• Trailhawk rating put to test
  • 8.7 inches of ground clearance
  • Elite 4x4 priced at $42,700


Turn right onto highway 190 just past the town of Olancha, about 160 miles northeast of Los Angeles, at the sign pointing you toward Death Valley. Regardless of this being the hottest point in the United States, this was November, temperatures wouldn’t rise above 80 during the day nor dip below 50. Not nearly as scary as it sounds in that regard.

From behind the wheel of the 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, however, I wasn’t sure whether to be afraid or not. I’d be meeting up for the weekend with friends who were brandishing some serious off-road hardware – two new Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon Unlimiteds to be exact. With 33-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, a beefy Dana 44 front axle, front- and rear-locking differentials and almost 11-inches of ground clearance, the Wrangler Rubicon is a purpose-built vehicle, and highway commuter traffic isn’t it.

Trailhawk rating counts

Fortified with an electronic transfer case that gets the Cherokee into low gear and a locking rear diff, as well as drive modes for snow, sand, mud and rocks, I did have some terrain-gobbling tools at my disposal. I was driving the Elite 4x4 with a sticker price of $42,700. But we’d be tackling the Lippincott Mine Road, seven miles of mountain-goating heavenward on a narrow pass. In some sections a misplaced outside wheel puts you inches from a certain-death drop. With only 8.7-inches of ground clearance and 17-inch BFG KO2 tires, next to the Rubicons I looked as though I was heading over the Sepulveda Pass on Los Angeles’ famed 405 Freeway instead of a crumbling mining trail built in 1906.

We took off just before noon, the sun gently cooking our Jeep trio as though in an Easy Bake oven.  The road leading to the trailhead carved a scar through Saline Valley, a long open stretch of dry lake bed surrounded by miles of unforgiving crushed granite and Jurassic lava rock. Had I seen this from beneath the canvas canopy of a covered wagon train two centuries ago I’d have folded faster than a card shark would a bad poker hand. But even in front-wheel drive, the Cherokee made easy work of the dirt road. My rig would also get far better gas mileage than either of its two guzzling big bros since the Cherokee’s EPA number hover around 20 mpg in the city. So, getting stuck because I ran out of gas wasn’t going to be my problem today.

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I switched into sand and mud mode as we started to serpentine around the base of the mountain before scaling it. The incline wasn’t steep, but steady. The Cherokee’s 2.0-liter turbocharged engine churned enough power even in four high to get over a majority of the trail, until a pile of loose shale proved too much, and wheels began to spin like a frat guy’s brain after a big night of drinking.

Lock that differential

Shifted into four low, I also locked the rear differential. Normally, I like to employ my tools one at a time, that way if I’m still stuck I have back-up, back-up plan, but I wanted to be sure. With the front left wheel carefully squared up to the rock that initially caused me to hold up our modern-day wagon train, the Cherokee barreled over it. Only one or two clanks against the skid plates protecting my rig’s soft underbelly bits reminded me I was not driving the Wrangler.

By the time we’d made it seven miles closer to Icarus territory, I was convinced that of the three vehicles making our trek mine was probably the most fun. I had to get more creative with my line and use my vehicle’s abilities with greater care. I doubt the drivers of both Rubis had a fraction of the sense of accomplishment I did when we reached the sign post at the top of the pass that warned, “high-clearance vehicles only”.

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After the successful summit there was little skepticism in my mind for the next day’s sojourn up the opposite side of the valley to the ghost town of Cerro Gordo. After asking in what direction we’d be heading for our latest pending adventure one of my weekend warrior buddies pointed his arm over a huge set of mountains, “as the crow flies, it’s on the other side of those.” Forget as the crow flies, I thought. I can get over those as the Jeep drives.

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