FJ Summit XI: Seven Reasons to Do FJ Summit XII

FJSXI brings 'Yoters to Southwest Colorado's backcountry trails and history

Aug. 21, 2017 By Justin Fort, photos by Majid Gol and Justin Fort

Colorado has a reputation as rugged country - the bumpy parts, anyway - but it's easy to forget that those pointy peaks are rough and unfriendly when all you do is take their picture. Fortunately for 'froaders of the FJ flavor, their preferred terrain predisposes them to an intimate connection with the rocky roads and high mountain passes in this rough and pointy terrain: the annual FJ Summit is all about it. Add frantic daily downpours, avalanche blitzkriegs and some complicated trails, and the attendees of this year's FJ Summit XI (that's 11, folks) got a very unvarnished taste of high-mountain off-roading.

1. The Terrain

Do you like rocks? Check. Weird creeping uphill trails that terminate in more trail? Check. How about long crumbly two-tracks from one historic nook to another, often through several additional historic nooks? Check.

Trails in this section of Colorado trend towards the rocky and the relic-laden, with classics like Engineer Pass (one of Otto Mears' original toll roads), Imogene (named for a mine owners' wife, and the second-highest vehiclable pass in the United States), Ingram/Black Bear (Telluride and near-death experiences go well together), Poughkeepsie (because winches are good too), Yankee Boy Basin (if you're curious what the top of the world looks like). Low-range is a plus but not usually necessary, though four-wheel drive is. Good tires, adequate ground clearance, effective cooling and an attentive driver will get you almost everywhere. There are plentiful ways to make an easy section of trail complicated, and more than a few offshoots and shunts (countless, if you bring your universal key) that allow you to explore tougher terrain.

FJ Summit sees more and more "other" Toyotas every year. GXs (like this one at The Wall) have benefitted from a growing market of crawling and trail-prep parts.

If you're not overly excited by challenging terrain, how about some relatively easy trails that are scenic, levied in historic awesomeness with just a pinch of life-threatening? No guard rails here: from high-mountain to Highway 550, even the easy trails put you in the cradle of local wonderment and mankind at its best (though even easy trails can be hard on the sensibilities if you can't fathom a 100ft drop-off or two). Some of these roads - the Animas Loop, Cinnamon Pass, California Gulch and Ophir Pass among them - were carved right out of mountainsides because that's where the road (or railroad!) needed to be. If you're lucky, it'll stay there until after you've passed.

Trails that run closer to "safe," such as California Gulch, pictured here rising from Animas Forks past the Columbus Mill, are ideal for folks who aren't into dents.

2. The Event

FJ Summit was on its eleventh year this July, with no signs of slowing down. Dozens of vendors were arranged around the circular event midway (the tree-lined parking loop of Ouray's Twin Peaks Lodge) chatting up everything from suspension components, engine parts, power-adders, tires, recovery gear, bumpers and armor (so much armor), winches, truck tents (so many tents), wheels, restoration, and everything between. And as this is a 'froading event - no poseurs here - if you missed folks from Wonderbits Off-Road Tough Guy company, it's near certain you'll run into them at 12,000ft on-trail.

It's hard to photograph a 100-yard long circular midway, so use your imagination. 40-plus vendors, at least 1000 people, and more than 400 trucks.

The summit's largish end-of-week raffle drew another big crowd, though this year's was interrupted by some serious wind gusts and the unplanned disassembly of one vendor's booth. Group meals every night (catered by the hotel) lend a familial air to the summit: that's one of its aces - the good feelin' mom-and-pop vibe makes a get-together like this easy on the soul. You can let the kids wander just like your conversation, and everyone's pleasant to be around, even the lumpy crawler types.

3. The Camaraderie

Yes, that's the correct spelling. One of the upsides of rolling with Toyota people is that they're not truck racists. One group of five we spied repeatedly at FJ Summit had just FJ40 in it. The other 'Yotas were third-gen 4Runners, plus a small-blocked CJ-7 (gasp, a Jeep!) and a traditionally executed Ranger pre-runner (gasp, sand!). ... And the FJ was LS-powered. Of the 1000 attendees of this year's summit, we'd have guessed that only 50% were in FJ-coded trucks, with about 40% "other" Toyotas - from 4Runner to GX to Tacos and pickemups a'plenty - and the last 10% were only Toyota by association.

Word from FJ Summit organizers stated about 225 of the 400 trucks registered were FJs, with an increase in the aforementioned "others." Increased lurkers added heavily to the 400 registered trucks. Another thing that increased was the group's charitable activity, with local donations and trail support both up over 2016. FJ Summit's leadership urges 2018 hopefuls to track them on the website and Facebook.

