I’ve lived in Utah now for almost two years — but up until last week, I had yet to experience a proper camping trip in Moab, one of my favorite places in the world. That all finally changed this past weekend, when a group of nine friends and I — driving three Toyota 4x4s and a lifted Ford F-350 — not only took on a camping trip, but a full-on overlanding expedition through the open land just south of Moab, between the La Sal Mountains and Canyonlands National Park. “Overlanding” refers to self-reliant, 4×4 adventure travel to remote locations where the journey is is just as important as the destination. And a great journey we had.
The drive from Salt Lake City to Moab is about four hours long. The town of Moab itself is electric — filled to the brim with 4x4s of all shapes and sizes. Everywhere you look, there are Military Hummers, Toyota Corolla All-Tracs, and Polaris RZR side-by-sides, buzzing up the main street by the half-dozen. I could easily spend hours just sitting on a corner watching the different vehicles go by. Unfortunately we had to keep moving — and after meeting up with the rest of our group at Moab Brewery, we set off to our first camping destination about 30 minutes south of town at the base of the delightfully named “Prostitute Butte.”
The trail to the campsite was marked by a sign that read, “High Clearance 4×4 Only.” While driver competence is always the main variable, the rule of thumb with these types of trails is that if your vehicle has a transfer case or 4WD-Low setting, you should be fine. For reference — traditional, truck-based SUVs like a Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Xterra are likely to tackle the trail without issue; a Subaru Outback may have some trouble due to its low clearance and limited axle travel; and any all-wheel-drive cars or crossovers should stay away. It may not seem like much, but a few additional inches of ground clearance can make a huge difference on the trails. With our convoy consisting of a fifth-generation 4Runner Trail Edition, a lifted fourth-generation 4Runner V8, my 100-Series Land Cruiser and the F-350, we made it to our campsite with no issues.
After packing up the next morning, we headed further south to Monticello to refuel and stock up on ice. Another helpful tip: You can never have too much ice. As if it wasn’t already obvious, ice is essentially the lifeblood to any operation in the hot, dry Utah desert. If you think you have enough, double it. We went through probably 10 to 12 large bags on this trip, which turned out to be plenty.
From Monticello, we backtracked several miles before turning west onto another paved road that led us to a dirt trailhead known as Lockhart Basin Road. It was here that we pulled over and aired down — the first time I’d experienced this off-roading ritual. The concept behind “airing down” is that letting air out of your tires creates a larger contact patch with the road, allowing for better traction and better absorption of bumps and rocks. I took my BFGoodrich All-Terrains from 38psi down to 20psi, and it made a huge difference over the next 40 miles of dirt trails.
The drive along Lockhart Basin Road was the best part of the weekend: There were water crossings, obstacles and plenty of opportunities for spirited driving. We opted for a route that lead us into Lockhart Canyon, right up against the border of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The views in this entire area were amazing. We set up our camp against a massive rock face just as the sun went down. The next day was more of the same — just in the opposite order.
My Land Cruiser performed beautifully the entire weekend. While at no point did I need to lock any of the differentials or engage 4-Low to get through any obstacles, I didn’t exactly baby it while we were driving through the dirt and sand. At no point did it give me any reason to have anything but the utmost confidence in its abilities — and it felt solid and planted the entire time we were off-road.
The best part may just be that it also felt solid and planted when we got back onto the asphalt — a characteristic I didn’t take for granted as we cruised home comfortably at 80 miles per hour. Find a 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He managed to work in the auto industry for a while without once crashing a corporate fleet vehicle. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.