several types of varied terrain. There were wide fields of sand, rock-strewn paths, a few streams, as well as some optional steep sections that went straight up a hillside and were essentially impossible without locking diffs. Josh and Lloyd mentioned that the terrain constantly changes, simply due to the frequent usage.
I proceeded slowly, seeing as how my stock Jeep was one of the lowest cars in the park. I was mainly trying to keep large rocks from passing underneath the center of the chassis and destroying my oil pan. Having a solid front axle helps a lot, but I thought it better to be overcautious than calling for a tow. The trails ended at an enormous reservoir, and as the day went on its shores grew increasingly crowded with entire families setting up canopies and picnics.
California’s dry climate meant that a mist of fine sand permeated everything. Each time a UTV sped by, you were enveloped in a cloud of dust. It was impossible to avoid, and will probably stay in the vents and between the body panels of our cars for years to come. Around mid-morning, park rangers turned on a couple of pumps feeding water from a stream and hosed it onto a large patch of dirt. Charging through and sliding around the resulting mud pit was basically impossible to resist.
Throughout the day, more and more visitors filled the park, giving us a chance to check out the many types of rigs that came out to play. There came a constant parade of the typical lifted Jeeps, Big Three pickups, several C/K Blazers and a ton of Toyota Tacomas. Oh, there were so many Tacomas.
However, what impressed us most were the swarms of older Toyotas crawling around. I saw more first-gen 4Runners gathered, some with factory solid front axles and some with swapped ones, than at any Toyotafest. Their smaller size, light weight and bulletproof 22R engines made them quite possibly the perfect off-roaders. Plus, you can remove the rear canopies to let in the fresh air.
Similarly, ‘Yota pickups of the same era came out en force, including a custom cab HiLux. Their ubiquity, especially considering the age range of the trucks, was a testament to Aichi’s dominance in the automotive kingdom. Dogs love them, too.
Not surprisingly, Land Cruisers, along with their Lexus counterparts, were plentiful as well. Whenever one of these 80- or 100-Series chassis emerged from behind some brush, it was like coming across an elephant roaming the savanna. The ultimate symbol of Toyota indestructibility was large, but could go anywhere and commanded instant respect.
Another industrial giant, Mitsubishi, was represented by the Montero. Though not nearly in as great a number, they proved equally capable. Their Dakar Rally heritage shone through each time the triple-diamond logo rounded the corner. We were impressed by a couple of Mitsubishi Mighty Max pickups ambulating through the dirt as well.
Despite the size of the company, Nissans weren’t quite as prevalent as one would expect. We did spot a couple of cool first-generation Pathfinders and an XTerra though, and a beautifully kept D21 Hardbody with period decal stripes that immediately got down and dirty in the mud.
A couple of Suzuki Samurais buzzed around as well, but we failed to snap any photos. Finally, there were even a couple of Subaru crossovers, a new-ish Forester and an XV Crosstrek. Both fared fine as far as we know, which was quite impressive considering what happened to other vehicles (see below).
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first casualty. A Silverado Z71 had broken a front axle, and it was clunking around in the wheel well making the truck undriveable. Luckily, Josh and his friends Adam and Bryan can fix just about anything, and between the three of them had more tools in their trucks than the Snap-on salesman. They yanked axle out and the Chevy continued to play hard for the rest of the day in 2WD — until it lost compression after sucking some mud into the intake.
We would soon learn that casualties were a way of life here. A random Chevy C/K broke an upper ball joint as it was leaving the park, its front left wheel flopping around helplessly. Josh and Co., good samaritans that they are, helped the owner, first by attempting to strap the joint to the control arm with the hopes it could limp to the staging area. Once there a tow truck would be able to pick him up, but inside the park off-road recovery must be called and it’s not cheap.
Unfortunately, the ball joint wouldn’t stay in position. The owner’s son was sent down the mountain in another car to pick up a replacement ball joint. He returned an hour later, only to find that the old one was held in by four beefy half-inch rivets. It seemed hopeless, but after borrowing a rock pick from the ranger, each rivet was hammered out one by one. The replacement was a bolt-in, thankfully.
We were also saddened to have captured an Acura MDX’s final moments on Earth. The driver plunged a little too hard into a crossing, inhaling water into its V6 and hydrolocking the engine. Once again, the crew tried to help by removing the sparkplugs to let the engine dry out. Unfortunately, way too much water had entered. It was done.
A valuable lesson was learned, though. Charging in at full throttle is a no-no. For one, the intake tends to get submerged. You’re supposed to build momentum before plunging in and keep the throttle closed during the initial splash. Then gas it gently as the front of the vehicle pushes the water away from you. If you do stall, as this MDX did, don’t try restarting the engine or it will cause internal damage. Wait for a tow, instead.
Gentle as I was, my Jeep experienced a technical difficulty too. During a water crossing, a slick rock pushed it laterally, forcing the rear tire off its bead. Sand got in between the wheel and the tire, and it wouldn’t hold air. We ended up deflating the tire completely, pushing it away from the rim, pouring water over the affected area, and re-inflating it. It’s good to go with experienced people who have an arsenal of tools.
Coming back down the mountain, we learned one final lesson. Plowing through deep mud tends to cake the radiator. Once it dries, the engine will overheat. We fortunately caught it before any serious damage was done, because it was August 5. I said bye to my off-roading friends and headed to a gathering of Hachiroku owners observing 86 Day.
I was back in more familiar territory, but the day had proved to be quite fun. It was a completely different type of driving than I was used to, and though we never broke 20 mph we nonetheless felt like we pushed our vehicles and skills to their limits (and clearly some went beyond). There’s still a world of information to learn, but now I feel ever-so-slightly more prepared to face the wilderness than I did before.