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Rural Missouri Magazine

Wheelin'
Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch offers adventure at 3 mph

by Jim McCarty

Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch co-owner Brandon Powell's vehicle, affectionately known as “Juggie” because it is a cross between a Jeep and a buggy, approaches vertical as it climbs a 10-foot waterfall with ease. With its huge, underinflated tires, the rig leaves few marks on the rocky landscape. Buy a print of this photo.

Take a ride with Brandon Powell, and you will quickly understand that wearing seatbelts is not optional. The 31-year-old co-owner of the Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch certainly takes the road less traveled.

Seated behind the wheel of a vehicle that’s part Chevy truck, part Jeep and part custom fabrication, he heads out on the ranch’s relatively smooth main road at a fast pace. But when he reaches a trail called “Double Whammy,” he lets the vehicle motor slow the big tires to a crawl.

At this point, the unschooled passenger would be well advised to hang on. The reason for the multiple steel grips welded to the ceiling becomes apparent as the trail quickly earns its “extreme” status in the park’s map.

The trail — Brandon uses the term loosely it would seem — begins as a narrow, boulder-strewn pathway that in rainy weather would be a Class V rapid. Bouncing off of rock ledges that might be hard to navigate on foot, the vehicle negotiates a tight, root-infested turn that points it uphill.

Here’s where the true nature of the ride becomes apparent. The view of fall foliage turns to blue sky as Brandon guns the big engine. The tires bite in protest, and anything not strapped in heads for the back of the rig.

Surely nothing short of a billy goat can make it up this hill. But Brandon does, barely needing the massive amount of horsepower under his hood. The only challenge is a 5-foot rock ledge that requires him to bump, rather than crawl, his way up.

Motorized vehicles are designed to travel horizontally. Brandon’s does just fine in the vertical position.

“A lot of guys have trouble with this,” he says as he waits for a small convoy of other vehicles to conquer the ledge. Some make it look easy, while others haul out winch lines or take the easy way around.

Brandon, left, shares a laugh with fellow wheelers Derek West and Brandon Davis during a break in the action at the park.

“I can get up it in about four seconds. But I’ll tell you what — it’s never the same going up. Our trails here are constantly changing. You come and run and you think you’ve done everything here. Come back in a few weeks, and it won’t look like you’ve run anything.”

That’s because Brandon spends most of his time at the off-road park located south of Seymour building new trails or maintaining the ones already built. With 940 acres and 75 miles of trail, the ranch is a premier off-road destination.

Six years ago, Brandon got the off-road wheeling bug. Like others in the sport, he traveled all over the country looking for bigger and better off-road challenges. His experiences, good and bad, proved valuable when a piece of the Ozarks tailor-made for an off-road park became available.

Brandon and two others decided to build a family-friendly place where “wheelers” could come play. A former construction worker who has stayed in his share of “roach motels,” Brandon set out from the get-go to design a park his own mother would like.

“When we started the off-road park I said, ‘Dad, we always know if mom’s happy, everyone is happy.’ We know baby boomers are creatures of comfort. I think we have hit on something with that. And we are not charging more than anybody else is, but we offer a lot more as far as amenities.”

Brandon points to the shower house, with central heat and air conditioning, a tidy playground for the kids and a manicured campground with electric hookups powered by Se-Ma-No Electric Cooperative as just a few of the ranch’s offerings. There’s a café for those who don’t want to cook their own meals. Plans are in the works for cabins and a general store.

Below: Vehicles are forced to submit to the natural terrain as they negotiate the difficult trails. While the off-road ranch offers trails that are off the charts in terms of difficulty, it also features easy options suitable for beginners.

Drinking and driving is forbidden, and the campground gates are locked at midnight for safety and courtesy to those who need their rest. And during the many events staged at the park, games and the occasional live band keep things interesting.

Amenities aside, it’s the miles of trails that brings off-road enthusiasts to the park. The trail designers worked with nature, letting natural features dictate the flow of the trails. Heavy machinery is rarely used, and because the trails occupy such a small portion of the land, wildlife is abundant.

“We work hard to not disturb the habitat because we love keeping the deer, the turkey, the bears around. It’s a critter’s paradise,” Brandon says.

The trails offer something for every level of driver and machine. Like most of the Ozarks, the landscape is all steep and rocky, with 600 feet of elevation change possible.

One trail, named Tindle Hill for the person who made it closest to the top, still defies Brandon’s best efforts. “No one’s ever made it over without pulling a winch cable first,” he says.

Despite the challenges, most of the vehicles at the park are stock Jeeps and trucks. “Last weekend, we had two guys come out in stock four-wheel drive pickups with street tires on,” Brandon says. “And they wheeled all day long and never got stuck and had an absolute blast.”

Kyle Keller clears a ledge that forces many drivers to haul out their winch line.

As people check in at the gatehouse, Brandon sizes up their vehicles and asks about their skills. Then he advises them on what to avoid.

With 50 to 100 vehicles on an average weekend, those who come will share the park’s trails with vehicles ranging from daily drivers to custom-made competition rigs.

“That’s what’s great about this sport,” Brandon says. “You can get in for as little as you want or as much as you want, moneywise. What happens, a guy gets into the sport and next thing he knows he’s breaking axles. He says, ‘I think I’ll upgrade, get a little stronger.’ That’s how it starts. The next thing you know you have something that looks like mine sitting out in your driveway.”

Brandon bought his rig off eBay, an online auction site. It features a Chevy drive train and the hood and grill from a Jeep. The rest no manufacturer would recognize, especially the massive 46-inch off-road tires that will take the vehicle just about anywhere.

Brandon says most of his driving is done around 3 mph. “The name of the game is trying to crawl it,” he says. “If you can’t crawl it, then you back up and bump it. If that don’t work you hit it really hard, or reevaluate your situation.”

A few of the regulars at the Southern Missouri Off Road Ranch pose in front of their vehicles after a day on the trails. They are, from left: Brandon Davis, Derek West, Brandon Powell, Ritchie Keller, Kyle Keller, Daniel Autrey and Phil Biesigel. Drivers run the gamut from newbies to competitive racers.

While most of the park’s visitors keep their horsepower under the hood, the ranch is a destination for horses, too. Four-wheelers and four-leggers may share the same access roads, but there are many miles of horse-specific trails. Some weekends are devoted to horseback riding only.

Motorcycles are not allowed.

Besides giving off-road drivers and riders a place to test their skills, the park offers something else more valuable during these tough economic times. “People are so stressed out,” Brandon says. “This is a little oasis of heaven. You can come here and forget about it. You don’t think about work or the bills. And cellphones don’t work that well, either.”

The ranch is located off Highway K south of Seymour. Admission is $20 per vehicle plus $5 per passenger. It is open every weekend in 2010, but special events may limit driving. For more information, check the events calendar online at www.smorr.net or call 417-827-3952.

 

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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