4x4 Vehicles and Off-Pavement Travel Safety

Car stuck in deep water and mud on an unpaved road
A driver made several bad decisions on this cold winter day. First, cars do not belong here. Second, he didn't turn around. Third, he lacked tools, food, water, and warm clothing. No one knew where he was. It took 3 days to find him down this remote road. He was covered in mud and hypothermic.

St. George Police/St. George News

Parashant is a scenic wonder but it also is one of the last truly remote places in the United States. A visit here means leaving the safety net of the modern world behind. The information that follows is not designed to scare potential visitors out of visiting the monument. The fact that you are reading this means you are the right track as you prepare for a safer visit to the monument. Rangers want to be sure motorists understand that travel into these remote places requires special equipment and planning to avoid a mishap. Please contact us at the number on the bottom of the page if you would like to discuss with a ranger your particular equipment, skill level, and trip plans.

You are responsible for your own safety and you must be able to self-rescue. Appropriate equipment in good working order and adequate supplies are critical. Roads are narrow and winding. Travelers need to be prepared for their trip and understand the guidance below. All roads are unpaved and of varying difficulty. While not prohibited, cars, minivans, crossover SUVs, and RVs are not the right vehicles for travel in this monument.

Reports for missing persons in Parashant are handled by Lake Mead National Recreation Area's 24-hour dispatch at (702) 293-8998.

A high clearance 4x4 with tires designed for off-pavement use is the most important safety item you need. Most rescues involve vehicles with multiple flats where rocks ripped up tires only rated for street use. Other reasons include vehicles getting stuck in mud or high-centered on uneven road beds, or vehicles suffering some kind of mechanical breakdown.

Scroll to the bottom of the page for definitions of terms like All-Terrain tires, high clearance vehicle, or what a short wheelbase is.
 
Jeep on washed out road going across ditch
Most monument roads aren't this bad, but some are! Be ready to turn around if your vehicle isn't designed for this sort of road.

NPS - J. Axel

 
Visitor using a satellite phone
Only satellite phones and satellite messenger devices work here. There is no cell service available.

NPS - J. Axel

  • USE ROADS AT YOUR OWN RISK. Roads into the Arizona Strip are all unpaved and lead to ISOLATION. They do not lead to pavement, visitor centers, cell phone service, hotels, stores, or gas stations. Depending on the time of the year and the roads you are on, you may not see another vehicle the entire time you are out there.
  • While VERY RARE, PEOPLE HAVE DIED HERE because they didn't fully appreciate the risks, traveled in a vehicle not equipped for the conditions on a remote seldom traveled road, or didn't let anyone know where they were going. They lacked a satellite communication device to call for help and didn't pack enough equipment, warm clothing, food, or water.
  • Road Guide: Do not overestimate the capability of your vehicle. Some roads are fine for stock high clearance 4x4 pickups and SUVs. Others are so rough they should only be attempted with a UTV. Tow bills often exceed $2,000. Rangers are happy to provide you advice about a trip plan or to discuss your equipment. Contact Us
  • Always assume the road will get WORSE ahead. If it gets too rough for you, turn around!
 
  • Trip Plan: It is strongly recommended that you tell a friend or relative where you are going, when and when you expect to return.
  • Weather: During the summer monsoon season (June - September), it is better to travel in the morning. Storms usually occur after 1pm. In winter, roads above 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) may be impassible due to ice and snow. Due to the sheer size of the region and the number of roads, it is not possible to provide updated travel conditions on the Arizona Strip after rain or snow. Expect all roads to be impassible after wet weather.
  • Road Hazards: Expect cattle standing in the road or speeding motorists on a UTV. If a UTV driver flashes a number at you with their fingers, this means there will be that many UTVs coming behind them.
  • Travel with extra water, food, blankets, and any other personal health items you need to last several days. If you experience car trouble, stay with your vehicle. Some roads are seldom traveled.
  • Winter: Planning on travel in areas above 5,000 feet? Check road conditions with a ranger. Contact info at the bottom of the page. Roads at this elevation may be saturated from rain or snow and impassible for weeks. There are very few people in higher elevations in winter to help you if you break down. Temperatures can drop well below freezing. The short days of winter surprise hikers who may need to finish their hike by headlamp.
 
Car with flat tire in Hidden Canyon on rough 4x4 road
This crossover SUV is the wrong vehicle and has the wrong tires for Parashant. This motorist had almost reached one of the roughest 4x4 roads in the park when the tire blew out. Notice the thin pavement-only tires and wimpy spare tire.

