COOPER DISCOVERER - Get Out Whenever You Can, Wherever You Can

I've traveled a lot. Mostly by plane, mostly for work, and almost always in a window seat. I've flown around the world and across the country scores of times, and although I've seen over 25 countries outside of the United States, it was the dirt roads in the western U.S. I saw from 30,000 feet that most piqued my interest in exploration. I always thought to myself, “I want to go there!”, but I didn't know if it was allowed or where to start.

My wife, Jenny, along with two of our kids, Sofia and Jenson moved to Utah nine years ago (well, Jenson was born here…he's seven), putting us in close proximity to some of the most sought-after, world-class destinations on the planet. Oddly, however, it wasn't until 2015, when we decided to get a rooftop tent to “see if it was a good way to camp” that we started getting out there. And get out there we do!

Tent camping had never really appealed to me. I don't like the often crunchy, uneven, lumpy, filthy floor of a tent. Also, I can't get my head around how to stay dry when it rains. I know you Eagle Scouts out there are thinking “Amateur!,” and you are correct. I was never a Scout, an Indian Guide, or a throw a sleeping bag on the ground and sleep kind of guy (field mice, bugs, who-knows-what snuggling me…no, thanks). I don't mind being dirty or in a tent, but there is something great about being 6-feet above the ground on a nice mattress that makes it better for me, and, incidentally, my beautiful wife. I am 50-years old and, after all the crap I've done, my hips are easily 60.

In my family growing up, camping consisted of dragging a homemade, enclosed trailer full of motorcycles behind a Ford Econoline camper from campground to campground. We'd pull the bikes from the trailer, flip down beds (this was long before toy-haulers…I just wish dad had seen the dollar signs) and set up camp 20-feet from the next slot. We'd listen to the neighbors' conversations late into the night while enjoying the fresh smell of spilled gasoline. It was great fun, especially the motorcycle riding, but it was far from the adventure and solitude of overlanding.

My friend here in Utah, Matt M, showed me some pics of himself and a friend in the middle of nowhere on their adventure bikes and I immediately knew that those were the places I wanted to camp with my family! Thanks to Matt's tips, we decided to start out with something simple just three hours from home; the San Rafael Swell.

Our first night out as a family was in Buckhorn Draw and we set up camp in the rain. It was evident that site selection was critical since it is a wash, and flash flooding does occur regularly. But imagine our surprise when, as we set up the tent, two waterfalls formed on either side of our site! I assured Jenny that we were safe and soon the rain subsided. The waterfalls turned off as suddenly as they had turned on, and thirty minutes later the creeks adjacent to us had changed back from water features to rock features. We lit a fire, cooked up some hot dogs, and watched evening morph into night. As we brushed our teeth it began raining again, so we zipped up, settled Twister the dog into his bed in the annex, climbed up, and hunkered down for the night.

Soon, a thunderstorm went from FLASH: one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, BOOOOM, to FLASH CRACK BOOOOOOM!!! The storm was on top of us, and there were three prevailing attitudes in the tent (the dog's notwithstanding…I'm not sure what he thought, for he cannot speak); Jenny and Sofia were quite scared despite my assurances that the lightning could not strike us at the bottom of the canyon (to be honest, I was guessing); I was generally not too worried because of the same explanation I was using on the girls…plus something about rubber tires, and general statistical probabilities, etcetera and so on; and then there was Jenson, who was sleeping as soundly as anyone had ever slept before or since. And snoring a little. The storm passed, I joined Jenson in slumbering bliss, and we woke the next morning to the most beautiful view imaginable. There was nobody else around. We simply could not understand why everybody doesn't do this! And why did it take us so dang long to do it ourselves? We knew that this style of exploration was for us and we started poring over the Gazetteer to plot our next move, which on that occasion turned out to be the free and dog-friendly side of Goblin Valley.

Our vehicle, which we bought new in 2007, is a 2008 Toyota 4Runner SportEdition (4th gen in overlander parlance), and it is bone stock. It's not lifted. There's no snorkel. It has plastic bumpers. There's no custom rack on top (more on that in a sec). Winch; not. LEDs; no. 2-Meter radio; negative. Rock sliders; none. All these things we want, but we do what we can afford, which based on present priorities means filling it with gas and exploring. The truck is very capable of getting us just about anywhere we want to go, and maybe just a bit further than that.

