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Wheeling Hancock Pass via Wrangler, 4Runner & Bronco: On the Trail
Off-roading in Colorado isn't really gambling, but it does offer a full house of trail options. Beginners and long-time vets alike love wheeling the mountains along the spine of the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. Hancock Pass has a lot to offer off-roaders which is why we were happy to hit the rocks in this edition of On the Trail. Follow along as we enjoy some truly epic scenery and a day of mild weather up in the Rocky Mountains.
Way back in the mid- and late-1800s, gold fever was a pretty big deal in the Old West. The California Gold Rush sparked that fever in 1849, Nevada's Comstock Lode stoked it with one of the largest silver rushes in the 1850s and '60s, and the search for riches migrated east into places like South Dakota and Colorado.
Part of that search lead to the Rockies and what is now Hancock Trail. By the 1880s, nearby Chalk Creek saw its own gold rush. Miners flocked in and the usual impromptu boom town arose to accommodate them at what is now the ghost town of St. Elmo. Much like the '80s teen flick that shares its name, its popularity faded when the money dried up. That said, it still makes for a fun place to check out for off-roaders out enjoying the trail system.
As you'll see in the clip, Hancock Pass is a smorgasbord of options to satisfy any wheeler's hunger, from mild to wild. It borders Chaffee and Gunnison counties, between the Gunnison and San Isabel forests. For this trip, you get to see experts navigate a mild boulder field with obstacles. We also take you through tackling tight, off-camber trail along the way.
Shuffle Up and Wheel
Collin Coates of Built2Wander guided the way in his 2022 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 with 37-inch Ridge Grapplers. Matt Thompson of 3D Off-Road brought out a 2021 Ford Bronco Badlands Edition on 35-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers and Chris Hefty from Hefty Fabworks came out in a 5th Gen Toyota 4Runner build on 38-inch Ridge Grapplers.
St. Elmo is one of the best preserved ghost towns in the U.S. That alone makes the trip out to Hancock Pass worth the trip. We chose it as the staging area for the day's adventures. Matt and Chris know the ins and outs of this trail pretty well and we were privileged to have the benefits of their experience in guiding us through it.
Raise the Stakes
Hancock Pass starts as an unassuming dirt trail but as you make your way along from St. Elmo, rocks start to pop up here and there. The stakes can get higher as you move along, depending on where you choose to go. In some spots, the rocks start moving underneath you, too.
We chose a beginner to intermediate trail for the day, to give you some idea of what you too can expect when you come out to Hancock Pass. Regardless of the line you choose, you should keep in mind that Hancock Pass is a remote location in the mountains. Pack for a variety of weather conditions and bring along some friends just in case things go sideways. Because you can vary your day at this trail from beginner to intermediate, a range of tire sizes and builds will work here.
Chris' 4Runner, for example, is a really built-out vehicle with 3 1/2 inches of travel on 38-inch Nitto Ridge Grapplers: "The tires are amazing. They've been grabbing everything that we've been throwing at them. They stick really well to the rocks. They handle great on the road, the gravel road. It's just an amazing tire. It's been doing really well. Everything we've thrown at it it's been able to handle. We've jammed up sidewalls against some jagged rocks and its held up great; no slices, no chunks. It's been a great tire."
Playing the Field
The crew eventually hit an area best described as a big boulder field. They dismounted for a little foot recon to find the best line to take through it. That's a good plan when you come across an obstacle like this.
What may look good at the start may not be so good once you're actually driving over it. You always want to look ahead and not focus just on what's right in front of your hood. Good tires, tools, and a jack are must-haves for a mountain trail like this one.
Betting on the Pass Line
But what was really cool at this point in the day was that the guys were passing over the Continental Divide. For you kids who skipped geography class, think of it as the mountainous spine that separates the east and west halves of the North, Central, and South America.
It goes from all the way up in Alaska, down through the Rockies, and all the way south into the Andes. Hancock Pass takes you over that line at just over 12,140 feet above sea level, with epic scenery you have to see for yourself to truly appreciate.
The trail snakes up (and down) in some places, so keep an eye out along the way. You never know what sort of obstacles a winding trail has in store around the next blind corner.
Case in point: the broken down Scout our crew encountered on the way down the other side. Someone left it pretty much dead center in the middle of the path, forcing the guys to work some sharp cornering mojo to get around it. Had the owner gotten it just a little further to the side, that wouldn't have been an issue.
Smooth sailing followed after that but as often happens in the mountains, the weather took a sharp turn. The day went from blue sky to rain very quickly. That's why you want to have both cold and warm weather gear when wheeling in the mountains.
Being aware of how weather affects terrain is also essential. Fun fact: lightning strikes in the Colorado mountains not only split rocks, they also hit people on peak tops every year. Having those tools also came in handy for us. On the way down, we stopped to check out a clunking noise. Tightening up an errant bolt took care of the problem before it turned into something major. And any time you feel something weird in the steering, it's a good idea to stop, get out, and find out what's going on.
