Drive through canyons, otherworldly craters, and ghost towns in an SUV.
Photo CREDIT: BETH BOWMAN
When someone talks about off-roading, one of two things happens: Listeners’ eyes glaze over and they absentmindedly scroll their phone, or they get really excited to share every detail about their latest rig and the gnarliest trails they’ve traversed. Venturing into the off-roading world can feel at once intimidating, frightening, exciting, and adventurous. Accessing some of the most remote, wild, and beautiful parts of the U.S. is a major draw, yet it’s also what can make it so challenging. When it comes to off-roading, there isn’t a lot of easing into it, which is why, when Porsche asked me to compete in the 2021 Rebelle Rally in a Porsche Cayenne S, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Rebelle Rally is a 1,500-mile off-road competition for women that takes place each October in the Nevada, Arizona, and California deserts. Over 10 days, 104 women from more than 90 cities, 24 states and provinces, and five countries go off-line and use nothing but paper maps, compasses, and map rulers to find hidden checkpoints in the desert for points. GPS devices are strictly prohibited. At the end of the 10-day competition, the two-woman teams with the most points win their classes. Competitors use either four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive SUVs to traverse the incredible landscape. And carmakers like Porsche put people like me in vehicles to learn about just how capable these vehicles are.
Off-roading in a Luxury SUV
During the pandemic, while many parts of the travel industry contracted, outdoor activities boomed. Everything from hiking and camping to renting an RV and off-roading continues to see elevated interest as the pandemic stretches into its third year. Most recent numbers from the U.S. Forest Service show that national forests and parks were more crowded than ever, with 168 million visits in 2020 alone, an uptick of 18 million from 2019, which means that finding a way to get away from it all in your all-wheel-drive vehicle is becoming increasingly popular.
While most off-road purists balk at the idea of taking a luxury all-wheel-drive SUV into the California, Nevada, and Arizona deserts for 10-plus days of competition, there are some truly incredible and remote places you can access with the right preparation and equipment. Luckily, Rebelle Rally founder and organizer Emily Miller and her team are experts at finding off-road trails that strike the perfect balance between challenge and beauty, and they work hard to ensure that a vehicle like the $80,000-plus Porsche Cayenne S I drove for the competition can handle it all without breaking a sweat.
“I want people to fall in love with our public lands and respect and protect them,” Miller says of how she thinks about creating the course for the Rebelle. “We look at the topography and the driving and navigation challenge as a whole. We want to make sure it’s the most spectacular backdrop for the competitor while being good stewards. To us, creating a dynamic course that shows off our public lands and helps conserve them doesn’t mean closing it off; it’s about ensuring people have access to see it someday in the future.”
Tips for Taking Your SUV Off the Beaten Path
When it comes to off-roading, equipment and preparation matter. Part of the challenge of off-roading any vehicle — whether it comes with four-wheel drive, like a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Tacoma, or it’s an all-wheel-drive vehicle like the Porsche Cayenne S I drove with my teammate, photographer Beth Bowman — is ensuring that you have the right equipment and gear for the trip, and that you know how to use it.
The Cayenne S I drove had a few stock additions that made it better for an off-road adventure. This means that the capable SUV had some features that were added on when it was built to make it more adaptable to the varying road and weather conditions we faced during the 1,500-mile trip. Ruby, as we named our Cayenne S, had adaptive air suspension, which allowed us to raise and lower the car by about half an inch when we needed to in certain conditions. Because of the air suspension, the car had different modes that changed how much of the 434 horsepower was delivered to various wheels through the all-wheel-drive system. That meant that in slippery, icy, or sandy situations, the vehicle was smart enough to push more power to wheels that were gripping so we wouldn’t get stuck. The adaptive air suspension allowed us to clamber over some very jagged, rocky trails and deliver the right amount of power to keep from getting stuck in the sand dunes.
