Preston McLain won a Honda Rancher 350 ATV (all-terrain vehicle) and trailer in a December 2003 raffle. The Harlan County native and his wife, Polly, made a deal. He would keep it for two weeks to try it out and then sell it.
Today, the couple chuckle and exchange knowing glances when telling the story, because just two years later McLain is president of the Harlan County Ridge Runners, the largest ATV club in Kentucky. He has long since traded in that ATV for a bigger one, and now spends most of his time guiding ATVers up the rugged and scenic mountains near his home in Evarts in far southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia border.
And he is not alone on those mountains. Between October 2004 and November 2005, some 9,800 people came from across the nation and Canada to ride ATVs in Harlan County, according to McLain.
Recognizing an economic opportunity, the Harlan County Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Joe Bishop leased 8,000 acres from the Mana Plan Coal Company to construct trails. In addition, there are 33,000 acres where ATVs are welcome in Harlan County, although the additional acres have not been mapped or marked yet. Mike King, a local businessman, has built eight cabins for visitors to rent and plans to build 10 more. Land has also been cleared for two RV campsites.
It will all be needed because Harlan is fast becoming a hot spot for a burgeoning sport. It is a sport with two very different faces: one that draws the young to its daredevil, competitive side, and another that attracts families to its wholesome, outdoorsy side.
The group traveling up Big Black Mountain on a warm spring day in late March with McLain as their guide is typical of the family affair that now dominates ATVing. Three Indiana families have made a 10-hour trip to Harlan together to enjoy the children’s spring break together. Another father, his son, and nephew just happen to come from the same state. Ranging in age from 3 to 53, they all say that this is how their family has fun together.
Kathy Mahler, her son Dan Sharp, his wife, Tara, and their two children, Colton, 3, and Hunter, 12, are in Harlan for a week of ATVing along with Tara’s high school friends, Kelly Trott and Melanie Strain, and their husbands and families.
“The kids came up here last year and loved it,” Mahler says. “They wanted to come back and bring us. The scenery is beautiful here, and there are lots of different trails, some easy and some hard. And where else can you go on vacation for five days with your family for $175 and some gas for your four-wheeler?”
The families (seven adults and five children) rented a three-bedroom, two-bath house together, split the $700 rental fee, and pooled their resources for food. There are no fees to ride on the trails in Harlan, so their only other expense was gasoline, a minimal expense since an ATV can go most of the day on a tank of gas.
They also shared in the adventure. Young Colton rides with his dad, but daughter Hunter has her own appropriately sized ATV, an important safety measure. They follow each other up the mountain, alternating adults and children, larger and smaller ATVs, and everyone looks out for everyone else.
“I was a little nervous at first,” admits Hunter, a veteran with three years of experience, “but now after the first couple of hills I’m fine. I like being able to go up the big hills by myself. I never thought I would be able to do this. It makes me more confident.”
“That is just one of the lessons young people can learn from the sport,” says Doug Morris, director of the All-Terrain Vehicle Association (ATVA), a national association for both ATV enthusiasts—those who ride the trails—and ATV competitors—those who participate in events such as ATV Motocross. (Visit their Web site at www.atvaonline.com.)
“This is such a family sport, even on the competition side,” says Morris. “Kids learn some good life skills. They learn that mistakes have consequences. They learn to look ahead, to pay attention, to make corrections, and about etiquette. Those are valuable skills, especially when kids start driving.”
The ATVA has 30,000 members—22,000 of them recreational drivers and 8,000 racers. One of those racers is Paul Williams, who lives in Scottsville with his parents, Randy and Jeannie.
Williams, 16, races a Yamaha YSZ 450 in ATV motocross events.
“Motocross is basically a dirt track with jumps on it,” says Williams. “It is a real physical sport. It is probably one of the toughest sports, most physically demanding sports, happening right now. When motocross gets rough, it takes a number on your body. You go over hills and hit a 2-foot rut that someone else has made. You have to be prepared and focused and watching the other people around you.”
The junior at Allen County-Scottsville High School started riding ATVs with his best friend, then went to a motocross event in 2001 and was hooked.
Williams has competed in about 10 races in the past two years and won seven of them. He now has a sponsor—James and Pam Perry of JPMX—and this year will compete locally in Class B events and travel to compete in ATV national events in the Open Class. Between races, he practices at Ballance Moto X outside of Bowling Green and on the land around Allen County.
Ballance Moto X is one of the new facilities that have sprung up to support the sport.
Owner John Ballance worked with his nephew, Bill Ballance, a six-time national GNCC Cross Country champion, to design the 1.3-mile, natural-terrain track.
Opened in April 2005 after nearly two years in construction, the track has already attracted national motocross events—a 2006 season finale for the ATVA nationals and a Loretta Lynn area qualifier, as well as two Southern All Star races and one Kentucky State Series race.
“This is only our second year, and we have already landed a lot of big events,” says Ballance, “but we have put the work in and done a lot of things other tracks don’t.” Ballance says that includes extensive work on soil composition, the addition of drainage tiles, watering systems, lighting, and facilities for the racers.
Williams will race on this track this year. He acknowledges having a queasy stomach at the starting line, but says winning is “the greatest thing in the world, a feeling that you can’t get anywhere else.”
For others, the attraction of ATVs isn’t action or excitement. In fact, it is just the opposite—relaxation and quiet.
Mike and Robin Mudd of Cox’s Creek near Bardstown ride a Bombardier, an ATV built for two people. Mike drives while Robin “gets on back and enjoys the ride.”
