I was on a rocky incline so steep I couldn’t even see over the hood, but in my ear I heard Greg McKinney repeat, “Don’t be afraid to be awesome.” One rev at a time, I moved slowly but smoothly forward and mustered the confidence to drive a Ford Bronco down a granite-studded trail at Gunstock Mountain Resort in New Hampshire’s Lake District.
McKinney is the site director for Off-Roadeo, a one-day off-road driving school that Ford offers when you buy a new Bronco. The Ford Bronco, which was originally launched in 1965 and then retired in 1996, was relaunched last year to much fanfare. Motortrend called it “effortlessly perfect,” and Forbes named it the SUV of the Year for 2022. It’s no wonder there have been waitlists of more than a year.
I have owned a Ford Bronco for almost a year now and after being a former Jeep Wrangler owner, I have become a die-hard fan. I’m a member of countless Bronco groups on Facebook, including a no-guy Bronco Ladies Club with 10,000 equally obsessed members. Aside from the fact that I get high-fives everywhere I go for having the coolest SUV on the market, another major benefit of ordering a new Bronco is being able to attend this free, yes, free off-road driving school. .
According to Brian Guldi, marketing manager for Bronco Experiences, Ford is on a mission to turn the Bronco into a lifestyle brand, which is where Off-Roadeo comes in. It takes place in four locations across the country, including Moab, the Texas Hill Country, Nevada’s Mt. Potosi (not far from the Las Vegas Strip), and New Hampshire’s Gunstock Mountain. Guests can spend a 10-hour day learning how to unlock the full potential of the vehicle on rugged and spectacular terrain.
I chose New Hampshire thinking that since I live on the East Coast, I would be better off practicing in wooded landscapes. Gunstock Mountain, 80, home to Off-Roadeo, was the first resort in the eastern US with a chair lift, but when there’s no snow on the ground, it transforms into a huge outdoor adventure park with hiking trails and zip line chair lifts that take you to the top for stunning views of nearby Lake Winnipesaukee. Having Off-Roadeo here completes the experience. There’s nothing cooler than plummeting down the back of a ski mountain with narrow, winding trails littered with rocks.
“We wanted each location to be epic, scenic, create great memories, and we needed them to be challenging, but we also needed a challenge that was manageable for all skill levels,” says Guldi. “And it’s not just about the off-roader. We want people to get out there and learn as much as they can about their Bronco and have fun. Then you can do all these things while you’re there: rock climbing, fishing, rafting, mountain biking, you name it.”
Ford also wanted to make sure everyone feels welcome at Off-Roadeo, whether you’re a car fanatic or a mom who’s decided to improve her driving. “We wanted Off-Roadeo to be an experience where everyone feels like they have a place,” says Stephanie Simon, who helped come up with the Off-Roadeo concept when she was an intern at Ford and still works with the company in a marketing role. .
Inside the base camp, there are tons of merchandise for sale and walls covered in memorabilia (including a copy of Lee Iacocca’s memo that greenlit the first Bronco in 1965). Each guest receives a free tote bag filled with goodies, including a stylish Yeti water bottle. The Off-Roadeo also keeps you well fed, with snacks, lunch and dinner, plus marshmallows to roast around the campfire at the end of the day.
But the best part of the off-roading experience is obviously learning how to get the most out of your Bronco.
The day begins with a pow-wow with the trail guide and a meet and greet with other owners. The day my husband and I went, there were seven other people in our group, and they all loved hearing what kind of Bronco each person had, or had on order. It was a mix of men and women, but the company is also launching women-only off-roading sessions, like one taking place in Nevada in October. (There is also talk of opening the show to prospective buyers at some point, but for now, you must own or own a 2021 or newer Bronco to attend.)
First was a stop at the demo area to get an introduction to the various features, including locking diffs, Trail Turn Assist, and Trail Control (which is like cruise control for off-roading). The Bronco is the Swiss Army Knife of SUVs, and Ford wants you to learn how to use it in all different contexts.
Next, it was time to pick out a Bronco to wear for the day. Ford made a variety of killer models available, all equipped with accessories you can order directly from the company and all capable of handling the mountain. I chose a raised two-door Badlands because it was more similar to my own Bronco. Then it was time to hit the back roads.
The first thing to know about the off-roader: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is stable,” advised McKinney, who is not only the New Hampshire site director, but also serves as a trail guide. McKinney has a great pedigree: he used to train special ops soldiers to drive high-speed loose gravel.
“When we train soldiers, these are big, tough, double-secret, super-athletic guys,” says McKinney. “Most people think that performance driving is intuitive, but it is actually a rational exercise. You have to think about things. Where is the weight? What happens if I spin the wheel?
According to McKinney, it’s the same technique with off-roading. On the trails, he advised moving one tread block at a time, making small movements with the steering wheel.
This helped with our first major trail: Fire Cut, a deeply rutted patch of forest that includes a spot where the rear of the Bronco rises above the ground. I had to put my faith in McKinney, who was watching me here because my inclination was to just walk out and walk away. He was definitely out of my comfort zone. But I felt a sense of confidence as he led me down the trail, showed me how to push a button to engage the front and rear locking diffs, and assured me, “His vehicle is his lifeline. You can’t break this car.”
On another rocky slope, I winced as I crawled over the rocks and heard the sound of scraping at the bottom. Fortunately, the Bronco is equipped with a favorite off-road accessory: skid plates.
We splash in rivers, kick up a lot of mud and dodge narrow obstacles. I never knew how cool using a sway bar would be or that lockers could be so much fun. Brittany was one of the other guests, and although her husband Mike drove all the time, she said just being a passenger spotter was enough exercise to close a ring on her Apple watch.
The final trail of the day was Cobble Crown, a nail biter with sheer granite slabs and an incline so steep I didn’t think I’d be able to hike it up, let alone drive it. But at this point, he had gained enough confidence in the physics of the Bronco that I was actually able to pull it off. As McKinney said, slow is smooth, smooth is steady. And of course it helped that I knew what to do with all those buttons on the dashboard.
Back at base camp, we prepare for a well-earned dinner, followed by s’mores over the campfire. The other guests and I sat and exchanged photos, videos, and text messages and marveled at how far we’d come in a single day, and how grateful we were to have a new set of skills that would transform using our Broncos into House. It was the last test drive.
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