Deep in the deserts of Southern California, one of the oldest off-road groups in the country meets once a year for an event stretching back almost 60 years. Nestled between the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego, the Ocotillo Wells SVRA is the club’s stomping ground and the scene for the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari (TDS). It’s the largest and longest-running off-road event in Southern California, and this year, it offered a mix of the classic off-road fun, as well as some new ways to enjoy the desert.
Driving in early Saturday morning, the quiet S22 highway is a surreal place in the pre-dawn light. The shadows of the hills and sparse vegetation pass quietly as you head towards the Salton Sea. Cresting the last ridge, the view opens up, revealing the sun rising above the lake and thousands of off-road enthusiasts camped and ready for the day’s adventure.
Passing the ocean of RVs and Jeeps, I head into town and the safari headquarters to meet with Patrick Vaughan, Club President. As I arrive, the HQ is already abuzz with trail bosses. They’re getting ready to lead the day’s guests on guided treks of varying difficulty, something that’s new for this year’s safari.
Let’s Go For A Ride
After quick introductions, Patrick invites me to hop on board with him. We’re heading out with the other members to finish marking the trail head of the “Green” route, the staple trail of the event through the state park. On the short trip out to the staging area, we chat about the history of the club and how the Safari plays a key role in the its mission. “We are a non-profit,” Patrick tells me. “The safari is a huge part of helping us fight to keep lands open and available for enthusiasts.” Soon, we turn off the paved road and head through rows of camps as we arrive at the rally point.
After all of the markers are set, it’s time to meet up with my driver for the day, Green Route trail boss Jon Gray. His rig for the day is the “War Wagon.” The War Wagon is a purpose-built, no-frills Power Wagon which proudly displays its battle scars from years of roaming the desert. As we near the start time, attendees start lining up and before too long, a string of over 100 vehicles are airing down and making last minute preparations. The range of rigs was impressive with fully built heavy duty crawlers, side by sides, a fleet of jeeps spanning decades of production and mix of stock trucks and SUVs all eager to enjoy the 14 miles of trail ahead.
The Green Route is a hand-picked course through the heart of TDS’s backyard. It is designed as a route to showcase some of the land’s unique features while staying manageable for most stock production four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Looks Like We Got Us A Convoy
At 8 o’clock sharp, the wheels start rolling on the Dodge. We are off with what seems like an endless string of vehicles in tow. Winding through a few of the outlying camps, the caravan follows the laid-out markers and turns towards the open desert. The first few miles contain a mix of hard-packed sand and ruts. As we wind towards less level ground, the line starts to spread out to reduce dust. Soon, the terrain takes on a noticeable change and as the hills and valleys become closer together, the line of vehicles closes the gaps, snaking through the first real glimpse of what this land really has to offer.
“That one is Leprechaun’s Leap,” Jon says, as we pass one particularly gnarly descent just off the trail. That quickly becomes a running theme as we push through different switchbacks and topped crests. Jon describes off-shoots himself and the club have cut throughout the years. It quickly becomes obvious that this trail we’re traversing is really the equivalent of the club’s daily commute and a central vein for their exploration of the area. Soon, we approach a tent and checkpoint for those ready to stretch their legs and take a quick break. Discount Tire provides some refreshments for those that stop. As the lead vehicle, we move right on through, continuing the adventure.
Pushing on to the second half of the trail, there is no more open ground to be seen. Canyon walls grow taller and the switchbacks get tighter as we move forward. While the route is well-cut and marked, the area is a honeycomb of off-shoots and alternate paths. They all snake through and over every gap and break in the tall walls. Jon maneuvers the War Wagon with ease over the ridges as the canyon slowly widens and ground transitions to softer sand. This terrain continues as we approach a series of soft sand climbs out of the canyon.
On top one of these climbs is Checkpoint 3, manned by the Hemet Jeep Club. They’re providing support to any of the drivers that may need it. One of those Jeeps is my ride back to HQ, and it’s time for me to part ways with the trail. I watch as the War Wagon disappears around a bend heading towards Tectonic Canyon and the last leg of the Green Route. For me, it’s time to head over to the Ocotillo Wells training grounds and check out some more 4×4 fun.
Overall, the Green Route trail is a great opportunity to get acquainted with the area and feel a piece of off-roading history along the way. It is a must-see trail that can be done without having a fully built rig. Now, for those that do have that fully built rigs and are more familiar with the area, TDS has a new set of more challenging trails they are happy to lead people through. These three additional trails were set up on BLM land outside of the state park and had some minimum vehicle requirements that needed to be met to safely traverse. While I didn’t have the opportunity to join in on one of these rides, it’s something that will definitely be planned for the future.
Up For The Challenge
The guided trail runs are a huge draw to the Safari, but only encompass a small part of the fun. The training grounds are an area that is jam-packed throughout the weekend. It offers up enjoyment for both spectator and driver alike. With obstacles and hills ranging from fairly easy to insane challenges like Crossover Peak, the area turns into a main rally point for many attendees.
This year was no exception, with crowds gathered around “Little Sluice” and “Dollar Drop,” cheering drivers on as they navigated the terrain. With such a wide assortment of obstacles and so many vehicles running around, it was a non-stop buffet of crawling action. As the day wound down and the winds picked up, not even the blinding sand kept drivers from running the course, trying to better their lines and put their rigs to the test.
In all, the 2020 TDS Safari was another huge success. It brought out thousands of off-roaders to the edge of the Salton Sea for some desert fun. So mark your calendars for 2021 and when TDS invites you to come out and explore their backyard, know that this is one off-road event not to miss.