Rav4 Crawler: Trail Testing

Aug. 22, 2008 By Justin Fort

With photos by Erik "E-Rock" Petersen

With its new Armor Craft skidplate in place, we hit the trail to do a shakedown of the little guy. So far nothing has fallen off and the skidplate saved our hides by taking out a rock that jumped in our way.

How long is the original clutch going to last? Not to doubt Murphy’s Law, it’s unambiguously likely that in questioning it just now we’ve doomed said OEM part to an ignoble end. That does happen. Then again, the Japanese build some fine vehicles and the indomitable trucklet we’ve taken the whip to on Off-Road.com might be Murphy-proof. One dozen Hail Marys, please.

We climbed the ridge of the Cleveland National Forest for some static shots of our Rav4. Hopefully scenic enough that we could milk the trip for a few installments of the Rav4-Crawling series, among other editorial coverage it’s seen. The new Armor Craft transmission & pan skid plate also needed documentation and the high-quality background couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, we could park the Rav4 at some weird angle and get shots of the undercarriage now girded for battle.

Cleveland National Forest: In Your Back Yard
Take a look at Dirtopia and you’ll get an idea of the range and quality of the trials winding about the Cleveland National Forest. Though a large portion of the open access we’d all prefer has been shut down since SoCal’s most recent bout of spectacularly awful fires (October 2003, then again in October 2007, in case you were under a rock with your eyes closed and your fingers in your ears), a few of the back doors are still open. Some of the good trails, like Maple Springs, Blackstar (reportedly very haunted – we’ll check), Silverado Canyon and Harding Truck Trail have been closed due to fire damage (write your local ranger to ask for access), but you can still dead-end Holy Jim Trail, Indian Truck Trail is still good, we’ve heard Skyline is open and the southern and northern entrances to the spine itself – Main Divide Road – are still accessible. You can’t get to Santiago Peak right now, but ask nicely (and repeatedly) and that might change.

You could say this was a test of the cooling system in the trucklet that could, too. For some dumb reason we’d chosen to do this run on the hottest weekend of the year, and for the second day in a row temperatures crested 100-degrees Fahrenheit by noon. Yes, we’re idiots. The trucklet didn’t overheat, though, and all we’ve done is flush its radiator.


You can make out the blemish caused when we beta-tested the Armor Craft forward skid plate – passenger side, at the crease.

We’d been through the process at Armor Craft, getting the forward armor planned and proto’d and Rich & Brian fabbed it up in just a week. It was thick and robust, and short of a few design oversights that will be solved in production, it was just right. Expect coverage of the Armor Craft Rav4 skid plate in the next Rav4-Crawling installment. Though we’ll be back to their North County facility to plan the belly & tank skid plate next month, the forward unit was the most important, so we went there first. Now it was on the trucklet, and we were looking for rocks.

Turn Here: Main Divide Road to Nowhere

Entry to Main Divide Road – State Route 3S04 – is easy off the Ortega Highway (SR 74), but only for the north entrance. We still couldn’t tell you where southern access is. Spend a few minutes online and print up some trail maps if you want to have a clue where you are. Headed east on Ortega, you’ll see the El Cariso Fire Station about two seconds before the north entrance to the trail, and you’ll hook a left. We won’t treat you like dummies – if you can’t find the trail from here, you don’t belong out here and you might not get into the Cub Scouts either.

Toyota Rav4

it been clear, this shot would have some Pacific in it. Instead, you get the haze of a baking SoCal.

A billion degrees, the holiday weekend and still there was oncoming traffic up here. Meanwhile, it wasn’t long before we whoop’d ourselves into a gully and spanged the Rav4’s new forward skid plate into the trail. We were being careful but it’s just rough in spots. The impact reverberated through the trucklet like a cheap bell – it’s much stiffer than we’ve given it credit for – but nothing felt amiss as we rolled to a stop and clambered out to sniff around for the smell of spent money. There was no damage. We checked the plate, its superstructure, the fasteners, and short of a nice gouge in the 3/16”s plate aluminum (not through, just cosmetic), everything was golden. The rock we tapped wasn’t as fortunate. We’d smashed the poor thing into the trail. You could tell which one it was, about the size of a baseball with the dark stain of aluminum on it, but it was so flattened we couldn’t even get a good picture of it.

Considering the amount of damage we could have done had things not held up in front, we stopped using second gear much afterwards. That meant we were going to mind the mechanical situation more closely too, as this was a 155,000-mile Rav4 with a lot of original parts on it. One of those we’d been feeling sorry for was the OEM clutch, which just keeps taking abuse. Not that we’d been trying to kill it (there is a Centerforce clutch if we need to upgrade, but considering the OEM’s pluck we might not), but there’s only so long that we can make up for a lack of low-range with love of the clutch. Some hills are just too steep. Then again, this is a $5000 grocery-getter that happens to do trails and not a serious rock-mosher so a minor parts sacrifice isn’t much.

Be Smarter than your Surroundings

The road climbs fast, putting y’all up and well above the inland valley inhabited by Lake Elsinore and the 15 freeway. Take your time, park, shoot some pictures or video and suck up all this nature – the views are exceptional. It’s not much of a road, mind you. Folks who live in less inhabited midways would recognize this as a basic backwoods fire road, but if you’re one of those Californians who’s used to pavement, mile-markers, a Starbucks on every corner and not having a clue to the name of the guy who mows your lawn, start paying attention. There are no guardrails here. No warning signs, no traffic cops, things live in the bushes that will eat you given half a chance and seldom anything but your own common sense will keep you from doing something lethally stupid and taking the shortcut to town 1000 feet down.

We’ve said it before: if you have any doubt of your abilities or dreams of being extra-adventurous, go off-roading with multiple vehicles, two or three minimum. This is not the place to break down or get lost and if you could actually make a call, we’ll bet you a dollar that an off-road tow is a long, long way away.

Toyota Rav4

offshoot the main spinal road – Main Divide Road – regularly, but we recommend you scout them before setting foot. They can be H-A-I-R-Y.

Fun little play trails shoot off the main “road” – it’s more of a well-developed two-track cleaned up by a bulldozer twice a year – and you can spend a day and night up here, on purpose or by mistake. We wound up taking what we thought was the Main Divide turn towards Santiago Peak, but it was the turnoff for Indian Truck Trail, a relatively easy downhill to the 15 freeway and a bunch of ill-planned developments. Seems Main Divide is still blocked off to the central sections of Cleveland National Forest. Ask your local ranger to change that.

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