As an example; last fall my kids and I joined up with a few other dads and their kids who were in their Land Cruiser rigs, each replete with the aforementioned mods, and went to Dollhouse 1 in Canyonlands with no moms (or dogs). There were a few minor bumps and clunks, but aside from a neatly tapered exhaust tip and an overall longer drive time, the 4Runner made it just fine.
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Dollhouse 1

The truck's rear diff locks with the push of a button, the tires are Cooper Discoverer HTP (not an off-road tire) which have never struggled in any way, and the only real modification has been the addition of the Tepui Gran Sabana rooftop tent…and the homemade rack I built to carry it (other posts have described the general build I did using electrical strut crossbars attached with U-bolts). I did, with the help of some capable fab friends of mine, design and build an aluminum faring that fits into the mounting rails on the tent's underside. I know aerodynamics aren't generally a concern of overlanders, but I could not stand the buffeting caused by the blunt leading edge of the tent and the gap between it and the truck's roof. It is now much quieter and I suspect I must save three to five bucks per tank on mileage, which is to say about a mile-per-gallon. I don't care about the mileage or the five dollars, but I do care about the racket caused by the wind.

Enough backstory already. We could write more about past trips and even play them off as recent trips, but the challenge was to write about a recent trip and show a specific item in the accompanying photos to prove its recentness…the Cooper Tires sign.

We do our best to get out every few weeks for a three or four-day weekend. Since last week was Father's day, it was my choice to get out and take one last shot at the lower altitudes in central Utah before the temperatures hit triple-digits for the next couple months. The great thing about the area is that there are a few thousand feet of elevation options so that you can move to where you're comfortable and set up camp.

We got out of our home town of Heber on that Thursday a little later than we had planned and headed for the area of the Swell just south of I-70, which takes us about three-and-a-half hours to reach. There are countless dirt roads, spurs, tracks and trails that we have yet to see. Experience tells us that picking one of those, even in the dark, usually yields a better result than any campground experiences I described earlier. On a random old quarry road we found a flat spot to pull off and set up for a night's rest, knowing that we'd move in the morning. We woke and found, to our surprise, that it was…pretty.
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Quarry Camp

Four bowls of cereal eaten (five if you count my two), tent un-deployed, and dog pooped, we set off with only a direction planned, not a destination. We normally set waypoints, but until the emotional needle moves for both of us we don't select a site for camp.
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The Moon

We moved across the Moon, Mars, and the set of Star Wars Episode One, and found ourselves on Last Chance Loop Road. I'll tell you what; when it comes to this neck of the woods, you can't swing a cat by its tail without hitting a Last Chance Road. There's Last Chance Loop, Upper Last Chance Road, Lower Last Chance Cutoff, and they all run off in different directions! We thought it would make more sense if they called it Second-to-Last Chance Road, or Look, We Told You It Was Your Last Chance On the Last Road, but we don't make the rules.

We came across the Mussentuchit Dunes, which we reckoned someone thought was a pretty clever name. We agreed, then came up with a few of our own. The kids loved the dunes and we cooked ourselves in the sun while they frolicked. Then I played the “I'm old” card and we got back into the air-conditioned sanctuary and drove on.
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Mussentuchit Dunes

We continued through the labyrinth of Last Chances to Cathedral Valley, where we saw the Temple Of The Sun and Temple Of The Moon. We appreciated them for about five minutes, then went back the way we had come, mainly because we had seen other geologic wonders en route that had moved us just as much as these oft-visited stalagmites (I know…they're not, but…), and there had been way too many other cars around these popular “attractions”. It turns out Upper Cathedral Valley is absolutely amazing, but being as it's inside Capitol Reef National Park, which means dogs are “not permitted in the backcountry”, we got the heck out. Plus it was hot; nearly a hundred. So we went west and climbed up a few thousand feet, on just the kind of boney dirt roads we like, into Fishlake National Forest. It cooled and went from hot desert to less hot alpine inside of 30-minutes.
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Upper Cathedral Valley

