Roy Hoglund loves to crawl his dune-buggylike sand rail over the toughest, roughest, lumpiest terrain he can find. Hoglund is a "technical climbing" enthusiast, an off-road riding style that involves low-gear creeping over obstacles that look impossible to negotiate.
Debra Campbell makes a family event out of the dust-raising sport. Last weekend, about 20 of her relatives gathered at Frank Raines Regional Park in western Stanislaus County for a weekend of camping and competition.
"It's about us competing against one another," she said. "We cook breakfast together, sit around the campfire at night. It's all about family, just being together."
Both are users of Stanislaus County's two off-road vehicle parks, at Frank Raines in Del Puerto Canyon and at La Grange Regional Park just south of La Grange in eastern Stanislaus County.
The La Grange Off-Highway Vehicle Park has milder terrain and is a good place for newbies to practice. It includes a motorcycle motocross track, where race promoters stage races, and areas for younger riders to learn the ropes of dirt biking.
"We play a lot in La Grange," said Hoglund, a member of the Modesto Ridge Runners off-road club. "It's our tuneup park."
La Grange is a day-use park, with no camping facilities.
Frank Raines Regional Park is where Hoglund goes for more challenging experiences, and where Campbell and her family go for those camping experiences. It includes areas for young and inexperienced drivers, and a lot of rugged, steep terrain for skilled riders. It also has 34 full-hookup camping sites, restrooms, a recreation hall and picnic areas.
The parks charge a $5 fee for off-road vehicles. Frank Raines charges a fee for those who camp.
Both parks have other features and areas besides the off-road facilities -- for example, there are hiking and nature trails at Frank Raines -- but are meccas for off-roaders.
A wide variety of off-road vehicles uses Frank Raines, from motorcycles to four-wheel-drive trucks and sport utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles, sand rails and dune buggies.
Park events draw thousands
The parks draw tens of thousands of off-road enthusiasts from all over Northern California during their seasons from fall through spring, said county Parks & Recreation director Sonya Harrigfeld.
The numbers are boosted by events and races held at the two parks, from the California Off-Road Vehicle Association's Northern Jamboree to moto-cross races sponsored by Mutant Motorsports and the California Motocross Association. Some of the groups are statewide; others are clubs from the East Bay as well as local groups.
The family oriented events sponsored by groups such as the Modesto Ridge Runners and the East Bay Hightailers include timed events through marked courses. Pumpkin drop and egg carrying events were held the last weekend in October, Campbell said, and children trick or treated in costume through the campground.
That a county operates two off-road vehicle parks is unusual, Harrigfeld said. Most off-road parks, such as Carnegie, west of Stanislaus County in San Joaquin and Alameda counties, are state-operated parks. The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service also have areas throughout the state where off-road vehicles can ride.
The uses evolved over time, Harrigfeld said. Frank Raines Park used to be the county's honor farm years ago. La Grange was an old gold dredging site.
The county has made significant improvements to the parks in the past few years, with the help of the off-road clubs, who "adopt" the parks and perform cleanups and some repairs. The county has applied for funding from a state program to improve the parks and received $430,000 last year.
The state program is funded by fees paid by off-road vehicle owners.
Stanislaus County has used the funds for staffing at the parks, including two full-time maintenance workers at Frank Raines, and sheriff's deputies, fencing to protect neighbors from intrusions, maintenance and improvements.
Problems cleaned up
Tim Warbington of American Canyon, rally master for the Escarabajo Buggy Club, said Frank Raines had serious problems a few years ago but seems to have turned around.
The 2003 fire in Del Puerto Canyon burned natural barriers between the park and neighbors and some of the fencing. That led to some off-roaders trespassing, Warbington said. Some were motorcyclists who rode down steep hills and discovered they couldn't get back up, he said. So they went over the remaining fence and across private property, irritating neighbors.
"It was wide open for a couple of years. Landowners wanted to close it down for motorcycles altogether," Warbington said.
Harrigfeld said the parks department met with neighboring property owners to try to work out the problems. New fencing was installed, and the sheriff's office worked with neighbors as well, she said.
"We were able to alleviate a lot of problems. Not all of them," she said. "We don't want trespassers, we want to be good neighbors."
The park has improved markedly since then, Warbington said. "They've done trail road work the last couple of years. They were dangerous, and now they are beautiful. They have two full-time park people there, and they are taking care of the park real well."
Grants fund park security
This year, the Parks and Recreation Department is working with the sheriff's office on off-road vehicle park grants of about $517,000.
For the Sheriff's Department, the grants fund public education, search and rescue missions, and law enforcement in the parks. The grants would buy ATVs and dual-sport motorcycles and equipment for the Sheriff's Department to patrol the parks and pay some of the salaries and operations costs for deputies on park duty.
The Park Department grants would pay for park maintenance and improvements, including improving the parking lot, picnic tables, adding portable toilets, upgrading electrical hookups in the campgrounds, regular testing of the water at the park and providing safety training for maintenance workers.
The county should hear whether the grant applications are successful by December, Harrigfeld said. The Frank Raines Park master plan includes work on fire prevention and erosion control, trail work, identifying environmentally sensitive areas and finding ways to mitigate the effect of off-road vehicles.
Harrigfeld said the best time to visit Frank Raines park is in the spring. "That's the most beautiful time to be in the Coastal Range," she said. "You won't believe the wildlife you see."
Hoglund agreed. "I like sight-seeing. I see prong-horn deer. I love the scenery."
The wildlife, including deer and varieties of birds, don't seem bothered by the off-roaders, Harrigfeld added.
"When the traffic is heavy, they move out, and during the week they move back in," she said.
Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2349.