Uwharrie National Forest is a favorite destination for North Carolina off-roaders. I’ve been there plenty of times, but I tend to run a single trail called Daniel, simply because that’s the one my friends introduced me to a long time ago. This is problematic, because Daniel is also the toughest trail in Uwharrie, a place where bad things can happen and damage is a regular hazard. There have been times when I’ve wandered onto different trails with more mellow terrain, but I have no idea what they were or how to get back to them. There are trail markers here and there on the trees, but even if you know the name of the trail and have a paper map to consult, you still won’t know where you are. So I stick to Daniel, in all its underbody-mangling glory. Sorry about that, Kia Telluride.
On the street, I use navigation apps even when I know where I’m going. So why isn’t there a Waze for the woods? Well, there might be, in the form of onX, an off-road navigation app that covers 410,000 miles of trails, including everything in Uwharrie’s 50,000 acres. So I download it—a subscription costs $29.99 per year—and start plotting a trip to some new terrain. And, since my every trip to Uwharrie seems to involve unscheduled vehicular restyling (sorry about that exhaust pipe back in ’13, Jeep), I also procure a more trail-friendly ride: a 2020 Can-Am Renegade X xc 1000R. Which is basically 91 horsepower with handlebars. (I’m a strong believer in overkill.) Because this particular Renegade is fitted with the optional Yoshimura exhaust, which makes it sound like a Harley running on nitro and Red Bull, I also pack some Vibes ear plugs, which knock down the decibel level while still allowing you to hear clearly. So you’re not bursting your cilia, but you can still hear someone say, “Follow me,” or “Let’s stop for lunch,” or “Duck!”
My kids, ages 8 and 10, have their own quads, but I’ve never taken them to Uwharrie because of the aforementioned gnarliness. Armed with onX, I figure we can try some easier trails without getting lost. So I load the trailer and plan a ride on an easy trail called Wolf Den. Before we leave, I download the map for Uwharrie to my phone, which is a pretty key piece of functionality. Because when you’re deep in the woods, you don’t have cell service, rendering any online navigation useless. This way, you pack your maps before you leave.
We're probably three minutes into the ride when I see a guy in a Cherokee pulled over by the side of the trail, studying a paper map while wearing the terse facial expression of a guy who’s definitely lost but is 80 percent sure he’ll probably figure it out. Before too long, we run out of trail and double back, veering off onto Dutch John—which is more difficult, but still nothing as bad as Daniel.
Dutch John is also stunningly beautiful, forest canopy shading much of the trail as it cuts down into valleys and across mountain streams. Since I have the kids in tow, I can’t often partake of the Renegade’s accelerative talents, which border on preposterous. When you watch video of a full-throttle launch with this thing, it looks like someone hit fast-forward on the playback, 2x then 4x then 8x and you’re over the horizon. Dutch John is too tight for that, but the Renegade’s mountain of torque makes it easy to pop the front end off the trail’s undulating rollers. The Fox Podium coil-overs deliver more than nine inches of travel, front and rear, so the big Can-Am doesn’t mind getting a little air. You can't throw it around like a 450-class motocross bike, but it's wieldy for a big guy, an offensive lineman with a 4.8 40-yard dash.
After perhaps a half hour of riding, we arrive at a fairytale plot of forest, with a sinuous hilly trail curling down toward a meandering stream. This is one of those places where, on a prior trip to Uwharrie, I’d probably take a photo but then have no idea where I was or how to get back to it. But with onX, you can take a photo and mark it on the map, giving yourself a photographic breadcrumb trail to the great spots. Now I know exactly where I probably should have turned around.
Not long after our photo op, the trail begins to climb, as does my level of concern for the kids. I want them to have fun out here and enjoy riding, which means avoiding the more terrifying challenges that Uwharrie can throw at you. So when Dutch John begins a steep climb through a walled sluice, I stop them down below and have them turn around at a wide spot. Rather than back down myself, I decide to ride to the top to find room to turn around, so I toggle the Renegade into all-wheel-drive mode, lean forward on the bars and gently build momentum, the Yoshimura drumbeat echoing off the sluice walls. When I round the corner nearing the summit, I find a crowd standing on the top of the banking, with many of the onlookers pointing phones and filming my ascent. When strangers decide to film you, that’s a good indication that you’re doing something unwise, but the Renegade reaches the summit without drama.
Back at the car, I consult our plot and see that we rode for about an hour and a half and, given our stops, averaged 3.9 mph. More importantly, I can also see where the hell we went, which is always a major challenge with off-roading. I’ve been to some great trails, from Maine to Colorado, but hell if I could tell you how to get there. Now, the next time I hit Uwharrie, I know how far to go on Dutch John before it gets treacherous. Or, zooming out, I now know there’s a huge trail system just north of Charleston, South Carolina (Francis Marion National Forest) and others in the mountains of North Carolina. I’d be emboldened to try those, now that I’d have some idea where to go. And, more important, how to get back.
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