The chill of late fall had settled on those of us who live in high-elevation Arizona and I was chomping at the bit to sink my teeth into a little desert adventuring. Up north, Flagstaff had already gotten snow and down here in Bisbee, which is about as far south as you can go without having to swap dollars for pesos, I had relocated my potted cactus collection inside weeks ago.
One of the best things about living in Arizona is, if you don’t like the weather where you’re at, just drive a couple hours and it will be completely different. We’re gifted in the altitude department here, with elevations ranging from just 70 feet above sea level to nearly 13,000. Arizona has a brilliantly diverse climate, ranging from Cool Plateau Highlands to Low Altitude Desert and everything in between.
With the prospect of having four days off dedicated entirely to exploring, I decided I’d pack my camping gear and head out toward the heart of the Sonoran Desert, the lowland Basin and Range region in the western part of the state. I was eager to get my truck, a 2007 Toyota Tacoma, newly outfitted with a Superlift three-inch lift and King 2.0 shocks, out into the desert and put the new gear to the test.
My favorite adventure buddy, business partner, and boyfriend, Sterling, would join me for the long weekend. As we poured over the maps and scribbled down our supply lists, Sterling decided he would drive his van, a Quigley-built Chevy Express 2500. The van is darn capable for off-piste driving and would add a healthy dose of self-contained campsite comfort.
Over the course of my life, I’ve always driven 4×4 Toyota pickup trucks (with the exception of that Blazer just out of high school, but we all make poor choices when we’re young). Needless to say, I’m pretty committed to the genre. A couple of them were crusty early-90s Pickups from back in my climbing days. One was a lovely little inline-four Tacoma that got pulled during the early frame recalls and another was my beloved T-100 that I finally retired with 350,000 hard-earned miles on it. I always thought I could never love a vehicle more than that T-100, until I got the 2nd Generation Tacoma that I drive today.
I bought my 2007 Taco with 50,000 miles on it and a binder of meticulous service records from the previous owner. It has the bombproof 4.0-liter V6 engine, 6-speed manual transmission, and it never lets me down. Over the last 100,000 miles, it’s been reliable beyond belief and I’ve always thought that this truck would make a great little overland rig. A few weeks ago, I decided now was as good a time as any to get started on that project.
When it comes to building out a vehicle there are lots of opinions about where to start, from skid plates to snorkels to solar to bed systems, but I decided to start from the ground up.
When I first started looking into a Superlift suspension as the first step of my build, I had no idea that they had been designing lift kits since the 1970s (which is pretty darn cool, in my opinion). I just knew that I wanted to fit my truck with 33-inch tires and Superlift’s new three-inch lift kit would buy me the clearance I needed for some bigger wheels.
As I researched more, I really liked that Superlift designed this package specifically for the Tacoma. Plus, I’m building out an overlanding vehicle, not some hyper-modified show truck, so I needed the lift to be capable and comfortable both on- and off-road. The thing that sealed the deal for me was that this kit included proprietary Upper Control Arms (UCAs) along with the with King 2.0 front and rear remote reservoir shocks.
When the palette of parts showed up at my door, I headed to 4Wheel Parts in Tucson for the installation and got back to Bisbee just in time for my long weekend in the desert.
Agua Caliente Road
It’s a good thing we had four days because Arizona is big, maybe not by Alaska standards, but 114 thousand square miles is nothing to shake a stick at. Sterling and I decided on two interesting looking roads in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. The first destination would be a four-hour drive northwest of our home in Bisbee, so we stocked the Dometic with food and beer and caravaned our way toward Gila Bend.
After peeling off the highway, we gassed up and headed north on Old Highway 80. Though it takes a backseat in fame to Route 66, US 80 was key in the golden years of the American road trip and is studded with history. One of those historical relics is where our off-road exploration began, on Agua Caliente Road at the Gillespie Dam Bridge. Originally built in 1927 and restored in 2018, the bridge is one of the longest steel truss bridges ever built in Arizona and it is a beautiful gateway to the desert beyond.
A couple miles after the bridge we turned onto Agua Caliente Road, which is about as Sonoran Desert as it gets. The road winds through hills and buttes of the BLM land, backdropped by the craggy Gila Bend Mountains. Ocotillos, chollas, and saguaros defined the landscape, and camping would be more than plentiful.
Agua Caliente Road is by no means challenging, but it is beautiful and windy; it seemed like a great place to dial down my shocks and turn up the speed a bit. Sterling rambled along in the van and I pulled over to stiffen up the compression on the remote reservoir shocks that came with my new suspension kit.