Going All In
The day ended at Sherrod Loop Railroad. In a previous life it served as the lifeline for miners and others setting up shop in the area at towns like St. Elmo. If you think taking on a mountain trail is hard in a 4x4, just imagine how much more difficult those people had it with wagons, sleds, and horses.
But that's the sort of drive Gold Fever gives to people. And for some it was well worth the gamble. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more adventures on- and off-road.
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OTT: Uphill Both Ways in the Snow on the Nitto Nomad Grappler
Nature: One minute it's all sunshine, cartoon squirrels, and musical numbers. The next, it's beating you like you owe it money. Guess which version we ran into on the Gold River Trail. Jump to the video.
Way back when, we'd been out to Big Bear's Gold River Trail with a trio of Toyotas. This time, we figured we'd hit a beginner's path on the trail with three crossovers. We figured wrong. The weather was perfect the day before, when we were in Pioneertown. Once we got going on trail day, though, a whole heap of snow befell the mountains and our intended beginner's trail became a class in snow-wheeling three crossovers on short notice. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Normally, Big Bear's Gold Fever Trail is an 11 mile dirt that's only accessible for high-clearance vehicles or four-wheel drive cars.
It follows the Holcomb Valley which was once home to the dreams of thousands as they searched the area for their fortune during the Southern California gold rush. You can still find a few signs of that time up there but not exactly a full ghost town. Mostly diggings, old cabins, and the occasional old saloon.
Our Intrepid Adventurers
Host Mike Sabounchi brought his 2018 VW Golf Alltrack. As usual, he started the day in high spirits, albeit despite the winter wonderland rapidly developing around him (or maybe because of it; some of us northerly types love playing in the snow). When you live in a place like Washington (like Mike does), you see a lot of different driving conditions and having something versatile like the Golf is a good plan.
That said, he still improved on the stocker with changes like a lift kit, reflash to the ECU for more power, and a set of brand new Nitto Nomad Grapplers to boot. Luis Nieto and Cody Rasmussen joined him for the day's excitement, both in Subaru Crosstreks. Luis' being a '19 and Clody's a '18. They also have lift kits but in addition, they're carrying recovery gear. And just like Mike's Golf, they're rolling on Nomad Grapplers.
Not only are the new Nomad Grapplers mountain- and snow-rated, they're also designed specifically with CUVs and SUVs in mind. Nitto took all of the experience it has with making awesome light truck tires and applied it to this design for a crossover/SUV tire that's a joy to drive on or off-road. Gold Fever Trail seemed like the perfect place to test the Nomad out on those three crossovers.
And They're Off
Gold Fever Trail is an ideal place for cutting your beginner's teeth as an off-roader. It's not too challenging but it's fun with some interesting sites to check out along the way. Checking the weather beforehand is always a good plan, as is having your adventure pass and other basics like a first aid kit, lunch, and weather-appropriate clothing. Now, we always check weather ahead of time. Sometimes, though, "winter" in Southern California can be unpredictable, like it was this trip.
Just the day before, the crew had met up in nearby Pioneertown. A town started by actor Dick Curtis in 1946 as a living 1880s Old West movie set and it still stands today. Lots of Western films and shows have been shot there. It's the perfect base camp for hitting the nearby Gold Fever Trail. And like we said, the weather was perfect. Then.
Freeway? We Don't Need No Stinking Freeway
The day started off perfectly, too. No clouds, 54 degrees F, and clear sailing ahead as we hit Burns Canyon Trail to Big Bear instead of taking the freeway.
And why wouldn't we? Great day, great vehicles, and great company all made for an awesome start for the trip.
By the time we were at Belleville Cabin, though, the honeymoon was over. Snow cascaded down from the heavens in a big way, it was no longer 54 degrees, and the party decided to wait it out for an hour as the storm passed. As Mike put it, "On this episode of On the Trail, six guys go to the forest to have a picnic." Which they did in the cabin nearby. Bellies full, they ran back to their cars to finish waiting. It turned out that the cabin was pretty short on heating and long on draftiness.
Uphill Both Ways, in the Snow
It turned out to be a legit, real-deal winter storm. Not the usual wimpy "Stormwatch 2022" rain sprinkle that the local LA newscasters try to ham up as some big deal. We're talking ice forming on vehicles, real cold, the whole party. I grew up in Alaska. I had flashbacks just watching this. On the other hand, if you're not going to tackle nature, why would you be off-roading? Unexpected weather can also be a chance to up your skill set. Mike and company would not be deterred. Nature said they'd be snow-wheeling? Fine, they'd go snow-wheeling instead.
Slip Sliding Away
At first the snow had been tight and compact but as the day worn on and snow turned to sleet, the ground morphed into a wet blend of dirt, snow, and water. The guys found themselves off-road drifting. If you're out in the snow like this, using 4-Lo and steady momentum (no sudden speed changes, up or down) is the way to go. Having the Nitto Nomad Grapplers was a godsend as they gave our team the better traction, even wear, and reduced noise that you want in winter conditions. However, even with a good car and great tires, there are limits. Having traction boards on hand gives that extra umph when you get stuck. Just make sure you know how to use them ahead of time instead of learning in the field.
