1994 Toyota Land Cruiser FZJ80

The LandYacht: Land Cruiser Field Report – Western Kansas

First things first, the air conditioning has finally been repaired on the Land Yacht. The leaky evaporator core was removed by myself and a friend. The “new to me”-used core was installed and everything bolted up exactly as it should. It’s amazing to have cold air blowing through the truck again.

A while back, I found a group on Facebook. Not the kind of politically-infused hotbed of a Facebook group, but a group of mostly like-minded people who’d rather be outside exploring their surroundings than at home on the couch. The group is called Konza Overland. Overland is a fancy name for slightly off-road vehicle camping. It’s been happening for years, but now we have a cooler name for it.

Into the Badlands

Kid 1.0, Kid 2.0 & myself recently took a whirlwind tour of Western Kansas with some of the members of the group. Brett & Amanda navigated the whole trip with their 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser with a hidden winch. We were joined by Kyle & Kathleen with their Fire/Rescue 2015 GMC Sierra and Steve and his son with their winch-equipped 2011 Jeep Wrangler. Also along on the trip was the Land Yacht, our 1994 Toyota FZJ80 Land Cruiser with its stock (for now) suspension, BFGoodrich K02s and Cobra CB Radio. Everyone was equipped with a CB to aid group communication, while Brett & Kyle both could bust out the HAM radios if we needed them to (we didn’t this time).

The boys and my adventure began in the dark on Saturday morning. The initial meeting point for the trip was two hours west at Geary State Lake near Junction City, KS. There is a waterfall there that can be picturesque when it has rained a lot. It had poured the day before our trip, but the falls themselves were disappointing. The lake itself was a little low before the rain. Nevertheless, after a couple hours in the truck, it was a nice spot to stretch our legs.

The boys spent twenty minutes getting muddy and wet, and then we piled back into the Land Yacht to head west on old U.S. Highway 40. The boys & I had a discussion about how the Interstate that we had used earlier in the morning didn’t use to exist and that these smaller two-lane roads were the only way to get west to Colorado and beyond. The boys were not impressed, but I really enjoyed the slow curves of 40.

Dukes of Hazard Style

We stopped off at an abandoned schoolhouse built in 1916 on our way to Mushroom Rock State Park. The schoolhouse looks like pretty solid construction for being 100 years old and not a brick out of place. It is located on private property with reminders posted of this fact. We kept our distance, took some pictures and moved on.

Mushroom Rock was hidden down some back roads that became surprisingly sandier the closer we got to the state park. A section of the road turned to mud, which made it enjoyable to watch those in our group who hadn’t turned on the four wheel drive yet. There was even a sideways Jeep. No one really had any issues once the 4WD was initiated.

Mushroom Rock State Park

The rocks themselves were impressive. For whatever reason, I had a preconceived notion that the rocks were only four to five feet tall. Turns out they were three times that size and imposing. They have a weird UFO flair to them. The current theory is that some of the boulders are deposited by a glacier moving through the area. While the mushroom-shaped rocks were probably a part of the seascape at the bottom of the inland sea that used to cover much of the Midwest. Either way, the boys really enjoyed running around and climbing on them. One of the group members even let the boys fly their drone around them which was ballsy on the drone owner’s part.

Nearby to Mushroom Rock State Park is a location known as Faris Caves. You don’t really expect to find caves on the plains of Kansas. The roads into the area are on top of dikes or running across fields of corn and alfalfa. You go around a dip, a corner, and then you’re in a completely wooded area. After a short walk, you come to cave entrances, that have a Raiders of the Ark vibe to them. In reality, it’s three caves that have been cut into the sandstone bluffs. Mr. Griffee came to the area in 1884 and carved out the three small rooms to use as his living quarters rather than digging a typical dugout sod house. Two of the caves are connected with a short walkway, so they made up a two-room dwelling. The third cave with the smaller entrance was used as a “spring house” to keep things cold and was fed by a natural spring. The caves are named after the Faris family that bought the caves after Mr. Griffee sold his land.

The sandstone bluff has been marked by generations of tourists. The earliest dates we were able to spot was 1908 and 1914, but there are sections of the sandstone in the area with rock drawings dating back to 700-1,500 years ago. We didn’t see any of those. If you take a picture at the right angle though, all of the carvings begin to look like something from the Amazon. It doesn’t, but I liked to pretend that it did.

