I love road trips. So much so that the first thing I do when I get assigned a new yearlong test vehicle is to start thinking of what grand adventure to take it on. Our 2023 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro was no different. From the day this big orange beast arrived, my mind was awash with possibilities and ideas of where to go. My first thought was obvious and predictable, considering my affinity for wordplay: Take the Tundra to a tundra. Ever since my wife, automotive photographer Jessica Walker, joined MotorTrend on a journey to the Arctic Ocean up the Dalton Highway in Alaska, a return trip up the famous route has been on our road trip bucket list. Unfortunately, life got in the way and the nearly 8,000-mile round-trip journey from Los Angeles will have to wait. So where then?
Leslie Gulch Road
Normally my wife and I have a fully baked plan before we depart on road trip and pledge to follow the Walker Road Trip Rule. What is the Walker Road Trip Rule? If you see something cool, say something. We’re both photographers, so stopping to take photos is a big part of our vacations.
Heading into this adventure, though, we decided to forgo the preplanning and wholeheartedly lean into the Walker Road Trip Rule. We just had a midpoint destination picked out: Leslie Gulch Road. Never heard of it? Not surprised. This underappreciated dirt track in Jordan Valley, Oregon, winds through a rock-spire-encrusted canyon, terminating at the Slocum Creek Campground. Everything on our trip before and after that, though, was going to be on the fly.
Day 1: Los Angeles to Mammoth Lakes, California
If you’ve ever seen the opening scene of the original Iron Man movie or Django Unchained, you can get a pretty good idea of Route 395. Nestled between Death Valley National Park and the Eastern Sierra mountains, the two-lane blacktop heads north out of the Los Angeles basin toward Owens Lake, through Bishop, California, and eventually dumps into Carson City, Nevada. The route, filled with arid, boulder-strewn lowlands dramatically contrasted with jagged mountain peaks, leaves me awestruck each time I pass through the area.
Thanks to the traffic getting out of Los Angeles, we hit the prettiest section of the drive right at sunset. Hanging west out of Independence, California, up Onion Valley Road, this detour had us climbing steeply toward Onion Valley Campground, which sits at 9,200 feet above sea level.
The Tundra’s torquey twin-turbo V-6 hybrid drivetrain made easy work of the steep inclines, and this was the first but not last time I’d appreciate the massive panoramic sunroof to look at the mountains looming over us as we ascended.
After the last of the light had faded, we descended and continued north toward our first stop of the trip, Mammoth Lakes.
Day 2: Mammoth Lakes to Winnemucca, Nevada
After a casual but disappointing breakfast at a local café, we hopped in the Tundra to explore Mammoth Lakes’ gorgeous setting a little before continuing our trip.
I’ve been to the town of Mammoth Lakes numerous times throughout the years but had never explored its namesake water features. Situated further up the mountain are myriad beautiful crystal lakes surrounded by trails and campgrounds. Considering how close they are to the actual town, I felt like an idiot for never having visited them—they are much too cool to skip.
After a few relaxing hours of exploration, we headed back though town and continued our journey north on Route 395.
The whole point of this trip was to explore areas we’d never seen before, so after a quick lunch stop in Walker, California (naturally), we again veered off the two-lane highway and into the hills.
CA-89 departs Route 395 just shy of the California-Nevada border and heads west into the mountains before doubling back as CA-99 toward Nevada. Since the road eventually went the direction we were headed, this beautifully paved ribbon was an extremely attractive detour.
By the time we rejoined the main highway by then heading toward our overnight in Winnemucca, it was dark, flat, and sandy. I was thankful for the Tundra’s bright headlights, which, combined with the TRD light bar, do an excellent job illuminating the dark void of the desert. The TRD light bar also makes quite the deterrent for any oncoming traffic that’s forgotten or chose not to lower its high beams.
Day 3: Winnemucca to Ontario, Oregon, via Leslie Gulch Road
Day three was the big day. Leslie Gulch Road was just four hours away, so we woke early, made a quick stop at Café 345 for coffee and breakfast, which I highly recommend, and got on the road.
Broken up by low hills and a few small mountain ranges, the landscape between Winnemucca and Jordan Valley is a flat, arid grassland stretching as far as the eye can see. Other than a stop for fuel and a bathroom break, we set the cruise control and tried to cover the 175 miles to Leslie Gulch Road as quickly as possible.
Considering how beautiful and relatively desolate Leslie Gulch Road and the Succor Creek Natural Area are, it was tempting to keep it a secret for others to find.
Leslie Gulch Road looks like someone took a slice out of Bryce Canyon National Park and inserted it into the middle of a cow pasture, then built a cool dirt road down the middle of it and decided not to tell anyone. The road and adjoining gulches and canyons are epic, but the prettiest section is only about 14 miles long. As you descend the gradual canyon, massive rock pillars start to unearth themselves from the hillsides. These formations, according to the Bureau of Land Management, are actually rhyolite ash that erupted from the Mahogany Mountain caldera about 15.5 million years ago. Erosion has worked its slow magic, and what’s left are the jagged pillars that loom high on the hillsides.
After spending the better part of the day exploring, we decided to forgo the highway and take the road less traveled toward Ontario where we’d spend the night. And, when I say the road less traveled, I mean we only saw one vehicle on the nearly 40-mile dirt road that leads from Leslie Gulch to and through the Succor Creek State Natural Area.
