Obstacles and Slides
We blasted across the open highway and watched the green of trees and grass give way to the bleached tan of sand and scrub; million-dollar homes are replaced by dilapidated trailers that haven't moved in 30 years. Our destination: California's largest lake, the Salton Sea. Formed between 1905 and 1907 when the Colorado River burst through the poorly built irrigation controls south of Yuma, Arizona, the Salton Sea is a saline lake in the Sonoran Desert, a remnant of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, and is roughly 228 feet below sea level--its bed is only five feet higher than the lowest spot in Death Valley and its salinity is slightly higher than the Pacific Ocean's.

Off Route 86, a lone dirt road works its way into the erosion-carved foothills. Slots in the hillside at Truckhaven Hills provided the venue for our shale trail test: The ground is soft and crumbles under our feet. Walking the trail requires steady footwork, as we noted obstacles and crevices our tires could easily slide into.

Before saddling up, editor-in-chief Mark Williams shuttled photog Brian Vance to the other side of the canyon in the Jeep, and we were all reminded how the trail can bite back: While ascending the east face, the Grand Cherokee started to slide sideways towards a ravine. Keeping cool, The Boss spied a slot at the base and decided to back the Jeep into it, where the Power Wagon's winch could haul it out. Cameras trained on the action, Williams, in a perfectly controlled slide, put the G.C. at the bottom of the slot and was hoisted out 10 minutes later, none worse for the wear.

The H3 was the first to navigate the narrow slot in the canyon, its small size and ultralow gear ratio enabling it to finesse its way around hazards and keep to the high side of the trail. Dodge's Big Boy took the trail with the grace of a sumo wrestler performing Swan Lake, its less-than-svelte proportions putting the front tires off the high side of the trail, while the rears clambered to stay out of the ravine on the low side. With the help of dual locked diffs, the Power Wagon narrowly pulled through.