OUR MUD-SPATTERED mini-convoy —a trio of aggressive, high-powered sport UTVs—has been tearing through these dense backwoods since first light. Behind the wheel of a machine that boasts more horsepower than the car that brought me to the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, I’m hustling to keep sight of our local trail sherpa as he blazes across narrow ridgelines and around an endless succession of gritty switchbacks. So I’m somewhat relieved when he eases off the accelerator on a rare level stretch. As he suddenly swerves, though, it becomes apparent that he was simply pausing to locate the gap of a narrow side trail. Unlike the mapped, sprawling Hatfield-McCoy Trails system we’ve been navigating, this new path isn’t marked, and zags up a rise at a neck-popping angle—steeper than anything we’ve so far tackled.
“If you’re not already in low gear, I highly recommend it,” a voice crackles from the walkie currently ricocheting around my floorboard.
Even if my harness would allow me to lean over far enough to retrieve the walkie, my reply would be drowned out by engine roar as he guns up the rutty, rocky incline. Okay then, this is it. Enter the Outlaw Trails.
A BRIEF PRIMER: These ain’t ATVs, the off-road four-wheelers ridden like motorcycles. UTVs have steering wheels and place a passenger next to the driver in a rollbar-protected cockpit. (Hence why they’re also called side-by-sides.) And don’t mistake them for their boxier, landscaper-toting cousins. Sport UTVs branched off in 2007 when Polaris introduced the RZR, a brawny, nimble model with racing-inspired looks. Ever since, rival manufacturers have pushed to outdo each other in power, suspension, and design. Along the way, sales have exploded to a demographic akin to boat owners.
If the craze has a flagship, it’s the top-selling Polaris RZR XP 1000, which wraps 110 horsepower in a chassis styled like it’s charging forward even when parked. But in a UTV culture obsessed with performance, there’s always somebody bigger, badder, and faster than you. So for our multi-vehicle assault on the Hatfield-McCoy Trails (HMT), neither Polaris nor Can-Am (basically the Ford vs. Chevy of UTVs) risks delivering the menos macho machine. That’s why we arrive at WV ATV Resort, our base atop Cherokee Mountain in Rock, West Virginia, to find owner Rick Bailey happily minding the keys to a Can-Am Maverick X3 DS Turbo R (172 horsepower) and a Polaris RZR Pro XP Ultimate (181 horsepower). Model variations are endless—this alphabet salad basically spells out that we’ve got a pair of king-of-the hill skullfuckers at our disposal. Since our third guy balks at riding shotgun, we also rent a Maverick Sport and hope its relatively paltry 79 horses can hang.
Itching for action, we race for the trailhead, where we’re immediately swallowed by swaths of oak, maple, and hickory. Maps show this is a green section of trail, the “easiest” rating, but it’s pretty damn technical—every flat stretch soon leads to loose-rock uphill, mudslick downhill, or whippy switchback. Passing junctures marked by black-diamond icons, I ponder the wisdom of attempting those most-hazardous trails. I also notice gaps marked NO ENTRY, and recall overhearing rider-talk about “outlaw trails,” non-approved routes that surround and intersect the official map.
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