After the rocks and the caves, we spent more time on Old US 40 as we rolled through Ellsworth, KS and eventually wound up in Wilson, KS. This is a community that is full of Czech heritage and is home to the world’s largest Czech egg. Kid 2.0 was telling everyone that we were visiting the world’s largest chicken egg. The Czech egg was much larger than he was expecting.

World's Largest Czech Egg

So far we hadn’t taxed the vehicles too hard. After the Czech egg, we made a decision to blast down I-70 for about an hour to get to our last fuel stop for the day. As a group, we were ready to spend the rest of the day on dirt roads, but we were losing the race with the sun.

Exiting I-70 near Quinter, KS, we dropped South to the Castle Rock Badlands area. Driving into this area is a little surreal. We knew we were approaching an area with tall ledges and cliff-like structures, but you can’t see any of that from the road. There is a two-track trail around the whole area once you’re over the cattle grate at the entrance. Following the track, you descend down and around into the badlands area. Our group is used to blasting across the rolling plains and the steady incline to get to the mountains and the rest of the western US. This area is not what we were expecting at all. Large chalk rock outcrops and deep, steep canyons were all navigable on foot. We climbed, crawled, flew drones, photographed, even “selfied” our way through most of the area. It’s not huge, but it has definitely whet our family’s appetite to get up to South Dakota’s Badlands.

We also met up with the fifth member of our little exploratory group. Ron and his three kids were there with his 1997 Land Rover Discovery SD. His truck has a 4” lift, 3” snorkel, Warn M8000 winch, lockers (ARB rear, Ashcroft front) 265/75-16 Treadwright tires and a TO-Extreme “High Country” adventure trailer (He did the engineering for the company that makes them!). The Discovery and trailer were quite a sight mixed in with the outcroppings around his truck. Plus it’s “Alpine White” which in his words is “the second best color behind Camel Trophy “Sand Glow” yellow and I have to agree. His wife has an “Epsom Green” Disco and is not a fan of the white ones.

Land Rover Discovery GMC Sierra

Once all the kids were good and dusty from exploring the chalky rocks we loaded back up and headed for Monument Rocks. The roads out west are amazing, or at least they were while we were there. I had a heat shield on a catalytic converter come loose earlier in the day while we were on the gravel roads. It spent most of the day rattling incessantly. It was quiet on the trip between the badlands and Monument Rocks. The roads were all dirt and not so rutted that they were difficult to navigate. In fact, it was amazing to be traveling in a group averaging 55 mph across the dirt roads. The sound and motion put the boys to sleep in minutes. It really was great, almost surreal. We arrived at Monument Rocks shortly before sunset.

Monument Rocks and Castle Rock Badlands are both located on private land. The landowners are wonderful that they keep these areas open to the public. They only ask that you do not camp at the two locations and that you stay off the Monument Rocks; reasonable requests, which we followed.

The Monument Rocks are probably the same height as Castle Rocks, but appear taller because there is no valley that you descend into around them. You park and look up at the tops. They appear much larger than they probably are and we arrived during the “golden” hour for photos. We all took some shots, but quickly we wanted our vehicles and the rocks together, so we pulled around on the small road for the ultimate #squadgoals Instagram post.

With the last bit of light on the horizon, we headed out for our campsite. The Land Yacht ran like a champ the whole day. Achieving speeds near 80 mph with the 23-year-old inline six on the Interstate and charging through a full day of dust.

We camped at Lake Scott State Park, north of Scott City, KS. We all pulled into a group campsite. As we finished setting up and were focused on whipping up a camp dinner, a camper’s nightmare occurred. An acoustic guitar was strummed. It’s always a roll of the dice with campsites and this one went way better than it could of. The guitarist/vocalist regaled us with a number of renditions by the late Tom Petty. Combined with numbers by the Beatles and many other artists from the 60s-70s, it wasn’t bad. It helps that the dude could sing.

