We were near the front of the pack now, the lead vehicle in a caravan of 11 dust-strewn vans. I looked to my left and found my gaze dropping straight down the immense weather-worn walls of the Grand Canyon. There was no escaping its magnitude this close. Even as we carefully navigated along its outer rim, I felt drawn to it, like gravity was somehow pulling us closer to tumbling over its ragged edge. How did I wind up here? I wondered. How did I end up driving my van in this spectacular place with such a diverse group of great people?” I knew the answer, of course; this was ROAMBUILT’s Adventure Tour.
The adventure tour is a collective of van owners brought together by the rapidly growing overland industry. Some of us are just enthusiasts, others run companies that are building and shaping the culture of overlanding and Van Life here in North America. But we are all connected by a passion for vans, a thirst for exploration, and a desire to escape the crowds. It’s not surprising then that events like Overland Expo and the Adventure Van Expo series eventually became our meeting grounds. Not just for socializing and work, but for a chance to escape down dirt roads and throw back a couple of beers when the show was over.
The latest, and indeed largest of these post-event runs happened back in May after Overland Expo West in Flagstaff. It was hosted by RoamBuilt but included a few of the industry’s finest companies including Nomad Vanz, Scheel-Mann USA, Iglhaut Allrad USA, Benchmark Vehicles, Adventure Wagon, and a few of the RoamBuilt Team Riders (customers that have a kitted RoamBuilt van). For three days, we would embark on a dirt road tour that took us to the south and north rims of the Grand Canyon. We would challenge our vans and driving abilities in the mud and snow, navigate tight rock trails, and encounter narrow tracks that required sharp focus and a good deal of 4-low. It would be cold, damp, and tough, but most importantly, it would be fun.
We started at the Grand Canyon South Rim visitor center, the overcrowded Mecca of the national park. We worked our way through crowds at overlooks, waited in lines to check out the tourist center, and rubbed elbows with selfie-stick tourists of every background and nationality. It was important we receive this Grand Canyon experience if we were to appreciate our own. Needless to say, we loaded our vans and hit the trails as quickly as possible.
We made our way to the Hull Cabin Trail, typically a rather tame drive, where we were greeted with wet weather and heavy mud. This is what I wanted, a chance to push my driving ability and to do so while adhering to the Leave No Trace principles. With multiple sets of recovery gear on board, I had a sense of safety as we tackled trail obstacles. Rather than destroying terrain trying to drive out of a situation, we used the equipment to rescue vans and maintain the integrity of the trail. Aired-down tires and four-wheel drive helped the Sprinters float carefully over the soft ground, and a controlled throttle prevented them from digging in. With each corner, my confidence grew. A new level of comfort with my van ensued after tackling each obstacle, puddle, and rut. I continually reminded myself that a handful of drives with my van in 4WD does not make me an expert. It takes countless hours behind the wheel and years of dedication and studying to reach higher levels, and this constant thought played in my head, keeping me present and focused.
Throughout the trail, we encountered abandoned cabins, large puddles, and mud so deep that it required recovery to avoid creating new ruts. All of this fueled my thirst for experience and knowledge of getting off the beaten path. The first day ended as they usually do—too soon. We circled the wagons, had a campfire dinner, told stories from the day, and exchanged smiles while passing around cold drinks. The anticipation for what tomorrow would hold was strong, but if I was going to pass the time waiting, this was exactly how I wanted to do it.
The next morning, we turned off for the Grand Canyon visitor center on the north rim. That side has fewer tourists, but again, we quickly ran into the crowds, tired of them, and loaded up to explore. We chose a location outside of the national park where dispersed camping is permitted, which allowed us to take our time driving, comforted by the knowledge we could likely find a spot for the night with little trouble. It was a good thing too because the trail ahead was rumored to be a more exciting ride than we’d seen before, with technical features requiring concentration and patience to navigate.
As we arrived at Tater Ridge Trail, we were greeted with late May snowstorms. This not only added a fun challenge to the more technical route but would make our evening of camping a bit more interesting. This is exactly why I love the RoamBuilt Adventure Tours: you never know what you’re going to come across.
We progressed through the trail easily enough, but soon encountered downed trees which required a winch to clear the path. Fortunately, the lead van was carrying a Warn winch and made quick work of the situations as they arose. Things continued to get stickier as we went through. Before long, the group was pushing through ruts so deep it took a spotter to help guide each driver through the terrain, yet the atmosphere of our group was as bright as the snow-covered Aspen trees we were passing. When we reached the highest point of the trail, the snow gave way to some clear skies with a gorgeous view of a canyon on our right. In the distance, the faint red walls of the Grand Canyon could be seen, the beginning of the majestic wonder, with a perspective that no paved roads can provide.
What goes up must come down, and the descent soon began, twisting and turning its way down switchbacks. As I looked in the mirrors, I could see dark clouds chasing us on the horizon, warning us of an impending rainstorm. The challenge now was to complete the drive before the downpour could catch up. I rolled on the throttle but reminded myself of a lesson learned on a previous RoamBuilt Adventure tour from Bob Wohlers of Off-Road Safety Academy. His voice ran through my head, “Slow as possible, fast as necessary.” Wise words. The seemingly pressing timeline dropped away, and my foot backed off the throttle. My goal, I reminded myself, was to keep control, maintain the state of the trail, and drive out to safety, and that’s what we did. All the vans hit the pavement moments before the skies unloaded. The timing couldn’t have been better, and our smiles couldn’t have been bigger.
We pulled off the road for a quick huddle and few hugs goodbye, but they were shadowed with a tinge of sadness as we parted. It was hard to believe that our great escape was ending; it had been far too short. As I turned the key over, my spirits lifted. Plans for the next RoamBuilt Adventure Tour were already underway, and after this journey, I knew I’d be there.