Near the Salton Sea, the desert is king. Fresh water is rare to come across and what few plants and animals can beat the odds, must be hardy or else wither away. Likewise, when the annual Tierra Del Sol rolls around in early March, 4×4 enthusiasts from all over make their way to the area, and they must drive rigs that can put up with punishment.
We made our way down the winding CA-79 highway, starting in Temecula and taking us through Borrego Springs before depositing us about five miles from the gigantic lake. But here, it’s anything but dead – the place is abuzz with activity. Vendors are baking pizzas and cracking open beers for customers, the portable toilets are getting raided for increasingly rare toilet paper, and folks are battling the intense, sandy winds kicked up from hundreds of drivers. The drivers, for their part, are looking for trails to take with friends, or are taking on the obstacle course at Truckhaven to see what they’re made of.
This year, weather got in the way of exploring much of the area in search of superstar vehicles, but we managed to find five favorites nonetheless. Let’s get into the list by starting off with Antonio Martinez’s 1997 Toyota 4Runner.
5. Antonio Martinez’s 1998 Toyota 4Runner
Despite only owning the 4Runner for a year, Antonio has spared no excuse to get his SUV out for off-road adventure. He bought the rig after getting pestered by his family, all of whom enjoy off-roading. “My cousins all own Jeeps and they were always bugging me about getting one,” he said. “But I couldn’t afford a Jeep, so I got a 4Runner instead.”
The 4Runner already had its paint and lift kit, hence its initial attraction to Antonio. “It looked great when I first laid eyes on it,” he said. “All I had to do was make sure it could find grip, so I installed a set of Method wheels and 35-inch Firestone Destination M/Ts.”
With its three inches of lift, beefy tires, and 4WD capability, there are tons of places Antonio can go to. 2019 marked his second year taking the 4Runner out Tierra Del Sol, and he’s also driven it through the Otay Mountain Truck Trail near San Diego. “I love it because it just gives me so much control,” said Antonio.
4. Isaac Elder’s 1979 Jeep CJ-5
Classic Jeeps were running amok at Tierra del Sol. Far from being trailered in and hit with quick-detail spray, these old codgers were out in the dirt, proving they still had it in ’em. One of them was a 1979 CJ-5 owned by Isaac Elder.
Isaac is currently serving in the United States Marine Corps, but he made time to come have some fun at TDS. “This is the first big event I’ve been to in a while,” he said. “I was serving overseas for about six years, but now I’m in SoCal, and I just came out here to check it out and have some fun.”
Isaac bought the Jeep out of Yuma, Arizona in 2007. The build process has been a long one, happening in fits and starts whenever Isaac could find time. “I beefed up the engine a little bit, as well as the exhaust,” he said. “I left it carbureted with a 4.0-liter I6 head, but I installed a camshaft, intake manifold, and headers from Clifford Performance. The transmission is a four-speed BorgWarner T18A. It has the 6.32:1 ‘granny gear’ that makes it great for off-roading.”
Below the belt, the CJ-5 has Rubicon Express shocks, and uses 15-inch steel wheels with 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2s. Isaac is fairly happy with how the Jeep is now, but he says that he’s considering putting a V8 in it. “Probably just a Chevy V8 out of a Silverado,” he commented.
3. Javi Casillas’ 2004 Jeep Wrangler TJ Rubicon
When was the first time you realized that your daily driver wasn’t going to cut it anymore? For Javi Casillas, it was when he visited TDS in 2015. “I was driving a two-wheel-drive Silverado when I first came here back then,” he said. “I found out pretty quickly that it couldn’t do anything! So I ditched the truck and hopped in a Jeep.”
Between the Silverado and this TJ, Javi’s ride was a four-door 2014 Wrangler JK. “I had to get rid of that when I got a family,” he recounted. “It was crushing to have to let go of it. Thankfully, after I bugged my wife about it enough, she gave in and I got this TJ you see here.”
Javi wasted no time getting the TJ upgraded. “Before I knew it, I had it on 35-inch Pro Comp MT2 tires, Fox 2.0-inch-diameter shocks, a winch in the front bumper, and a new hardtop,” he said. “The lockers were standard on this year of Rubicon, so I’m good there.”
Javi’s favorite aspect of the Rubicon is its capability. “I’m still getting used to it,” he said. “My JK was a four-door so it was longer, and I didn’t have to worry that much about flipping. This two-door TJ has that potential to flip, but it’s a lot more capable than the JK was.
2. Brandt Rains’ 2002 Chevrolet Tahoe
Tahoes aren’t the first things that come to mind when one thinks of off-road, but Brandt Rain’s white one made us reconsider their potential. We did a double-take when we saw his 4×4 SUV rolling by near Truckhaven and waved him down to learn more.
“I had my Tahoe built by JD Fabrication out of Escondido, California,” said Brandt. “I did some brainstorming with Justin there at JD and this was what we came up with. It was a small build at first, but within four months, it was totally finished.”
The Tahoe has all the bells and whistles to have fun out in the desert and also keep its occupants safe. “It’s got a fully built cage and harness seat restraints,” said Brandt. “The suspension is dialed in and it can mob through the desert without worry.”
Speaking of suspension, the Tahoe uses JD’s fabricated control arms up front and Deaver leaf springs out back. It uses King shocks on all four corners, along with 37-inch BFGoodrich racing tires and beadlock wheels. On the body, Trailer Products fiberglass fenders offer plenty of space for wheel travel. “I like that the fenders don’t get in the way of the doors,” said Brandt. “My family can still get in and out in all four doors.”
The axles are custom-made, and the rearend is a Speedway Engineering full-floater unit. Gearing is 4.88:1. Power flows from the stock Vortec V8, but Brandt has plans to swap it out for a much bigger beast. “It’s a 6.0-liter block that I’ve got totally built,” he said. “It’s 418 cubic inches and it’s going to have some good power!”
1. Tuan Nguyen’s 1997 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Everyone’s passion for off-roading goes a different route. For Tuan, it started way down south in Louisiana, where mud bogging and rock bouncing are the dominant forms of getting dirty. “I came from a mud bogging family,” he stated. “That’s why I run big tires on my rig.”
Back when Tuan first purchased his TJ, it was running on relatively meek Dana 44 axles. “I had those on there for about six months and they kept breaking shafts,” he said. “I couldn’t take it anymore, so I swapped them for Dana 60s – 35-spline, one-ton – from an F-350. But even those shafts kept breaking, so I went for RCV ones, and they’re solid.”
Bigger mods beget even bigger mods, as we all know. Following the axle upgrades, Tuan went with an Atlas two-speed transfer case and a TH400 transmission. Supplying the power is an LQ4 V8 from a Chevy 2500. “She pushes about 325 horsepower, I would guess,” said Tuan.
On the front end, the Currie Anti-Rock sway bar system provides remarkable balance on the trail without inhibiting articulation. As for steering, moving gigantic 42-inch Super Swampers left and right are the death of a normal power steering pump; Tuan learned that lesson quickly. “I went full hydro boost with PSC, because the bigger tires kept breaking steering arms,” he said.