When you enter the historic city of Hot Springs, Arkansas, you're likely to fall in love. That's what the folks who live there say They're used to people falling in love with their city's thermal waters, rich history, beautiful architecture, and the wide array of activities found in the area. As a result, Hot Springs is known as "America's First Resort" and one of the South's most popular family vacation and convention destination spots.
When Mark A. Smith came to Hot Springs in 1986, he fell in love, too. The legendary Jeep guru, considered the modern-day father of four-wheeling, was on a quest to search for some of the country's most picturesque locations that also offered great four wheeling -- and to determine the perfect season to visit each for a four-wheel-drive event. As one of the founding members of the Jeepers Jamboree and its famed annual runs across the rugged Rubicon Trail in northern California, Smith saw the opportunity to start his own program and take it on the road across America. Jeep Jamboree USA (JJUSA) was born, and the Ouachita (pronounced "wa-shee-ta") Jeep Jamboree in Hot Springs, became one of the inaugural events, held when the fall colors paint the rolling mountains of west central Arkansas a palette of red, orange, yellow, and brown among a canvas of evergreens.
The story told today is that Smith walked into the Mid-American dealership, and introduced himself to George Ginsberg, whose father was the local Jeep representative in Hot Springs. The rest is history: The first event was three days of trail rides that drew 15 Jeeps led by Fang, a head Jeeper/organizer, and followed by a tail-gunner/trail guide dubbed the Rattler. The Hot Springs scenery, the collection of local backwoods tracks and logging roads in the Ouachitas, and the camaraderie around campfires and evening buffets sealed the deal. Today, thousands have come to this annual event alone and close to a half-million enthusiasts have taken to the trails on JJUSA's events.
For 2012, there were 31 family-oriented JJUSA trips scheduled across the country, designed to cater to novice four-wheelers, as well as provide a challenge to hard-core off-roaders. The only real requirements are that all participants must drive a Jeep vehicle (rentals count), use good manners on the trail (i.e., no alcohol and bully language allowed), and Tread Lightly in the back country.
We joined the Jeep brotherhood -- which has included lady-Jeepers from the start of Smith's events -- for the 22nd annual Ouachita Jamboree with 170 participants, hailing from 14 states, driving 84 Jeep vehicles that included CJs, JKs, TJs, YJ, WJs, ZJs, and 20 Wrangler Rubicons. The Jamboree was led by local coordinator John Felgate of Hot Springs and his team of 12 experienced trail guides.
It's said a million gallons of 143-degree water flow each day from the 47 hot springs that come from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain to the city's downtown. It's not only made Hot Springs a mecca, but was the lure that drew many Native American tribes to gather in the valley to enjoy the healing properties of the water. But it's not the natural thermal waters that draw four-wheelers here; it's the red-hot wheeling.
Four-wheeling began in the area in the 1970s on timber-company logging roads and utility company rights-of-way. Over the years an unofficial trail system grew into an impressive network of trails. However, in 1999, the landowners closed access and put the property up for sale. In 2001, a group of off-road businessmen, enthusiasts, and conservationists purchased the acreage with two goals: to develop the nation's premiere off-roading destination and to preserve the land's natural beauty. Included in the group of owner/enthusiasts is the Felgate family, with father Don, a longstanding coordinator of the Jeep Jamboree, along with his three sons, John, Andy, and Donnie, who are all grew up with Big Wheels and BMX bikes and then graduated to Jeeps. They haven't stopped since, and the next generation of Felgates is already on the trails.
The property, now known as the Superlift ORV Park has, in fact, become one of the top off-road playgrounds in the U.S. Organizers have maintained the majority of the original trail system, while new trails and obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty are continuously being constructed on a wide variety of terrain types -- hillclimbs (with hills for both "finesse" and "horsepower"), mud pits, rock gardens, and water crossings. Automakers use the park for testing models, and you'll notice trails dubbed Power Wagon Point, Patriot Pass, and the Grand Cherokee Challenge. Aftermarket companies try out their hardware here as well, as evidenced by tracks called Warn Hill and Bilstein Ravine. Other trails bear names that could stop the heart of a flatlander, such as Free Fall, Can Opener, and Vertical Challenge. But what's great about the Park is that this nearly 13,000-acre tract with close to 75 miles of trails has been thoughtfully and skillfully developed, rather than clear-cut, and while riding the trails, you can feel like you're in a woodland preserve and nature habitat, as well. And there is something for everyone, from newbie to expert.
The Park, open for daily use and special rental, is well mapped, and all trails are posted with difficulty ratings for the allowed vehicle types, which include 4WD vehicle, motorcycle, and ATV, and there is also an R.C. rock crawler course. Trails are rated from One Diamond -- designed for the novice off-roader; four-wheel drive will be needed occasionally for a few tough spots -- to Five Diamond. Called the real deal for experienced off-roaders, these trails carry the following guidelines: Your vehicle must be able to be locked front and rear and have 36-inch-or-taller rubber; and you must have a winch and tree straps and have little regard for your rig's body panels, as you can expect cosmetic and mechanical damage on some of these trails. These trails also require a co-driver/spotter and your undivided attention. (Other guidelines instruct that you bring a camera and a clean change of underwear! Beware: Just because you conquered one trail with ease doesn't mean the next one won't put you on your lid. CAUTION:
Though we have one trail named "impossible," there are several that truly are for all but a select crowd.)
A Sampling of Trails used for the 2012 Ouachita Jeep Jamboree
Woods, Wheelin', and Wildlife: A scenic ride perfect for those who want a challenge and a chance to admire Mother Nature's finest scenery. Winding through the woods, you will encounter hillclimbs mixed in with mild rock-crawling, while exploring the ravines and rolling hills in the backwoods of west central Arkansas.
The Ouachita Challenge: This trail has a variety of obstacles and challenges for all stock to modified Jeepers with steep, rutted hill climbs that will take your breath away, plus two jaw-dropping overlooks--but also offers bypasses for the faint of heart.
The Roller Coaster Rampage:
Hold onto your hat! Hillclimbs and downhill descents, with views on top of each hill that are simply awesome.
The Extreme Rock Challenge: Excellent challenges for experienced Jeepers. You'll crawl up and down the Ravine, a popular spot for modified Jeeps and be impressed when you and your Jeep make it up the slab rock hill called the Gorge.
Kamikaze Boulder Banzai: A trail guaranteed to thrill those who love extreme four-wheeling and rock crawling.
(RV campsites with electrical and water hook-ups, primitive tent camping sites, restrooms/shower house, parking for trailers)
Jeep Jamboree USA scheduled 31 backcountry adventures in many of the nation's most challenging and scenically stunning areas in 2012. Designed to coincide with drivers' various skill levels and budgets, Jamborees are typically full two-day, family-oriented four-wheel-drive adventures.Check the website for other special events. JJUSA rates trails on a scale of 1-10; tow hooks are mandatory for trails rated 4-7. Cost: adults $250, Children, 6-12, $125, Children 5 and under, free. Register and/or add passengers until three weeks prior to the trip date.
Fee covers all necessary permits, experienced guides for the entire trip, three meals on Friday and Saturday (Just Trails adventures include evening meals only), Continental breakfast on Sunday, and an official Jeep Jamboree T-shirt.
Hot Springs Area Attractions
There is a wide array of things to see and do in Hot Springs, including the historic Fordyce Bathhouse and Visitor's Center; Hot Springs Spa; Hot Springs National Park; historic architectural sites; world-class art studios; antique shops, crystal and rock shops; and a wide variety of sports activities.