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Boulders to the Bayou: The 2017 Nitto Tire JK Experience Big River

Now in its ninth year, the 2017 Nitto Tire JK Experience presented by Discount Tire has created yet another amazing journey with the JKX Big River. When Jeep rolled out the four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK in 2007, who would have known what a drastic impact it would have on the off-road world. With the 'wheeling initially doubting the durability and off-road prowess of the larger and more luxurious Wrangler JK, the aftermarket industry was tasked with proving that the modern Wrangler platform was indeed far superior than its predecessor. One of the most lasting and impactful ventures to do so was with the birth of the JK Experience in 2009.

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At its core, the JK Experience has never been just about 'wheeling, but rather showcasing that the JK platform can excel in a variety of terrains. This JKX Big River trip would carry a group of 20 JKs over five states, six off-road venues, and cover nearly 1,500 miles of tarmac during its weeklong journey. Within those miles were plenty of road miles, something that can often be a white-knuckled thrill ride for other modified off-road vehicles running 37- and 40-inch tires.

We were fortunate enough to come along on this year's trip as things started off in historic Hannibal, Missouri. Join in our journey to find out how we ended up with a police escort, fed marshmallows to alligators and shaved a good bit of sheetmetal on the trail.

Checking In for JKX

If you're a student of literature, Hannibal, Missouri, may ring a bell. It's the boyhood home of Samuel L. Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. It would be this small riverside town that Clemens drew inspiration for some his famous works—The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Set alongside the massive Mississippi River, Hannibal would serve as the kickoff to the Big River JKX.

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With JKs driving in from all over the nation, much of the afternoon would be spent checking in the rigs and going over the requirements list to ensure the Jeeps had everything they needed to participate. This included basic items such as a fire extinguisher and first aid kits to a full-size spare tire and working winch.

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Leading the crew for the week would be JK creator, and EVO Manufacturing CEO, Mel Wade. As the only person who knows the exact details for your weeklong trip, Wade holds daily drivers meetings to provide participants with the information they need for the day's events.

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Day 1: Hannibal to Central Missouri Off-Road Park with a "Can Opener" in the Middle

There's one thing you'll learn about JKX quickly when you're on the trip—you never stay in one place (or state) for very long. A quick jaunt through the twisty backroads and corn fields gets the group to Gary Williams' farm in Illinois. There, we were amazed at the expansive acreage, which was home to trails tucked throughout the forest-covered hills that make up the perimeter. Our trail guides for the morning would be from the good folks at the Two Rivers Jeep Club based out of Pittsfield, Illinois.

You'll be extremely familiar with you air gauge and air compressor by the end of the week, as much of the 'wheeling had the group airing down into the single digits. Here, Tactical Off-Road owner C.J. Breaux drops the pressure on his wife's fresh build, affixed with 37x12.50R17 Nitto Ridge Grapplers. Paired with a set of 17-inch Machete beadlocks, Breaux was able to safely keep the hybrid tire's air down all week without fear of losing the bead from the tire.

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Tree-lined trails that wind the hills and river beds kept everyone on their toes. Given the tightness of the trail system, it would be common for even the longer Unlimited JK's to lift a wheel.

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Some of the hillclimbs were definitely more extreme than others. Thankfully, the soil was mostly dry and hard packed, as we're sure a little moisture would have upped the difficulty factor significantly.

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The biggest obstacle would be the "Can Opener." It's a rock outcropping with a gap perfectly sized to swallow a tire or lay your rig on its roof. 

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Matt Collins got his 40-inch-tire caught in the undercut on the obstacle. The biggest issue with this small slip-off was due to the fact that Collins wasn't running a beadlock wheel. With so much pressure on the outer bead, the tire was pushed off the wheel, resulting in the steel wheel being severely bent.

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Tire size seemed to play a role in how easily the Can Opener could be conquered. For many running tires less than 40-inches-tall, a winch was needed to make the climb out.

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After a fun morning of 'wheeling, our day was far from over. Airing back up and hitting the road, we set our sights on Fayette, Missouri.

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This would be home to our second 'wheeling destination—Central Missouri Off-Road Park. This spacious compound is one of Missouri's newest off-road parks and has a great mix of tight and technical trails.

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There's also a fun man-made obstacle course. These hills were deceptively steep and great to see if your low range gearing was enough to slow your descent.

