Leg 3, August 5-15, 2021
Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to La Sal, Utah
“Four powerful electric motors trump any transfer case. “
Frank Markus: The first part of our Rivian R1T on the Trans-America Trail odyssey provided some cute practice hills, and storm damage threw Leg 2 a curveball or two. But Leg 3’s Rocky Mountain challenges would either confirm or deny the 2022 Rivian R1T’s off-road adventure-vehicle chops. That’s why the MotorTrend Group’s foremost four-wheeler, Sean P. Holman, was assigned to this leg. But to reach these marquee obstacles we first had to cross a bunch of Oklahoma prairie land, which threw us some entirely different obstacles.
After a day of getting familiar with all the electric pickup truck’s screens and functions, we enlivened the next day’s gravel-road transit stage by sampling full acceleration and testing the Off-Road Rally and Drift modes. Holman and I both needed numerous corners to determine—while the overt torque vectoring of Drift mode can guarantee TikTok-worthy drifts—whether the rear-biased diff-lock-simulating Rally mode felt more natural. People who already know how to set up for a power-oversteer corner will love Rally, and novices can nail a lurid slide every time in Drift.
These scientific pursuits dramatically reduced Rocky’s driving range, prompting the Rivian team watching our battery via the cloud from aboard Holly to request we engage Conserve mode. (Our white pickup was named after the Rocky Mountain National Park; Holly, driven by Rivian staffers, took after Haleakalā National Park.) This decouples the rear motors and lowers the suspension for improved aerodynamics (but you can select normal height safely on rough roads). We were blissfully unaware of our range shortfall, because while Rivian was able to load the entire Trans-America Trail map into our nav system, it couldn’t provide turn-by-turn navigation to intermediate waypoints. We simply followed a yellow trace, with no “distance to destination” reading to compare against our remaining range.
We were coming up 15-20 miles short, though, so we switched off the climate control and enjoyed the 100-degree “breeze.” Holly took the lead to allow “drafting,” but the sideways dust missing our car completely indicated this was pointless. Our range dropped to zero with at least 10 miles to go, prompting various dire warnings, but Rocky soldiered on and reached the charger. Penurious driving left Holly with some 40 miles of surplus range, which would have been sufficient to flat-tow-charge Rocky a few miles to give us the energy we needed, had we needed it.
A ferocious thunderstorm that night soaked the region, turning some of the next day’s two-tracks into linear chocolate fondue pots. After successfully negotiating several of these, one finally exceeded the traction capability of our Pirelli Scorpion All Terrains, and we ground to a halt. Traditional “rocking” (repeatedly shifting from drive to reverse) prompted warnings to stop before shifting, but it worked as expected yet failed to free us. Eventually we pulled four MaxTrax traction pads from the Rivian frunks, and with persistence and a game willingness to become covered in mud, we eventually self-extracted from the 40-foot mire (which Holly and our support Ram 1500 TRX wisely circumvented). Holman suggested Rivian consider a “tire-cleaning” mode that would spin one tire at a time fast enough to sling mud out of the treads. We were left to wonder: Might the forthcoming Tank Turn feature also have helped pop us out of the ruts we were stuck in?
On the fourth day of Leg 3, climbing the shale-strewn switchbacks of County Road B037 near Homestead Canyon, New Mexico, we got our first taste of windows-down, silent climbing through nature. With nothing but the sound of tires on rock or shale, we frequently crept right up on deer, chipmunks, and other nature, seemingly catching them unawares.
We climbed the most on the next day, and all the mountainous trails took a toll on Rocky’s trick McLaren/Rover-esque hydraulic cross-linked anti-roll system. Suddenly, with Holman at the helm, we both noticed the truck had begun swaying more from side to side. Down in Salida, the team swiftly diagnosed a fault in one of the two right suspension struts, and replaced them both in the parking lot that evening, shipping the compromised parts to HQ for a postmortem.
Our penultimate day on Leg 3 led us over passes named Cinnamon, California, Hurricane, and Black Bear in and around the San Juan National Forest. The one-way descent from the latter down into Telluride is a bucket-list trail for every avid four-wheeler. Having tackled it twice before in well-prepared Jeep Wranglers, Holman led the charge.
Rivian offers no hill descent control, per se, but the various brake regeneration levels, especially high and maximum, offer sufficient retardation to creep down the steepest grades with little or no use of the brake pedal. The off-road modes all disable brake hold during brief stops, though a lengthier stop will engage it, requiring a bump of the accelerator to continue. Holman counseled against this feature in favor of a selectable creep torque that simulates the behavior of a combustion four-wheeler with a super-low crawl ratio. We also had to constantly remind ourselves that brake hold never activates in reverse, so the brake must be applied firmly during a reverse-to-drive shift on an incline. A more consistent policy would be welcome here.
