If we had to categorize the two biggest differences between east and west coast wheeling, it would be mud and private off-road parks. While the west is full of government-controlled land that can be used for recreational off-roading, the east coast has to rely on the willingness of private land owners to open up their property for others to enjoy.
Roughly an hour east of Ashville, North Carolina, is one such private off-road park nestled in a little town off Interstate 40 named Marion. You’ll find 70 acres of some of the most challenging and enjoyable trails in all of North Carolina at the Flats Offroad Park. While you need to be a member to have year-round access to the trails, every few months or so the park opens its gates to the general public for what they call an open ride. During this time (usually a four-day stretch) the grounds are open for Jeeps, trucks, buggies, and side-by-sides. We stopped by the most recent open ride do a little wheeling, along with watching the always exciting hillclimb competition that was going on during this open ride.
To find out more about the Flats and when the next open ride is, visit Facebook.com/TheFlatsOffroadPark/
While the Flats Offroad Park might be known for extreme trails, we had a blast navigating the park in a modestly modified Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon on 37s. In fact, we spotted a good variety of rigs, from nearly stock to comp buggies, hitting the trails throughout the weekend. Many of the trails also feed into an access road that threads through the park. So if you want to opt out and head back to camp easily, you can.
Speaking of camp, you are allowed to camp on the grounds. Eric Garner picked out a prime spot with his tow rig setup on the upper portion of the Flats property. There are also three hotels within a few miles of the park, for those looking for plusher digs.
You don’t have to go very far to see action at the park. While we love the trail assortment, numerous play areas have a mix of manmade challenges worked in with the mountain elevation.
Scott Johnson was out with his family in what started life as a 1988 Suzuki Samurai. This low-slug build is powered by a Nissan SR20 engine, which is backed by a six-speed manual and dual Toyota transfer cases. Amazingly, those are 40-inch-tall Cooper tires, attached to a set of ELocked and geared Toyota axles.
Fresh off a 5.3L GM V-8 engine swap and exo-cage wrap-up, Kyle Sicard came out to test out the new setup in his 1987 Ford Ranger. We caught up with him on one of our favorite trails, Tank Trap. There he put the 1-ton-axled Ranger to work in the lower rock section.
Just ahead of the Ranger on the trail was D.J. Whalen in his 1986 Jeep Comanche. With 1.75x0.120-wall DOM tubing taking place of much of the original sheetmetal, and 1-ton axles underneath, he could let loose on some of the slicker climbs in the park. Thanks to a 4.0L engine swap from a 1998 XJ, he had a bit more power to get those 40s moving up the hill.
Many of the trails are fairly short, but they are packed with obstacles. Navigating your way around the park is pretty easy with a trail map in hand. If you do get turned around, the trails are marked with color placards letting you know where you are and the difficulty of the trail.
The popularity of side-by-sides continues to grow, as was evident by the assortment at the park. There was even a racing class for them for the hillclimb. If you’re looking for a good place to test the limits of your compact wheeler, this is a great spot.
There was plenty of horsepower on tap during the hillclimb races. Tim Cameron’s old IFS rock bouncer, Money Maker, even put on a show with the new driver putting those cut Trepadors to work!
It’s not too often you see a Jeep Grand Cherokee with serious trail scars off-road. Kevin’s WJ is fit with 1-ton axles, custom bumpers, and an assortment of suspension upgrades to keep the Unitbody moving along.
It’s becoming increasingly rare to see Early Broncos on the trail, so we are always excited when we do. John Sims was out hammering on his 1973 Ford Bronco. His is fit with an assortment of trail goodies, including RuffStuff Specialties axlehousings with TrueHi9 third members, ORI struts, and 37-inch red-label BFG Krawlers.
Not everyone’s weekend went exactly as planned. After grabbing Second gear and pinning the throttle, East Coast Gear Supply’s Stephen Campbell landed with such force that one of the suspension links broke free, causing the front axle to roll under the buggy. Despite the hard landing, Campbell walked away and the Flats support team was able to easily transport his buggy back to his trailer.
Taking home the win for the hillclimb open class was Ultra4 racer Chris May. In an impressive field of contenders, May’s speed and precision driving sent him to the front of the pack.