Although I have a fair amount of experience driving in off-road conditions, I didn’t really get into off-roading for recreational and sporting purposes until a few years ago. Since that time I’ve come to truly enjoy my time on the trail. It’s no longer about the destination. It really is about the trip along the way. For those of us in the mid-Atlantic region, Rausch Creek Off-Road Park (RCORP) is one of the more favorable locations for off-road enthusiasts. Rausch offers nearly 3000 acres of trails ranging from light-duty fire roads and green-rated river beds, to the more hard-core, black- and red-rated rock crawling obstacles. As my number of recreational trail hours increases, so does my appreciation for the experience as a whole. Surrounded by trees, rocks, water, dirt and mud… it’s a great way to get away from the day-to-day work schedule and even better when you get to spend it with friends.
Up until recently, my trips to Rausch have been based on larger, sponsored events. These types of events are a lot of fun, with a large number of participants and even prizes and a dinner at the end. But there are some downsides to this type of arrangement. The sheer number of participants means that each group will contain an average of six to eight vehicles. Overall, this means a lot more vehicles on the trails which increases the likelihood of having to wait for one or more groups to complete a particular trail section. Because Rausch Creek is fairly large in scale, this is not typically a problem. But it does happen on occasion. A second down side to sponsored events is that they are often vehicle-specific in nature. While most of the events I’ve attended in the past are completely open to other vehicle brands, it is not well advertised and many folks are still unwilling to attend because they would feel out of place. It is for these reasons, primarily, that I decided to organize the Rudimentary Rausch Creek Invitational.
I had been looking for an excuse to get together with a few friends and travel up to Rausch Creek to run trails as a small group of mixed vehicles. I’d been talking about it for several months before I was able to finally get everyone organized and coordinated for a mid-May trail run. The would-be crew of friends consisted of Chris and Paul in a 2009 Toyota FJ Cruiser, Troy and Anna in a 2007 Nissan Xterra, and a long-time friend of mine, Dean, riding solo in his 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon edition. I, of course, was also in attendance with my semi-modified 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. The 2009 FJ and the Xterra were both completely stock with the exception of upgraded tires. The 2009 FJ was running BFGoodrich T/A KO all-terrains and the Xterra had recently invested in a set of Goodyear Dura-Tracs. The Jeep had a couple of skids for the rear differential and the evaporation canister but was otherwise completely stock. Although to be completely fair, the Rubicon editions come with front/rear solid axles and lockers, 4:1 low gears and a swaybar disconnect. On top of that, Dean has a fair amount of off-roading experience as well, so the Jeep would have a bit of advantage over the other two. Excluding myself, none of the other vehicles had any type of lift installed and skids for the FJ and Xterra were limited to the thin sheet metal skids offered from the factory. Because of the limited experience and even more limited mods, our plan was to stick with green-rated trails in order to avoid any unnecessary damage to the vehicles. Well, that was our plan anyway.
We arrived at RCORP around nine o’clock in the morning and proceeded to register for park access, memberships, etc. The XTerra and myself decided to air down our tires while the Jeep and other FJ opted not to. The front office provides all park visitors with a detailed map that outlines all the various trails, color-coded based on difficulty level. So we laid out an informal plan to ride several green legs out of the park – trails that would lead us to the outer portions of the park and even more green trails. With gear secured, tires deflated, and maps in hand, we headed out of the park, excited to hit the trails. Looking back now, I believe that’s when the general enthusiasm piqued because not long after we left the main staging area, we were confronted with a green trail that was truly boulder-iffic!
I’d like to state for the record, that it was never my intention to mislead any of the attendees as to what they were getting themselves into. Having been to Rausch multiple times in the past, I was completely at ease during the first leg of the trails. But apparently my version of “green-rated” did not align with the expectations of the other drivers. Over the course of multiple runs now, I’ve spent a lot of time and money in mods that not only enhance performance, but also add a significant amount of protection to the underside of my vehicle. I’ve become so accustomed to hearing the sound of metal on rock that it barely fazes me nowadays. To the new arrivals, however, it was more than a little unpleasant, and understandably so. Without the knowledge that their vehicles’ under-components were safe and secure behind thick steel plating, these sounds became the audible manifestation of ensuing damage from below.
We made it through the first section (which was by far the worst conditions we would see all day), pulled over to the side of the trail, and got out to inspect for damage. To everyone’s surprise the only real damage was to one of the XTerra’s nerf bars, displayed in the form of a dent and crease to the outside tube. We debated about removing the bars in order to avoid them getting pushed further into the rocker panels but it was decided that they would be better left in place to serve at least some protection. As a group we also discussed the meaning of “green-rated” and I did my best to apologize for any mis-representation on my part. After some brief discussion it became clear that their version of “green-rated” was what most folks refer to as a “fire road”. These roads are paved with either dirt or gravel and are generally travel-able even by car or other two-wheel-drive vehicles. For those unfamiliar with RCORP’s rating system, please don’t make this same mistake. A “green-rated” trail is the easiest rating that Rausch assigns to its trails. This is true. But this is an off-road park designed to provide drivers with courses and trails that are both fun and challenging. There are some sections of trail that would be considered fire road, but there are plenty more trails that are much, much worse. I think Dean probably summed it up best in the aftermath when he stated,
“All participants must understand that lift kits, oversized, off-road tires, skid plates, winches and other such recovery gear aren’t just for show and that there is a possibility for real damage to occur to their vehicles – even on GREEN trails.“
Hindsight being what it is, I realize now that I failed my friends in a major way, intentional or otherwise. From the beginning, I wanted the trip to go well in order to share at least some of what I myself have experienced on previous excursions. Unfortunately, that first leg of the trip left the folks in the XTerra and the other FJ a bit disheartened. Despite a rather bumpy start, however, we managed to find quite a few additional trails that were a bit more in line with their version of green. Sadly, we bypassed a good portion of trails because of the potential for damage, but I did manage to convince them to at least try a fun portion of a trail labeled simply as “J”. Upon first glance, it looks pretty rough for a green trail, but I decided to show them first by running my FJ through it so they could decide for themselves. Dean followed up shortly afterward in his Jeep. Surprisingly, after seeing both of us go through with relative ease, both Troy (XTerra) and Chris (FJ) were willing to give it a try. All it took was a little bit of spotting and they both made it through without a single scratch or dent. We even got a couple photos of them doing a small wheel stand in the process. Seeing the grins on their faces after making it through the first section of “J” was probably the best part of the whole trip for me.
The rest of the day continued without any further damage. Dean and I got a few opportunities to branch off the main trail to hit some slightly more challenging sections. There were a few sections of green trail, to include a deep rutted stretch along “H” trail that even allowed us to briefly make use of our lockers. And for many sections like this one, there was usually a bypass route, providing an alternative path for vehicles with less protection. All in all, I’d say we had fun. From what I’ve been told, Troy will be joining us again in the near future once he’s had a chance to add some belly skids and rock rails (sliders) to protect the rocker panels. I’m not sure about Chris and Paul at this point, but I’m hopeful. If nothing else, they were at least willing to give it a try which is a lot more than some folks. Dean and I are planning to return some time in June for another informal run but plans are still up in the air for the time being. Between work and family life, trips like these don’t happen nearly as often as we’d like. I’m sincerely thankful for good friends and for the opportunities we have to spend time with one another. I hope to experience many more trips like this in the future.