Forget the interstate traffic jams that whiten your knuckles and raise your blood pressure. Instead, get ready for an exhilarating, adrenaline-packed day at the Badlands, just 2.5 hours south of Chicago. In this family-friendly off-road adventure, you won’t help but smile as you speed over sand dunes, splash through mud puddles, and experience the thrill of a roller coaster ride without ever stepping foot into an adventure park. So get buckled up…it’s time to make driving fun again.
Disclosure: I drove Jeeps and RAM trucks at The Badlands as a guest of FCA. Opinions and the unexpected joy I discovered while off roading are all my own.
Why Every Driver Should Have an Off Road Adventure
In Chicago, we like to say there are two seasons: winter and road construction. Now that we have moved into road construction season, driving any where is a extended hassle. Lots of road trip time spend crawling along at 5 miles per hour broken up by moments of speedy 55+. It’s that sort of driving that makes me wish I never had to get behind the wheel.
So when I was invited to try off roading for the first time, it seemed like an intriguing concept. It never occurred to me that it would help me rediscover a love of driving.
Look how much fun it is:
Off Roading at The Badlands
The Badlands, an off road adventure park in Attica, Indiana, is a must-visit spot for Jeep enthusiasts who like driving their tough vehicles on paved road but looooooove driving them across sand dunes, through wooded trails, and over gravel, streams, mud, and rocks.
At The Badlands, you can still have an off road adventure even if you don’t own an off-road-ready vehicle. You can rent ridiculously fun Polaris RZRs, ATVs and dirt bikes there. Or you can bring your own bike, four-wheel-drive Jeep or other all terrain vehicle. It’s a family-friendly destination that welcomes kids who get a roller-coaster ride up and down the sand dunes without waiting in line at a theme park.
Buckle Up for Off Roading
Normally, when I think of streams and woods and trails, I think “time to hike” and other similar outdoor activities. So, when Jeep invited me to try off-roading in the new Jeep Gladiator Rubicon (a Jeep with a short bed truck, designed to compete in the mid-size truck market), I said yes. Inwardly, I thought it would be a way to test what a Jeep can do, but not much more than that.
Then I got behind the wheel of the Gladiator and drove into a stream.
As we bumped and bounced along at 9 mph, the muddy water rushing past, the Gladiator rising and falling as it crawled over the rocks unseen below the surface, I couldn’t help but smile. It was suddenly easy to see why The Badlands and hundreds of other off road adventure parks across the country are successful businesses.
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Formerly a quarry, The Badlands is now 1,000 acres (about 1.5 square miles) of fun for off road enthusiasts. And it’s family-friendly. The first ATV I saw was driven by a dad. He sat side by side with his little one, strapped in, helmeted, and sporting a smile from ear to ear.
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The Badlands is two and half hours south of Chicago, along the Illinois-Indiana border. (It’s so close to the border that drivers are cautioned NOT to call 911 if they need an emergency responder. That will connect them to someone in Illinois who is too far away to help. Instead, they are instructed to call the Badlands office. Someone there will summon the local EMTs. In case you’re worried, we never needed to call for help.)
Off Road Adventures for Families
Because I was there with FCA and we were testing Jeeps and RAM trucks, we drove courses designed to show off just how much fun these vehicles could be. But that’s not generally the case. Unlike an ATV tour or off-road adventure tour led by a tour guide, at The Badlands, once you check in, you’re free to explore the entire park on your own.
Kyle Knosp, who bought the park in 2008, is in full expansion mode. That includes building and buying on-site housing. He calls them “cabins” but these units are far from the musty, rustic cabin experience. Badlands “cabins” are outfitted with comfy couches, cozy beds, full kitchens and cable TV. Accommodations range from one to five bedrooms and one to three baths; some have efficiency kitchens while others have full kitchens. There’s even a brick house with a pool table. Rates are an affordable $30-$60 person, per night. Riding is extra, but staying on site entitles visitors to two extra hours of riding each night.
TravelingMom Tip: If you book a stay there, be sure to pack soap and shampoo. I was surprised to find neither was supplied.
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Play or Stay
The Badlands attracts two types of off road enthusiasts, Knosp says: people who pay a day rate to drive around from 9am to 5pm and those who make a weekend or multi-day vacation of it. Typically, those are families who come several times a year.
One mom who said she and her husband bring their two teen daughters a couple times a year to drive their Jeep off road said she likes it because there is little cell or wifi service in the park. That means the daughters are forced to put away their phones and tune into the family experience.
And Knosp is serious about keeping it family friendly. There are signs all over reminding visitors that The Badlands has a “no alcohol” policy while driving in the park. “I have two daughters, ages 16 and 13,” he says. “My rule is: If it’s not OK for them, it’s not OK for our business.”
Driving the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
The Gladiator Rubicon, available for the 2020 model year and on sale now, is a badass Jeep with a short bed. Like any good Jeep, the windshield, top and doors come off so there’s nothing between you and the mud, water and dust. We did not take the windshield or doors off. We were very glad we didn’t when we hit the first big dip in the stream, splashing water across the windshield.
The base model sells for $43,545. The fully loaded model I drove sells for $60,380. It included some super cool options such as a portable blue tooth speaker that stores behind the fold-down back seat. Perfect for those off-roading adventures that end in a picnic streamside. There’s also a front camera that shows you where you’re going. It’s a highly useful feature when the road goes up and comes down in a way that you can’t see over the front end.
The Gladiator was great fun off road and, for the very short time we drove on smooth pavement, it rode like a comfortable sedan. The vehicle comes with some of my favorite safety features – adaptive cruise control that automatically slows and speeds up with traffic, blind spot, and cross-path detection systems.
What I Drove
FCA loaned me another badass vehicle, the RAM 2500 Big Horn Mega Cab 4X4, for the road trip to The Badlands. The fully-loaded model I drove was equipped with the off-road package. I kept it on the interstate, where it drove like a luxury sedan. When a severe rain storm hit as I was driving home, I was glad to be in this huge, sturdy truck. It kept me safe while the luxury sedans were pulling off the road to wait out the worst of the storm.
The 4-door short bed base model RAM 2500 pickup retails for $46,500 and includes front, side and side curtain airbags standard. The upgraded model I drove with the off road package and upgraded tech retails for $68,605.