Great Smokey Mountain Trail Ride '02

Author: Jay Kopycinski

---Upper Tellico OHVA----------------------------



Lots of greenery in the TN/NC forest Plenty of mature trees all through the area

As I landed in Knoxville, I knew this wheeling trip would be different than what I was used to. The ground, from above, sprawled green across the hilly landscape of Eastern Tennessee. A quick trip through the airport for some luggage pickup and I met up with Andy Zook and Bud Rosenberger. Ready to go, we rolled out of the airport parking lot headed for Tellico in Andy's black '85 4Runner.

After a quick stop for some groceries and to top off the gas tank, we made our way through backroads and the landscape of the Great Smokey Mountain National Forest. Our camp for the weekend was a portion of the McNabb Overflow Campground in Tennessee. Surrounded by a big thicket of trees, it turned out to be a great place to tent camp.


Andy traversing a piece of Trail 5

With the weather still a bit on the cool side for April, we made a lazy morning getting up. With breakfast taken care of, we were soon on our way to explore some of the Tellico trails. Today was Thursday and it had rained hard as recently as the previous Sunday. However, many of the trails were reasonably dry in the area.

The Great Smokey Mountain Trail Ride is put on by the Toyota Land Cruiser Association each spring on the Tellico area trails. Several hundred Cruisers, trucks, and 4Runners converge on this area to run the many trails offered here. Trail difficulty ranges from very mild to optional trail obstacles that are as gnarly as you want.

View of Guardrail from below
Guardrail obstacle looking down

The event requires each vehicle to undergo a quick safety technical inspection in order to participate. Trails in the forest are laid out and run through a substantial maze with many interconnecting pieces. To run a trail for the event, simply meet up with friends or the folks that gather at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line each morning about 9:00 a.m. There is not really any formal signup, just hook up with a group and start running the trail.

For our first day we ran portions of Trails 4 & 5. Each of these offers medium challenges from the rocks and trees strewn through the forest. Uphill sections and wet ground keep the going interesting for milder equipped vehicles. After playing on some of the easier trails for a while, we headed over to Guardrail. This obstacle lies at the top of a hill on Trail 12.

A mass of mogul-like rock, Guardrail is a 25 yard climb over solid rock. Years of challenge and spinning tires has worn many of the high spots smooth, making them nearly traction-less. This rock climb, as you look up the obstacle, is bordered on the right side by a dirt wall that is part of the mountainside. However, below the left side of the obstacle is a ravine that meanders down the hill through the trees. Guardrail gets its namesake from an old highway guardrail that was placed below the left side of the obstacle to keep out-of-control or rolled vehicles from falling down the ravine. In recent years, the guardrail has been supplemented with a "safety net" made from thick steel wire rope.

Attempting a portion of Guardrail Wet or dry, traction hard to get Mark going up the Guardrail rock This Toy crawled Guardrail with ease

Pulling up to the base of the obstacle, Andy tried several lines attempting to grab traction and move up the hill. However, each time he tried, he either lost traction and forward momentum on the slippery spots, or fell into one of the many depressions scattered across the rock face. A recent third member problem had left him with only a locked front axle, and open rear axle. After deciding a hard throttle run up the hill was a bit too risky, Andy used his winch to tug himself to the top. Behind Andy, Mark Waller and his friend Michelle in their black 4Runner gave the hill a try as well. Faring a little better with open front and locked rear, he still couldn't get the bite he needed top the hill. He too, gracefully accepted a winch tug.

Cruiser on the throttle going up Slowing to a little more of a crawl Oops...almost going over on its side

With our two vehicles clear of Guardrail, we watched as a few other rigs tried the obstacle. One Cruiser throttled his way to the top. The climb wasn't especially pretty, but he did make it. A second well-built Cruiser attempted the hill and proceeded to crawl it beautifully until the driver made a steering error and nearly got to test out the safety net by rolling down the face. He froze in place and didn't realize that steering his front tires downhill would help right him from the severe lean he was feeling. Some help from human bodies and a tow strap got him righted and on his way back up the hill.

With the entertainment over at Guardrail, we headed over to watch some wheelers play on Helicopter Pad. This tricky uphill obstacle has several spots to offer a challenge. The main one is a steep smooth rock face. Depending on how wet the day is, you can carry a good bit of wet dirt up on your tires, making traction elusive. If that wasn't enough challenge, the rock slants to the left side and a washing machine sized rock sits embedded in the left bank, waiting to crunch fender or door sheetmetal.

The big body biter rock at Helicopter Pad Trying to find just the right line Easing past the rock that wants to bite Cruiser throttling up the Helicopter

We looked on as a group of wheelers tried the obstacle. Rigs with smaller engines and/or crawler gears had to work at the face until they found a sweet spot that offered them some traction and let their tires grab the face. The more entertaining of the drivers were those with 40"+ Swampers and plenty of V8 engine under the hood. These guys had a simple driving style.mash the long pedal to the floor and focus all your other attention on simply pointing the tires uphill. Not a pretty sight in most cases, but it got the job done and put them on top fast.

