Anthony McClinton's DirtFish Adventure
Ever since I got my first Subaru, I’ve wanted to go to DirtFish Rally School. I’ve always wanted to learn how to drive a car like a rally driver, so when blipshift announced their design contest, I knew I had to enter. To my surprise, I got an email not too long after it ended saying I’d won. At first, I couldn’t believe it and I had to read the message two or three times just to be sure I read it correctly. I was beyond excited when I got the news. I was shouting and jumping up and down in my office at work and all my co-workers were really confused as to what was going on.
Along the DirtFish goal, I’ve also always wanted to do a big West Coast road trip to see and experience all the amazing things that the West has to offer. Even before I won the blipshift contest, I was putting pins on a map of areas that I thought would be cool to explore. DirtFish was one of those places, so naturally, when I found out I won, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to make this road trip happen. The timing just felt right and thus the #Roadtrip2RallySchool was born.
Building The Crosstrek WRX
I do a fair amount of backpacking, mountain biking, and outdoorsing. That usually involves a lot of dirt roads and off-roading to get to the trail head. On the asphalt, the WRX in stock form is great; on the dirt, not so much. To solve that, I decided to lift my 2014 WRX hatch and throw on some all-terrain tires to give it a bit more off-road capability. I wasn’t looking to go crazy, just lift it enough to go on dirt roads without bottoming out. Since I lifted my WRX, I’ve dubbed it the Crosstrek WRX – the ground clearance of a Crosstrek with the performance of a WRX! My goal from the beginning was the keep the car looking like it could have come from the factory like this, so no hacking of the bumpers or trimming of the body panels. I wanted execute the build as cleanly as possible without doing anything that could not be easily undone. I also wanted to keep the car daily-able as well, meaning it still had to function as a road car.
- Suspension: Primitive Racing 1.25” lift spacers, King raised springs, Koni Yellow adjustable shocks.
- Wheels & Tires: 15” Method MR 501 VT-Spec wheels custom powder coated gold (the same wheels that DirtFish use on their cars).
- Brakes: Subaru 4 pot front and 2 pot rear brakes (again - same ones DirtFish uses on their cars). DBA Series 4000 Rotors, Hawk HPS pads
- Lights: OEMassive C-Light headlights with ODX projector LED bulbs, 4x LED Hella 7” lights – 2x driving beam and 2x spot beam mounted on an SSD Performance light bar.
- Roof Rack & Tent: 56” Yakima round bars with adapters, 46” Yakima fairing, Tepui LoPro 2 rooftop tent (lowest profile RTT on the market right now – only 7” tall when folded up), Yakima front loader bike rack.
- Tire Carrier: Torklift Ecohitch 2” trailer hitch (one of the only 2” hitches that I was able to find for the WRX), RigD Supply Ultraswing tire carrier.
Building The Trail Kitchen
Even before I won the contest, my plan from day one was to take to turn my WRX into this ultimate adventure vehicle to take on this epic West Coast road trip, whenever that was going to be. I always admired the trucks and vans at Overland Expo with the built-in trail kitchens and the roof tents, where I thought to myself, something like that would be super cool to do to my WRX. I’ve seen a lot of Outbacks and Foresters with roof tents and trail kitchens, but never a WRX. Admittedly it probably isn’t the best platform due to the lack of space in the back, but I was going to run what I brung.
Some of my goals with the trail kitchen were:
- To retain the use of the back seats. I didn’t want to sacrifice the passenger area for the trail kitchen, so it had to fit in the trunk.
- Be simple so it could be built in my garage with the tools I have.
- Be lightweight as not to add too much weight to the rear of the car.
- Have a flat cooking surface along with some built-in storage for stuff like pots and pans, utensils, stove, etc.
- Be low profile enough that I could still see out the back of the car.
- Be able to hold a powered electric cooler.
