Johndrow and his Jeep Wrangler at Upper Cement Creek, with Italian Mountain in the background

“There are some incredible spots that you can only get to in a Jeep or a dirt bike or an ATV in this valley,” says Jeremy Johndrow (JJ), who has been offering guided 4×4 tours throughout Gunnison Valley with his company JJ’s Jeeps since 2020. “I can take people where they are not going to see another car all day,” he adds. 

“I literally submitted my application for a guiding permit to the Forest Service a month before shit hit the fan,” he says of his business’ pandemic timing. Despite his bad luck, Johndrow was able to offer tours that year after a short delay. Looking back, he refers to that initial year as a “soft opening.”

A contract construction worker in the wintertime, Johndrow says the guiding business is uniquely suited to his interests and background. “I’ve been a gearhead my whole life, ever since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with cars,” he says, having moved to Gunnison from New Hampshire in 2005 to attend Western. 

“One of my buddies in the dorms had a lifted [Toyota] 4Runner, and we could go out and explore and I just immediately got hooked. It’s just such an incredible way to explore the vast country out here and get out on our public lands.” 

Johndrow bought this first Jeep, a 1990 Cherokee, after his freshman year, competing with his friend in what he deems a “Jeep-Toyota rivalry,” seeing who could out-drive the other in the backcountry over rough terrain. 

At Western, he studied Business and Outdoor Recreation, graduating in 2010 and unknowingly laying the groundwork for a future guiding venture. “I actually did a minor in Environmental Science as well, despite being a Jeeper I’m a hippie at heart, I’m all about protecting the environment,” he adds. 

Before and after his Western days, Johndrow built up extensive guiding experience, beginning in his high school days where he guided kayaking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing. After graduating college, he guided snowmobile tours for six winters, and it was during that time that he began mulling over a prospective 4×4 guiding business. Johndrow says he uses the terms 4×4, off-roading, and Jeeping pretty interchangeably.

To make that dream a reality, Johndrow first had to navigate several layers of permitting bureaucracy, obtaining his Temporary Special Use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. His current permit expires every year and caps JJ’s visitor use days (every person Johndrow brings into the forest) and gross revenue. Next year, he plans to apply for a 10-Year Priority Permit, which would increase his number of total visitor days and remove the revenue cap.

JJ also has permits with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and an off-road charter with the Colorado Public Utility Commission, essentially an “off-road taxi license,” he says. All the permitting creates a barrier to entry for guiding ventures like JJ’s, which has historically made it far easier to start a rental company. 

Johndrow at Poverty Gulch

But JJ notes that the rentals can have a dark side, specifically when it comes to side-by-sides, also known as UTVS, ubiquitous in certain portions of the valley, particularly at Taylor Park. That areas has earned the moniker “The Thunderdome” due to the heavy 4×4 traffic, which generates a fair deal of noise and stirs up conflict between recreationist groups. 

“They’re so easy to drive and they’re so capable—people not only get themselves in trouble, but they drive too fast, they act dangerous, they drive off trail, they litter,” says Johndrow of the downsides of UTVs, which are becoming increasingly popular. 

In contrast, JJ’s Jeeps offers clients a guided 4×4 experience where Johndrow has a captive audience to talk about trail and outdoor etiquette, as well as the natural world— the local wildlife, geology, and plants—wildflowers are a big hit in the summer. “I love geeking out on that stuff,” he says. 

Johndrow also guides the conservation towards more complex local issues, like the Gunnison housing crisis, the reintroduction of wolves, or the plight of the threatened Gunnison sage grouse, for example. “I have these people in the Jeep all day…[so] I have a few hours of their day to educate them about all sorts of things,” he says with a smile.

Flash forward to 2021, and Johndrow took out 120 visitors in a season that spanned mid-May to the end of foliage season, which typically falls at the very beginning of October. As of now, Johndrow is the only operation permitted to guide visitors in the Gunnison National Forest, although there are a couple of Jeep rental outlets in the valley. 

He conducts most of his tours out of his Jeep Wrangler, but his Grand Cherokee was actually the first pickup for the business, and an option which provides a slightly different experience— more sheltered and luxurious, with heated leather seats. Plus, the Cherokee is lower to the ground, a huge bonus for older clients. 

“I got it from H&H Towing, they had it in their salvage yard [because] some kid had smoked a deer with it, so I got it for $800 and fixed it up myself.” Having two vehicles allows Johndrow to contract one of his buddies to take out larger groups. 

Vehicles in tow, Johndrow has huge swaths of our beautiful valley at his disposal to explore, and can tailor experiences specifically to his clienteles’ desires, time frame, and location. He often takes guests on a half-day route through Aberdeen Quarry just a few miles south of Gunnison, where a small town supported a granite quarry in the early 1900’s that supplied the Colorado State Capitol. Johndrow can also take clients out to Hartman Rocks after the Gunnison sage grouse closure ended on May 15. 

