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On the road with Amateur Geologist ...

OK, we caved. We bought an SUV.

Oh, we resisted for years. We were so smug zipping around in our sports coupes grumbling about those gas guzzlers we were trying to see around. We wanted superb handling in our vehicles. We saw a safe vehicle as one that was nimble and that could stop on a dime. We still do.

But we took a trip to Death Valley in winter and decided the quickest way to get there was to fly into Las Vegas and rent a vehicle and drive. We rented a Jeep Grand Cherokee because we didn't want to be limited as to where we could go. We entered Death Valley by way of the 4-wheel drive road through Titus Canyon. We had a blast. In fact, we had so much fun, we decided to rent another Jeep Grand Cherokee on our summer vacation to the Colorado Rockies. He found ancient rocks and fossils, she found alpine meadows of flowers to photograph. We drove to the tops of mountains. Sometimes we had them all to ourselves. We found adventure on famous roads such as Engineer Pass and the dazzling Imogene Pass, which tops out over 13,000 feet. Mostly we fell in love with the ability to get to such wonderful places.
Imogene Pass in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

We take several trips a year to the Sierra Nevada. We especially love the spectacular eastern Sierra, the Mono Lake area, Owens Valley, and the White and Inyo mountains. Besides being enthralling, this area is a geologist's dream - earthquake faults, recent volcanic activity, cirques, roof pendants, glacial moraines, columnar basalt, and granite, granite, granite in John Muir's Range of Light, the Sierra Nevada. If you love geology and don't know about this wonderful area, you owe it to yourself to learn about and see this magical land. We had been frustrated in our weekend trips because we couldn't go everywhere we wanted in the vehicles we had, especially those bumpy dirt roads that go to the best places. It finally dawned on us that we were destined to own an SUV. Such a vehicle seemed the best way to reach what we are most passionate about - geology, being outdoors in the grandeur of nature, and nature photography.

Our requirements were a vehicle that had strong off-road capabilities and still handled relatively well and was comfortable to travel long distances in. And we wanted reliability. So when we heard that the 2003 Toyota 4Runnner was coming, we waited. We liked what we saw. In January we became the proud owners of a silver 4Runner named Allie. Even though we have been busy starting up Amateur Geologist, Allie has already taken us to some great places. For example, she took us back to Death Valley and Cottonwood and Marble Canyons. And she took us to Cerro Gordo, an old mining ghost town high in the Inyo mountains with superb views of the Sierra crest on one side and vistas of Eureka valley on the other. She took us to Haystack mountain, a hunk of decaying granite not far from Lone Pine California, where at last Dana found a sample of amazonite that he had read about in Gem Trails of Northern California.


One of the roads we discovered in 4WD Adventures Colorado
 

So now we have an SUV, and maybe you do too. Where can we go? While we were in Colorado we greatly enjoyed using the guide 4WD Adventures Colorado and enthusiasticly explored some of the routes it describes. What we love about this book is that it gives extremely explicit route directions. You always know whether you are on the right road. For example, it might say, at 0.2 miles from the start is a creek crossing and at 0.8 miles is an old cabin on the left, and so on for the entire route. It gives GPS coordinates at several places along each trail. It describes each route and lists the degree of difficulty, how much time the route takes, how long it is, its elevation, when the trail is usually open, and how scenic it is. A map of each route is included and so are one or two very nice color photographs for each trip. So its a great guide if you want to go on backroads of Colorado.

But this series has several other books that use the same format for Arizona, Utah, and California too. If you want a book that covers an entire state, consider Backcountry Adventures: Arizona, Backcountry Adventures: Utah, Backcountry Adventures: Northern California, and Backcountry Adventures: Southern California (yeah, we know northern and southern California are not separate states, but Californians think of them that way.)

