On a rocky road in a Cherokee

The harrowing drive up to a rocky outcrop is rewarded by a stunning view of the American west.
The harrowing drive up to a rocky outcrop is rewarded by a stunning view of the American west. PHOTOS: JEEP
Going on a road trip where there are no roads is best attempted in an all-terrain vehicle.
Going on a road trip where there are no roads is best attempted in an all-terrain vehicle.

Convoy of off-road vehicles travels on rugged trails over rocky outcrops and sandy flats in Jeep Experience 2015

The Jeep brand is renowned for its go-anywhere, all-terrain sports utility vehicles. But most local Jeep owners are unlikely to take their prized vehicles off-road, except in instances of kerb-mounting or "ponding".

It was a real treat for a suburbanite like me to be invited to Jeep Experience 2015 in Moab. If you have not heard of the place, Moab is a very small town in the American south-west state of Utah, with a population of just over 5,000 residents (excluding cattle and horses).

In fact, more tourists congregate in Moab annually for the natural attractions in the Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Both are popular bases for mountain bikers and are the destinations for the participants at the annual Moab Jeep Easter Jamboree Safari.

I spent the first night at the Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, which is beside the Colorado River. This place got me into a wild west mood, for I saw horses grazing in the green pastures and rust-red mesas in the distance. I half-expected the Lone Ranger and Tonto to ride in and join our jamboree.

But instead of the fictional heroic duo, we were escorted by the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) posse, with rugged Jeep Wranglers at the front and rear of our convoy.

Our "steeds" consisted of a dozen Jeep Cherokee Trailhawks - the more rugged sibling of the Cherokee Limited. The Trailhawk is even more suited to off-roading, thanks to its higher ground clearance and low-speed transfer case with a locking rear axle.

Thankfully, this was neither a nerve-wracking speed event nor a timed treasure hunt, but a leisurely drive on rugged trails. Or so we thought.

The first course we tackled was the 10.5km-long Hell's Revenge Trail. At the entrance to this stark, barren and rocky trail, there is a sign that reads: "Steep climbs require steel nerves and advanced driving skills." Uh-oh.

Fortunately, we had experienced guides who told us to select Rock mode on the Cherokee's Selec-Terrain system for maximum traction. We then gingerly followed the lead Wrangler in a single file up the rocky outcrop.

It was initially unnerving to navigate slopes with angles exceeding 45 degrees and narrow trails with sheer drops on either side. It felt like a roller-coaster ride on the rocks.

But with more practice and FCA crew members on hand guiding us past more treacherous obstacles, I became more gutsy and realised that the Cherokee was very much up to the task of keeping up with the Wrangler.

We then proceeded to Castle Valley Peak. It was a bumpy climb up the Porcupine Rim 4x4 trail, but once we reached the end, we got a breathtaking bird's-eye view of the Castle Valley plains below and the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountains in the distance.

The rest of the journey took us over sandy flats and a former gold rush trail to our pit stop for the night beside the Wind Caves. These caverns are literally large holes carved into the steep sandstone cliffs by erosion over the centuries.

To complete the country 'n' western experience, we were given a barbecued dinner with a singing cowboy for entertainment. We then spent the night in tents, bundled in sleeping bags.

At the crack of dawn, I resumed the off-road journey with more confidence. I reckoned the guys in the Wranglers were having a bumpier ride than we were. Ride comfort is a forte of the Cherokee, be it on-road or off.

This time, I left the Selec- Terrain function in Auto mode. The rest of the drive in the Cherokee Trailhawk was easy- peasy. This is a mid-sized sports utility vehicle for all off-roading skill levels.

The reward at the end of this two-day journey was an even more spectacular view atop the 1,750m Dome Plateau, which overlooks the meandering Colorado River.

It is no surprise why the stunning red-rock canyon landscapes of Moab have become a favourite setting for Hollywood films, from classic John Wayne flicks to more recent movies such as Need For Speed (2014) and Transformers: Age Of Extinction (2014).

This was a road trip like no other. I got to appreciate the all-terrain prowess of the Jeep Cherokee while soaking in the rugged adventure lifestyle that is pure Americana.

Now that is what I call a rocky mountain high.


• The writer is a contributor to Torque, a motoring monthly published by SPH Magazines.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2015, with the headline 'On a rocky road in a Cherokee'. Print Edition | Subscribe