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Off-Road Warriors: Taking the Road to the Summit Aboard Toyota’s 4WD vehicles

Tackling Arizona, Utah, and Colorado’s Trails in Toyota’s Beefy Rides

Tackling Arizona, Utah, and Colorado’s Trails in Toyota’s Beefy Rides

It was 6 a.m. when the alarm went off. The 40-degree weather and rain from the Colorado Rockies led to a rude awakening. My clothes were wet; my sleeping bag had soaked up all the water that had leaked into my tent, and the cold was causing my body to shiver.

For the past three days I’ve been on an off-road and camping adventure through the beautiful terrains of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. The adventurers that accompanied me—former MT assistant road test editor and now Toyota PR master Nate Martinez, Toyota marketing manager Allen Vaught, and two other journalists—are aboard the Tacoma TRD Off-Road, 4Runner TRD Pro, and Tundra TRD Pro. The experts from Expedition Overland agreed to take us on this adventure.

Three days before, the Expedition Overland team greeted us in Saint George, Utah, our start point. After a brief explanation of what we were going to experience, I hopped into the Tundra to embark on a journey I will never forget. It is on these kinds of trips that you can see how big and fearful the desert can be. But out of nowhere, we ran into Mount Trumbull, a ghost town whose schoolhouse lies abandoned next to rotting houses with broken windows and doors hanging on their hinges.

Toyota Fleet 02

As we headed east to bypass the first of many mountains, the terrain began to change, becoming bumpier with every passing mile. But this wasn’t an issue for our Tundra. With 4High activated, the truck never lost traction, and climbing the twisty trail of the mountain was an easy task. Its 5.7-liter V-8 under the hood provided plenty of power to move two bodies, a lot of gear, and three full spare tires we had in the box. When we finally reached the top, the Arizona heat was left behind; we reached a comfortable 75 degrees, perfect for a lunch with a view.

Chicken salad? Sure, I’ll take it. The Expedition Overland team had two full stoves, refrigerators, and all the necessities for 11 of us to enjoy three meals every day for four days. Rufio and X3 (the names used for Expedition Overland’s 4Runner and Tacoma, respectively) were equipped well enough that we were able to indulge in restaurant-style dishes such as steak fajitas and pot stickers. Camping suddenly turned into glamping.

Our first campsite was in Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah. We slept surrounded by sunset-colored rocks with peculiar forms and hungry coyotes hunting rabbits. The team’s medic worked nights as our talented bartender, serving up drinks that sparked conversations under the stars before it was time for sleep.

Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro rear three quarter 06

As our trip continued, the terrain became rougher and rougher. The 4Runner TRD Pro was my chariot for the second day. Cellphone signal was nonexistent, but Sirius XM never lost its reception. The amazing view from the Grand Staircase, an enormous sequence of rock layers, gave us a glimpse of the kind of terrain we were approaching.

What we couldn’t see from above was Burr Trail and its switchbacks. This narrow way dropped about 700 feet from the top to the bottom, causing the butterflies in my stomach to wake up when I looked down. The steering in the 4Runner was softer than what I had experienced the day before, and it provided a good sense of what I needed when off-roading. 4High kept the traction controlled at all times, even when the trails turned windier.

Once we left the switchbacks behind, we stepped on the gas. Cruising at about 55 mph (88 km/h) through the trails, we put the suspension on the spot, but the TRD Bilstein high-performance shocks kept the cabin smooth throughout the rugged terrain. My only complain was the infotainment system, which turned off a couple of times during the day. (The car we were driving was a prototype.)

As we stopped for lunch, the sun was blazing down upon us, reaching scorching temperatures of above 105 degrees. The cold meats and French cheeses we ate in the middle of the trail went well with our kaffiyeh, a square scarf used in the Middle East that provides sunburn protection.

After getting on Highway 276, we headed southeast on Highway 95 toward Lake Powell. Once in 2WD, the 4Runner showed its pavement capabilities. The body-on-frame SUV with its 270 hp felt comfortable when passing other cars. I found myself using the old five-speed auto transmission in manual mode for a more convenient and precise way to downshift. A spacious cabin and comfortable seats led to a nice ride.

Toyota Fleet 01

As we climbed Mormon Pasture Mountain, lightning and rain began to come our way. We settled in an open space next to elks and deer. A few minutes after setting up the tents and sleeping gear, rain began to pour from the ominous clouds. The awnings from Rufio and X3 kept us dry, but the thunder made us climb into the vehicles to wait out the storm.

All that water made the next morning more difficult. The muddy trails caused us to be extra careful at all times, leaving a bigger distance between our truck and the one in front of us. The Taco was my companion for that day, which consisted of windy trails, impressive vistas, and more highway cruising. The Taco’s 3.5-liter V-6 turned out to be quite efficient in fuel economy. Although we spent more time on the pavement than on the trails, its interior felt comfortable, and the JBL sound system made our tunes sound clean and crisp. The 120-volt power outlet located in its bed served as the only source of energy to power Martinez’s laptop during our lunch spot. We waved adios to the Utah scenery. As we entered Colorado, the Rockies soared above the horizon, welcoming us in.

Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro front three quarter in motion 01

The Tacoma communicated a sense of refinement on the road. The quietness of its cabin made a serene and comfortable ride, and the back seats were able to provide plenty of space for our gear. Being able to lift the seat cushions from the back row allowed us to have our suitcases, backpacks, sleeping gear, and boxes in the back. Desert Storm, our Taco’s nickname, got us to the last campsite of the trip on time.

When I woke up, my clothes and my sleeping bag were wet from the nonstop rain that poured down on us. We left for Telluride early, and soon after that we began climbing the peak. The Tundra made it challenging to drive through the narrow trails. There were a few moments when the tires were just inches away from the cliff, but my co-pilot and longtime compadre Martinez hollered if I needed to turn or continue straight. The high beltline of the Tundra and its long hood made it difficult to see ahead, but Martinez kept his eyes open to prevent disaster. Imogene Pass reminded me of Bolivia’s Death Road, a dirt road with huge drops, high traffic, and no guardrails. The vertigo in my stomach was unlike anything I had felt before. It wasn’t until after we crossed the tree line that we activated 4Low on the Tundra. The terrain started to get more difficult, and the lack of oxygen made it harder for everyone to breathe.

We arrived in Ouray without a single flat tire. None of the vehicles were damaged, and everyone was safe. Ouray greeted us with good food, drinks, and some proud Toyota FJ Cruiser owners. While talking to some of them, I noted their loyalty toward Toyota. They were there to have fun with their vehicles and enjoy the terrains they were made to tackle. What caught my eye was the number of families present. I felt that parents used this opportunity as a way of teaching their children about off-roading and inculcating a car culture that we see less and less in the new generations.

We live in a country with many national parks, recreation areas, and trails to explore what’s out there. America is a country with very diverse terrains. It’s up to us to use them.

1964 Toyota Tiara
A 1964 Toyota Tiara drives through a sequoia in Yosemite National Park in California.