It’s still heavy on the FJ Cruisers, so fear not. Trails like Poughkeepsie augment the “Let’s watch” supportiveness of the event – everyone wants to drive home.

4. The Risks

Yes, there are those. FJ Summit is about four-wheeling with your Toyota buddies, and that means you'll wind up in a few four-wheeling pinches. Some of these trails are, as previously mentioned, perilously close to the edge of mountains and cliffs because they ARE the edges of mountains and cliffs. If you're competent and your rig is squared away, the potential for a long plunge off a short shoulder is limited, but there's no cure for stupid. Don't be.

'Froad with friends – you never know when your next recovery will be. At least two FJs drove off clifflike features this year (ahem, put your phone down).

This year's FJ Summit added the relatively rare Colorado sauce of torrential summer rain. The heavy rain, in turn, introduced a lot of trailfans to Colorado's favorite crumbled topping: rubble. Avalanche after avalanche rendered easy roads like Camp Bird (FR 853) temporarily treacherous but, as has been said, using your noggin can reduce your encounters with boulders.

 Just say it: boulders! Serious gullywashers and the affiliated washouts and avalanches added a level of doom not found in ordinary off-roading events.

The spotty but heavy rain also became a common denominator for on-trail skill-sets, doing a fine job ruining people's lines and mussing up their hair. The risky weather, which had little parallel in FJ Summit lore, salted trails with a scrambling, tentative flavor: two-tracks and scree fields once passable under dry conditions became teeth-gritting attention-getters that tested the wiles of intrepid FJers from 48 states. Otherwise one-and-up crawling features like The Wall on Poughkeepsie Gulch and long-running ledgefests like Imogene became serious when wet, and some, such as The Wall, were reduced to near-total winch parties due to the combination of mud and broken Jeep parts on all the usually tractable surfaces.

Big blooms of glutted greenery presented a fine upside to the countless creek fordings and soupy trail mud. Caution: more plants mean more animals feeding on them.

5. The Scenery

Take a minute with the mediocre images in this story. The author is not an expert photographer, by any means. That said, picture seeing all these spectacular 14,000ft peaks and associated valleys, gulches, meadows and affiliated skylines in person. Then, make plans to do so.

You can't fake the awesome: every turn presents a new masterpiece (and the great four-wheeling that hides behind it).

6. The Locals

These areas - towns like Ouray and Silverton, in particular - depend on visitors' dollars to keep themselves in good stead, and locals' good gratitude is not in short supply. Ouray, where FJ Summit is held, has been referred to as the Switzerland of the West, and once held more wealth than the rest of the state (due in large part to the stunning riches pulled from mines uphill from town). It is still a charming little burg, if not quite as rich.

The Ouray fire department teams up with the high school girl's volleyball team to wash trucks at the end of the week.

Silverton, 20-minutes south, is the only town in San Juan County, and is much more dependent on tourist dollars. The city opened up a number of its streets to OHV access in 2015 so people camped in the surrounding state and federal forest lands could drive their ATVs and side-by-sides into town for provisions, and it's been much to the city's benefit. Ridgeway, to the north of Ouray, usually houses a number of summit-goers as well. Nicknamed "Pebble", Ridgeway has been infested by techy non-comms from Boulder who seek a country getaway but cannot afford property in gentrified Telluride.

Speaking of locals, summit attendees come from near and far. This pickup from nearby Montrose climbed The Wall sans assistance while we were there. Use those sliders!

7. The Location

The mountains, the history, the access, the mindset, the affordability... The character of the trails in the southwestern Colorado region is a key element of the allure - you can get yourself lost in a big way, and park your bumper on obstacles that require real skill to navigate, but you're never really alone alone - Drive any trail a few minutes, and you'll probably encounter a local using the trail to commute home from work. FJ Summit takes most of the guesswork out the process of "how" and "where," too - they make getting lost easy (figuratively speaking).

And the history - the Americana - is still everywhere, despite the EPA and local representatives of a relic-erasing bureaucracy keep trying to remove. If it wasn't for miners, explorers and prospectors of Colorado, the rail magnates and the bartenders, the lives and livelihoods they brought with them, none of this delicious backcountry access would exist. Thank those people. Honor them. ... And the next time brings up removing traces of industry in Colorado's mountains, as why they'd erase history (and make sure they're not doing it at your expense). Newsletter
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