A four-wheel-drive vehicle tackles a rock pile as others line up for their turn on new courses at Reiter Foothills Forest, a state Department of Natural Resources site near Gold Bar, Wash., on May 3, 2012. Since the 1960s, the Reiter Foothills area has been a major playground for adrenaline junkies with their tricked-out rigs. Every weekend, the roar of motorcycles and off-road vehicles has echoed through this subalpine terrain 30 miles east of Everett, Wash. - AP

Off-road tracks in Washington offer outdoor adrenaline rush

GOLD BAR, Wash. — Our Jeep got wedged between boulders. Tilted to one side, the vehicle appeared on the verge of tipping over. I was in the passenger seat, my nose so close to the ground I could whiff the dust rising from our screeching tires.

Let me back up and explain.

The state laid tracks for motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel drive enthusiasts here in Reiter Foothills Forest, a newly developed Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recreation area between Gold Bar and Index. I wanted a hands-on look.

Fifteen minutes ago, it seemed like a brilliant idea.

Now? I'm not sure.

I'm staring at hemlocks and cedars at a 45-degree angle.

I turned to our driver: "Have you ever rolled over?"

"Yeah, I have," he said.

I found his calm, matter-of-fact demeanor soothing and ... what? Did he say what I thought he said? And isn't my seatbelt kinda loose? Why aren't there any doors on this Jeep?

The driver, Scott Davidson, assured me he's an experienced hand at this game.

"Brace with authority," he said, pointing for me to grip the handlebar above the glove compartment.

He inched back and forth until he could reverse a few feet, then kicked it to another gear. We bounced around in his tricked-out Wrangler, the giant wheels straining until the vehicle got enough muscle to crawl over the rock pile.

"Well," Davidson said, "let's see what we can do to give you another adrenaline rush." He rode us over a boulder, the Jeep tilted so that my face almost planted the gravel surface. I saw a couple of big bolts on the ground and hoped they hadn't come from us.

Then we climbed a 4-foot stump, the back right tire off the ground, leaving me dangling in the air.

Since the 1960s, the Reiter Foothills area has been a major playground for adrenaline junkies with their tricked-out rigs.

Every weekend, the roar of motorcycles and off-road vehicles has echoed through this subalpine terrain 30 miles east of Everett. Many parents introduced their offspring to off-road recreation here.

Environmentalists have never been pleased, but the alternative could have been worse.

With motorcycle and off-road vehicle devotees concentrated in Reiter, it lessened the chance they would trample other forests and intrude on other wildlife.

In the past 10 years, the off-road motor-sports community has lobbied Olympia and local governments to lay courses, much as state and local officials have done for mountain bikers and skateboarders.

The off-roaders finally got their wish. About three years ago the state announced plans to develop this 10,000-acre tract, bordering Wallace Falls and Forks of the Sky state parks, for both motorized and non-motorized recreation.

It was great news for Seattle area off-road enthusiasts who heretofore have had to drive to Walker Valley in Skagit County to play in their all-terrain vehicles.

Toward the northwest corner of the tract, over the next 10 years the Department of Natural Resources will carve multipurpose trails for hikers, mountain bikers and horse riders that will include a pedestrian bridge over the Wallace River to connect to the popular Wallace Falls State Park.

The southeast side will be for off-road motor sports.

Over the next 10 to 15 years, the state will create 20 miles of tracks for motorcycles and off-terrain vehicles and 10 miles for four-wheel drives.

Thus far, 2,700 tons of rock has been trucked in to lay nearly three miles of tracks.

Completed so far are a challenge course for 4x4s and two miles of trails for motorcycles.

By the end of spring, a track for all-terrain vehicles should be finished.

Reiter was open only two Saturdays per month but now is open every weekend, Friday through Sunday.

On a recent outing, an hour before the tracks opened, Jens Peitersen, of Sultan, waited by the park gate. Up all night and fueled on coffee, he announced, "Man, I'm ready. Let's go!"

Located on an upper plateau, the winding motorbike tracks require tight turns, "a lot of first-and-second-gear riding," said David Way, the Reiter Foothills recreation manager. "We have to make them work for those two miles because that's all we got now."

Easier tracks for less-experienced riders are being planned.

Nearby, at the 4x4 obstacle course, boulders and stumps were dinging doors and bending axles and shafts of four-wheel drives.

Drivers were excited even as their rigs took a beating.

A Reiter regular and volunteer, Davidson helped build this challenge course. Reiter is more important than ever, he said, because "over the years, we are getting pushed out of areas. The little areas we have are few and far between and very limited in acreage and space."

The rock pile on the course is the big challenge. Several four-wheel drives have gotten stuck crawling it, especially on rainy days when even giant tires have a hard time gripping the slippery boulders.

"Two weeks ago you could drive over this thing easily," Davidson said. "Man, is it slick today."

But the challenge is the fun, he said. And that's when I hopped in his Wrangler and found out for myself.

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