With that in mind, I set to designing the unit, which took about three weeks. The first step in the entire process was to figure out how much room I had in the back of the car, which involved a lot of measuring and making cardboard cutouts to mock things up. Once I had all that mocked up, I got to work designing. The first part that I had to figure out was the cooler; due to the trunk length in the WRX, there are only a handful of electric coolers out there that fit. I decided to go with the Dometic CF25 as it’s the longest unit that will fit between the rear seats and the hatch. Once I had the cooler sorted, I started tackling the other half of the kitchen. I knew that I wanted a flat cooking surface and I could have easily just made a pull out tray, I saw at Overland Expo that they would put a drawer for utensils and other small items under the cooking surface (essentially a drawer in a drawer) and I figured that would be a neat way to organize everything. After I had the cooking drawer all figured out, I used the available space above it to put in a general storage drawer to be used for everything else.
After I had a design that I was happy with, I went to build it. To keep costs low, I decided to go with some half-inch plywood. It took me two weekends to get everything cut, sanded, stained, and assembled. Since I spent a lot of time designing and measuring beforehand, everything fit in the back of the car with minimal modification required. By no means did the trail kitchen turn out perfect, but for having a little more than a month to design and build it, I think it turned out pretty good, and I met all the goals I had laid out for myself. I’m hoping that later this year, I’ll have an opportunity to design version 2.0 of the kitchen, as there are a couple of things that I want to update based on what I’ve learned. That being said, the trail kitchen performed really well during the road trip, and it did everything I need it to.
The one thing I didn’t have time to build into the car was a dual battery system so that I could run the cooler without having to worry about it draining my main battery. This is one of those future items that I hope to get to later this year. For the road trip, I ran the cooler as a freezer and would freeze the contents while I’m driving and then when camped, it would act like a normal cooler until it was time to move again and it could start freezing. This actually worked really well, as the entire trip, the cooler never got above 25°F.
I already had a map with pins of areas of interest, so all I had to do was figure out how I was going to string them together to make a loop. I decided to spend most of my time in Washington and British Columbia, as I wanted spend more time exploring the areas that are harder (further away) for me to get to. The road trip spanned 13 days in which I covered over 4000 miles in my WRX. I was on the road from July 9th – the 21st.
Day 1: Flagstaff, AZ > Mammoth Lakes, CA
This was the second-longest day of the trip as far as miles covered. I pretty much spent the entire day in the car driving from Flagstaff up to Mammoth Lakes, California. One thing that was particularly rough was the temperature. Through the lower part of California, it was well above 100°F the entire time. With the heat, and all the stuff strapped to the roof, the Subaru was not super happy. The intercooler couldn’t keep up and as a result of that, the intake temps got pretty hot resulting in some pretty poor gas mileage. Even though I wanted to get there fast, I decided it was probably best to back off a little and take it slower to save a bit of fuel. Once I got into the mountains, it got much better (also the scenery improved a ton from the nothingness of the California desert).
Day 2: Mountain Biking in Mammoth Lakes
I had heard that Mammoth had some pretty good mountain biking, so I thought it would be cool to spend a day there and shred the trails. What I didn’t know was that the snow hadn't all melted yet, which meant that almost all biking trails up on the mountain were closed. I was really confused when I pulled into the parking lot in the morning and saw tons of cars with skis and snowboards on theirs roofs. I quickly figured out why: Mammoth had more ski runs open than mountain biking trails. The couple of trails that I did wind up riding were alright, but nothing spectacular. Definitely not what I was expecting. I do want to go back at some point and ride all the other trails, because there were some really bomber looking ones that were closed that I wanted to ride!
Day 3: Mammoth Lake, CA > Happy Camp, CA
I wasn’t expecting this day to be as good as it was, but it was pretty freaking good! The first portion of the day wasn’t super noteworthy; mostly a grind to get miles done. The part of the day that I really enjoyed was the second half, which took me down California 96 to Happy Camp. This was one of the best driving roads I’ve ever been on in a long time. It’s a lovely strip of asphalt strung along the banks of the Klamath river winding through the mountains. There was hardly any traffic, and it was a blast drive even with the WRX carrying all my gear and not being built for canyon-carving anymore. It was an excellent 2nd, 3rd, and sometimes 4th gear road.