Going out the top end of Helicopter Cruiser darting around the big rock One more shot of the top of Helicopter

With a good bit of wheeling in for the day, we headed back to camp while there was still daylight to enjoy a nice evening meal and the cooler than usual weather around a toasty campfire.


Friday we decided to focus on technical challenges instead of distance. Today we were headed to a piece of trail known as Lower 2. It's a short mile or so of uphill challenge carved out of the side of the mountain.

By the time we got to the area in late morning there were plenty of rigs waiting to give the climb a try, and even more spectators lining the sides of the trial. After watching a few drivers trying their hand at coming up the path, Andy decided he'd try his hand at it. We left the top of the hill followed by Patrick Skelley driving his second generation SAS 4Runner, and Ryan Bascom in his 4Runner sporting a new coil spring front suspension. We wound our way down the trail through the thick trees to the bottom of what turned out to be a pretty sloppy hill. A good bit of rain runoff was still flowing down the hillside and accumulating in areas along the trail. There was no avoiding getting your tires wet on this trail.

Andy crawling the rocks below Lower 2

We soon reached the base of the uphill portion and the start of Lower 2. What lay ahead was a small boulder field sprinkled with wet puddles and patches of light mud. We watched as several vehicles in front of us struggled with the rocks and one eventually had to haul out the winch cable to pull his vehicle part of the way up the hill. Andy's turn came and he picked a line up the middle of the boulder field. Moving slowly, using his low range gears, he maneuvered his 35" BFG Muds across the slippery rocks. A few bumps and slides, and Andy was past the first piece of Lower 2 in about a minute or two.

Patrick making his way towards Lower 2 base Ryan picks his line through the field of rock

Patrick and Ryan followed and climbed through the boulder field. Wet tires often snatched away your opportunity to pick the exact line you wanted to follow. Try climbing on top of a rock with a wet tire and you often slid off. Follow all the low spots and you found yourself bumping diffs to rock. Trying a few lines and doing a little driving by Braille seemed a viable technique here. With a few backups, but relative ease, our three vehicle group made it past this rocky start of the trail.

What followed the bottom climb was a calm piece of trail that wound through the trees for a few hundred yards. Then comes the real challenge..the main piece of the Lower 2 trail. Here the crowd was thick, watching vehicles as they made their attempts to conquer a slimy trough cut in the hillside. With rain water still flowing at a steady trickle down the hill onto the trail, the dirt was kept in a constant state of slime in a few places.

View from the top of the Lower 2 trough

Again, horsepower was king on this hill if your driving style was to attack the obstacle full bore. We watched some vehicles spin tires at probably sixty miles an hour trying to launch themselves and defy gravity and coefficients of friction. The trail got slimier and vehicles tried clawing their way through the rocky bottom or climbed the slick dirt sides trying to find any little piece of traction.

Andy started his way up the slippery slop and was throttling a bit to try and clear and particularly wet spot. Up and over a large rock.he dropped a front tire down with a bang. Sounded like an axle break of sorts. To prevent further damage from driving and to clear the trail, Andy winched his 4Runner off to the side of the trail to take a look.

Ryan moving to the main portion of Lower 2

Patrick was next. He idled up to the base of the hill. His recently solid-axle swapped 4Runner was shod with Swampers so he got best traction that could be had. He worked his way up the hill picking his way through the boulders and the wet stuff. At one point he became badly wedged up against a refrigerator sized rock and had to use his winch for a short pull. Careful driving and some smooth crawling and he was at the top of the hill with relative ease.

Behind Patrick, Ryan came up the hill in his brightly painted orange 4Runner. Ryan too did an excellent job of climbing the hill until he followed a spotter's poor choice of line and got hung up in a rock wedge between two boulders. Struggling for a while, he found he could not budge. Winch cable to the rescue and he pulled past the one stuck spot and drove the rest of the distance to the top of the hill.

Meanwhile....back down to Andy. After a little diagnosis work, it was determined that all was well in the front axle. The loud pop we heard was not a carnage sound...luckily. Andy dropped his t-case in low crawler range and began to idle up the Lower 2 trough. Despite being locked up only in the front, Andy made probably the smoothest run yet up Lower 2. He practically idled up the entire length with only an occasional throttle blip to get past a slippery spot here and there.

Patrick starts the climb up into the trough Rounding a corner in the Lower 2 section

With our small group conquering Lower 2 we felt achievement for the day. We watched while a few other rigs came up the obstacle and then took some connector trails back through the forest towards camp.

The evening was comfortable and after dinner we again started up the campfire. However, the weather would not be kind to us. Rain drizzled on and off until a heavy burst of rain drove us from the fire to under some canopies. As the rain started and stopped we would move back and forth between the two areas. Finally about eleven o'clock, the rain started and rarely let up until sometime early morning. During one short pause we made a run for tents..hoping to stay dry for the night.


The rain had passed and luckily we all slept through until morning without waking up in a puddle. The morning stayed gloomy a while, but little by little the skies cleared and the day turned out to be quite nice. With all the rain from the previous night and the early morning, we wondered what lay ahead on the trails.we'd soon find out.