But most of Johndrow’s clientele is based out of Crested Butte, and many of his routes are up valley, including his go-to half day route, which takes clients up Washington Gulch and down into Slate River, then up-and-down Poverty Gulch. 

Johndrow can also take clients up Italian Creek Road through Italian Mountain, an old mining town, and to the summit of American Flag Mountain at 12,700 ft. One of his favorite routes–and one requiring a full day—is to climb to the top of Pearl Pass—the road that bridges the Gunnison Valley over to Aspen. 

JJ’s Jeep Wrangler on American Flag Mountain

The business serves mostly older clientele, along with a good mixture of families. “If you have a broad range of ages and ability levels everyone can get out together,” notes Johndrow. “Even if you are [more] athletic and you’re coming from sea level, and you need a day to rest—you might have hiked a mountain the day before and you’re toast.”

Ultimately, JJ is hoping to counter some of the disrespect for the outdoors and other users he has seen amongst renters and other off-trail users in the valley, and to spread education and render assistance when he can. “I have seen people do donuts in wildflower meadows at 12,000 ft. and I have seen people [hanging] off the side of the bloody mountain,” he adds. 

Johndrow is also interested in becoming more of an active steward of trails (ensuring proper drainage, he notes, is key to preventing the creation of massive rock holes), and an advocate for off road trails within the recreation community. To that end, he sat in on a recent meeting with the Sustainable and Outdoor Recreation (STOR) Committee.

“I want the same things as the STOR Committee for the most part—trying to minimize the impacts out there,” says Johndrow, who notes that Hartman Rocks, under its evolving management plan, was supposed to set aside “rock crawling” trails for a more extreme iteration of off-roading where vehicles traverse steep rock faces. 

Instead, many trails near Gunnison have faced recent closures. Johndrow thinks this is due to a lack of agency resources and concerns about the threatened Gunnison sage grouse and the 4×4 community at-large.

He notes that Jeeps and other larger vehicles often catch flak for the activities of side-by-sides, which have high torque, small tires, and a tendency to dig into the rock surface, eroding the rock and the trail. 

“And they just go so fast. A $20,000 side-by-side has the [same] suspension as a $100,000 trophy truck. Right off the lot you can drive 80 miles an hour down anything out here,” Johndrow relays, explaining that land management agencies do not differentiate their recreation management policies between side-by-sides and larger vehicles like Jeeps, which move slower, are substantially quieter, and typically create less damage on the rock. 

“If they’re going to close a trail [right now], they close it to everything,” he adds. But Johndrow is hopeful that he can contribute to an increase in advocacy, education, and stewardship coming from within the off-roading community, which will pay off in the form of community goodwill and maintaining trail openings. 

He adds that the State of Arizona has instilled a program requiring ATV and UTV users to take a specialized safety course and receive a special license from the state. The funds generated from that program go into a pot of money that is distributed as grants for trail improvement and development projects. “Colorado does not have that, and neither does Utah, [but] they both need it,” he adds. 

Italian Creek with Italian Mountain in the background. Photo: Jeremy Johndrow

Moving forward, Johndrow hopes to implement more action to help preserve the natural landscapes his business relies on: purchasing carbon offset credits, looking into buying an electric Jeep model (maybe not in the first year or two they come off the line, he notes), and continuing to advocate for responsible recreation. 

“To me, it’s mostly an education thing– I have people captivated [on my tours],” he says, adding of his environmental efforts, “My first Jeep was recycling at its finest, I found it in the scrapyard. I fixed it up and it had many, many years of good use in it, it lived the life it was meant to live.”

He is also looking to get his business’ name out there, sponsoring local events like Cattlemen’s Days, the Crested Butte Arts Festival, and the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, taking out ads in the Crested Butte News Summer Visitor Guide, and partnering with the Chamber of Commerce.

Winter tours are an option for the future, and would entail outfitting the Jeeps with mattracks in lieu of tires. “There’s definitely a market for people who are either terrified to drive a snowmobile, freezing their butts off, or both,” says Johndrow, who is eyeing Taylor Park as an ideal winter destination with its low avalanche danger, gorgeous scenery, and abundant mining history. 

For Johndrow, the business all comes back to the client experience. “I just love showing people a good time. I was doing this for free ever since I moved here and got my first Jeep after freshman year. My friends and family come to visit [and I’m] like ‘hop in the Jeep, let me show you some cool shit!’ he exclaims.

“I just love when people have an awesome time and they’re learning stuff…I love doing this even if I’m by myself but showing people a good time—showing them the time of their life and educating them—it’s pretty much my life’s calling,” he notes, before continuing, “It was really an accumulation of all my life skills and experiences…so I’m stoked.”

For another perspective on the off-roading debate, check out Outside’s piece “In Defense of Off-Roading“, which comes highly recommended from Johndrow.

Poverty Gulch. Photo: Jeremy Johndrow