Rivian offers no “invisible hood” tricks—some automakers use cameras to stitch together a forward view from which the vehicle is digitally erased or made transparent, the better to see obstacles—but there are ample camera views forward, rearward, and of each tire. The rearview camera comes on automatically in reverse but switching back to drive then requires three jabs at the screen to restore the front view—tedious when executing a multipoint turn on a narrow switchback with a precipitous drop-off to the front. Another easy software fix.
At “Maximum” suspension height, 15.0 inches of ground clearance is available, but even running in “High” at a slightly lower height, we only dragged the battery tray once and heard a second clunk jouncing off a large rock. A fresh set of Pirellis installed two days before and set to 38 psi (48 is the highway setting) provided sure-footed traction, and the 2022 Rivian R1T’s tidy dimensions (and cameras) allowed us to traverse the entire trail with no spotter. (Spotting might have prevented some scarring on the passenger-side cladding on one switchback-apex rock.) That’s damned impressive for any fully stock production pickup truck loaded to a 4-ton gross vehicle weight.
Note we didn’t say “especially an electric truck.” Because by the end of this leg the Rivian R1T’s 835-hp four-motor powertrain had proven its obvious advantages for off-roading. Peak torque at 0 rpm negates the need for elaborate low-range gearing and transfer cases. The narrow, centrally mounted direct-drive transaxles naturally leave room for super-long control arms and halfshafts, allowing superior articulation and sharper steering angles. And electric motors can instantaneously manage their own traction control more efficiently than an engine and separate brake system can.
Off-road adventure-vehicle chops proven, we handed Rocky and Holly off to the Leg 4 team. We were certain they’d conquer most every Moab obstacle any other production-spec off-road pickup truck could tackle.
Leg 4, August 16-23, 2021
La Sal, Utah, to Tremonton, Utah
“We could’ve run the whole story with only photos and video from Utah, and no one would notice. “
Scott Evans: Leg 4 began on a bad foot, and then we broke that foot. Just 62 miles from the start line, half the wheel studs on our Ram 1500 TRX support truck’s left-rear sheared off at 80 mph, and the other three lug nuts were barely hanging on.
An hour and a half earlier, we’d changed that wheel in a parking lot in Grand Junction, Colorado, after walking off the plane to a flat tire. Let’s just say 5 p.m. on a Sunday in Utah isn’t the best time to go looking for a shop, but after working our connections in the Moab area, Chris Martin at Nation’s Towing saved our bacon and had the truck repaired by 8 p.m.
Day two was a cakewalk by comparison, and that’s the day we did Hell’s Revenge. Of course, half the reason it was easy was due to our copious preplanning. The Pack Creek Fire burned a substantial portion of the southernmost district of the fragmented Manti-La Sal National Forest two months prior, closing the official Trans-America Trail route. An alternative route, uploaded to the trucks over the air, skirted us around the edge and up to Moab.
Although Hell’s Revenge isn’t part of the trail, we couldn’t go to Moab and not test what the 2022 Rivian R1T is capable of. Even loaded down with bed-top tents, ARB refrigerators, recovery gear, and four passengers each, Rocky and Holly pumped themselves up to their maximum ride height and climbed over every obstacle.
The next day, we did Moab’s Wipeout Hill trail just for funsies, which stopped being fun when we busted Holly’s left-front tie rod attempting an obstacle that would’ve caught out any stock 4×4. Post repair, we celebrated by blasting up and down a massive sand wash at freeway speeds and making tacos for the whole crew on Holly’s pullout camp kitchen (after plugging a sidewall puncture on the Ram).
Climbing out of the slick rock canyons the next day, the technical and slow-paced trail opened to wide, well-maintained dirt roads on the top of the mesa, where we could cruise at 80 mph thanks to the Rivian R1T’s incredible suspension compliance, body control, and grip. A finicky Electrify America charger that didn’t want to connect barely dampened the day, which peaked in a canyon filled with 8,000-year-old Native American rock art that, much like the environment at large, had to be painstakingly restored after years of defacement by other humans.
Flash flood warnings and an overnight thunderstorm portended struggle ahead. Now in the Manti-La Sal’s northernmost district, we drove deep into a birch forest before ascending the 10,271-foot Skyline Drive pass, which looks all the world like the Swiss Alps, where we were hit with sideways snow. In August. The snow became hail, then sleet, then just plain rain as we descended, prompting worries of flash floods as we raced the runoff down the mountain.
A much less troublesome fast charge at Scipio—Utah’s truck stop, Dairy Queen, EV charger, and petting zoo all in one—left us with plenty of juice to blast through the endless giant puddles that littered the two-track trail across the valley floor. We all cackled like 7-year-olds until we discovered the slightly bent skidplate on Rocky we’d caught on a rock a few days prior was now bent at a 90-degree angle by the water; it had to be reattached.