One of the easier forest transition trails

We left camp and headed up towards Trail 12 and School Bus Hill. We climbed in elevation as we drove through the trees and wound our way up a narrow trail. We passed several groups of ATVers and mountain buggy drivers. They were out early running trails and slopping through the wet roads.

Further up the trail, we could hear engines revving in the distance. We drove as far as we could until we stopped behind a couple of Samurais waiting to proceed further up the trail.

Here was School Bus Hill. It is a snaking uphill run through a gooey clay-like dirt. Halfway up the hill was a full-size Chevy truck revving his V8 and turning 39" Boggers trying to scale a small piece of the trail while keeping from slamming the front bumper and fender into a small tree. He worked at it for about ten minutes churning dirt until he finally bumped it just right and got past the tricky spot. However, this left him leaning at a steep angle and with fear of rolling the truck. A winch line was used to finish his ascent.

We watched as the little Samurais on 33" tires picked their way up the slop. They had it a little easier with their narrow widths and tight turning radius. Next it was Andy's turn to scale the slope. He dropped into low range, 2nd gear and idled through most of the trough. When he got to the tree squeeze he found the same problem the Chevy had found, but now with deep ruts dug by big tires. With plenty of throttle work and a number of tries. Andy couldn't quite get past one spot near the tree. Out came the cable and a short tug had him moving again.

Mark coming down a section of Trail 11

Mark did as Andy had done and smoothly made it up most of the hill. He tried an alternate route instead of heading for the trees. This way was a rocky, bumpy climb. However, the rocks quickly became way too slippery with mud he had tracked up from the trail. Squirming and wiggling a few times, it was soon evident that only a rapid launch up the hill would yield a possible successful passage. This was too risky, leaving Mark vulnerable to sliding backwards and rolling. He backed down and took the muddy, tree-blocked route. He too needed a quick pull to crest a hump near the tree, lest he risk modifying his front body and damaging an innocent tree.

We found this piece of Toy frame in the woods

On our way again, we topped the hill and found some interesting views across the heavily wooded hills. We took a short break and listened as we heard others attempting the trails below us. We headed back off the top via Trail 11, an interesting descent down a trail scattered with small and large boulders.

One particularly interesting spot was where two large boulders sat and formed a tight s-curve on the hill. Hugging the far right dirt bank, Andy tried best as he could to keep the 4Runner from sliding to the left side on the sloppy base. Each time he tried to move forward and keep the rig right, it would slowly slide left. Problem was there was a washing machine sized boulder on the left waiting to smash in the lower driver side door. Andy had no nerf bars so getting around the rock was particularly tricky. In addition to the trail sloping towards the big rock on the left, there was another large boulder straight in front of the passenger side tire. In time, Andy found the sweet spot in the squeeze, spun his rear end towards the right and was able to carefully pass between the two boulders....sheetmetal intact.

Another shot from an area on Trail 11 Andy eases down one of the notches Mark and Michelle down the vee

Mark had sturdy nerfs under his rockers so he could use a different technique to clear the large boulders. The plan was to drive the left front tire up and over the left side boulder and set the driver side nerf on the side of the boulder and swivel around to the left. Mark ended up going way high on the boulder leaving plenty of clearance to clear the rock at his passenger front tire. However, he went so high the truck got serious air under the right front tire, then started rolling to the passenger side. Not wanting to back up, Mark blipped the throttle and shot the 4Runner back down, but hit hard with a bang on the driver side nerf..the ultimate test of nerf bar sturdiness. His passed with flying colors and him and Michelle breathed a sigh of relief.

Finshing up the bottom section of Trail 11

We all crawled carefully down the rest of the rutted and rocky hill and were soon back to the lower transition trails. It was about 5:00 p.m. so we headed back towards camp for dinner and the raffle. We almost missed getting dinner but had our fill nonetheless. We wolfed down plenty of tasty catered barbeque and fixings at the main camp area while listening to the awards presentations and raffle.

Raffle prizes included two sets of tires and wheels, a winch, and tons of other vehicle and camping goodies. Nobody in our crew won much of anything as far as raffle prizes, but Mark and Michelle won the Iron Butt award for the longest distance traveled in the rig they wheeled on the trail. They had a winning distance of over 700 miles.

View of the main McNabb camp area

As the raffle ended and people dispersed to socialize and such, we wandered around checking out the variety of rigs at the event. There were box-stock vintage FJ40s, trucks and 4Runners in all states of modification, various rare Cruiser models not often seen, and rigs that were so highly modified that it took some looking to find what was still stock on them.

The night was clear and pleasant, if not a little cold. Luckily there was plenty of dead wood lying near our camp. After struggling a bit to get wet wood burning we got a large fire blazing and spent a nice evening staying warm by the fire.


Morning dawned a beautiful day and we leisurely packed our gear for the trip back out of the forest. We headed back to Knoxville where I said goodbye to Andy and Bud at the airport. I had a flight home and they had a long drive back ahead of them.

It was a great trip and I got a taste of eastern style wheeling. Where I wheel in Arizona we deal with tight washes, sharp rocks, large boulders...nasty obstacles, but there is usually good traction. Tellico can get wet and sloppy and when that happens you can't always choose the line you want to hold. The trail may just send you where it wants.

It was fun and I'll be back!

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