2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk Long-Term Update 4
Road Tripping a Teardrop
When my wife and I want to get away, we do what we do best: road trip. I love driving and always will. I try to take advantage of the opportunity to see the world at my own pace whenever possible. My wife, Jessica, and I love photography and love experiencing and capturing beautiful places. We have family in Oregon, Washington, and New York, so most of our recent trips have been planned around family gatherings and holidays. So for this trip, in celebration of a decade of living and road tripping together, we decided to go somewhere that had always intrigued us, somewhere neither of us had been: Colorado.
With our destination chosen, the next and most important question was what to drive. I might be the luckiest road tripper out there. I have a pool of long-term vehicles at my disposal, and with a little pleading and bargaining I can get my hands on the keys to almost anything in the Motor Trend fleet. In this case my own long-term 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk was exactly what I wanted.
I have to admit, the first time a saw the new Cherokee I was less than impressed. The front-end styling takes a little getting used to, and the overall look is quite different than the rest of the Jeep lineup. That said, the more time I spend with the little off-roader, the more I like it, especially in Trailhawk form. More important than its looks, the Cherokee was perfect for what we would be taking with us.
I love camping and do so as often as I can (not as often as I would like), but I have never tried staying in a camper trailer. And what a way to start : Meet the So-Cal Teardrops Krawler 459. This particular XS was graciously loaned to us by Off the Grid Rentals for our trip. Based in Orange, California, and renting through their friends at Rebel Off Road, Off the Grid Rentals offers this unique, custom-built teardrop as well as rooftop tents and other camping equipment for rent. Rebel Off Road customized this already cool rig with Method race wheels, 35-inch tires, LED interior and exterior lighting, and custom audio so you can rock out while you cookout. The trailer also features a two-burner propane stove and an attachable sink that along with the built-in water tank, hose, and spray handle makes doing dishes a snap. The full-size, 4-inch-thick foam mattress is super comfortable and has plenty of room for two while on the road. We also opted to bring their ARB fridge/freezer, which is a true luxury if you have ever lived out of a traditional ice cooler for a week.
We started our journey in Laguna Hills, California, at the Rebel Off Road headquarters. After signing some waivers and providing them with proof of insurance, we hooked the teardrop to the Cherokee. When we first got our long-term Trailhawk, it didn't have a factory tow package, so we contacted our local Jeep dealer and had one installed. The Class III hitch features both four- and seven-pin connectors, so connecting all sorts of trailers is easy. (Or at least it should be, but I'll get to that.) With trailer hooked up we did our due diligence and checked all the lights and signals before we hit the road.
We knew our first day was ambitious when we planned it. We left Laguna Hills early and were hoping to make the Grand Canyon by sunset, either camping there or pushing on an hour or two northeast to another campground. Unfortunately, heavy traffic heading out of the Los Angeles basin meant that by the time we hit Barstow, California, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. Combine that with the 55-mph speed limit while towing, and it became obvious that there was no way we were going to be watching the sun go down along the South Rim.
With the possibility of seeing the sunset over the Grand Canyon gone, we relaxed our pace and pulled off the highway around Kingman, Arizona, to start the photographic coverage of the trip. After sunset, we again pushed on toward the Grand Canyon, deciding to camp near the South Rim so we could wake up early and see the sunrise. There are hundreds of campsites around the South Rim, and I figured finding an open site was going to be easy. What I didn't realize is that most of the campgrounds were closed for the season. What was left was full, even on a weekday. And because we hadn't been sure we'd be staying at the South Rim, we didn't have a reservation. This would mark the first of a long line of nights staying in places we didn't want to.
No matter the location, the ease of parking the trailer, dropping the leveling jacks, and hopping in the bed for the night can't be understated. Tent camping is great, but after a long day on the road, not having to set up a tent at night was pretty nice. Unfortunately we were parked in a RV park behind a restaurant and surrounded by bus-sized RVs in the middle of town -- not exactly the natural surrounding we were hoping for.
Getting up before sunrise is one of my least favorite things to do, but watching the sun come up over the Grand Canyon made it worthwhile. This was our first visit to the Grand Canyon, and I have to say it lives up to its name. We spent the morning walking the developed paths along the South Rim, taking photos and taking in the sights. We will come back. Oh yes, we will.
Not wanting to return to the drab RV Park to make breakfast, we pushed ahead along Desert View Drive, which follows the South Rim, until we found a dirt road we could take into the woods to find a spot to make breakfast. The kitchen area of the teardrop is great. Pop the rear hatch, hook up the propane line, and you are ready to go. Scrambled eggs, awesome coffee, and croissants: the perfect start to what was supposed to be a great day.
Because it was towing a trailer at high altitudes, the little Jeep was getting poor fuel economy -- 11 to 12 miles per gallon, and the 15.9-gallon fuel tank meant we were constantly stopping for gas, and long stints through lightly populated areas were a little nerve-racking. It was during one of these frequent fuel stops that we came to the scary realization that none of the trailer's lights were working. We knew the lights were fine when we left Laguna Hills and had been working until late in the evening prior, but somewhere between the Grand Canyon and Kayenta, Arizona, they'd had gone out.
