By Seth Fargher
Officially the tagline of Windrock Park is “Guts, Gears and Trails” but if you asked us to weigh in on a catchy slogan, it would have been something along the lines of “As Big As You Want To Go.” Seriously. If you’re into mud holes and getting stuck, they’ve got that. If you enjoy testing your luck on massive hill climbs that risk the health of both man and machine, Windrock delivers. And if you’re the type that likes to challenge yourself and your equipment on exceptionally rough terrain, Windrock Park will throw as much at you as you can handle.
With 72,000 acres of land and some 300 miles of trails open to motorcycles, ATVs UTVs and 4x4s, Windrock Park is a veritable off-roaders paradise. We visited the park back in 2015 for its Spring Jamboree but we really didn’t see much outside of the event area. This time we were bound and determined to explore all of what this amazing facility has to offer.
To begin with, the park is owned and operated by Coal Creek Mining company, a property and leasing organization founded in 1876 with an emphasis on coal mining as well as oil and gas. Though the property isn’t being mined currently, you can find abandoned mines throughout the park that make for interesting waypoints.
As you can imagine, over 100 years of mining created a rather extensive network of roads and trails on the property. By the early 2000’s hundreds of people were trespassing and riding their ATVs and UTVs on the property creating a tremendous liability. In an effort to protect itself, the company began issuing land use permits and thus, Windrock Park was born.
As the park grew in popularity, it slowly began adding amenities, first with a campground in 2008 and later with a portion of downhill mountain biking trails. Today, a separate entity leases the mountain bike trails and has developed it into a world class mountain biking facility. There’s also a gun range that is run independently of the park but visitors can take advantage of it because it’s literally onsite.
When it comes to the riding, there’s really something for everyone. Many of the “Easy” trails are actually gravel roads so even inexperienced riders should have no issue. At first glance, the map can be a tad overwhelming due to the sheer volume of trails but once you actually get out and ride for a little while, it all starts to make sense.
We did discover that the legend is probably more “fluid” than we’re used to, meaning some of the trails marked as “Moderate” difficulty were actually impassable in places and a few of the “More”difficult trails were actually not all that bad. That probably has more to do with heavy rains and the volume of vehicles on the trails but we share that to say use caution, but don’t feel like you have to shy away from the more difficult stuff.
Our host for the weekend was Anthony Umphery of Tony’s Toys, a Windrock regular who’s been frequenting the park for years and knows it like the back of his hand. He’s also got deep ties with our friends at ITP and regularly uses Windrock as a proving ground for the tire manufacturer as well as his own products. If that’s not an indication of a unique environment with diverse and challenging terrain, then we don’t know what is. We didn’t have an abundance of time on our trip so the goal was to make the most of it and he ensured that we did.
Our first stop was the Brushy Mountain State penitentiary, a maximum security prison established in 1896 that housed inmates as recently as 2009. Though you can’t go inside the prison, simply standing outside the fence lined with razor wire gets you close enough to sense the eeriness of the grounds. One of the more high profile inmates who did time here was none other than James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. who actually managed to escape the prison in June of 1977 but was recaptured just three days later. Today, efforts are underway to develop the prison into “Americas most unique tourist destination” featuring tours, concerts, a brewery and distillery as well as a museum, all paying homage to the prisons colorful and storied history.
The other hotspot you may have heard about from folks who’ve visited Windrock Park is “the train.” Tucked away on an obscure portion of track you’ll find an engine and two train cars sitting exposed to the elements of the Tennessee mountains. Like the prison, exploring the train cars is somewhat eerie and makes you feel almost as if you’re on the set of a horror film.
Between these unique destinations and throughout the park, lie hundreds of miles of trails that are sure to feed the appetite of any off-road enthusiast regardless of skill level. The network of gravel roads, while not overly exciting to ride, provide access to the far reaching areas of the park. Because the campground, General Store and trailhead are situated at the southern end of the park, the trails in the surrounding area tend to see the most traffic and can get a little congested on a busy day. The gravel roads provide an escape route of sorts and allow for more easy exploration of the northernmost trails.
As you might imagine with the word “rock” in the name, there’s no shortage of them on the trails. Most trails (other than the access roads) are hard packed clay and that makes for a lot of square edges as rocks shift and become dislodged from the soil. Don’t let that deter you; just make sure your machine is equipped with durable tires and adequate undercarriage protection. If you’re used to high speed fire roads or desert riding like you might find out west, chances are you’ll be moving a lot slower at Windrock partly because of the rocks and partly because many of the trails are carved out of a mountainside.
Because of the sheer size of the park we advise giving yourself at least a few days to take it all in, maybe more. Whether you’re self contained or you prefer more luxurious accommodations, the Windrock Campground offers everything from primitive tent sites to full hookups and a host of cabins of varying sizes. The campground facilities are top notch and will leave you wanting for nothing whether you brought your own toy hauler or you simply trailered your machines and reserved one of their many cabins.
When we say Windrock park has something for everyone, we mean everyone. On the weekend of our visit there just happened to be a round of the Southern Rock Racing Series taking place so we were treated to some amazing spectating of not only UTV hill killing but the incredible big horsepower rock bouncers. You can read and watch more from this event right here.
If you’re the type who enjoys events and lots of people, Windrock puts on it’s own Jamboree twice a year in the spring and the fall. Events include guided trail rides, cookouts, racing, a mud bog and new for this year, a concert featuring national recording artist Jon Pardi.
All the details
In an effort to keep a family friendly environment, as well as preserve the beauty of the park, Windrock does not allow alcohol on the trails. Prior to entering the trail system, all participants are required to display a trail permit as well as allow a park official to inspect their cooler for alcohol. That might seem overkill to some but due to the technical nature of the trails and the fact that the whole system is built on a mountain, alcohol only serves to make things more dangerous. Not to mention a lot of folks tend to be pretty careless with their trash when drinking and Windrock has a lot of beauty to preserve. While we did spot a few random beer cans and water bottles along the trail, it’s obvious this restriction goes a long ways in keeping trash off of the trails.
If you plan to visit, permits are available for purchase in 1, 2, 3 and 4 day increments or you can purchase an annual pass for around $91. Kids 12 and under are about half that but everyone entering the park, wether driver or passenger is required to have a permit. You can purchase permits at the Campground office as well as the General store where you can also find souvenirs, parts, last minute supplies or even rent a UTV from their fleet.
As the largest privately owned off-road park in the country, Windrock is one spot we definitely recommend putting on your bucket list. The sheer size of the trail system, along with the areas history, unique landmarks and abundance of amenities will keep everyone in the family entertained and if we’re honest, coming back for more. In the two days we visited, we covered a little over 100 miles of the park; just enough to pique our interest and leave us wanting more.