Happy Camp was also a really awesome place. The only reason I stopped there was because it was a good halfway point between Mammoth Lakes and Tillamook. I’m so glad I decided to camp there; it’s a such a cool hidden gem. While I was there, I went to the farmers market and got some great baked goods and just walked around the town.
Day 4: Happy Camp, CA > Tillamook, OR
Before I departed Happy Camp, I decided to go out for a morning swim in the river, which was pretty refreshing and felt so nice after so many hours of being in the car. The WRX seats aren’t the best in the world for long road tripping. I also found some wild blackberry bushes and picked some berries before I left.
The drive in the morning took me up and over the mountains on another incredible road. This road had some of the best views of the trip and was again, the road less traveled. I think the entire drive on Greyback Road, I only saw two other motorists.
From there it was out to the Oregon Coast. Predictably, it was overcast and foggy, but still really pretty. I actually quite enjoyed the drive up along the Oregon coast to Tillamook. The smell and sounds of the ocean are great, and there are some super neat beach towns along the way. I really wish I could have spent more time there exploring and enjoying the ocean just a little bit more.
Day 5: Tillamook, OR > Snoqualmie, WA
The drive in the morning took me inland from Tillamook along Wilson River Highway up to Portland. This was another road with some amazing views, especially in the fog of the early morning! The main event for this day was DirtFish Summer Fest. The timing happened to work out with my class that I was able to make it up for the event. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it was one of the coolest car gatherings that I have been to. It was amazing being able to meet and talk to so many people, and I really enjoyed all the conversations that I had. It was also really cool to be able to have my Subaru on Display with all the other DirtFish cars. My car was in some pretty awesome company: Ariel Nomad, McLaren 720S, Audi Quattro, Lancia 037, MKI Escort, and so many more. There were also some stellar cars that people brought in as part of the car show! It was such a great afternoon!
After Summer Fest, I decided to check out Snoqualmie Falls as they are right around the corner from DirtFish. The waterfall is super pretty, and the hike down to the bottom is simply gorgeous. I also really enjoyed learning all about the hydroelectric plant and the history surrounding the area.
Day 6: DirtFish Rally School
This was the day I was looking forward to most – DirtFish Rally School Day! Since I own an AWD turbocharged Subaru, I thought it would be best to do the single day AWD course. I started the day off in the classroom where Andrew went over the basics of what we were going to learn in the morning – mainly how to use left foot braking and weight transfer to get the car to go where you want it. After the quick classroom session, we went out to the compound to meet our instructors and see the cars we would be driving. I was in car 18 (Patrick Sandell’s number), which was a 2015 STi, and my instructor for the day was Mitch. The first lesson was on the skidpad (big gravel circle) where we would learn how to use the weight transfer of the car to get it to turn. The main things we were applying here were the concepts of: lift, turn, wait, and: lift, turn, brake. First, we went out on a sighting lap with our instructors driving so we could see what we were supposed to do and get a sample of what it’s going to feel like. After that, it was our turn to get behind the wheel. I was super excited to get started and I remember being quite nervous at first, but that quickly subsided after the first couple of laps around the skid pad. The first time I tried getting the car to turn I was thinking, there is no way that this is going to work, the car is just going to go straight off the skid pad, but to my amazement once you lift off the gas, turn, and wait, the weight transfer of the car makes it turn. After the first one, I slowly got more comfortable doing that and getting a feel for how the car handles in dirt.
After the skid pad, we moved on to the slalom course. I learned that how you navigate though one on dirt is a little different from how you would navigate one at an autocross. Normally when you go through a slalom you make an S-shape, but on the dirt in a rally car, it’s more of a zig-zag shape. You’re trying to make the distance between the cones into as long of a straight line as you can, so you blast down a straight, turn, blast down another straight, turn, and repeat. On the dirt, this is the fastest way through the cones. At first I kinda struggled with this and getting the timing just right, but after a couple runs, and with the help of Mitch, I started to get the feel for it.