After erecting our little three-man tent, my boys inhaled some hot dogs and fell asleep as they were crawling into the tent. They had spent most of the day staring out the windows and climbing/crawling over anything that looked like they wouldn’t hurt it. We’re big on trying to not ruin a location for the groups who come after us and the boys did a great job of listening. #Treadlightly

The following morning was the first crisp morning of the year. A balmy 48 was enough to send the boys into hats, gloves, sweatshirts, and pants. Kid 1.0 did not want to change out of his pajama pants and spent most of the day in them.

Our first stop on Sunday was the Battle Canyon Historic Site. In 1878 a group of Northern Cheyenne fled from a reservation in Oklahoma for their homes farther north. Lt. Colonel Lewis was dispatched from Fort Dodge to return them. The Native Americans had taken shelter at this site with sentries surrounded by rocks posted around the canyon. The elderly, women and children were hiding in a small cave near the back of the canyon. Lt. Lewis was mortally wounded in the thigh and became the last United State officer to die in Kansas during the Indian wars. At night the Native Americans escaped out the back of the canyon and continued North. Eventually, they split into two groups with the first group being captured and returned. The second group lasted the winter in the Sandhills of Nebraska before they too were captured and sent back to Oklahoma.

The rest of our Sunday was dedicated to running 60 plus miles of the Arkansas River bed between Garden City, KS and Dodge City, KS. In Kansas, a dry river bed is considered public domain and can legally be navigated. To our surprise, when we arrived at the river, it was not dry. This complicated our plans for running all 60 miles. We checked depth for most of the locations where we crossed back and forth to the trails running alongside the normally dry river. Almost always we were able to make it where it seemed many had crossed before us.

1994 Toyota Land Cruiser Bow Wave

I did not air down the BFG K02s. This was not the tires fault, but my own. The Land Yacht became beached in the water near an exit point. Steve’s 2011 Wrangler had been running point because of his lighter weight and possessing a winch. He was gracious enough to come back to us and help winch us out. It could have been worse, and we made it out with relative ease when it comes to winching. Ron’s 1995 Discovery and adventure trailer bogged down as well behind us, but he was able to use Kyle’s 2015 Sierra as an anchor point and winch himself out of a sloppier section. After some maintenance items like changing differential oil and reattaching the catalytic converter heat shield, I’m shopping for a winch. 

Stuck in the River

What was supposed to be a transit of 60 miles of trails, dust and maybe a little water, turned into just 8 miles of river, sand, and winching. Most of us had hit our bug out times and we headed for home.

Ron, Kyle and I headed east across US 50. Kyle eventually turned North for I-70 and the half-hour-time-saver higher speed limit of the Interstate, while Ron’s ‘95 Discovery and the Land Yacht plodded along east. The almost six-hour drive home gave us plenty of time to think about what we had just seen and experienced.

The boys raved about climbing all over the rocks, crossing a river in our old Land Cruiser, getting stuck and eventually being pulled out. They were pretty tired on the drive home. I did pack them a surprise. When we stopped for dinner on the way home, I pulled out a couple of portable DVD players. The CB was no longer needed so they were able to enjoy some Disney entertainment for the last two and a half hours of our drive and I was able to turn on some automotive related podcasts.

After being stuck

It was a great weekend. We experienced new places, saw numerous wind farms and way too many cattle feed yards. We did it together, not engrossed in our devices, but fully aware of the world around us. I’m not sure where our next destination will be, but I know already we will want to go. Where would you suggest?

You can follow Chris, his boys, and #TheLandYacht on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, @overlandingdad.

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6 responses to “The LandYacht: Land Cruiser Field Report – Western Kansas”

  1. robbydegraff Avatar

    That last shot!!!! Love it.

    1. Christopher Tracy Avatar
      Christopher Tracy

      Amanda Rolfs took it. I accidentally drove into her shot!

  2. mrh1965 Avatar

    Looks like a good time, thanks for posting!

    1. Christopher Tracy Avatar
      Christopher Tracy

      Thank you. Hopefully we’ll have another trip soon! Already missing being gone.

  3. Ross Ballot Avatar
    Ross Ballot

    Excellent trip report, as you probably know I love writing these myself and reading them as well. Very well done.

    1. Christopher Tracy Avatar
      Christopher Tracy

      Thank you, Ross. I dabbled in writing car reviews a couple years ago. I think I’ve found my niche. Hope to write many more.

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