The journey through Succor Creek wasn’t as dramatic as Leslie Gulch Road, but it was beautiful and accessible for any vehicle with even a modest amount of ground clearance. Most of those 40 miles were relatively smooth dirt roads with the occasional rutted section where a small stream had flowed during a storm. It’s the type of road the TRD Pro does great on, and we covered ground quickly.
Day 5: Bend, Oregon
Little of note occurred on day four’s stretch from Ontario to Bend, Oregon. Surrounded by mountains, rivers, and forests, Bend is my ideal mix of outdoors beauty mixed with great food, breweries, and city amenities.
The highlight from our day in Bend was our drive up to Dee Wright Observatory. Located off McKenzie Highway, the observatory sits in the middle of a massive lava field amidst snow-caked volcanos. The jet-black rock being coated in snow made for an otherworldly sight. The snow also kept the crowds at bay, so we got enjoy the scenery in relative peace.
Day 6: Bend to Coos Bay, Oregon
We initially planned on heading from Bend to Crater Lake National Park and then to Coos Bay, Oregon, but alas, the park was closed due to snow.
Instead of visiting Crater Lake, we stopped at Diamond Lake, which is off Oregon 138 at the base of Mt. Thielsen and Mt. Bailey. There’s a beautiful road that curves its way around the lake, which was mostly covered in icy snow and completely abandoned, apart from a few road workers.
The Tundra handled the snow- and slush-covered roads competently. The Falken Wildpeak A/T3W tires provided good grip in the snow and slicker ice that had built up on the road. At no point did I need to engage the Toyota’s 4WD system, choosing to instead enjoy the occasional bouts of slight oversteer on the slick roads. I also really appreciated the heated seats and steering wheel after every foray out of the truck to look at the view of the surrounding mountains.
Having completed our leisurely circumnavigation of Diamond Lake, we continued along 138 west toward Roseburg, Oregon, through the beautiful Umpqua National Forest. Here the highway follows the Clearwater and North Umpqua Rivers as it winds its way through the dense forest.
About a third of the way to Roseburg, we stopped at Toketee Falls, a massive two-stage waterfall on North Umpqua River. The waterfall and the short, steep hike down to the viewing platform was beautiful, but I found parking lot just as cool. I realize that sounds insane, but the parking lot for the trailhead sits alongside a huge, 12-foot cedar water pipe that directs the flow of water from a hydroelectric power plant further upstream. The wooden pipe, dating to 1949, isn’t completely watertight, so it has large leaks that produce constant spouts of water that you drive though to get to the lot.
We spent way too much time taking photos of the Tundra getting doused with water from the wooden pipes and wound up making the drive to Coos Bay in the dark, to bed down for the night.
Day 7: Coos Bay to Hopland, California
Dubbed the “Lost Coast,” the Oregon and California stretch of the Pacific Ocean is a special place. Beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, and offshore rocky outcroppings make this area one of the most visually stunning areas of the USA. And that’s before you throw in the Redwood National Park, with its massive old-growth redwood trees and fields full of elk.
With so many beautiful things to stop and look at, it was hard to make much headway.
We hugged the coast as far as Leggett, California, where Routes 101 and 1 diverge, and headed inland toward California wine country and our stop for the evening. The beautifully restored 19th century Thatcher Hotel in Hopland is amazing, although in retrospect we should’ve requested a room away from the busy road. We did, however, eat an amazing dinner at The Golden Pig, a small restaurant across the street, and gorged ourselves with delicious local wine. A perfect end to an amazing journey.
Throughout our trip, the Tundra was mostly a champ. The few times we departed from the paved roads, my issues with the suspension tuning came roaring back to mind. Despite its desert-runner suspension, the Tundra becomes crashy the moment roads start to deteriorate. On smooth surfaces, though, the TRD Pro is a very comfortable vehicle for long-distance driving. Over the years, I’ve done weeklong road trips in probably over a dozen different vehicles, and the Tundra ranks high on the list of most comfortable. When you spend that long sitting behind the wheel, I usually start to get achy, but not so in the Tundra—a testament to how good the seats are.
Ahead of us? Two days of boring driving in those comfy seats as we navigate through the San Francisco Bay Area and back home to L.A. Although road-tripping isn’t the most relaxing form of vacation, it allows you to see and do amazing things, eat different food, and meet new people. I’d never driven in these general areas before and was pleased to have gone into this trip with enough flexibility baked in to indulge in those detours and explore the small backroads and out-of-the-way areas. That’s where the good stuff is, and with a little effort, spontaneity, and the right vehicle, you can stumble upon some amazing places.
For More on Our Long-Term 2023 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro:
|MotorTrend’s 2023 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro
|9 mo/20,110 mi
|Base/as Tested Price
|Paint protection film ($439); Solar Octane paint ($425); bed step ($399); bed mat ($220); wheel locks ($80); spare tire lock ($75); mini tie-down ($45)
|EPA CTY/HWY/CMB FUEL ECON; CMB RANGE
|18/20/19 mpg; 608 miles
|Average Fuel ECON
|Energy Cost Per Mile
|Maintenance and Wear
|$1,573.40 (6/23: tire rotation, N/C; 8/23: Multipoint inspection and oil change, N/C; 8/23: four new tires and installation, $1,573.40; 10/23: Multipoint inspection and 15k ToyotaCare Service, N/C; 12/23: 20k ToyotaCare service, oil change, tire rotation, N/C)
|$0 (8/17: A/C Condenser damaged and replaced under warranty, N/C)
|Days Out of Service/Without Loaner
|Quick and comfortable, sometimes.