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While the 'wheeling was excellent, we had an extra special treat lined up at the property that evening. Park owner, John Overstreet, isn't just an off-road enthusiast, but one of the owners of CMMG. CMMG is known for its quality AR rifles and components and we got a chance to test out some of their well-tuned firearms at the on-site range. To say the least, everyone had a great time burning through ammo! This concluded one extremely action packed day.

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Day 2: Flat Nasty Off-Road Park & On To Springfield

Peeling out of our cozy hotel digs, we hit the road for our next destination in Jadwin, Missouri. This 850 acre stop would be at another one of central Missouri's 4x4 playgrounds—Flat Nasty Off-Road Park. Open to off-road toys of the two- and four-wheel variety, Flat Nasty has trails ranging from easy to extreme.

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Here's a sight rarely seen off of the Ultra4 Racing circuit—Erik Miller charging the trail up front with Loren Healy hot on his tail. The two King of the Hammers champs take it a bit more conservative when piloting their JK's, but that's not to say they weren't up for an optional hard line and a little competitiveness.

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The rockcrawling at Flat Nasty is no joke. Wade got his famed Spicy Chicken Jeep pretty twisted in this section, but his EVO Mfg. long arm did a fine job of keeping all four wheels planted and the Jeep plenty stable.

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A few inches can make all the difference on an obstacle. Couple the large rocks with the steep 'climbs and it didn't take much to find yourself pulling cable or repositioning to make through the trail.

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Traction is always a hot commodity off-road. Using 40x13.50R17 Nitto Trail Grapplers, the crew from Revolution Gear & Axle were able to carefully crawl through some of the larger rock sections. Since we had to put down some serious road miles to get to our next stop, we wrapped up our day with daylight left and headed towards Springfield, Missouri.

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Day 3: Springfield to Branson via Southern Missouri Off-Road Ranch

By day 3 of JK Experience, the typical new-kid nerves are gone and guys are getting more comfortable 'wheeling alongside people who were complete strangers just a few days prior. This would be good as our next park would need everyone to be on point behind the wheel. It's called the Southern Missouri Off-Road Ranch and if you want to check out an incredible mix of exciting and hardcore trails—this is where you need to come.

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With over 940 acres of land, we could have spent a week here and not hit every trail. We started off on a few intermediate trails then quickly stepped up to some more challenging terrain.

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If you've ever wanted to tackle a waterfall, this is a great place to have your chance. You'll need a good set of tires, decent wheelbase and a disregard for your hardtop. We found plenty of great climbs almost tailor-made for the JK platform.

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Speaking of tops, there were a few areas that the group found the off-camber trails just steep enough to pitch their lids into the surrounding trees. No one in our group did any significant roof damage, but there were plenty of new door-pinstripes and top-marks after the day was over.

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Sometimes going down can be trickier than going up. This sizable drop-off had everyone balancing their braking and throttle control as they descended. It was also a great spot to test the durability of your tire carrier and rear bumper.

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From one extreme to the next! Rounding out our day of rockcrawling was this epic lake view scene from our Chateau on the Lake resort in the bustling tourist town of Branson, Missouri.

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Day 4: Branson to Hot Springs ORV Park with Co-Driver Challenge

As is the case with much of JKX, heavy road miles are the norm. This time, we needed to make the journey from Branson, Missouri to Hot Springs, Arkansas. Our destination would be one of the oldest parks in this part of the country—Hot Springs ORV Park. This would serve as our official camping stop for JKX, which seemed like the perfect time for the annual co-driver challenge.

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JK Experience limits you to one co-driver, so it's always wise to pick someone who isn't afraid to get their hands dirty. Beyond regular trail spotting, one of the most critical roles a co-driver can play is winch assistant. To test out his or her skills, the co-drivers all battled to see who could get their vehicle winched up the hill (technically a sloped parking lot) the fastest. The prize for the winning team? One of the cozy cabins at the park.

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Darren Beeson and his co-driver Jake Dillard took top honors in the winching contest and then proceeded to give up their cabin to two of the married couples on the trip. However...

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The couples ultimately declined. In fact, the cabin would stay empty as everyone in the group was looking forward to an enjoyable evening in more primitive digs. You'd likely only find this scenario during an off-roader's trip!

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Once everyone had set-up their camp for the night, we loaded up and hit a few trails to wind down our day. With so many trails, rigs were split up into smaller groups so we could get in as much trail action as possible before nightfall.

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Day 5: Hot Springs ORV to Skyjacker Land

Come daybreak, it was 'wheeling time yet again. Dividing up our groups, we were able to hit a mix of the black diamond trails the park has to offer. Playing host to some of the most extreme off-road racing this part of the country has to offer, Hot Springs has a trail to fit your rig.

