THE 37-INCH TIRE SMACKED AGAINST a low sandstone outcrop protruding from Garage Trail in Chokecherry Canyon, just outside Farmington. The Jeep pitched left, and our driver, Danny Israel, chuckled as he righted our course. “My wife calls this a five-mile-an-hour roller-coaster ride,” says Israel, owner of Bear Automotive and Jeep Tours.
High winds tossed trailside aspens and junipers back and forth as we zoomed up craggy 70-degree inclines on our 25-mile route. Moments before the Jeep began to climb, each ascent appeared impossible. Then Israel hit the gas, and the purpose-built Wrangler’s tires gripped the surface and propelled us higher.
For the last three years, Israel, a former compressor technician in the natural-gas industry, has run the automotive, vehicle extraction, and off-road tour company out of a Farmington warehouse. “My family was heavily into racing of all sorts growing up,” he says.
In high school, a friend introduced Israel to Farmington’s outstanding off-roading at Glade Run, Head Canyon, and the Dunes. “This definitely is one of the premier areas in the country,” Israel says.
Long ago, Chokecherry Canyon was an ocean bottom. “The way the bottom of the ocean was forming created a lot of crevices and ravines,” he says during our tour. “Now that it’s a desert, it creates a really challenging environment.”
In Chokecherry Canyon, we passed trails that are marked and rated, so drivers understand the difficulty and the appropriateness of vehicles. Farmington’s off-road community holds events, like the Fall Crawl in September, and plays an important role in the canyon’s stewardship. Founded in 1978, the Farmington Cliffhangers Four Wheel Drive Club works with the Bureau of Land Management to ensure the safety of the trails and protect the surrounding landscape. “Our four-wheeling community here in Farmington is a huge family,” he says.
As our four-hour tour neared an end, the entrance to Gladiator Trail loomed before us. Known as “the gatekeeper” for its difficulty, the miniature canyon features a steep drop-in, rough terrain, and then an even steeper climb back out. “If you can’t get through that area,” Israel says, “you shouldn’t be doing the rest of the trail.” My stomach lurched as he positioned the Wrangler at the gatekeeper’s rocky mouth. He cracked another smile, and we dove in.
KICK IT INTO HIGH GEAR
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: BEGINNER
Rio Bonito Trail Loop. Off-highway vehicles (OHVs) are street legal on approved roads in Ruidoso, where this easy-to-moderate 3.7-mile loop revs up amazing sights. Keep an eye out for the sign marking the loop back, as it can be easy to miss. OHVs must enter the trail via Ruidoso, not NM 37. nmmag.us/riobonito
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: INTERMEDIATE
Goose Lake OHV Trail. Outside of Red River, the 14.4-mile out-and-back provides moderate challenges for off-roaders. Pack a lunch and take in the forest and Goose Lake’s stunning views. nmmag.us/gooselake
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: EXPERT
Caballo Lake and Palomas Gap Trail. Just south of Elephant Butte, this moderate-to-challenging thrill-seeking route runs 50 miles round-trip through old arroyos and rock formations. You might want to go in with multiple vehicles—just in case someone gets stuck. nmmag.us/caballolake