Located in the upper Piedmont on 2,600 acres of thickly forested rolling hills, Carolina Adventure World in Winnsboro is a theme park, of sorts, for all manner of big-wheeled, high-traction vehicles. The centerpiece of this off-road fantasyland is the 100 miles of professionally designed trails that wind through the woods, up and down rugged, rutted terrain with 300 feet of elevation changes.
"They're not golf cart paths," said John Webster, co-owner of Carolina Adventure World. "We maintain them in the best possible condition, but you're going to be bumping around pretty good."
And therein lies the fun of this popular pursuit. On a recent visit to the park, I blasted around the backcountry on a Polaris ATV, bounding up single-track trails without breaking a sweat. The four-wheeler's 400 cc engine did all the work for me.
Rated like the slopes at a ski resort, the trails range from the family-friendly green to the intermediate blue to the bone-rattling black diamond, offering every level of adventure-seeker a rockin' ride. Modes of transport include dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and the wildly popular side-by-sides - the luxury sedan of off-roading.
"That's where the sport is going," Webster said of the four-wheel drive, jeep-like buggies, also known as utility task vehicles (UTVs). "They seat two to four people, so guys can bring their wives and kids."
Some 30,000 people ride the trails at Carolina Adventure World each year. Those looking to wet their wheels are never disappointed. Spring, summer, fall or winter, you can always find a rut in the road filled with South Carolina's special brand of red clay mud.
"You wouldn't believe how many people come out here after it rains just to get in the mud holes," Webster said. "You'll see them outfitted in every color of gear, but by lunch they all look like they've been dipped in chocolate."
Puddles, it seems, have a mysterious magnetic power that pulls ATV riders to them like black holes. Not one who enjoys being splattered with mud, I've always sidestepped puddles when hiking in the woods. But there I was veering into every watery pit, pocket and pothole on the trail, determined to earn the sport's muddy badge of honor.
If your standard puddle doesn't do the job, the park's two mud bogs will get you helmet-high in slop. Built to the specifications of professional mud race tracks, the pits can run as deep as 28 inches, requiring ATVS to be equipped with special snorkels that provide the engine with air when it's under water.
Among the park's other popular attractions are the Rock Crawl, Grizzly Hill and Mammoth Hill - dryer, but equally challenging rides over brontosaurus-sized boulders. Webster described it as "riding up a river of rocks".
If you really want to test your mettle, you can rev it up on one of four raceways. They include:
* a 300-foot lighted drag strip with 600 feet of shut-down surface and electronic timing and scoring.
* Pocono raceway (known as "The Tricky Triangle" to NASCAR fans) with three banked turns.
* a one-mile motocross-style track.
* a vintage Enduro course, 10-miles of single-track, dirt-bike only trails that lead to the "Top of the World", the highest spot between Columbia and Charlotte.
Rentals are available if you don't have your own ride. For those who want to spend the night, the ATV park also offers RV or tent sites, along with five cabins and a yurt that can sleep up to 10 people.
Other park amenities include a disc golf course, an ATV wash, barbecue pits, a shower house and a welcome center offering a snack bar, Internet access and a full range of riding gear, equipment, parts and camping supplies.
Carolina Adventure World is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. For more information, click here or call (803) 482-3534.