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Off Piste: On the Trans-America Trail with Land Rover
500 miles of dirt, rock, sand and snow with off-the-lot LR4s
by Graham Hiemstra
on 23 August 2013
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Setting sail from Asheville, NC, Land Rover Expedition America (LREA) held a single goal: to reach the Pacific Ocean by way of dirt, rock and gravel roads. Avoiding pavement wherever possible, the caravan of stock LR4s—save for factory accessory winches and roof-racks—chose to follow the Trans-America Trail. The plan seemed simple on paper; in practice it proved to be anything but.

The 5,000-mile Trans-America Trail was laid down in the early '90s by seasoned motorcyclist Sam Correro with the exclusive intent of leading daring dual-sport motorcyclists cross-country from Tennessee to Oregon—entirely off-road. An estimated 500 motorcyclists make the trek each summer during the brief period when the Rockies are passible. Even as swelling suburbs and paving trucks have filled in stretches in recent years, no car had run the trail in its entirety yet—at least, no documented one. Yet is the key word here. With Camel Trophy veteran, Land Rover driving instructor, life-long motorcycle enthusiast and all-around off-road legend Tom Collins at the helm as expedition team leader and sole navigator, Land Rover figured they'd have a pretty good shot at being the first.

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When the invite to join a leg of the expedition came across the wire, CH was on board without a second thought. Having experienced the 2013 Range Rover in a semi-controlled environment this past winter, we were excited to see how the 2013 Land Rover LR4 would stack up in the wild. Once in Colorado, it quickly became apparent that while these fully loaded luxury cars may be outfitted with all the bells and whistles, they are badass off-road beasts at their core. "There's no truly bad cars out there nowadays," admits Collins. "But the LR4 is far more sophisticated; all the systems really work, which makes a big difference with less driver input. I would say with the ground clearance and traction controls—I don't know what's better."

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With myself behind the wheel and Collins as co-pilot—armed with a state-of-the-art GPS tracking program, Sam Correro's personal trail notes and a late '80s rally racing tachometer—we were underway, running southwestern Colorado's Hancock, Tomichi, Black Sage and Los Piños Passes the first day. This stretch marked the beginning of what the LREA team was quick to call the best portion of the trail—meaning the most difficult and by far the sketchiest.

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Day two brought every type of weather possible; from rain and lightning to sun and snow. This didn't stop us from tackling six more passes, including the trip's highest (California Pass at 12,960 ft elevation) and gnarliest—Black Bear Pass, which connects the tiny town of Silverton to Telluride, CO. As the majority of off-road trails in this region were blazed by pioneering minors with gold fever in the late 1800s, they tend to zig-zag sporadically from ridge to valley by way of steep switchbacks and narrow hill-hugging straights—which more often than not feature vertigo-inducing drops on the exposed side. Black Bear Pass has all of the above, not to mention the near-90-degree right-hand turn on slick exposed rock that introduces the Telluride side of the pass. As Collins put it, "it's enough to make you pucker."

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As we literally drove up a trickling waterfall with ease on day two, the capability of the LR4 was hammered home. Sure, it charged gravel, waded through two-foot-deep puddles and turned the tightest switchbacks with little effort, but directing it up and over sedan-sized boulders and rockslides was beyond impressive. All this on stock tires. The LR4s we drove were equipped with an upgraded locking rear differential and standard electronic Terrain Response, among other standard off-road features. Press a button and the air-suspension raise the ride height up three inches. Turn a knob to select gravel, grass, snow, rock crawl or the cure-all mud and ruts mode and turn the LR4 from a capable car into what many dare say is the most sure-footed off-the-lot vehicle on the market. Once summited, Hill Descent automatically sets a target speed (around one to four mph) relative to the selected off-road mode, and then brakes if that speed is exceeded. This was especially handy during the more advanced descents, as it allowed me to keep my foot on the gas and focus on all attention on the trail ahead. A real life saver.

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Day three brought us miles of gravel farm roads and into rural Utah, eventually leading to the hallowed ground for four-wheeling that is Moab. A favorite destination for the DIY-enthused Jeep crowd, the dry desert landscape provided a variable playground, from stone fins and slick rock to simple sand tracks. Heading farther into Utah on day four we were warned by many Trans-America Trail veterans (including Correro) that no car had successfully passed through the narrow canyons that lay in our path. Under the watchful eye of 1,000-year-old petroglyphs—and an imposing storm front that had us acutely aware of the possibility of flash-floods—we crawled our way over what seemed like impassable rock faces and falls to our leg's final destination in Nowheresville, UT.

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In four days we traveled over 500 miles (at an average of 15 mph), crossed 10 mountain passes, ran a handful of narrow canyons and countless gravel roads without proper names. A real experience to say the least. "I've been thinking about being able to drive across the country virtually off road for years—it's been on my bucket list," Collins told us as we said our farewells. "I've just thought it'd be one of the greatest adventures ever and, you know, it's something that may not be able to happen in the future."

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Yesterday, 22 August, Land Rover Expedition America reached Oregon's coastline, achieving what no car has reportedly done before. To see what the crew encountered in the final stretches of the trail check out the Land Rover blog. Visit Trans-America Trail online to learn more about Sam Correro's creation, and see the slideshow for more of our experiences.

All images by Graham Hiemstra

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