The fast-moving weather was unpredictable, as it often is in the desert, and we faced everything from a destructive 65 mph white-out sandstorm that hit one of the Rebelle base camps to 100-degree-plus heat in the Glamis dunes. When the weather gets bad, or visibility drops, be prepared to pull to the side of the road and stop until the storm passes. In general, you are safest inside your vehicle when faced with dangerous weather. In fact, we slept in the Cayenne S the night of the tremendous sandstorm, since most of the tents were torn to shreds by the wind. It’s important to be as prepared as possible for adverse weather that can come up very fast.
When taking any vehicle off-roading, you also need tires and wheels that can handle everything from jagged rocks to soft sand. Before you go, make sure to have the right tires for the trail you’re tackling and ensure that they’re in good shape without any major damage from previous trips. Ruby had General AT (All-Terrain) Grabbers, which offer a blend of on-road handling and off-road capability. On rocky trails, my teammate and I took some air out so that the tires would not pop when rolling over sharp obstacles.
If you’re embarking on a longer trip, be sure to have at least one spare tire (and all the right equipment to change it), aired up and ready to mount, in case you do pop one on the trail. Also, take along a compact air compressor (you can find great battery-powered ones on Amazon) and tire gauge so that you can air up to the proper road pressure before getting back on the highway. You can also consider taking a few self-rescue tools like MaxTrax, which are knobby boards that you place under the tires to help get you out when you’re stuck. They can double as shovels when you need to dig out, too.
Before you head off, be sure to inform your loved ones and friends of your plans so they can alert the right officials if you’re delayed in returning. In some places, you’ll need to check in with a ranger, get a permit, or register with the park before going off-roading. Better yet, never go off-roading alone. Having an additional friend in another vehicle to help pull you out is a great way to stay safe. Make sure you check out Tread Lightly to learn about the rules of the road and how to make the most of your trip while having the least environmental impact.
Finally, consider both food and water before your adventure. Most of the places listed below are not far off the beaten path, but many don’t have any cell service. If you break down or get stuck, you may have to walk to the nearest road for help, which can be miles away. Carry maps and GPS devices that work in remote areas. Most GPS units in vehicles don’t show off-road trails. You can also bring an emergency GPS device, like a Garmin InReach, to send and receive messages. Take enough water (a good rule of thumb is two gallons per person per day) and food (snacks that don’t spoil and offer plenty of electrolytes are great) to sustain you and your companions for at least 24 to 48 hours. That way, if you do get stuck, and have to wait for help, you have enough.
Where to Go Off-roading With Your SUV
The natural landscape in many off-road areas is breathtaking, which is what makes taking your SUV off-roading such an incredible experience. Here are a handful of places we visited on the Rebelle Rally that are accessible in your all-wheel-drive vehicle with the right preparation.
Walking on the Moon: Lunar Crater Near Tonopah, Nevada
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
The Lunar Crater between Tonopah and Ely in Nevada has a way of sneaking up on you, regardless of which direction you access it from. This 400-acre landmark can be reached via an eight-mile off-road trail off Route 6. A small triangular sign near mile marker 79 signals the entrance to the circular, off-road trail that winds through a vast volcanic field. That trail eventually drops you off at the rim of what NASA terms a “terrestrial analogue site,” a giant, 430-foot-deep crater created when water and magma combined and formed a steam explosion millions of years ago. In 1972, Apollo astronauts trained in the area, practicing with the lunar rovers to get a feel for what they’d need to do on their trip to the moon.
The trail to the crater is relatively flat and composed mostly of gravel with a few larger volcanic rocks. On our way through during the Rebelle Rally, a family in a van had made the trip out to the rim of the crater with ease.
Be sure to take plenty of water, snacks, and in the winter and fall, warm clothes that block the wind. A common misconception about the desert is that it’s always hot. It’s not, especially in the winter, when temperatures drop below freezing and storms can kick up quickly.
