Convoys of Sportsmobiles headed out each morning bound for a number of trails, including the famed Alpine Loop and Imogene Pass Road. In late June, snow still covered upper elevations, though the preceding light winter snowfall meant that more wildflowers were visible than in years past. But waterfalls and cascades were flowing, the temperatures were mild, and the trails were clear. While distant wildfires tinged the far horizon with smoke, the Sportsmobile contingent enjoyed picture-perfect conditions.
It’s one thing to test drive a vehicle at a dealership, all smooth roads and silken sales staff, and quite another to clamber up a narrow, rocky path carved into the flank of a mountain. Factor in multi-thousand-foot drop-offs and altitude high enough to require pilots to wear oxygen masks, and you have the ingredients for a typical Sportsmobile owner’s annual rally. Breathtaking scenery doesn’t hurt, either.This trip into the great outdoors was the fifth massing of the Sportsmobile faithful. Alan and Liz Feld of Sportsmobile Fresno dreamed up these events as a forum for teaching buyers how capable their vehicles are in less-than-idyllic conditions. Prior adventures include Baja, Mexico, and Moab, Utah, so a boring dusty field in Nowhere, North America, was not an option. This group drives their off-road vehicles off-road; that’s why the lofty peaks of southwestern Colorado were chosen for the annual event.Molas Lake was base camp for the 102 Sportsmobiles that came from all over the country. Located at a 10,000-ft elevation, a handful of miles south of historic Silverton, Colorado, it provides trout for anglers, calm kayaking for relaxing, and the jumping-off point for three days of exploring mountain passes.
Signing up for the Alpine Loop meant plenty of film would get run through the camera. From the well-preserved ghost town of Animas Forks, switch backs guided participants above the tree line to Cinnamon Pass (12,620 ft), where the wind blew lustily and the view took your breathe away. Next stop was Engineer Pass (12,750 ft), under the skittish eyes of ubiquitous marmots. Filing down the peak into the one-time mining town of Tomboy was like taking a trip into the past. Much of that establishment is still in place, though slowly crumbling. Dropping further into the valley brought us into the affluent resort town of Telluride.
Returning to base camp via the Ophir Pass Road (11,789 ft), the Sportsmobiles traversed trails blessed with the most dramatically sheer drop-offs of the entire rally. Cool heads and steady nerves saw the entire group back at the lake each evening to enjoy hearty meals dished up by Fat City Catering. Entertainment, as well as trips to the surrounding towns, meant that boredom was never part of the scene, unless participants chose to veg. Each trip to the mountains was voluntary, as were the seminars given by Mike Quigley. We each did what we wanted when we wanted. Yet the day trips were well attended, and nobody drove away feeling he didn’t get his money’s worth.Next year’s rally will be descending on beautiful Park City, Utah, in June. Barring a real emergency, there’s no way we’ll miss it. The rally is reason enough to buy a versatile Sportsmobile; the rest of the year is gravy.
The four-day gathering left all the first day for setup and check in (not easy staging 90 vans into the two perfect circles). While Sportsmobile’s pre-runners enjoyed the best weather Moab has to offer in the days leading up to the event, a storm blew in on Thursday, and by bedtime, the area’s beautiful, toothy red earth was transformed into tomato soup.
Friday morning’s ambitious schedule had four groups breaking out of camp at one-hour intervals on excursions to Onion Creek, another for Dome Plateau, and a novice group for the Gemini Bridges, the easiest of our morning’s trails. Though the rain had lightened, most trails were like driving in a stew of overcooked okra, and with serious snow at altitude and visibility extremely limited everywhere (more so the higher we climbed), we joined the Dome Plateau group, led by seasoned Moab guide Hans Weibel (a most affable Swiss expatriate with an uncanny resemblance to actor Max Von Sydow) and Sportsmobile’s ace rep John Kalmbach – but the Dome would have to wait for another day. That morning we limited our thrill ride to edge-of-the-seat precipices, overlooks, and switchbacks that encircle Dead Horse Point State Park at the northeast corner of Canyonlands. By early afternoon, the rains had run their course, the sun was high and strong, and we continued our 29-van-strong meander through – where else? – Meander Canyon and over Potash Road waiting for the sun to dry up the mud.
Quigley chassis are solid beef and ever ready to leave the pavement, with Dana 60 differentials churning ahead and behind the heavy-duty Borg-Warner transfer case, along with the benefit of manual locking hubs. Still, there are cautions to be observed in a nearly 8.5-ft-high van, especially one that tips the scales at 8000 lb. (We must point out the availability of an expandable pop-top that’s a mere 7 ft tall when collapsed, not a lot taller than a Ford Excursion.) The four-wheel Sportsmobile can do just about anything smaller four-wheelers can do on the rocks where clearance is not an issue-but it must do them deliberately.
We began our outrageous dallying journey with the climb to Dome Plateau, which gave us an overview of our campsite just across the Colorado. From there, it was down to the Canyonlands. (We suggest making your first pass through this wonderland as a passenger; the views are beyond majestic and the drops so precipitous, no one should be made to choose. First time for the eyes, second time for the drive.)
The route to Canyonlands took us past our first petroglyph sightings, then up Long Canyon onto Pucker Pass (where you stay puckered right to the point when you can again unlock your hubs). It seemed as if every square mile was an entity unto itself vastly different from the last sector we’d passed through, and nothing like what we were approaching. Wonderful hollow arches everywhere, but no two alike. At Musselman Arch, we steadied our nerve to walk across the 4-ft-wide bridge-like formation, with no bottom in sight.
Spires with names like the Priest and Two Nuns, Moses and Zeus, and Washerwoman, could be named nothing else, so obvious was the resemblance to their titles. Rock faces250 with chalky little dabs running up and a rope dangling down always led the eye to rock climbers reveling in their crazy pastime. We again got out at Gooseneck Overlook to search for the remains of Thelma and Louise. (Hans told us the film crew had to create a short asphalt road for the T-Bird to gather speed and launch over the edge. Three tries and three T-Birds later, the film was in the can. The flattened ‘Birds had to be airlifted out, and there’s no trace of the asphalt today.) Other groups made it to more difficult locales like the Navajo Sandstone slick rock of Poison Spider Mesa Trail, a real tribute to Sportsmobile mettle with the trails still a lot less than firm.
Back at our base camp, the cantina was heating up for the evening’s festivities before next morning’s departures. A seminar from the guys at WARN Winch was a hands-on affair, and Mike Quigley and Tiger Brun from Quigley Motor Company covered chassis science from bumper to bumper. After another feast from Fat City, it was Cowboys and Cowgirls at the Casino, a fun couple hours of casino games and raffle (with great prizes), the movie land villa a perfect backdrop to this Western-themed night. Then the official Sportsmobile All-Star Band, an unbelievably talented group of players, Sportsmobilers all. Each year they practice and write a song or two especially for the annual gathering. Our favorite? “Pop-Top Blues.”
Camp broke up on Sunday, and we were off, though a lucky few with no Monday morning commitments stayed to tackle the more difficult climbs opened up by the good weather. Next year’s rally will be a trek to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, then for 2003 it’s back to Moab.