The King company has been making shocks for almost as long as Superlift has been making lift kits and, as I stepped out of the truck, I had to take a moment to admire the new setup. My Tacoma was sturdier than ever before with its new UCAs and the metallic blue King coilovers catching a glint in the late day desert sun.
Superlift’s King 2.0 shocks have compression adjustment knobs on the reservoirs that allow you to dial them up or down to suit your needs. I had been running them soft up until that point and they felt plush yet decidedly responsive, so I clicked the knobs all the way in the other direction and took off down the road.
I wish I had a better set of words to describe the difference, but with the shocks on their firmest setting, the truck just felt snappy. Without hesitation, I was ripping over washboards and cruising around corners with an ease I never would have imagined on the stock suspension. As I caught up to Sterling and pulled into our campsite, I found myself thinking, “This is as fun as riding my motorcycle!”
And there’s a real truth to that. As much as I’ve loved my pickups, up until now, my trucks have always been utilitarian things for hauling around wood and dogs and dirtbag camping in the back. Motorcycles, for me, is where the overlanding happens. Or, rather, that’s how it was up until now. Because here I am, with a giant smile on my face cruising along Agua Caliente Road, totally delighted with the first step of my overland truck build under my belt.
As the sun slipped down in the west, turning the scenery around us into a John Wayne movie set, Sterling and I lit a fire and sipped some bourbon. The temperature was perfect, a full ten degrees warmer than back home in Bisbee, and we basked in the glow with more exploring still ahead.
Our next destination was Harquahala Mountain, the highest point in southwest Arizona and another fine example of Sonoran Desert ecology and Arizona history. The region is particularly diverse with rare cactus populations, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and desert tortoise. On top of the mountain is an abandoned astrophysical observatory, built by the Smithsonian Institution in the 1920s.
We started up the Harquahala Mountain Back Country Byway. ‘Byway’ is a bit of an understatement in my opinion; this rugged 4×4 road is not the sort of thing to attempt in your Prius. The road from the base to the peak climbs 3700 feet over the course of ten miles and, to my delight, got progressively steeper and rockier the further we climbed. As we made our way up the mountain each view of the surrounding wilderness was more breathtaking than the last.
We didn’t know what the top of Harquahala would be like, but we were hoping to find a campsite near the summit. Sterling was ahead of me in the van and took it slow. His heavy rig pitched and swayed over embedded rocks, looking particularly precarious on the narrow switchbacks. I kept my distance as Sterling picked his way up and, though the beer in the fridge was shaken up a bit, Sterling is a good driver and the van handled the steep stuff without complaint.
I made my way up Harquahala in sections, stopping to give Sterling space for his slow climb. Pulling over at wide spots along the trail, I could see the road below winding up the contour of the mountain and the expanse of Arizona stretched out in all directions, making for quite an epic view. From this altitude, it’s easy to imagine the ancient volcanic activity that formed the rugged mountains and vast lowlands that define this region.
Hopping back in to catch up to Sterling, the Tacoma felt light and nimble in the rugged terrain. The new Superlift UCAs and ball joints made steering a breeze. Though the suspension lift doesn’t add any ground clearance, raising the body a couple inches kept my quarter panels away from the boulders lining the trail and improved my vantage while picking lines through the tough stuff.
At the top of the mountain, the 360-degree view was incredible, with Mexico to the south and the Colorado River Valley to the west. Sterling and I poked around what was left of the observatory then set up camp in a flat spot with a fire ring, a stone’s throw from the summit, just as we’d hoped.
Climbing up Harquahala Road was some of the most fun driving I have ever done. Of course, any vehicle with decent clearance and four wheel drive could make it to the top of that mountain and my Tacoma certainly would have handled it just fine prior to the suspension upgrade. But having the new Superlift kit is what made it fun and I was feeling really good about starting my overland build from the ground up.
Being on top of Harquahala Mountain, I felt like I was closer to the sky than to the earth and the sunset seemed to last forever. Sterling and I poured the last of our bourbon into hot apple cider, swapping stories about the day’s adventure and talking up the benefits of living in such an amazing state. In the dry chill of high desert winter, the amber evening faded to navy and I knew this would be one of those weekends I would remember for a long time.
Photos: Sterling Noren & Eva Rupert
Motorcycle & Overland Industry News by Eva Rupert. Follow Eva @augusteva.