Next, we headed over to the Boneyard. The Boneyard is a super fun course with a decent variation in types of turns – decreasing radius, late apex, long, short you name it. I really enjoyed driving this track, and learned a lot on this one. Mitch was an excellent teacher and did a really good job coaching me. I struggled most with getting the braking just right, as I would either brake too late and not hard enough causing me to go wide, or too early and cause me to take a really slow line through the corner and mess up the setup for the next corner.
After lunch, it was another quick classroom session with Andrew to go over trail braking as well as tackling The Link which is the Slalom and Boneyard courses combined. I really enjoyed the afternoon session the most, and The Link was probably my favorite course. I had such a blast. There were a couple of corners where you could really link the turns together (use the slide momentum from one turn to get the car to rotate through the other), and there was no better feeling than getting that just right. I wish I could have done another two or three runs because I had so much fun doing it and I wanted to keep improving. I felt that with some more time I could really get the hang of it.
While I was out rallying (at least learning how to), DirtFish changed the oil in the Subaru which was super awesome. By the time I got up to Washington, I was due for an oil change, so getting this done was a huge help. DirtFish kept my car running happily for the rest of the road trip!
Overall, I had the time of my life up at DirtFish Rally School. I learned so much and all the instructors and staff were amazing! It was one for the coolest days ever! On thing that is for sure is that I will be coming back to DirtFish for a multi-day course in the near future.
Because rally school wasn’t enough for one day, after my class was over, I hit up some of the local biking trails on the recommendations of Mitch. Oh man, they did not disappoint. I rode some trails on the Tiger Mountain Trail system and it was one of the best rides I have ever done! The flow in the Pacific Northwest is unreal. It was such an amazing area! Again, I wish I could have spent more time here shredding the trails because they were absolutely epic.
Day 7: Snoqualmie, WA > Whistler, BC
I decided to hit up some more biking trails in the area before I crossed over into Canada. I went up to Duthie Hills Bike Park and rode some more amazing trails. This is another one of those places that I would want to spend so much more time at. A morning of riding was not enough!
After biking, I made my way up north to Vancouver, British Columbia. There, I did a quick stop by Granville Island for lunch. This place has one of the best brats anywhere and also conveniently houses one of my favorite breweries, Granville Island Brewing. It was also really cool to walk around and explore it again, as the last time I was there it was in the middle of Winter, so it was nice to see what it’s like in the Summer time. There was also a super awesome street performer there. His show was pretty amazing to watch, so that was a treat.
From there I made my way to the other side of town to check out the Capilano Suspension bridge. This was one of those places that I was not able to go see last time I was in Vancouver, so it had to happen this time round. The Capilano Suspension bridge park is pretty incredible. The views from there are simply amazing!
The last leg of the trip that day was along the Sea to Sky Highway up to Whistler. This is one of the most beautiful drives out there, especially in the evening where you can watch the sun set over the ocean.
Day 8: Mountain Biking in Whistler
BEST FLOW TRAILS IN THE WORLD. I basically spent the entire day riding my bike in Whistler. I did about 60 miles worth of lift-serviced downhill riding that day. My arms and legs (and actually just all of me) were super sore and tired at the end of the day, but man, was it a day. This was probably one of the most fun mountain biking days ever. It was also a really good learning experience for me. Since we don’t have a ton of flow trails like this around Flagstaff, I never really got to practice riding terrain like that. By the end of the day riding, I was so much more comfortable railing into burms and launching off of big table-top jumps. I didn’t hit any of the black trails just because I didn’t quite feel up to it yet, but I rode every mile of blue trail that they had – some of them multiple times. For dinner that night, being in Canada, I had to have a serving of poutine in which fries are topped with gravy and cheese curds. It was really good.
Instead of camping in Whistler, I decided to get an AirBnB for a couple of nights instead. I felt like that was a good idea since the plan was to do a ton of biking, so to having access to a shower at the end of the day was just perfect. Roof-tenting with the Subaru was freaking sweet, but there is little that feels better after a long day outside than a nice hot shower!
Day 9: Whistler, BC > Mt. Baker, WA
This was the day that I learned what Wet Coast is all about. It pretty much rained the entire day, but that didn’t stop me from exploring. On my drive south through British Columbia, I decided to stop by a couple of waterfalls (because water falling from the sky apparently wasn’t enough). The first one was Brandywine Falls which was a short hike from the road, but had a killer view!
Just a little south of Squamish on the Sea to Sky Highway, I stopped by Shannon Falls, which was equally impressive. This one seemed much taller, at least since I was looking up at it from the bottom, but it also had more cascades. Regardless, still incredibly pretty.
After the waterfalls, I continued south back into the US and towards Boulder Creek Campground near Baker Lake. This was the first time that I had to setup the tent in the wet, and I’m happy to say it went smoothly. In about 10 minutes I had it set up, and the inside was completely dry even with the tent in the rain all day. It continued to rain that entire night until about three in the morning. The tent kept my nice and dry the entire night. The roof tent makes camping so much simpler. I couldn’t imagine how much it would suck to set up a normal tent in the Wet Coast rain. Even cooking was not too big of an issue in the rain; the rear hatch of the Subie was just big enough for me to stand under and cook my dinner without getting drenched.
Day 10: Mt. Baker, WA > Mt. Rainer, WA
After I got the tent as dry is it could be (which was solidly dry-ish), I packed up and continued heading south. I decided to make a stop at Leavenworth which is a Bavarian themed village in the middle of Washington. I read about it on the DirtFish website and being a German, I had to stop by. Leavenworth is a really cool little place. All the buildings are styled to look like buildings you’d find in Bavaria. Even all the logos of all the businesses are styled to look German!
From there I continued the trek south and got to drive through some amazing country; definitely not something I would associate Washington. It was a lot of rolling hills with grass which eventually turned into a saweet canyon along the Yakima River. Canyon Road pretty much parallels I82, but unlike an interstate, this road had some great views and some great bits of road. It’s a fast 3rd and 4th gear road with some fun twisties. Better than the interstate in my opinion.
From there it was off to Mt. Rainer National Park along another bit of amazing road. This time trading grass and plains for mountains and trees. The absolute best spot that day though, was Lake Tipsoo. It was one of the most amazing places ever. I actually found out about it from those rotating Windows computer backgrounds, and knew that if I ever got a chance to see it in person that I would go for it. I’m glad I did because it was epic. Words can’t describe it, so I decided to take some pictures instead.
Day 11: Mt. Rainer, WA > Bend, OR
This was another amazing day! After making breakfast and packing up camp, the weather gifted me a view at Mt. Rainer. I just happened to find the right spot at the right time. There was gap in the clouds just big enough to see the mountain! From Mt. Rainer National Park, I continued south on Washington 123 towards Randle and from there south on NFD25. Both these roads had some amazing scenery. I stopped at Iron Creek Falls along the way which was another sweet waterfall. It was a super pretty area, and I pretty much had it all to myself. After Iron Creek Falls, I continued south, and to my amazement, I was able to see Mt. St. Helens, which I didn’t know I was going to be able to see from my route when I planned it, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Continuing south, I made it to the Oregon/Washington border and I crossed over into Oregon over The Bridge of the Gods, which was this steel truss bridge over the Columbia River. Out of all these steel truss bridges that I saw on the trip, this was probably one of the coolest!
Another unexpected stop for the day was the Bonneville Dam and Locks. I saw the sign driving along I84 towards Multnomah Falls, and decided this would be a cool place to stop since. I was right, it was super cool. This is much different from the massive dams that we have in Arizona because it doesn’t have a massive lake backed up behind it, and instead used the flow of the river to generate electricity. I learned a bunch about the neat history of the dam and I even got to tour one of the generating plants. They had a bunch of cool old school engineering stuff on display, which being a mechanical engineer by trade, I completely geeked out over.
After stopping at the dam, it was off to Multnomah Falls. It was another one of those places that I have seen loads of pictures of, but have never had the opportunity to go to before. While it was pretty crowded it was still a spectacular place to visit. In my mind I always thought the famous bridge was much bigger than it actually was. It was not that big. I decided to get a way form the crowds a little bit and hiked to the top of the falls which was well worth it. The views from up there were pretty incredible, especially right where the waterfall drops off. It’s a little unsettling because suddenly the water just disappears and you know it’s off of a massive cliff.
From Multnomah Falls I continued towards Bend, OR. This conveniently took me right past Mt. Hood. It’s another one of those places that I wish I could have spent some more time exploring since it was one of the most beautiful places that I have ever driven through. I’m sure the hiking there is pretty incredible. Bend, on the other hand, looks exactly like Flagstaff. Very similar vegetation and layout. It was so weird how similar these two towns were!
Day 12: Bend, OR > Lake Tahoe, CA
I started the day off with probably the most amazing breakfast I’ve ever had at McKay Cottage in Bend. Everything from the scone to the omelet were freaking amazing. After breakfast I continued south towards Crater Lake. This place has been on my list of places to visit for a long time now, and it did not disappoint. Pictures definitely don’t do this place justice. The blue of the lake is simply unreal. Even though I spent the better part of half a day exploring Crater Lake, I wish I could have spent another couple of days there as it simply amazing, and I know I was just scratching the surface of what was there. From Crater Lake I made my way towards Lake Tahoe.
Day 13: Lake Tahoe, CA > Flagstaff, AZ
Originally, I wanted to spend a full day at Lake Tahoe exploring the area. At this point in the trip though, I was closing in on almost 3300 miles driven and 12 days on the road, and I was ready to be home. My roof tent was absolutely amazing, but at the end of the day it’s still a tent, and I was still camping. I was ready for my own bed again. Instead of exploring Lake Tahoe like I had planned, I made my way home back to Flagstaff. This was the day that I was looking forward to least as it was the longest distance; 800 miles in a single day. From Lake Tahoe I went through the nothingness of the Nevada desert towards Las Vegas and then from Vegas back to Flagstaff. Once again, the heat of the desert just killed my fuel economy, and I had to drive slower, otherwise I don’t think I would have made it. Along US95 in Nevada, some of the gas stations were 150 miles apart with nothing in between. Averaging 15MPG wasn’t going to cut it, so I had to slow down which meant turning an already long day into an even longer day. When it was all said and done, I was on the road almost 14.5 hours that day when you include all the fuel and food stops!
I started the trip off with 63,034 miles on the odometer and finished with 67,115 miles. That makes the grand total for the #Roadtrip2RallySchool of 4081 miles, which is about as far as I usually drive in 4 months! Over those 4081 miles, I put in just over 197 gallons of fuel. That means the average MPG on the trip was right about 20.7 MPG, which considering that my WRX is lifted and on all terrain tires, had a tent and a bike strapped to the roof, a trail kitchen in the trunk, and probably 100 or so pounds of spare tire and spare tire carrier hanging of the back, is pretty good. I usually drove the speed limit, or just a little bit below just to conserve fuel. The most expensive gallon of gasoline was $5.02/gallon which was in Vancouver, even with the exchange rates. The cheapest gallon of gasoline was back home in Flagstaff at $3.50/gallon. The best single tank I had was driving down from Bend to Susanville where I calculated a 24.6MPG average over 339 miles. The worst mileage the entire trip was on day 1 when I was driving through the California desert between Kingman, AZ and Barstow, CA where I averaged 18.6MPG over 199 miles.
I don’t think I will ever do a trip like this again by myself. With how many miles I drove it got pretty boring at times, and I had to do it all myself. I will definitely do road trips again in the Subaru, but next time, I’m going to have company. As cool all the destinations were, I’d like to share those experiences next time with someone else. I don’t regret doing the road trip as I got to meet some amazing people and see some amazing things that I have always wanted to see. Without DirtFish, blipshift, and all my friends and family that supported me, this trip would not have been possible.