These large books written by Peter Massey and Jeanne Wilson contain scads of information about the history, people, geology, plants, and animals of the state before the trail descriptions begin. If you are just going to visit a section of Colorado or Utah, you might want to consider the more compact 4WD Trails series that uses the same format but in a smaller, easier to handle size that concentrate on just the trails and uses black and white photos. These are 4WD Trails: North-Central Colorado, 4WD Trails: South-Central Colorado, 4WD Trails: Southwest Colorado, 4WD Trails: Southeast Utah, 4WD Trails: Northern Utah, and 4WD Trails: Central Utah. We're planning on using 4WD Trails: Southwest Utah this fall on a field trip to Utah.   Crystal River Mill, Colorado
Only a 4-wheel drive vehicle could get us to this historic mill on the sparkling Crystal River that flows on the west side of the Colorado Rockies.

A series of guides we really like is the one written by Roger Mitchell, SUV Trails. The titles are Death Valley SUV Trails, Inyo-Mono SUV Trails, High Sierra SUV Trails, The East Side, and High Sierra SUV Trails, The West Side. These are all California destinations. The Death Valley guide introduced us to Cottonwood and Marble Canyons, wonderful places we didn't know existed. Roger has spent much of his life in these areas and knows the land he writes about. Each route he describes includes several pages of detailed information about the route, what you will see, how difficult the route is, and a map of the route. Even better, he points out interesting geological details. In fact, his books include a glossary of geologic and mining terms used in the book and a geologic time chart. He also includes notes on the native plants you are likely to see. The books are nicely illustrated with black and white photographs. Once you've traveled one of these routes using one of these guides, you'll not only have seen a great place, but you'll have learned a good deal about the geology, natural history, and human history of the area.

Our new Toyota 4Runner takes us to some great places!  

Last, but not least, is Tony Hugel's Backcountry Drives for the Whole Family series. The titles include Sierra Nevada Byways, California Desert Byways, Colorado Byways, Idaho Byways, Utah Byways, and California Coastal Byways. Each book describes 50 trips. Each trip is concisely described on one page with a map of the route on the opposite page. Tony tells you what the highlights of the trip are, how difficult the route is, the distance of the route, and how long it will take. Each book has very inviting black and white full page photographs that will entice you on the trails. This guide is quite compact and is excellent to carry along in your vehicle. Its concise format makes it easy to skim the trail descriptions and come to a decision about which is the best trip for you.

If you are new to 4-wheel drive adventures, all of these books discuss what you need in a vehicle to go on these excursions and how to outfit it so you'll prepared for any mishaps that may occur while far away from the main road. We were glad we took their advice when we tried a trip in March over the southern edge of the Sierra and found ourselves stuck in a snow bank at 8000 feet with no one else around. We were able to dig ourselves out with the tools we brought along. Each book carefully rates each trip so you can decide which are within your capibilities. They also give helpful driving trips. Any of these guides will enhance any geological field trip you take in your 4-wheel drive vehicle. Do remember to always follow established roads and don't make new ones. Treat the land with the reverence it deserves.

 

Gem Trails of California
Gem Trails of Northern California
 
4WD Adventures Colorado
4WD Adventures Colorado
 
Backcountry Adventures: Arizona
Backcountry Adventures: Arizona
 
Backcountry Adventures: Utah
Backcountry Adventures: Utah
 
Backcountry Adventures: Northern California
Backcountry Adventures: Northern California
 
Backcountry Adventures: Southern California
Backcountry Adventures: Southern California
 
Death Valley SUV Trails
Death Valley SUV Trails
 
Inyo-Mono SUV Trails
Inyo-Mono SUV Trails
 
High Sierra SUV Trails, The West Side
High Sierra SUV Trails, The West Side
 
High Sierra SUV Trails, The East Side
High Sierra SUV Trails, The East Side
 
Sierra Nevada Byways
Sierra Nevada Byways
 
Colorado Byways
Colorado Byways
 
Utah Byways
Utah Byways
 
Idaho Byways
Idaho Byways
 
California Desert Byways
California Desert Byways
 
California Coastal Byways
California Coastal Byways