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Bouncing a Land Rover along the rocky, rutted main loop at the Superlift Off-Road Vehicle Park near Hot Springs, park manager B.J. Richardson looks about as comfortable as a commuter on the freeway, even when driving down a slope a reporter wouldn't try to walk down without a helmet and elbow pads. When he finally reaches over to put on his seatbelt, it's enough to make me downright nervous.
It's been awhile since I took a ride with the four-wheel drive engaged (the wife's all-wheel-drive Honda probably doesn't count). That said, I'm not alone. Richardson said that the rugged-but-drivable former logging road that connects the web of more than 100 trails at Superlift Park is about as hardcore as most people with showroom-shiny SUVs, Jeeps and four-wheel-drive pickups will ever get.
"They'll put it in four wheel drive and play in the snow, or maybe go to deer camp," he said. "Most deer camp roads aren't any rougher than this, and this is our main road. We're in four-high. We're not even in low range."
If you own a stock or modified four wheel drive and want to test what you and your machine are made of, you can't do much better than the Superlift ORV Park. Situated on 1,500 wooded, mountainous acres and with well-mapped trails numbered from 1 (stock 4x4) to 5 (unmitigated vehicular insanity), the park draws over 20,000 off-roading enthusiasts a year from all over the country. It's celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
Named after a Louisiana suspension-equipment manufacturer that's a partner in the park, Superlift allows 4x4, ATV and dirt bike pilots access to all their trails for a flat daily fee: $30 per day for 4x4 vehicles; $15 per day for ATVs and dirt bikes. There's on-site camping and a small store. On a big weekend like the recent 4th of July, the parking lot and campgrounds are stacked with everything from daily-driver Jeeps to $100,000-plus, custom-built rock buggies — all-fabricated, near-bulletproof monsters that arrive on the backs of matching semi-trucks and which can take on most any obstacle the park can throw at them.
The clientele is mostly middle class. The rougher element, Richardson said, generally doesn't want to pay to play. "It's very family oriented," he said. "A lot of people perceive people with Jeeps and big trucks as being a bunch of drunken rednecks. That is the case at a lot of places, there's no denying that, but that's not the case here most of the time. Most of our customers are middle class or upper middle class. They don't have junker four wheel drives. Some of these vehicles are over $100,000. It's just like any other motorsport: it's their hobby, it's their lifestyle."
One of those "lifestyle" off-roaders is Eric Barnes, a computer programmer from Houston. Parked near his campsite at Superlift Park was his 1980 Jeep-based rock-crawler, which he's sunk more than $100 grand into over the past decade. These days, sitting on huge tires, with a stout roll cage and five-point seatbelts to keep the driver in the full, upright and alive position, it bears little resemblance to what came from the factory. "The gas pedal and the rearview mirror are still original," he said, laughing. "Everything else has been replaced."
Barnes is the president of the Texas-based Southern High Rollers 4x4 club. He said his group includes people from all walks of life, from airline pilots to electricians. They come to Superlift Park often.
"Superlift is probably the most picturesque park we come wheel at," he said. "It's very pretty. Lots of wildlife, and the challenges are awesome."
As a desk-jockey kind of guy in his work life, Barnes said he enjoys the design and building challenges of four-wheeling. "I enjoy fabbing [fabricating]," he said. "You find a rock you can't get over, you go home and you fab whatever you need to get over that rock. You come back, climb the rock, and then you find a bigger rock and you do it all over again." A lot of off-roading is about camaraderie, he said. If a rig breaks down out on the trail, it's often strangers who help get it running enough to get back to civilization.
"I definitely carry parts that don't fit my Jeep, just in case," he said. "There's a whole element of our sport that enjoys that. They try to put themselves in the most god-awful position, just to see if they can get out before nightfall. That's not necessarily my appeal, but there is an element of the sport that enjoys that."
Manager Richardson said the things that have kept guys like Barnes and the members of his club coming back to Superlift Park over their years are the extensive network trails — with names like "Ingrid's Revenge" and "The Can Opener" — along with the beauty of the site itself; former old-growth timberland that hasn't been re-cut in 25 years or more, full of turkey and deer. From the highest point in the park (which serves as the exit to one of their most picturesque trails) there's a sweeping view of the mountains to the south. Standing there, watching a line of streetable Jeeps wind up the steep slope from the valley below, it's hard to believe you're less than five miles from Hot Springs, and around an hour from downtown Little Rock.
"There's been tons of private off-road parks in the past 10 years, popping up and trying to make it," Richardson said. "It's a hard row to hoe. You have to have nearly the amount of property we have to make a full-time business out of it. You can't entertain somebody for three days, you're just not going to get the out-of-town business. People aren't going to drive 300 or 500 miles for a day's worth of riding." Luckily, Superlift has them covered.