After meeting up with pavement and stopping at a lake so the kids and Twister could take a quick dip, we headed back north to find a spot to camp. Several unsuitable roads and locations later, we ventured onto Old Woman Plateau at about 8000-ft where it was cooler, albeit a bit buggier. Thankfully, bug spray tends to work and doesn't smell as bad as in the old days, so we built a fire, cooked up some dinner, and sat around and listened to mom as she read the final Harry Potter book.
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Twister Swimming (where dogs are DEFINITELY allowed)

Up to this point, neither Jenny nor I, or by extension the kids, had ever been to Moab. Knowing that it would be as hot as…something that's really hot, we thought we'd go check out the town of Moab the next day and see if anything nearby, especially anything at higher altitudes to the east, called out to us.

We drove through the hustle and bustle of the town of Moab, which bugged us, got sucked into HOLE N”THE ROCK (their misplacement and misuse of apostrophes, not mine) for a bathroom break and souvenir hunt, and eventually escaped through a gate to the good stuff.
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Most of our trips keep us on pretty good dirt roads with an occasional boney section. Remember that our trip to Dollhouse was without Jenny. She did not experience the 34 mile, 8+ hour section from the Hans Flat ranger station to Dollhouse 1. The term ‘gnarly' pretty accurately describes that piece of road. So, Jenny still cringes when we have to cross truly rugged terrain. She tends to remain in a frame of reference from the world of pavement where a jolt, or wheel-slip normally signals, precedes or accompanies a crash.

We ran down a couple roads in the Kane Springs area south of Moab. It was hot. Jenny was cringing and inhaling through her teeth (you know the sound), and we were having a hard time getting to a point where it would be cool enough through the remaining hours of daylight, and where I thought we could post up for the night. All these elements were piling on top of each other, making us want to leave. So we took a picture and we left.

North to Green River. Fuel. West to Temple Mountain Road and back on the dirt to Chimney Rock, where it was a comfortable 80-degrees and where, best of all, we had an entire valley to ourselves. We arrived just in time for an incredible sunset. We positioned the rig so the tent would be in the shade at sunrise. We ate burritos and roasted marshmallows (heaven knows why), and we looked at the stars.
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Chimney Rock Camp

The next morning we ate, packed it up, and started home, which is to say, we headed in the direction of home while ricocheting on side roads to explore. We stopped at the San Rafael River by the old bridge to walk in the water, which was refreshing. We saw a water snake there which made the kids very excited. But not knowing which version of snake it was or whether it had eaten breakfast, we observed from a distance. After PB&Js we moved along and got home a few hours later.

We strongly prefer to be in areas where there are not a lot of other people. We once camped at the Wedge Overlook in the north end of San Rafael Swell and there were three other people in one camp about 200 yards away. We could hear them talking at night and we were seriously bummed. We get enough of other people from day to day. For camping, we prefer to get away from people.
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Spot the Rig...Now That is Solitude! But you can't quite make out the Cooper Tires sign from here.

If it were up to our kids, we'd spend our days swimming, catching lizards, kicking up clouds of dust, and “doing fun things.” Well, for crying out loud…we like doing fun things, too. And fun for us grown-ups means driving around on dirt roads (properly kicking up dust!), and finding cool new places to camp! Lucky for me I have a wife who is constantly eyeballing the smaller, less-established dirt side roads that may not appear on the map and saying “That looks cool!”

We've found that it's almost always worth it to get out there, even if it's for just one night. We are very blessed to have tons of BLM land very near us, from all of Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, and even right up the road from our house in the Uintas. We can camp 30-minutes from our house here in northern Utah and be in fairly remote wilderness. We're also happy to have such a capable vehicle to get us where we want to go in comfort and with no drama.

We can't wait to get out there again and kick up some dust while we find something new and uncrowded!


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I'm late to the dance but I just stumbled across this. Great post! A can do attitude and a 4Runner will take you where you wanna go. Keep up the great memory making!!