NPS - J. Axel

4x4 Vehicle Terminology:

All Terrain/Mud Terrain Tires: For full size vehicles the ideal tire is a good condition E-Range All-Terrain tire. Examples of All-Terrain tires are BF Goodrich AT/KOs, Cooper ST-Maxx tires, Firestone Destination ATs, etc.This is a tire that has a very thick rubber tread and much stronger belts inside the rubber to handle the abuse of rocks that impinge on the tire. Load range E is equivalent to a 10-ply tire, where there are 10 layers of reinforcement in the tire. Load Range D tires are equivalent to 8-ply tread, and C is equivalent to 6-ply tread. You also want 3-ply sidewalls on your tires as the rougher roads have rocks along them that will rip open thinner sidewalls. Motorists occassionally scrape and rupture the front tire sidewall against a rocks and then before they realize what happened also rip open the rear tire sidewall, which has caused many double flats. Do you need 2 spare tires? Mud-terrain tires are also strong, but due to the thick clay in the region they are not effective. The clay packs into the spaces between the knobby treads, resulting in a slick, smooth tire that has no traction.

Street Tires: These are normal automobile tires. They are designed for pavement only. Their rubber is thin, equivalent to 4-ply tread with 1-ply sidewalls.

Rental 4x4 Warning: Rental 4x4 trucks and SUVs typically come with street tires not designed for off-pavement use. Just because the vehicle is a 4x4 doesn't mean it has the right tire. Check the sidewall to see if it says "All-Terrain." Street tires ride more comfortably on pavement as they are thinner and absorb bumps better than an All-Terrain tire. However, because they are thin, they are far more likely to rupture off-pavement.

Tire Pressure: Many new vehicles including pickups come with tire pressures up to 75 pounds per square inch. This is very high pressure. Many off-road motorists lower their tire pressure to under 40psi when traveling on rough roads, then fill the tire back to recommended pressure when they return to pavement. The risk with highly pressurized tires on unpaved roads are blowouts. As tires go over rocks they are so rigid from the high pressure they can't flex and absorb rocky surfaces, so instead they rupture.

What is the difference between a 4x4 and All Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicle? True 4x4 vehicles have a 'transfer case' in the drivetrain that puts full engine power to the front wheels. All Wheel Drive, common on vehicles like crossover SUVs, relies on a 'differential' to send variable power to each wheel. AWD is good on level road beds in low traction conditions like snow. It is not designed to fully power the front tires in off-pavement rugged situations. For example, if the road goes up a steep hill and there is a lot of loose rock in the road, fully powered front wheels are needed to rotate strongly and pull the vehicle up the slope. AWD cannot do that.

High Clearance: Any factory stock full or mid-size 4x4 pickup or SUV. Lifted 4x4s have extra high clearance to accomodate taller tires. Running boards, step bars, and plastic bumpers can get ripped off when going over rough sections. Vehicles like a Subaru Forester can be considered Medium Clearance and is acceptable on main Parashant roads so long as they have off-pavement tires.

Low Clearance: Any car, minivan, RV, or SUV Crossover. None of these are designed for Parashant's roads, even with off-pavement tires as they sit low to the ground and can scrape off engine components like the oil pan.

Short Wheelbase: These are vehicles where the front and rear axles are closer together. This includes SUVs like a Jeep Rubicon, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Toyota 4 Runner, or Chevy Tahoe, as well as 4x4 pickup trucks with a short bed (less than 6' long) and a regular cab. Short wheelbase vehicles create a situation where the rear tires reach and start to climb an obstacle like a boulder and climb it. This lifts the center of the vehicle before it can scrape.

Long Wheelbase: These are vehicles where there is more distance between the front and rear axles. This includes Chevy Suburbans or 4x4 pickups with a crew cab and/or long bed (see image of red truck above). The risk with long wheelbase vehicles on the roughest roads is that when going over the top of a hill that drops steeply on the other side, the center of the vehicle may high center and get stuck. Likewise, if going down into a narrow and deep wash the front and rear bumpers can scrape against the road, lifting one or more tires off the ground.

Entry/Exit Angle and Bumpers: If you have a stock front bumper look at how close the bumper is to the ground. On rough 4x4 roads hazards like boulders, deep ruts, or hard centerline ridges in the road can rip off the bumper. Vehicles designed for rugged off-pavement use have had the lowest parts of the front bumper's air dam removed, or a custom bumper installed that is much higher off the ground. If you drive into a wash at a steep down angle down that suddenly pitches up to leave the wash, this presses the bumper into the road which will scrape and damage the bumper.

Running Bars/Step Bars: Like low bumpers, these bars along the vehicle are used to step easily into a truck or SUV. They reduce clearance and can be damaged or ripped off on rough roads.
 
Truck with multiple flat tires
This long wheelbase truck is the right vehicle for much of Parashant, but it had street tires that were not All Terrain rated to go off pavement. Believe it or not this vehicle had THREE tires that went flat in one day. Two All-Terrain spare tires are recommended in Parashant.

NPS - J. Axel

Last updated: November 29, 2019

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

345 East Riverside Drive
St. George, UT 84790

Phone:

(435) 688-3200
Phones are answered Monday - Friday 7:45 a.m. - 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. The center is closed on Sundays as well as all federal holiday with the exceptions of Memorial Day and Labor Day.

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