Sky's the Limit with Nitto Exo Grappler AWT Tires
Vehicle modifications can be a slippery slope, so to speak. Adding trail prowess is almost always at the expense of road manners and drivability on the street. My wife and I have a lot of “clown cars” in our driveway, but this ’04 Ford F-150 is the do-all workhorse, daily driver, and camping rig. It was left stock for years and rarely let us down. Recently though, on a trip to the Sierra Buttes, the Ford had trouble making it to one of our favorite destinations. The frame scraped as we crossed steep water bars in the trail, and the tires didn’t provide enough traction to keep progressing forward.
We could have dusted off one of the clown cars, with giant tires and locked differentials, but driving 100 miles on twisty roads to the buttes in one of those cars didn’t sound very appealing. The solution was to add just a wee bit more ground clearance and traction to the Ford, without breaking the bank or making any sacrifices on the street. Rancho quickLIFT struts were added in place of the factory front struts to level the truck and gain 2-inches of clearance in front, improving the approach angle. The quickLIFT is available either with new springs for a bolt-in installation, or the less expensive option we chose that retains the factory springs.
The added height made room for LT275/70R18 Nitto Exo Grappler AWT tires that are 1.5" inches taller than the factory size tires we replaced. This height boost gives us additional ground clearance without being so drastic as to affect transmission shift points, the need to gear the differentials, or being concerned with the tires rubbing the body. We retained the factory Ford rims to fit our theme of not breaking the bank on our work truck. The Exo Grappler is a new offering from Nitto that is built on their tough Trail Grappler carcass, but with a more road friendly tread design, fitting into the Nitto line up between the Terra Grappler and Trail Grappler. The tread design for the Exo Grappler AWT features several sipes and lateral grooves, creating biting edges to provide traction in rain and snow conditions. The square edges of the tread pattern are designed to improve stability by reinforcing the center tread blocks for an increased contact patch. A special mix of natural rubber, high strength polymers and wear resistant materials aids cut and chip resistance when traveling off the pavement. Once the tires were mounted, we set our sights on Sierra City and the Sierra Buttes. The Exo Grappler tread was designed with the aid of computer modeling, specifically designed to reduce road noise. On the pavement, the tires were quiet and provided excellent grip. The taller sidewalls did not result in any added roll in the turns, thanks to their tough 10 ply rating. The durable Exo Grapplers also gave us confidence that we wouldn’t be changing a tire on the side of the road. The highway leading to our destination is littered with sharp rocks that have fallen into the road, and we witnessed other poor souls with less rugged tires pulled off of the road during our trip. The Sierra Buttes are a beautiful destination, but beauty can often be synonymous with crowds during peak season. The ability to leave behind RVs and crossovers provides us with more opportunities to commune with nature away from the buzz of generators and neighbors. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses through this part of the country. Spanning 2,663-miles from Canada to Mexico, the PCT passes through 27 national forests and seven national parks. Elevation ranges from sea level to 13,153 feet at Forester Pass, south of the Sierra Buttes. Elevation in the area we traveled is approximately 7,000 feet. Our first foray off the pavement was to Upper Sardine Lake. This is a trail we've previously shied away from in our F-150 for fear of damage. The trail is short and not overly technical, but is narrow and has enough challenges to keep most stock 4x4s away. The modifications we made to our Ford allowed us to complete the trail without issue, although we did use a spotter and take our time. Next we hit the trail for the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout, our destination for the day. Along the way we encountered some mud in shady, low lying sections of the road. The large voids on the Exo Grapplers did an excellent job of cleaning out the wet mud. The staggered shoulder blocks provide biting edges for improved off-road traction in loose and wet surfaces. As we climbed in elevation, the mud turned to snow. This is where the Nitto Exo Grappler AWT really shined. AWT stands for “All Weather Traction”, and the Exo Grapplers proudly wear a Three Peak Mountain Snowflake rating. The generous sipes and large lateral grooves provide biting edges and significant water and snow evacuation, combined with a durable compound that allows for confident traction, even in freezing temperatures, we drove on in confidence. Eventually the snow got deep enough that we were not comfortable continuing on. Had we been traveling with a second vehicle and recovery equipment, we would have been bolder. As it was, we travelled past all of the other vehicles we encountered during the day. We aren’t saying there was a competition, but hey… Traveling to the fire lookout in early spring meant that we were postholing our way through parts of the trail. This is the price you pay to enjoy this popular destination without crowds. Fortunately the weather was warm enough that, when combined with the physical exertion, we stayed very comfortable on the trail. Geology nerds drool over the Sierra Buttes. The range is made up of metamorphic rocks, some of which have melted two or three times during past volcanic activity. The volcanic breccia shown here was found near the jagged peaks high within the range. Non-geology nerds can take comfort in knowing that there are some very pretty rock formations found throughout this area. Located at over 8,500 feet in elevation, on a clear day the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout has views of Mount Lassen, located over 100 miles away. The lookout was built by the Forest Service a century ago to spot wild fires. With modern satellite imaging, this is a job that is now obsolete. Being tasked with that job must have been both a blessing and a curse, as this location is both beautiful and remote. Views from the lookout are stunning. From this vantage point we can see Upper and Lower Sardine Lakes, where we started our adventure earlier in the day, and Haskell Peak behind them. The Sierra Buttes contain several small alpine lakes with excellent fishing and camping opportunities. Mountain biking is also immensely popular in this area, with hundreds of miles of challenging single track. Machu Pichu? No, but you would be excused for thinking so. The Sierra Buttes are a beautiful location found approximately an hour north of Lake Tahoe. The jagged east face of Sierra Buttes often has snow all year, and the beautiful views make the steep hike rewarding. After enjoying a snack at our destination, the winds picked up and the skies darkened. When we heard a clap of thunder, we knew that it was time to head back to the truck. We headed back down the 200 stairs that we had just climbed to reach the tower. To return home, our options were either to backtrack the way we had come in, or continue five miles down dirt roads to Sierra City. This road reminded us of being in Colorado, where the narrow path clings to the side of the mountain. At times we needed a spotter to navigate past tight sections of the trail. We would not want anything wider than our F-150 for this particular road. The trail to Sierra City drops nearly 2,000 feet in elevation in just five miles. This road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, but fortunately we did not encounter any traffic. After returning to the pavement we continued home, basking in the satisfaction of accomplishing our goals for the trip. Now the poor old F-150 will get washed off and put back into daily use of commuting and hauling parts for clown cars.