It had to be a fuse, right? If they were working and then stopped, it had to be a fuse. I got the owners manual out and the fuse box open, and I quickly came to the realization that when you get a tow package installed at the dealer, they don't follow factory installation methods. All the fuses that are supposed to be present in the fuse box were empty and unconnected to any electronics. Worse yet, the nearest Jeep dealer that could get us in for service anytime that week was three hours away in Durango, Colorado, and the sun was already on its way down. It was a race to make it as far as we could before having to stop for the night.
Instead of enjoying the surrounding wilderness or walking through town looking at shops and eating at good restaurants, our day in Durango was spent waiting outside of the local Jeep dealership. Here is where I give a shout out: Everyone we met and dealt with at the Morehart Murphy Auto Center Jeep dealer was incredibly friendly and helpful. Unfortunately, the diagnosis was not as good. There had been reports of faulty power-supply units for the tow electronics, and the only dealership that had one to spare was six and a half hours away in Golden, Colorado. Either wait for three days for it to arrive by mail or make the drive ourselves: The choice was easy. The nice folks in Durango allowed us to stow the trailer, still without lights, on their lot while we made the overnight slog to the other side of the state.
Sans trailer we were able to make great time to Golden, arriving just after 2 a.m., giving us just enough time to grab a few hours of sleep before a 7 a.m. service appointment. More bad news came the next morning. After two hours of diagnostics, it turned out the faulty power-supply unit wasn't so faulty after all. A cheap inline blade fuse, tucked way up under the dash near the gauge cluster, was the straw that broke our Jeep's back. I will use this opportunity to give a big thanks to everyone at AutoNation Chrysler Jeep West in Golden. They were able to fit us into a packed schedule and get us back on the road in just a few hours.
With the tow electronics working again, we made the long journey back to Durango to fetch our home on wheels. Our daylight drive back west was much more enjoyable than the sprint the night before. Having missed a lot of the state on our way to Golden, we had a much more enjoyable drive back to Durango, stopping to explore muddy roads and beautiful aspen groves. We never planned for this detour, and in total the cheap blade fuse cost us almost three days. Considering this was the first major issue we had encountered in years of road tripping, we figured it was best to just chalk it up to chance and get back to enjoying ourselves.
The Million Dollar Highway heads north out of Durango and is easily one of the prettiest roads I have ever driven. Every turn revealed a vista of mountains, lakes, and waterfalls grander than the last. We stopped at Haviland Lake to make breakfast and to enjoy the view. The campground there is definitely on our go-back-to list, and it was the perfect way to cleanse us of the past few long travel days and the electronic issues. As we left the campground, the rain, sleet, and snow started to fall, and the trip from Haviland Lake through Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgway was wet, cold, and beautiful. Small communities nestled at the base of mountains, each town is filled with character and natural beauty. Venture off any main road, and the pavement quickly changes to gravel and dirt. We stopped at Colorado Boy Brewery for lunch and a pint. Located in a converted 1915 brick building in Ridgway and packed with locals, Colorado Boy Pub and Brewery provided a nice break from the blustery weather. Good beer, pizza, and friendly people made it a perfect place to relax for a while, and it seemed like everyone else in town agreed, as the place was packed.
The next day's adventure highlighted the trip. Gunnison County Road 12 is a mostly dirt and gravel road connecting Crested Butte to Colorado State Highway 133 near Paonia Reservoir. Crossing over Kepler Pass through some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen was visually overwhelming, the spectrum of orange and yellow leaves and white bark of the aspen trees exploding against a backdrop of jagged snow-capped peaks. This is why we came to Colorado. We stretched the short trip through the mountains over the entire day, stopping around almost every bend to shoot photos and walk through the aspens. We made a quick detour up a steep road past old mineshafts in search of a better view. This side trip was probably the only time I was glad to have higher ground clearance, as the road was rutted and crossed a small stream. The rest of GCR 12 is easily traveled in a normal vehicle -- when it isn't closed during the winter months.
We ended the day at a small, beautiful campground deep in Escalante Canyon between Delta and Grand Junction. The dirt access road to the campground leaves Highway 50 and curves down the steep canyon along the river. The lack of guardrails and any sort of light made for an anxiety-inducing drive at night. The road seemed to just drop off into nothingness along the riverside. Going slow on the gravel meant the trailer's brakes had a tendency to lock up momentarily and cause it to slide as it was pulled behind the Jeep.
The next morning we were rewarded at breakfast with a view of the beautiful red cliffs of the canyon. The Grand Canyon was amazing, but being able to drive into and camp along the river in Escalante Canyon, dwarfed by massive undercut red cliffs and surrounded by old homesteads and wildlife, definitely left an impression.
And then it was time to start our long trip home. Luckily that involved driving through Moab and Monument Valley, neither of which we were able to spend enough time in and both of which will be subjects of future adventures. Our final night, spent high up on a dirt road on a mountain outside Flagstaff, Arizona, was the coldest yet. I awoke the next morning with my sleeping bag frozen to the window of the trailer and a thick layer of frost covering everything. After a cold but delicious last breakfast from the back of the trailer, we were off, nothing left but the long drive back to Los Angeles and the completion of our amazing, frustrating adventure.
More on our long-term 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk here: