Driven: Christmas Tree Pass in a 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD 4×4

Our off-pavement adventure includes holiday decorations on desert shrubbery and a view of ancient petroglyphs

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Christmas tree
Christmas Tree Pass, an off-pavement road through the Spirit Mountai Wilderness near Laughlin, Nevada, takes its name from the decorations people place on trees and bushes along the trail | Larry Edsall photos

The “road” through the Spirit Mountain Wilderness near Laughlin, Nevada, is designated as Christmas Tree Pass. I put road in quotes because this sometimes gravel, sometimes sand, sometimes rocky, sometimes narrow and sometimes even washed-out route is best driven in a vehicle with 4-wheel drive and decent ground clearance. 

It is called Christmas Tree Pass because people have placed Christmas ornaments on the various bushes and juniper trees along the trail. That practice apparently was begun by locals, but on our most recent visit, we saw signs proclaiming the holiday handiwork of the Cassata Family from Buffalo, New York, and another noting that the ornaments had been placed by Minnesotans.

Although we didn’t bring any holiday baubles with us, my teenage grandson did connect his iPhone to the audio system of the 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD 4×4 pickup truck we drove and shared Christmas music as we traveled along.

The 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 4×4 Double Cab has no trouble making its way well away from paved roads

For much of the 16 or so miles that Christmas Tree Pass covers, 4-wheel drive isn’t necessary, though it is helpful. But there was a substantial stretch covered in very soft, deep sand and I was grateful for the enhanced steering provided by powered front wheels. 

That sand section stretched for maybe a mile or two, and I also was thankful for instructions I received years ago on various drives with off-roading experts from Land Rover, who shared their off-pavement mantra: “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary.”

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High-speed off-road racing may appear glamorous, and can be fun, but it’s also brutal and if you don’t want to break your vehicle or get bogged down, driving slowly so you can avoid obstacles yet with enough momentum to get through mud or sand or snow is the way to go.

And the 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 4×4 Double Cab went just fine, thank you, both on and off pavement during our week with the vehicle. 

TRD is short for Toyota Racing Development and is Toyota’s in-house U.S. tuning shop for performance on or off pavement. Its modifications to the Tacoma, Toyota’s mid-size pickup truck, include off-road suspension with 2.5-inch internal bypass Fox coil-overs and rear remote reservoir shocks, P265/70R16 tires (all-seasons, but you’d likely opt for more aggressive tread for serious off-roading), multi-terrain select crawl control, hill-start assist and a towing package with engine-oil and steering coolers, and trailer anti-sway control.

One result is larger angles of approach, departure and breakover, all good things for off-roading. 

The TRD alterations also include projector-beam headlamps with LED daytime illumination, gray grille with smoked finish, color-keyed and heated power mirrors with turn-signal indicators, black overfenders (flares) and chrome rear bumper, a 120-volt power outlet in the pickup bed, a power tilt/slide moonroof, power sliding center section of the rear window, push-button start, analog instrumentation, smartphone charging station in the center console, and 10-way power driver’s seat.

Cameras show what’s just ahead and all around

An array of driver-assist safety technology also is standard, as is an 8-inch touchscreen audio display, Bluetooth, and for 2020, Android Auto and Apply Car Play connectivity.

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Also available is a new Panoramic View Monitor that provides a 360-degree image around the truck and a Multi Terrain Monitor that shows video from the front undercarriage to help the driver avoid obstacles.

Christmas Tree Pass road varies in surface and width as it winds around the Newberry Range

Base price is $36,965 but out test truck stickered out at $46,328, in part because of a $1,670 Advanced Technology Package with blind spot monitor and rear parking sonar. It also was equipped with $485-worth of LED head and fog lamps, a $300 step to enhance access to the truck bed, a $499 front skid plate, and what we consider to be a misnamed $4,285 TRD Premium Off Road Package.

That “Off Road” package includes dual-zone climate control, leather seats with heated seats up front, auto-on headlamps, premium JBL audio, navigation and more, though none of it seems to relate to off-road driving other than he navigation display.

Empowering the Tacoma is a 3.5-liter V6 rated at 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Our truck had a 6-speed automatic transmission that at times hunted for the right gear on long uphill stretches on the 100 miles of highway between Las Vegas and Laughlin, but that responded properly on gravel and sand, and that can be shifted manually so you can control downhill speed without touching the brake pedal.

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Petroglyphs in Grapevine Canyon date to 1100 A.D.

While those sitting in the rear seat would have appreciated a little more legroom, no one was complaining about the cold-blowing air conditioning on a day that pushed just into triple temperature digits. That was especially the case near the end of the trail when we parked and hiked into Grapevine Canyon to see (look in amazement and appreciation, photograph but do not touch) petroglyphs said to date to perhaps 1100 A.D.

Spirit Mountain, tallest in the Newberry range west of Laughlin and the Colorado River, is considered holy ground by the ancient tribes. Visiting such sites, even driving Christmas Tree Pass, is a privilege, and a vehicle such as the Tacoma TRD Off-Road not only enables but enhances the experience.

2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 4×4 Double Cab

Vehicle type: 5-passenger mid-size pickup truck, 4-wheel drive

Base price: $36,965 Price as tested: $46,328

Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 278 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, 265 pound-feet of torque @ 4,600 rpm Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 127.4 inches Overall length/width: 212.3 inches / 75.2 (with overfenders)

Curb weight: 4,445 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 18 city / 22 highway / 20 combined

Assembled in: Baja California, Mexico

For more information visit the Toyota website.


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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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