Opinion: We need more off-road parks (and tow strips, trails…)

August 17, 2022 5:32 PM
Last weekend, I went off-road. I took a Ford Bronco Raptor I was testing to Badlands Off-Road Park in Indiana (with Ford’s approval) because I felt the Raptor needed to drive off-road, if possible, to get a full picture of the vehicle’s capabilities before a potential future review.

Also, off-road driving can be a lot of fun, especially if you can avoid getting stuck (something we TTAC experts know a thing or two about).

The thing is, I burned a lot of time and fuel to get there and back, because the Badlands are more than 100 miles from my home in Chicago. But it is, as I can tell, the only off-road park within an easy driving distance of Chicago that allows OEM vehicles.

There is an off-road park a little closer to Chicago, but as of early 2021, this private park no longer allows factory vehicles to tackle the trails. Apparently, that’s because this park uses a state grant, and because Illinois’ bureaucracy is what it is, grant parks don’t allow factory vehicles. I’ll talk about no reasoning behind that at another time.

I realize that the relative lack of off-road parks – the kind one can pay to play in – is kind of a function of where I live. But a quick Google Maps search shows that even in other parts of the country, where an off-road park seems more likely, there is a relative dearth of it.

Ford has built a few Bronco Off-Rodeo sites — I think there are four — and there is a relatively new off-road park in Holly, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. California, at its discretion, has a few government-run venues, such as The Mirage (operated by the Federal Bureau of Land Management) and Hollister Hills (operated by the state), in addition to any privately owned parks in the state.

But this is not enough.

Rugged parks are more than just a place to play with your 4x4s and trucks in a relatively safe environment (when things go wrong in the park, other visitors and/or park staff can help you). It’s a fairly cheap way to get out, something we all need once in a while.

“Cheap” does not include the cost of the car, of course. But unless you’re a hardcore driver who will only tackle the toughest terrain – the kind of trails that guarantee you’ll get stuck and/or receive car damage – you don’t need a lot of gears. Hiking boots, a zip belt, some water and snacks, some TP (some parks have facilities at the entrance. This doesn’t help when nature calls and you’re deep in the woods), clothes to get dirty – that’s all I usually take with me to the park. Maybe some jumper cable, just in case you stumble upon someone who needs a boost.

Note: If you’re a hardcore camper, you may find that my gear choice is a bit lacking. If I was staying overnight, or staying in a really remote area, I would have packed a lot of things. But if I’m in an off-road park less than a five-minute drive from a town with several gas stations and at least one grocery store, and plan to stay only a few hours, I’ll pack a light.

And if the cost of an off-road vehicle—either a cool new SUV like the Raptor or a modified old Jeep Wrangler from the ’90s—is too expensive for you, you can rent a car (a side-by-side, ATV, and maybe even a Wrangler) at or near some of these parks .

Having more places to drive off-road should help expose more people to the excitement of cars, just as having more tracks or tow strips. There’s also an element of protecting private property here – an ethical enthusiast doesn’t have to sneak into someone’s farm field to conquer it. Instead, pay a small fee and drive off-road legally until you’re tired or park all day.

It’s the same reason cities build skate parks – so Tony Hawk fans can ply their trade without spoiling the grades at City Hall.

I also believe that getting people, especially urban and suburban residents, to walk off-road will help strengthen the connection with nature and the environment. Certainly, any outdoor activity, from hiking to camping to rock climbing, helps in this regard. But off-road driving is a unique way to do it. Hiking is great, but the adrenaline rush of the successful rock climbing at the Rubicon is hard to replicate.

Parks can also help off-road beginners hone their skills, perhaps with the help of a park guide or veteran off-road driver, before they tackle challenging terrain. And they can learn the Tread Light concepts I’ve read about four wheels growing up.

The skills needed to succeed off-road—focus, awareness of wheel position, good decision making, knowledge of how to use four-wheel drive systems and off-road technology, etc.—can help people become better off-road drivers.

However, I understand that off-road driving is not suitable for everyone. It’s not even for every car enthusiast. Some prefer to be a track rat, autocrosser, or drag racer. Some non-enthusiasts will find the outdoors to be too hot/too humid/infested with mosquitoes. Some people will feel very anxious when they are driving/riding an SUV stuck at an abnormal angle while crossing a driveway, or they may not be able to handle a hill climb that leaves nothing but the sky in front of the windshield. or a hill slope that leaves them hanging from the seat belt with the vehicle near a vertical position.

I also get the economics of running a theme park / racetrack / cyclist strip is probably not profitable. I understand that a lot of land is required. And I understand that while new technology makes off-road driving easier in modern SUVs, new cars are also more difficult to modify for performance now, because of the same technology.

But damn, man, I wish there were more options for weekend warriors to hit the track (or track). It’s key to keeping the motoring enthusiasm alive, especially as we move into a world where most passenger cars are electric. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against EVs, and I know some electric vehicles will be specifically designed for off-road driving and on-track driving. You’ve already tried the silent off-roading in the 4XE Hybrid Jeep. But let’s face it – electric vehicles will give drivers a different experience than internal combustion vehicles. There will be no roaring drive. The steering systems in both electric vehicles and ICE vehicles are often highly unconnected. Advanced driver assistance systems are already reducing driver involvement, and some vehicles offer semi-autonomous driving.

I realize that almost every SUV I’ve taken off-road has driver assist technology. Some old school fun is definitely lost. But even on a modern platform like the Raptor or Rubicon — platforms that use cameras to help you see and electronic deception to help you maneuver — you can go back to nature. Roll the windows down, remove the roof if possible, and you will already be in harmony with nature. Hear those insects hum. Feel the sun on your neck. Just don’t forget bug spray and sunscreen.

A movie personality once said that golf courses and cemeteries are the biggest waste of real estate. I do not agree with that. But I think I’d like to see more patches of suburban land turned into off-road parks (or trails) rather than residential trails.

More parks please.

[Images © 2022 Tim Healey, Bonnie Bernat/TTAC]

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