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Rockcrawling is the primary attraction at this park and it has plenty of it to go around. Some of the more technical climbs were especially challenging—with water sitting at the base.

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A balance of throttle control, momentum and line choice were all necessary to make it through the trail system without pulling cable.

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In order to make a critical dinner date, we peeled out of Hot Springs a little after noon. Our destination would be another waterfront locale (noticing a theme here?). This time the tremendous estate would belong to the founder of Skyjacker Suspension, Lonnie McCurry Sr.

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As one of the oldest and most well-known family owned suspension company's in the U.S., Skyjacker Suspension has been turning out lifts long before the Wrangler ever came to market. Lonnie Sr.'s son, Lonnie McCurry Jr. has been hands-on with his father making the company the mainstay that it is today.

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The West Monroe family was gracious enough to open up their home for a JKX for dinner. After eating on the road for so many days, eating a catered meal in a beautiful home was a great change.

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Did we mention the home was waterfront? That's a view we certainly wouldn't mind seeing every day.

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Day 6: Following Mississippi On To Louisiana

Sometimes it's okay to play tourist and that's just what we did first thing in the morning. We were in the area of the headquarters of that famous bearded Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame. We stopped in, took the tour and, of course, bought some gear.

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Putting more miles under our wheels, we kept our southern trajectory. Stopping only for fuel and a lunch stop next to the Mississippi, the river we've been keeping tabs on along the way.

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Our 'wheeling destination for the day would be in St. Francisville, Louisiana. It's called 4x4 Life Off Road and it's a private off-road area filled with a mix of high bluffs and Tunica Hills.

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As soon as we dropped into the first trail, we were met by thick foliage and some extremely steep climbs. We visited the park on a drier day, but still found momentum and wheel speed was key to staying moving.

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Yes, there was definitely mud—gracious application of the skinny pedal made all the difference. Columbia transplant Johan Cardenas didn't take any chances and made sure to let his 37x12.50R17 Nitto Trail Grapplers do what they were designed to!

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For those running V8 engine swaps, such as PSC Motorsports' LS Wrangler Unlimited, blasting up the taller hills was less of a challenge. A cool feature of the park is that they offer guided tours, so your first time 'wheeling the property won't have any unwanted surprises (or drop offs).

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After our 'wheeling adventures had wrapped, and the sun was setting, we head down to the bayou. There, we were treated to some local Jambalaya.

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Food wouldn't be the only thing cooking that night, as Chris Durham fired up his welder to fix an aftermarket tie rod that had broken on the trail. A few makeshift braces were hit with some heat from a Premier Power Welder and the trail fix was quickly executed.

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Day 7: Into the Big Easy and Beyond

The final day of the trip always seems to sneak up on you. With so much happening each day, it's easy to lose track of time and miles. Heading towards our final stop in New Orleans, we took our lunch break at the historic Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana.

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After the house was abandoned, then nearly destroyed by cattle, it was then given a new lease on life and occupied privately for many years. Now, the entire grounds is used as a time capsule of sorts to highlight the good, odd and ugly of American history.

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It wasn't long before being back on the road that we would have a not-so-chance encounter with a few motorcycle officers.

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The reason? Since Wade knew getting 20 Jeeps anywhere near the famed Bourbon Street together would be a traffic nightmare, a police escort had been setup. Just like the big time politicians, we had the boys in blue cutting traffic aside so we could get to our final destination as a group. Not a bad way to beat traffic, if we do say so ourselves!

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While we'd park the JK's for the remainder of the trip, our off-roading experience was far from over. Just a short shuttle ride outside of the city center we found ourselves hitting the water once again with the Bayou Air Speed Boat Tour.

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We were treated to a little known fact (at least by our group), that Alligators love marshmallows. Okay, that's not entirely true. More so, they seem to be attracted to white and will gladly swim over to grab a puffy white snack when tossed one.

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We even got face-to-face with some much smaller 'gators. Note: no Ultra4 drivers or tiny alligators were harmed during the making of this photo.

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A waterfront view is how we would start the week and how we would end it. Each year, these trips come and go lighting fast and if it wasn't for the photos and videos, it would all be a blur. Of course, back at the dock we settled down for a victory dinner followed by a night out in New Orleans. But, we're keeping these photos off-line!

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See the video highlights from the 2017 JKX Big River.

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