Off-Roading a Little Truck
Traversing a trucklet through OC’s Cleveland National Forest
We’ve been off-roading a first-generation Toyota Rav4 for about two years. Silly, yes, but effective. The first Rav4, for all its Japanese-spec weirdness (the back door is a monolith that opens in the wrong direction, narrow seats, odd dash, looks like a decapitated monkey’s head), has some well-considered parts and design. A limited-slip locker was an option for the rear. The all-wheel drive (from the Celica All-Trac parts bin), Rav4s with the five-speed have an optional locking center diff. The engine was the nigh indestructible Camry four, Toyota’s ubiquitous 3S-FE engine, and the platform, though Corolla-based, has an absurd amount of ground clearance (which can be augmented with a lift kit from Old Man Emu). Of course, it’s nearly naked beneath and you’ll need to find protection (Armor Craft built some). Then again, there are so many of these out there that wreck-diving for parts at the junkyard is a piece of cake.
Off-Road Adventure In Someone’s Backyard
Anyone living in California’s Orange County with one good eye and even the slightest inquisitive nature has looked toward Saddleback Mountain or its neighbors (the ridgeline that towers over most of O.C.) and asked themselves, “Selves? What are all those little squiggly lines and grooves cross-cutting all over the faces of the mountains? Are those roads?”
If you spend your days content between the curbs, there probably won’t be much pleasure for you in reading further, but for those of you who’ve been suspended for refusing to leave the playground after recess, for the men and women who park on the lawn because there were no spots left in the driveway, for all of us who have looked at the two-track in a gully beneath an overpass and tried to figure out which freeway exit would take you there, those little squiggly lines are your adventure, your entertainment, your recess.
Accessing Orange County’s Cleveland National Forest
Find some quality national forest location, access the trail maps for it through an off-roader’s digest like any of the “Backcountry Adventures” books by Adler Publishing (4WDbooks.com) or on websites like dirtopia.com, and press forward with the equipment and timing necessary to make a trail run of your own.
The main road running from peak to peak (and connecting to most everything else) is the Main Divide Road. Very original. Cruise Maple Springs Road (5SO4) up Silverado Canyon for a look at the township of Maple Springs (which might as well have grown out of the canyon like a flower grows from a crack in the sidewalk). Harding Truck Trail (5SO8) used to meet Main Divide too. Holy Jim Trail runs up Trabuco Canyon just past Cook’s Corner (off S18 or S19), but it hasn’t reached Main Divide for years unless you like a hike. There’s Blackstar Canyon, up to Beek’s Place—supposedly haunted, reputedly stalked by some dingbat with a penchant for shooting at travelers—which goes up through some delightful high meadows to Main Divide too (if you can stomach the mystery of the missing 250lb of explosives from a nearby mine). You can access Main Divide from the 15 too, off Indian Truck Trail (prepare to rough-ride through a few unfinished subdivisions), Bedford Road (4S03), Skyline Drive or Coal Canyon (from the 91 freeway). Our favorite access, though, is via the southern end of Main Divide itself, which trickles onto Ortega Highway (Route 74), just east or west of the El Cariso fire station. Mind you, Ortega is one of the CHP’s favorites, too.
You’re probably aware of the fires that laid waste to Southern California in 2007. And 2003. And there were a bunch in 2006. And 2000. Things burn here on occasion, but that’s Ma Nature for you. Unfortunately, one in particular—the Santiago Fire in 2007—shut down Maple Springs Road (and scared the Hell out of Maple Springs), shortened Main Divide, and reclosed Harding Truck Trail too, at least for the time being. Maple Springs Road could take you all the way to the spinal road, Main Divide. Talk to the rangers for what’s open and when (fs.fed.us/r5/cleveland/conditions/index.shtml).
Let’s start you off easily enough, from one end to the other: Main Divide Road is passable with most any vehicle. Some ground clearance helps, and four-wheel drive makes it easy. Real tires reduce the chance of a blowout. You can challenge yourself with the trails that offshoot from Main Divide. It’s a 9:00 am to 1:00 pm run if you drive Main Divide north from Ortega Highway, and exit halfway on Indian Truck Trail to the 15 freeway. A run all the way up the center of the forest is an all-day affair (better have good lighting, too), and you’ll exit onto the 91 Freeway.
A few thoughts, rookies: Always travel with other vehicles, or at least with another person in your vehicle. Be prepared with jerk straps, a good jack, lots of water and something to eat (but don’t even consider a fire). Be prepared to walk home. This might sound dramatic, but we usually have at least one licensed firearm with us: stuff living in the bushes would like to kill and eat you, so if you break down at night, prepare to sleep in your rig and be a little scared. Check your head and your truck before leaving for the trail. No guardrails means no second chances, and if you don’t like getting dirty, stay home.
The depths of the Cleveland National Forest that sit between Orange and Riverside County are ripe with historical So Cal. Certainly not to the amount that high-desert California still shows its bones, nor to the mind-blowing degree that you’ll find man’s past in high-mountain Colorado, this section of the Cleveland bears the traces of mining, old military posts, countless unfortunate battles between local Indians and settlers, and lots of interesting trails that lace the whole area together as if was attacked by a schizophrenic with a glue gun.
Get Your Trucklet a Cape
Don’t laugh—yes, it’s a Rav4. Consider it an adventure in futility, something to do because we couldn’t think why not. Budget constraints aside, we didn’t want to turn this thing into something it wasn’t, which was an inexpensive way to go snowboarding in Big Bear and Mammoth without beating up the nice metal in the garage. The trucklet had to be disposable, in a sense, so we had no plans for extensive mods to make it something extraordinary. It was about the fun. It’s capable, durable, sensible, laudable and useful, and with a few bits of hardware an ideal backwoods thrasher. That’s beside the point, though. You and your trucklet can do this, too.
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