Misadventures off-road in the iron range

Misadventures off-road in the iron range
It could have been worse. It could have tipped.

In mid-August, while visiting my family in Duluth , I decided to take my little brother on a trip out to Gilbert, Minnesota, to do a little off-roading at the Iron Range OHV Park.

This was my second time visiting the park which offers everything from rocky forest trails to rock crawls and mud bogging.

Like my last trip out there, we had no intention of doing any more rock crawling or mudding than we had to.  As it turns out, even forest roads can make for dangerous enough wheeling.

Ultimately, the trip became a lesson in coming prepared for the unexpected.

The Park


Despite a few rocky hill climbs and descents, the new aftermarket bumper faired far better than the plastic one might have.

Iron Range Map

The Iron Range OHV Park in Gilbert, Minnesota has a little something for everyone. Whether you drive a Jeep, ATV or Motorcycle there are plenty of trails to explore. Click to enlarge.

The Iron Range OHV Park is one of a handful of off-road parks in the state that have dedicated Jeep trails.

Minnesota has plenty of trails that spider web its countless state forests, but most of them are limited to motorcycle and ATV traffic.

There are actually only about a handful of public lands in Minnesota where you can legally go Jeeping, and Gilbert is one of them.

Picking a path

One look at the map and it’s obvious which trails weren’t for us. One trail we’d be going out of our way to avoid was “Money Talks,” which is among the most challenging rock crawls the park has to offer.

My brother and I had planned to keep to the established trails, venturing off periodically on a few hill climbs here or there.


When we rounded the bend and came to “Roller Coaster,” we got out and walked the trail for a good quarter mile. We didn’t want to get too far into such a narrow trail to discover we didn’t have the right rig for it.

Despite the trail being marked extremely difficult, “Roller Coaster” turned out to be one of the best trails we’d tackle on this trip.

Things started going South when we reached “Yo-Yo Hill,” a steep switch back hill climb with plenty of loose rock and soil.

All down hill from here

Our adventure up into the Iron Range went south when we tried to return to the core trail up a shortcut called "Yo Yo Hill."

Our adventure up into the Iron Range went south when we tried to return to the core trail up a shortcut called “Yo Yo Hill.”

My first reaction to “Yo-Yo Hill” was “hell no,” but thats what I always say when I get to a new hill before I take a few minutes to walk it.

Like with “Roller Coaster,” we got out and climbed the steep grade. The rocks were loose, but there wasn’t any big boulders that would prevent us from getting up.

It was also the fastest way back to the core trails and we were about ready to head home.


The whole time we were walking the trail, my brother was warning me about getting in over my head. Something about famous last words or something like that.

In hindsight, he probably jinxed us for what was about to unfold. In hindsight, I probably should have listened to him.

I decided that, despite the steep grade and loose rock, I could probably make it up the hill.

After setting up a camera to record the ascent, my brother took position to guide me up.

Everything was going smoothly as I idled up the hill in second gear low-range. A little wheel slip here and there, but nothing much.

I’d rounded the first bend when I lost traction altogether. Rather than spin my wheels, I decided it would be better to back down and get a little momentum.

The mistake on “Yo-Yo Hill”


When we reached the first bend, things got slippy.

We probably would have made it out if I’d just spun the tires, but instead I decided to back down a little to get a better run at it. This was my first mistake. Actually, my first mistake had been idling up such a loose trail. I should have started in a higher gear and given it a little more gas.

The second mistake was halting the little momentum I had to let my brother reposition. I might have made it up if I hadn’t stopped.

As I backed down, no matter what I did, the back head kept slipping into the ravine.

I should have tried pulling forward and realigning myself, but instead I kept backing up, hoping that by turning the wheel I could steer out of it.

My final mistake that nearly ended our day of fun was to trying to back all the way down the hill to start over. All I managed to do was get my front end stuck in a ravine.

By the time we called it quits, my back tire was practically hovering above the ground, the suspension flexed to its limit.

With the front passenger-side tire dangling and the back driver’s-side tire off the ground, we weren’t going anywhere.

Searching for solutions

My Sahara is equipped with a limited slip differential, but every time we tried to spin the tires the front end of the Jeep was carried down further into the ravine.

I didn’t want to risk tipping.

I briefly considered  slipping the Jeep out of low range and into two-wheel drive to avoid wheel spin in the front. At least that way the back axel could get enough wheel spin for the limited slip to catch and get grip. It might have worked, but I didn’t want to risk sliding any further into the ravine.

This is probably not how my brother imagined off-roading.

Off-road and unprepared


Getting stuck is one thing. Getting stuck sideways, halfway up a steep hill climb, with your front end pointed down a ravine is something else.

We decided to stop before things got any worse. Stuck was one thing — You can get unstuck — broken was another.

Defeated, I pulled myself from the already tipping Jeep and surveyed the situation. It wasn’t good.

The Jeep was buried to the passenger-side frame rail. I had no way of getting my Jeep out of this predicament, but at least I could dig it out.

From the back, I pulled out our military surplus shovel and started digging.

By this point, my mind was racing. We needed to figure out how we were going to get out of here.

We had cell service. That was a start. We could at least call and let my dad know we were going to be late getting back, and might need a ride if things didn’t turn out the way we hoped.

The fact was, there were so many ways to get ourselves out of this situation, but none we had the equipment for. What we needed was a winch, or a come-a-long, or a HiLift Jack and a set of tow straps.

The good Samaritans

No matter how hard we tried, we weren’t going to get out without help. Not long after coming to this realization, a couple of good samaritans happened along with just what we needed and the wherewithal to get us out.

There was just one little problem. Our new friends were going to have get their stock Silverado down to the bottom of “Roller Coaster.”

After a few tense minutes, the truck rounded the final corner and stopped at the foot of “Yo-Yo Hill”. It wasn’t ideal. If I couldn’t get a grip with the help of the winch, the Jeep might roll.

With a chain around my rear cross member, one of our new friends began inching me back as I spun my tires. The next thirty seconds felt like an instant as the Jeep rocked violently. When suddenly, the nose dived down into the ravine, was caught by the winch and bounced back onto solid ground. We were free.

My leg bounced violently up and down, as I tried to keep pressure on the break peddle while frantically searching for the emergency brake. An adrenaline rush was putting it lightly.

Home free


Before leaving the park, we took a few minutes to go over the Jeep for damage. We’d just gotten free, and weren’t eager to get ourselves stuck again.

Outside the park, we pulled into a grassy area and surveyed the damaged. We didn’t want to get up to highway speeds and have something important come loose. I couldn’t think of anything worse than losing the tie-rod at 70 miles an hour.

After checking everything over, I declared a clean bill of health. Sure, I’d need to get the Jeep realigned, but we could at least hobble home. Next time we would be better prepared.

note: main art created using the Prisma app.

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