Payne: Overlanding across the UP to Michigan's other auto-palooza, Detroit 4fest
High Rock Bay, Upper Peninsula — The Back Yard Overland Tour kicked off Detroit 4fest this week with an epic adventure that included a visit into a 350-foot-deep mineshaft, a front hub blowout, and a mad Jeep dash to the northernmost point in Michigan.
And that was just the first day.
BYOT is the first in a packed calendar of events this weekend for the fourth annual 4fest, one of three auto circuses in town. The Detroit auto show at Huntington Place celebrates the latest vehicles in the industry. The Detroit Concours d’Elegance at the Detroit Institute for Art celebrates the industry’s classics. And 4fest celebrates utes ‘n’ trucks — the hottest segments in the industry, from Jeep Wranglers to Ford Broncos to Toyota Tacomas.
In many ways, 4fest is the most relevant of the three shows. It’s the intersection of some of the biggest trends in the industry as automakers ramp up production of off-road capable SUVs aimed at families in a post-COVID world who discovered how to work remotely and how to vacation at America’s network of national parks. It’s a culture struggling to accommodate government trends forcing the industry to produce overland-challenged electric cars, but 4fest will also have a global auto reveal of its own: the first battery-powered, King of the Hammers Ultra4 off-road racer.
This year, 4fest is taking it up a notch with the introduction of an all-new electric off-road racer and the Overland Tour — a five-day, 750-mile celebration of the state that introduced America to automobiles, the copper industry, the Great Lakes, and more. I joined the train of five Jeeps — and their motley crews — with a plug-in hybrid 2023 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe for the first day of the journey in the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula.
Their ultimate destination? Detroit 4fest’s auto-palooza Sept. 17-18 at Holly Oaks ORV Park, where owners take the 4x4s they ogled at the Detroit auto show and turn them loose on the most challenging off-road environment in southeast Michigan.
“Off-roading is about more than just light bars and big tires,” said Liam Lafferty, 27, owner of a 1972 Jeep Commando and contributor to GoneGPN.com (Gone Jeepin’, get it?) that helped organize BYOT. “It’s about getting out into nature. Back Yard shows owners how they can experience the off-road lifestyle, but in a less intense environment in some of the most beautiful places in America.”
The UP certainly fits the bill.
With stunning lake vistas, sprawling state parks and geological and mineral history to match, Michigan’s northern "back yard" is a treasure — and today’s off-road vehicles are the perfect tools to explore it.
BYOT’s trip covers 750 miles starting at Keweenaw Peninsula, skirting the southern banks of Lake Superior east through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Whitefish Point before plunging due south across the Mackinac Bridge, cruising along the Lake Huron coast, and arriving Saturday in Holly Oaks for the kick-off of 4fest’s weekend activities.
Overlanding requires improvisation, and our adapting skills were put to an immediate test. After 10 hours on the road from Metro Detroit to Keweenaw, one of our train — a classic Kaiser Jeep M715 (complete with gear tunnel that would make a Rivian R1T envious) — blew a left front hub.
Dead in the water in the little town of L’Anse at the base of the Keweenaw, we sent out an SOS to the local off-road community and were met by immediate support. A local mechanic, Big Off-Road Repair, arrived along with others to fix the issue. It was a preview of the congregation of off-roaders we found along the way — whether in need on the road or at a campsite — who converse easily with one another. Even if they own a Wrangler or Bronco.
Overlanding take many forms. BYOT’s videographer, Mike Harrington, 67, who has a laundry list of Hollywood and auto industry ads to his credit — covered the Ultimate Adventure, perhaps the most extreme overland tour that pitted some of the country’s finest builders of dirt-kickers in a multi-state competition.
But more typical is the nine-day Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, every Easter when families and enthusiasts gather in the country’s most famous off-road playground to camp, trail-ride, and generally ogle the latest Jeeps.
For their inaugural overland tour, Detroit 4fest wanted to showcase Michigan’s history and scenery as well as its extensive trail network. The Keweenaw is a reminder that Michigan is about more than just making automobiles.
Crossing the Keweenaw Waterway, we took steep, San Francisco-like roads to Houghton’s Quincy Mines. Towering above the Torch Lake valley, Quincy’s last remaining #2 mine shaft is a reminder that the UP was once America’s epicenter of copper mining, churning out the metal for everything from wire to plates.
We visited the Quincy #2 Hoist House — home to the world’s largest steam-driven mine hoist — that was built in 1918 with 2,500 horsepower to pull copper-laden, 10-ton cars at 35 mph up a 9,250-foot (nearly two miles) shaft to the surface.
Jeep dominates the off-road space, but Yoopers drive everything 4x4, including Broncos, Subarus, F-150 Raptors, Toyota Tacomas and more.
My plug-in hybrid Wrangler Rubicon 4xe was an excellent overland companion — though not nearly as fearsome-looking as the Maximus-3 Gladiator pickup truck with 40-inch tires that I followed up Route 41 to High Rock Bay, the northern-most point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula with a staggering view of Lake Superior.
The 4xe’s signature trick is that it could preserve its 26-mile battery range until I got to the top of Route 41 — the end of the line for a road that winds 1,990 miles from Miami. I then went to full electric mode, stealthily crawling through the forest on dirt trails until we reached Superior’s sandy shores.
We were hardly alone, however as the campsite was full of other overlanders even though it was a Monday afternoon. They were on vacation in RVs, on lunch break, or just working remotely.
On the 16-mile round trip to High Rock, I ate all 26 miles of my electric range and needed gas power to get me the last two miles. Four-wheeling on trails — even at 5-30 mph — sucks electrons.
I didn’t see a single electric vehicle in my two days across the UP. Even at $4 gasoline, drivers I talked to resisted the government’s call to buy electric. Gasoline is more than a quick-fill convenience — it also provides range security in the long stretches between scarce service stations, where trailering an RV can eat up to 50% of a vehicle’s gas range. Tow behind an EV — or just go four-wheelin’ in a hybrid as I did — and batteries can lose a lot of range, stranding vehicles far from the energy grid.
Riding the EV wave, 4fest will have the global reveal on Friday of the King of Hammers Ultra4 race vehicle, marking battery power’s entry into the U.S.’s most demanding off-road sport. Whether on the road at BYOT or pounding around Holly Oaks, 4fest wants to teach the culture of off-roading to the thousands of new buyers coming into the ute ‘n’ truck segments today. The event is not only sponsored by Jeep and aftermarket parts companies like TYRI Lights (the Overland tour’s chief sponsor), but also Tread Lightly, a nonprofit that encourages trail and campsite maintenance.
“We want to get more people involved in this adventure lifestyle. It’s great for the soul,” said Tom Zielinski, CEO of 4fest. “At fest we also give folks Off-Road 101 lessons — how do I put this in AWD? How do I air own my tires? — that are important and give them the confidence to go back here to Holly Oaks, or go the the UP, or perhaps out west.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.