Also, be warned: There is very little cell service in the area, especially as you get closer to the crater. Even the astronauts had trouble in the 1970s, when their rover broke down far from support and they had no way of contacting their team.
Ghost Towns With Ghosts: Rhyolite
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
Rhyolite was established in the early 1900s during the go-go days of the California and Nevada gold rush. During its peak, there were more than 2,000 claims over 30 miles of the area. A mill, bank, school, two electrical plants, and even an ice plant were built, and the town offered everything from pool tournaments to operas. The 1907 banking collapse hit the area hard and marked what many consider to be the beginning of its end. By 1916, power to the town was turned off and it became a ghost town.
Today, stark ruins reach for the sky as you enter the town, but what is likely to catch most observers’ eyes are the strange, ghost-shaped figures set on a riser off to the left of the paved road before arriving in Rhyolite. These figures look like eerie sheets that have been frozen in time, and visitors can climb up and sit or stand inside the hollowed-out forms and take photos. This is all part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor venue that features works like the ghosts by artist Albert Szukalski, which were installed in the 1980s.
You can access this location via a paved road off Route 374 in Nevada. There are some more challenging off-road trails heading into the mountains behind the town, and while we were able to take them on in the Porsche Cayenne S during the competition, I wouldn’t recommend them to solo or newbie off-roaders.
A Monument to Cars and Art: International Car Forest
CREDIT: JOSH BRASTED/GETTY IMAGES
Off Route 78 near Goldfield, Nevada, you may see a strange sight: Cars and buses sticking up out of the ground, painted in colorful hues. Welcome to the International Car Forest of the Last Church. An Instragrammer’s dream come true, this is an art installation curated and created by Mark Rippie. He and two friends, Chad Sorg and Zak Sargent, worked together to attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most cars buried in the desert. There are roughly 40 cars, trucks, and buses dug into the earth and piled on top of one another. The trail to get to the Car Forest is relatively flat, easy to drive with an all-wheel-drive vehicle, and composed of hard-packed dirt and gravel.
The Car Forest can be accessed off Crystal Avenue, which may look like just another dirt road. Check in at the Goldfield General Store (the owners also own the International Car Forest) before heading out to the installation and be careful when walking around — there can be broken glass and various car detritus near the installation.
A Slot Canyon You Can Drive Through: Titus Canyon Near Death Valley
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
One of the most epic areas we passed during the Rebelle Rally was Titus Canyon near Death Valley. This narrow, winding slot canyon takes you from east to west, up to the ghost town of Leadfield, and down into the Death Valley. We passed through this area at the start of a massive windstorm, which made it tricky to drive during the Rebelle Rally. Much of the trail is one way, though it’s graded and mostly gravel, and it does pass over some high areas that are prone to strong winds, rain, and snow. It also goes through a narrow slot canyon before emptying out into the tremendous flats of Death Valley.
Along the way, you’ll pass the ghost town of Leadfield, a booming spot for just one year between 1926 and 1927. About 300 people lived in the town, and a post office was established, though it closed a year later, after the promises of wealth and comfortable weather turned out to be overhyped.
After Leadfield, you’ll drop into Titus Canyon, where you can see petroglyphs on the huge mountain walls lining the road. Don’t touch them — they’re ancient and irreplaceable. Continue on until you drop through the narrowest part of the path down into Death Valley.
Titus Canyon gets lots of variable weather and is not passable in the summer months or during the rainy season when it’s prone to flash floods. Winter can make the road through impassable, too, when ice, wind, and snow cause the gravel to be more difficult to drive over. Examine the weather before your trip and check in at the ranger station prior to heading out. This route is not regularly patrolled and there is no cell service, so be prepared.
You can enter from the Nevada side (east to west) off Highway 374; a sign near the road will point out the way. Stay on the road and you’ll continue to climb up through the canyon and back down into Death Valley. The route takes anywhere from two to three hours to drive and covers 27 miles.