Delta, Utah, gets 10 inches of rain per year and averages half an inch in August. The storm we drove through on the mountain dumped 6 inches in less than two days. This meant we spent three and a half hours covering a whole 15 miles the next morning, with nearly half that time spent on the last mile.
We thought the shallow lake we came to first would be the worst of it, but both Rivian electric pickup trucks made it through with a little luck and a lot of entry speed. It was the mud that got us, though. Ever let a chocolate lava cake sit too long and it becomes a gooey mess? That’s what we tried to drive through, except it smelled like manure. It wasn’t long before we stuck Rocky in a bog. Holly popped us out with a kinetic recovery rope when MaxTrax recovery boards couldn’t bite. The boards worked better when Holly then got stuck twice. Thankfully, it was effectively the last time we’d see mud. After crossing the Swasey Mountain Wilderness, it was nothing but dusty dirt roads across endless miles of desert.
We’d camp that night just over the border in Nevada, returning to Utah the next day to run north along either side of the state line. The Ram’s sidewall plug finally failed, pausing us for another tire change. The official trail began to divert onto pavement, so we strung together some dirt roads to keep us off the highway until West Wendover, Nevada, where we could charge up for a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats over in Wendover, Utah. Another unusual summer storm soaked the salt with sideways rain, limiting us to a photo shoot.
Arcing northeast around Bonneville and the Great Salt Lake on our last day of Leg 4, we stopped briefly at Promontory Summit to consider the allegory of the Trans-Continental Railroad. Much as the railroad radically changed transcontinental travel, crossing the country off-road for the first time with an EV feels like as much of a sea change.
Unlike every other leg, nearly all 1,239 miles we traveled had been within the state of Utah despite the wide variety of terrain and topography. Much of the Beehive State is a desolate, unspoiled place, with enormous mesas split by deep and ancient valleys with precious few dirt roads scrambling over, around, or through them. There are even fewer towns in between. Water shaped the state and the West at large, and it shaped our journey in far less time.
Unseasonable storms wrought havoc on low-lying communities and spoiled the trail and the salt, driven by man-made climate change perpetuated in part by internal combustion engines. Before that, a man-made fire destroyed a national forest and closed it to vehicular recreation. Touring Utah’s trails via electricity did not change any of that, but in the face of the stark realities of human-driven environmental destruction, it made our all-electric crossing of the Trans-America Trail feel like a vital first step.
Leg 5, August 23-29, 2021
Tremonton, Utah to Port Orford, Oregon
“Hubris and the Sprint to the Finish. “
Christian Seabaugh: I didn’t know it, but the smoke in western North Carolina should’ve been a warning. The “smoke” in the Great Smoky Mountains is usually caused by high vapor pressure produced by the lush rainforest that lines them. The Cherokee called the mountain range Shaconage, or “place of the blue smoke,” but the smoke we saw against the mountains had a distinct red/gray tinge to it. According to local news outlets, it was wildfire smoke that drifted thousands of miles east from California and Oregon.
More than a month later in Northern Utah’s high desert, we faced down that same smoke much closer to its source as we kicked off the final leg of our Trans-America Trail overland expedition. No fewer than four of Oregon’s active wildfires lay in our way, and although we’d still largely be able to stick to the official Trans-America Trail, the fires meant we’d have to detour off trail at multiple points on our fifth and final leg.
Reuniting with Rocky, our Rivian R1T, at a campsite in Tremonton, Utah, was almost as exciting as seeing my parents again after a year and a half apart due to the pandemic. Dirtier now, with a proud brown patina of grass-caked prairie mud from Oklahoma and Colorado, and a confluence of sand from Moab and Nags Head inside, Rocky felt just as solid navigating Utah’s sweeping Bear River Valley as it did when I left the truck at the end of the first leg in Georgia.
The first few days on the trail again, as the muddy savannahs of northern Utah turned into farmlands and the empty prairie of Idaho’s Snake River Valley, were largely uneventful. The Trans-America Trail in this part of the country largely mirrors the Oregon Trail, and aside from the massive rooster tails behind us as we blasted across the plain at 80 mph (not to mention the F-15 fighter jets out of nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base buzzing us as we crossed their bombing range), it was easy to be lulled into quiet appreciation of what these barren plains might’ve felt like for the settlers moving westward in the 19th century.
While we had the luxury of ignoring the fires in Idaho, they became a more immediate concern as we crossed the Snake River into Oregon, leading us to frequently consult the Rivian’s 15.6-inch infotainment display and our Gaia GPS app for detours. Where possible, we always chose the unpaved paths over the paved ones, leading us to “discover” fields of wild Christmas trees, massive redwoods, cratered lakes, and even floating volcanic rocks (who knew?!).
