Road to the Summit: Toyota, Expedition Overland and an Epic Off-Road Journey
When exactly does an off-road adventure start? Is it when you physically get behind the wheel? Maybe it’s once your tires hit the dirt. Or is it when the idea is born in the planning stages? For our most recent adventure with Toyota and the Expedition Overland crew, the Drive to the Summit trip started many months ago with an idea from the Toyota team to take its stock vehicles, round up a few journalists willing to rough it for a few days, and explore miles and miles of off-road terrain to and from FJ Summit in Colorado.
Fortunately for us, Toyota extended an invite to come along for this unique trip, and we jumped at the chance to go. Every off-road trip requires planning, preparation, and of course coordinating schedules to make sure a buddy is along for the ride. When it comes to long distance overlanding adventures, the planning takes on another level to ensure a successful trip (with successful meaning being ready for anything and everything and making sure everyone comes home safely).
Expedition Overland Recap Video
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Toyota envisioned a trip that included two small groups of journalists, with one group driving from Arizona through Utah up into Colorado to the small town of Ouray, also known as the Switzerland of America, while the other group would drive back from Ouray along the same route to Arizona.
Although Toyota helped conjure up this idea, they wisely enlisted the help of the Expedition Overland team to make it all happen. Having traveled to places near and far on extended off-road adventures, the Expedition Overland team helped with the planning, logistics and support for the trip, and of course they also helped document the adventure along the way. Kurt Williams, owner of Cruiser Outfitters, was our trail guide for the adventure. Kurt is a life-long Utah resident who knows just about every back road and secret off-road route Utah and surrounding states have to offer, so we couldn’t have asked for a better trail leader.
Also along for the trip was Craig Taguchi, Toyota’s Public Relations Manager, Paul Czaplicki, Toyota’s Vehicle Marketing and Communications Manager, and four journalists, which, other than myself, included Zach Berning from MotusWorld.com and Overland Gourmet, Brian Wong from Cars.com, and Beau Johnston from Toyota Cruiser& Trucks Magazine.
Of the two groups on this trek – with one driving into Colorado and one driving out – our group was the latter flying into Colorado and driving out of town and down through Southeastern Utah and eventually into Arizona (and back into St. George, Utah). Assuming we all made it back in one piece, we’d then drive a few more hours to Las Vegas to fly home.
Our trusty steeds for this adventure included three of the most off-road worthy vehicles in Toyota’s 2016 lineup: the Tundra TRD Pro, the 4Runner TRD Pro, and a 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road. It’s safe to say that Toyota, with a half-ton truck, SUV and a mid-size truck, currently has the most well-rounded lineup in the industry when it comes to off-roading, and part of this trip was to put these rigs to the test. Toyota seemed confident its vehicles would complete the journey, and we were more than happy to see if the rigs would handle the punishment.
FJ Summit Milestone
Although we’ve covered FJ Summit here on Off-Road.com in the past (and Justin Fort wrote a great piece on it for this year’s event), I personally had never been to it until this year. After connecting through Denver and then flying into the small airport in Montrose, we made a short drive out to Ouray, a quaint mountain town with a downtown area not more than a few blocks long and with a population a hair over 1,000. Ouray may be short on people but it certainly has its priorities straight by having two breweries, including Ourayle House Brewery (A.K.A. Mr. Grumpy Pants’ brewery) and Ouray Brewery, both of which we sampled and can verify produce good brews.
After sampling the local watering holes for our first and only night in town, we ventured over to the FJ Summit vendor row, where participants were lining up by the hundreds to hang out, grab food and check out products from event sponsors.
Toyota took the opportunity to formally unveil its new 2017 4Runner TRD Off-Road while in the company of both our coming/going groups of journalists and FJ Summit participants, who were essentially a “home crowd” of Toyota enthusiasts. This new 4Runner offering will replace the Trail model in 2017 and will offer a few additional new features as well. After the announcement we left the FJ Summit gathering to go and grab some food of our own. At dinner, those of us in the second wave listened to tales from everyone in the first group, and we prepared ourselves for the adventure ahead the next day.
Out of Town Through Imogene Pass
The next morning came early. We grabbed coffee around the corner from our hotel and a quick bite to eat, formally introduced ourselves to the Expedition Overland team, and shortly thereafter we were on our way. For some, this type of trip would be hell; for us, we couldn’t wait. We’d have no hotel stays other than our first night in Ouray, would only leave dirt roads to fuel up or if we needed to connect our trail route, and we’d pretty much have little to no cell phone or WiFi access for the next four days. Sounds like the perfect adventure.
The start to our trip was epic. We navigated our way out of town and up into the mountains above Ouray, where we looked back on the small town one last time. With so many organized trail rides for FJ Summit, we had to leave town early to avoid trail traffic. We’d be taking the trail to Imogene Pass up at 13,000 feet (13,114, to be exact). Although we were driving technically stock vehicles, both the TRD Pro Tundra and TRD Pro 4Runner do offer a host of additional upgrades, including upgraded suspension and additional lift for clearance over their non TRD Pro counterparts. The additional lift of the rigs helped make the first water crossing near the start of the trail a little less nerve-wracking. With the Tacoma being all-new in 2016, there’s no TRD Pro version of it available yet (though it will return in 2017), but the 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road model comes to the table ready for the trail (a big reason it was our 2016 Mid-Size Truck Shootout winner). After no time, we realized we wouldn’t need to worry all that much about being in “stock” rigs during the trip and could focus on the trail ahead, and that peace of mind allowed us to enjoy the scenery that much more.
Like the majority of our trip, the trail up to Imogene was stunning. The slow-paced ride was breathtaking, overlooking forests below, creeks and small waterfalls just off the trail, and wildflowers could be seen just about everywhere. We even came across the infamous ice wall as we got closer to the peak.
After a break atop Imogene for photos and snacks, we headed back down the other side of the mountain through a green valley with remnants of the area’s mining history. Our path eventually wound us down into Telluride, Colorado, where we stopped for gas and lunch. We got back on the road and made our way toward Monticello, Utah, where we’d be driving into a section of the Canyonlands National Park to set up camp for the night.
As is the case with any good adventure, our first night was not without event. After repairing the Expedition Overland trailer when it lost its wheel during a fuel stop and shooting some video and photography in Canyonlands in the fading light, we worked our way down to a road to our campsite in the dark, dropping down into a valley and crossing paths with a few deer along the way. With the sun now set, we powered our 4Runner through a few mud holes left by recent rains, being mindful of the fact that we needed to keep a safe distance from the rig in front of us while also not losing site of the vehicles behind us – you know, trail manners.
The caravan was stopped in front of us, and we hopped out to see what was going on. The group had traveled this same road just a few days prior, but heavy rain had literally washed out our road, leaving giant, truck-sized holes that blocked any safe passage forward. We improvised and turned back, driving back up on the mesa we had just descended to find a safe spot for camp. Although we didn’t get camp set up and sit down for dinner ‘til sometime after 10 p.m., we really couldn’t complain. The first group was rained on at a number of camping spots, so we were fortunate to be dry and have our first true taste of adventure on day one.