“We like easy riding,” says Robin. “We like to ride through the woods and look at the scenery—the trees, the flowers, and rocks. We’ve seen turkeys and deer and snakes. We don’t like going through big mud holes. We watch others doing that, but we watch them and laugh a lot.”
The couple, who are 48 and 52, say they find a lot of riders their age and older on the trails. And they say they feel safe on the ATV, safer even than on the horses they used to own.
The Mudds ride on the five acres they own, the woods surrounding their friend’s homes, a few hundred acres owned by another friend, and are now also traveling to sites to ride. But they would like to see more places open up where people can ride and camp. That is the biggest concern for most ATVers, according to ATVA’s Morris, and it will have to be addressed as the sport grows beyond the current 12 million.
Safety is another concern, a very real one. In Kentucky, there were 288 ATV-related deaths between 1982 and 2004, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (see “Safety first” below). But those concerns are countered by the benefits ATVs offer, Morris says.
“There is the adventure of it,” he says. “There is the challenge. There is the camaraderie. And there is the outdoors. I just can’t think of a better way to get outside and experience nature and good old family recreation together.”
Like the sport itself, Kentucky is developing a dual reputation within ATV circles. On the positive side, Kentucky is known for excellent trails and Southern hospitality.
Simultaneously, however, Kentucky consistently ranks at or near the top in the number of ATV accidents and fatalities. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Kentucky had 182 ATV-related deaths from 1982-2001, 55 of them children under the age of 16. From 2002-2004, there have already been 106 deaths reported, placing Kentucky second in terms of overall ATV deaths, and those numbers are not complete as the reporting period doesn’t end until this year.
This prompted two bills during the 2006 General Assembly, one that would have gone as far as prohibiting children under 16 from driving ATVs, and one that would have required all operators to wear helmets. In the end, legislators passed a much narrower bill, HB 334, which will require everyone under age 16 to wear helmets when riding an all-terrain vehicle on public property.
Many of the ATV clubs around the state promote safety, particularly the use of helmets for riders under the age of 16. Many also ban the use of alcohol and drugs.
There are many simple measures ATVers can use to protect themselves. The most important and easiest is to use the proper safety gear. Helmets and goggles are a must. Other clothing choices help as well. ATVers should wear long-sleeved shirts, sturdy gloves, long pants or coveralls, and hard shoes. Chest protectors are also a good idea, as are kidney belts (elastic belts that go around your waist) and elbow and forearm guards.
Choosing an ATV that is appropriate for you is another important measure, according to Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. ATVs are characterized by engine size. ATVs with more than 90 cubic centimeters (cc’s) should be used only by riders 16 and older. The majority of ATV-related deaths among children under 16 were caused by the child riding an adult-size ATV.
Wolfson adds that ATVs should never be driven at night or on pavement. “ATV tire pressure and suspension systems are built for off-road use,” he says. Steering and balance will not work the same on pavement.
Doug Morris, director of ATVA, also believes that everyone should have some training before riding an ATV and notes that the ATV Safety Institute offers this training. Some states, such as Utah, require anyone under a certain age to take rider training. Kentucky does not have any regulations along these lines.
For more information on ATV safety, go to the Web site for the ATV Safety Institute at www.atvsafety.org or call them at (800) 887-2887.
WHERE TO RIDE ATVs
Kentucky boasts trails throughout the state. Here are some of our favorites. E-mail us at e-mail@KentuckyLiving.com if you know of other good places to ride, and we’ll add them to the list on our Web site at www.KentuckyLiving.com/archives.asp, June 2006 issue under the feature story “ATV Craze.” Be sure to check back for new sites.
B&J’s Off-Road Private Club
(270) 393-0390 or (270) 392-5927
Private off-road club offers daily riding or yearly membership; approximately 130 acres with a mix of off-road terrains, from rock climbs to open fields.
Big Rock ATV & Dirtbike Park
Nearly 2,000 acres for ATV and dirt bike riders; free primitive camping and limited RV hookups; no permit required.
Four levels of trails on 7,000 acres of former coal property.
D&K Off-Road Park
More than 3,100 acres; mountains, a little rocky in a few places; main trails mostly packed dirt.
Daniel Boone National Forest
Trace the footsteps of Daniel Boone with extraordinary views of the Kentucky countryside and the solitude of a forest sanctuary. Permit required for White Sulphur and Redbird Crest trails only—all other trails are free. $3 per vehicle per day; $5 per 3 days; or $30 annual fee. All state regulations apply.
There are several trails that start at different points. The Redbird Crest Trail is the longest, with more than 65 miles of intermediate trails with loops for beginners; (606) 598-2121. The White Sulphur ATV trail has 20 miles of trails open May 1-December 1; (606) 784-6428. There are also trails that start near McKee, including S-Tree, Turkey Foot, Big Dog, and Renfro Loop Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) routes; (606) 864-4163.
Paddy’s Bluff Retreat
650 acres of off-road trails and primitive camping on the Cumberland River; trails include lots of mud, hills, and challenging terrain; numerous special events.
Sharp’s ATV Riding Range
165 acres of moderate to advanced trails.
Turkey Bay OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle) Area
(270) 924-2000/(800) 525-7077
(M-F 8 a.m. -4:30 p.m. CT)
Located in the Land Between The Lakes area in western Kentucky. Open seven days a week. Must register to ride. Closed during excessive rain.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ATV CLUBS
For a list of ATV riding clubs throughout the state, click here: ATV clubs.