But the fires were unavoidable on our penultimate day. Oregon’s Jack, Buckhead, Rough Patch Complex, and Devil’s Knob Complex fires stood between us in Crescent, Oregon, and our finish line on the beach in Port Orford, Oregon. Even if we wanted to push on through the thick smoke on the Trans-America Trail, route closures and fire breaks blocked our path. The only possible way forward was to take a hauntingly beautiful rural highway that arced south along the Rogue River, dumping us onto I-5 and into a Grants Pass charging station, just a stone’s throw from our overnight campsite.
After four days of averaging a little better than 32 mph while moving (not to mention more than 10 hours behind the wheel), the four-and-a-half-hour journey on paved roads felt like a cop-out. There was serious debate about gamely pushing on that same day toward the finish line, just a tantalizing 150 miles or so away on the trail. Ultimately caution won out: The Pacific Ocean would have to wait one final day.
August 29, 2021, our final day on the Trans-America Trail, started out with a normal 7:45 a.m. departure time. We broke camp and pointed our electric pickup’s nose toward the Pacific one final time. The trail, a gorgeous, paved road that wound into the mountains of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, terminated into a gravel two-track that followed the Elk River to Port Orford and the finish line.
Staring at Port Orford’s windswept Paradise Point beach from the safety of the gravel overlook, staff editor Conner Golden, Rivian tech Joel Carrasco (a fellow Leg 1’er), and I couldn’t help but feel like we’d gotten off fairly easily on Leg 5. Sure, we’d spent a week coughing from wildfire smoke, but compared to North Carolina’s muddy rainforests on Leg 1, chain-sawing through the woods on Leg 2, the foreboding Rockies on Leg 3, and the Russian roulette of weather and terrain Utah threw at Leg 4, this leg had felt, well, routine.
It was with this false sense of confidence Conner, Joel, and I decided it was a stellar idea to “quickly” plow Rocky forward onto the beach for an Instagram shot so there’d be no question we’d really traveled from the sands of Nags Head, North Carolina, to those of Port Orford, Oregon.
I distinctly remember a cheer from our doomed trio as I buried my foot in the “throttle” and the Rivian R1T met Oregon’s beaches for the first time. I knew right away I’d made a pretty big mistake. Almost immediately Rocky started bogging down in the incredibly soft sand. I tried to keep the momentum up and make a beeline back to the exit, but it was no dice. We were good and stuck, buried nearly up to our rocker rails. Hubris is a helluva drug.
Recovering the Rivian was an all-hands-on-deck affair as we aired down to 15 psi, shoveled MaxTrax under all four corners, and fought 50-mph winds and sandstorms to get out. It cost us more than 45 minutes (not to mention a heavy dose of pride) to undo the mess I caused, but there is no doubt: Together, we and Rivian completed the first-ever all-electric crossing of the Trans-America Trail. And it was absolutely worth it.
Postscript: Why Does This Even Matter?
Typically when I pitch a big feature story like this electrified Trans-America Trail overland expedition, I do so selfishly because it’s the type of story I would like to read. But as our teams got further into the multiyear planning process, watching the world change around us, it became increasingly obvious this one was far bigger than “just” something I’d want to read.
For starters, the achievement is significant: The 2022 Rivian R1T is the first all-electric vehicle to cross the U.S. off-road, thanks to the Trans-America Trail. The R1T completed 7,686 miles on the route, tackling every conceivable type of terrain from mud and rocks to gravel and sand—and facing down thunderstorms, snow, floods, and more. The Trans-America Trail was essentially the ultimate shakedown run for the very nearly production-ready truck.
But then there’s also what this means for us car enthusiasts, gearheads, and petrolheads—however you identify yourself—and the average automotive consumer. There’s no denying a certain type of change sucks. It’s scary. It’s difficult. Just think about how rough 2020 was (and 2021 continues to be) for all of us as we came to grips with a worldwide pandemic. But, to quote the unofficial U.S. Marine Corps motto: Regardless of the troubles we face, we improvise, adapt, and overcome.
The same thing occurs now as society transitions from the internal combustion vehicles we all grew up with, know, and love, to the latest electric vehicles. It’s easy to focus on anxieties like charging or range, but during 43 days of hard off-road driving through rural America, we didn’t run out of power once. Nor did we have any issue finding chargers for our Rivian R1Ts. The largest pain points were the occasionally unreliable Electrify America fast chargers.
If MotorTrend‘s band of leadfoots can cross the country off-road in an electric pickup truck, then the once-per-year 500-mile road trip the average driver might take should be a cakewalk in comparison. Vehicles like the R1T prove that no matter what fuels our cars, we’ll still be able to do the things that fuel us, including travel to the places we please and do the things we love. Just like before. —CS