Looks Like We Made It
Trail's end found the group in good spirits. Nobody got stuck or ran into problems. Conditions went from great, to snow, to icy rain but that didn't discourage the guys from having a terrific time. On top of all that, the Nomad Grapplers made that good time possible.
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Fat ‘N’ Furious: A Curvy Custom 1950 GMC Pickup Restomod That’s Been All Dressed Up
It comes to no surprise that Mike Shannon would grow up to be a full gearhead— his father operated a Wisconsin-based Sinclair gas station that he opened up in the 1930s. When he became a local Pure Oil distributor, Mike began hanging around filling stations more often and would accompany his dad on trips to Road America at Elkhart Lake to deliver a truck load of Pure Firebird racing gasoline every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for race weekends.
The Spoils of Selling Success
Fast forward a few years and Mike found himself accepting his first full time job selling Oldsmobiles at Holiday Olds in Fond du Lac. While working at the dealership, he paid attention, learned everything he could, and ate, slept and breathed everything relating to the vehicles in his available inventory. 49 years after he first began selling cars, and he now owns four dealerships.
With his continued success, Mike thought it would be fitting to get an old GMC 5-window pickup to customize as promotion for his business and to display his passion for classic vehicles. To help find the right project truck, Mike reached out to the seasoned veterans at Fat Fender Garage out in Arizona. From there, Jason Noel and the rest of the crew could work their magic to assist in turning Mike’s vision of a clean yet obviously customized classic truck into a reality.
A Foundation for the Future
The guys located a solid ’50 GMC pickup that would work great for what Mike had in mind, and as soon as it was parked safe in their garage, Jason and the guys kicked off the project by scraping the factory chassis and replacing it with a brand new REVO Series version from the Roadster Shop. This chassis was proudly built with an IFS font end as well as a rear 4-link for modern ride quality.
It was equipped with Ridetech springs, Wilwood spindles and braking components, as well as power rack and pinion steering to help make it handle supremely. To further enhance the driving experience, a set of 18x8.5 and 20x11-inch U.S. Mags Mad Max US354 billet wheels were fitted with 245/45ZR18 & 315/35ZR20 Nitto NT555 G2 tires and bolted up. Not only does this combo look stunning, but the tires help keep traction in dry conditions with large tread blocks and efficiently dissipate any water with circumferential grooves.
Plug and Play
Now that Mike’s GMC was guaranteed to ride like a dream, the next order of business was to ensure that it started up and drove like one too. A 2017 6.2L Chevy LT1 crate engine was the power source of choice for this truck and a few tweaks were done to make it a little more interesting. A Champion radiator with Spal fan was first introduced to keep things cool, and a set of 1 ¾-inch custom headers along with a Borla XR-1 muffler equipped 2 ½-inch stainless dual exhaust system helps the LT1’s breathing ability.
To complement the crate engine perfectly, a new 8L90-E 8-speed auto transmission, which GM developed specifically to be the ideal partner for the LT1, was mated to the motor. General Motors has recently introduced a Connect & Cruise powertrain system of factory-matched engine and transmission combos, which these both are part of, that are equipped with specially calibrated controllers and harnesses to increase the ease of retrofit installs in older vehicles like Mike’s 1950 pickup.
The Hand Treatment
With a fresh performance-driven drivetrain now in place, Jason and the guys at Fat Fender then turned to prepping the GMC’s exterior for paint. The end result was to give Mike’s truck a classic look, but to put a different spin on a regular candy apple red paintjob. The crew ran with Mazda Soul Red Crystal—a color that was first used by Mazda on concept cars and only sprayed by hand given its deep and lustrous finish.
Original exterior parts were used where possible including the grille and mirrors. When replacement parts were needed, LMC Truck helped by sourcing the bumpers and door handles. LED headlights and tails update the GMC’s illumination just enough to give it a much welcomed modern twist. To help maintain a cool appearance on the exterior, a custom bed wood floor was laid down for a timeless addition.
Clean and Cozy
Bryan Cline of Queen Creek, AZ, expertly tackled the tan leather upholstery job, and finished the leatherwork off with a mesmerizing diamond stitch pattern to upgrade the interior. Up front, Dakota Digital gauges now take up residence in the dash, as does a new stereo unit and control panel for the full Vintage Air climate control system. Mike made sure to request power windows and cruise control, which was, of course, obliged given this truck had already been outfitted with all the other top tier amenities one could ask for.
Life in the Fat Lane
For a guy who was raised around the sweet scent of gasoline, you’d think Mike could be a tough customer to please, but Jason Noel and his trusted talent at Fat Fender just applied their business-as-usual approach to his GMC truck project, which was obviously more than enough to deliver the utmost level of satisfaction on this stylish fat fender pickup.
***Story by John A. Mata Jr.***