Please excuse the mayflies in these pictures. They were HECTIC. You can see two in front of the lens. Standing outside was... not ideal. Check out the angle here though - that rear driver’s side tire has no weight on it. SKETCHY. Passengers got out here to restore balance and spot.

After spending all Winter wrenching on this thing, we finally had a chance to test the new upgrades this weekend via 10 miles of unmaintained “roads.” They hadn’t been used by anyone else since last year. The Rubicon fared well, but the XJ’s limits were tested, starting with a nasty diff cover vs rock incident:

Fortunately, the brand new diff cover survived. Just a couple flesh wounds and no leaks. This “THUMP” was loud and sudden enough to have everyone hopping out immediately to check for incapacitating damage. XJ Cherokees are extremely light (3100 LBS) but smashing your diff is always a heart stopping moment, no matter how slow you’re going. Here’s what the rock looked like after that one:

It was a very sneaky rock. What looked like a mound of dirt surrounded by small rocks turned out to be solid and a little higher than anticipated. “Don’t smash the diff” is pretty much the #1 concern when you’re wheeling with a lightly modded rig. A skid plate would be nice...

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Since we were the first people to pass through this area, a little trail maintenance was necessary here and there. Both of these winches are brand new, and the owners were excited to test them out. We could have moved this log ourselves but for entertainment’s sake we ripped it in half with a winch (it was partially rotten) and dragged it out of the way.

Victory! Winches are torquey.

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There was only one water crossing, but it was large by our standards. The Rubicon is completely stock other than the winch, and the XJ has a mild lift on 31" tires. It was almost 2 feet deep in the middle and full of slippery rocks.

A clear water crossing is always nice. Rushing streams and rivers push the car sideways and are impossible to see through. Mud pits too. That’s what rocks and sticks are for though: highly scientific depth testing.
This rivulet ran down the side of the trail for a good half mile. Very picturesque.

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Someone had a hardcore maple sap operation going on either side of the trail. There must have been at least 100 trees tapped.

All flexed out! Solid axles FTW. This picture demonstrates the reason why they work so well off road. With the sway bar disconnected, you get more articulation for lumbering over rocky sections of the trail. It’s amazing - thanks to shorter gears and a boatload of torque from legendary 4.0 I6, the XJ stays below 2K RPM most of the time.

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The last sketchy bit. It’s hard to capture extreme angles with a camera but I did my best to hug the wall here for that purpose. It’s around 3 feet tall. The section of trail behind me in this shot must have been washed out years ago. Someone made a shortcut that was fine up until this point, where you’re forced to negotiate a steep drop back onto the original path.

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Beyond the ludicrously dense swarms of mayflies (they had us jogging up and down the trail just to escape for a couple minutes), it was a perfect day. We made good time and nobody broke anything. Two years ago, I had absolutely no interest in trucks or off roading. Now? I’ve been converted into a certified Jeep nut. I can’t recommend XJ Cherokees enough and I don’t even own one. My friends own 2 and working on them is so much more fun than the tightly packaged German and Japanese stuff I’m used to.

Definitely check out your local trails if you’re ever curious about this kind of thing. All you need is a 4x4 and some common sense. Mods take things to the next level capability wise, but you can have lots of fun without them. We’ve been on plenty of runs with stock Tacomas and the like - they did fine! Just don’t push your limits. Knowing when to turn around is important.

Off roading is unique in that unlike HPDE, drag racing, or even Auto X, it can be dirt cheap and you don’t need to wait for an officially sanctioned event to do it. IMO it’s the most accessible form of enthusiast motoring. If you drive a 4x4 that’s never been off road, just do it! What are you waiting for?