Explore! Sierra Touring Company in Plumas County
● Published by Jordan Venema
By Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of Ken Smith
“People always ask if I grew up there,” says Ken Smith, who then clarifies, “but no, I was raised there. I never did grow up.”
Smith is referring to Diamond S Ranch, a 1,500 -acre playground for adults located in Beckwourth, Calif. Smith, the founder of Explore! Sierra Touring Company, may have one of the best jobs in the world, which he is eager to talk about while promising, “I’ll try to keep it clean,” he laughs heartily.
Smith no longer lives on the ranch, which is a short drive from Portola, though he spends his days offering all-terrain vehicle and snowmobile tours to adventure-seeking adults.
Smith and his family moved to the ranch from Truckee in 1972 because “Truckee was getting too crowded for us.” He and his father then bought an automotive shop in Portola, and a few years later, his father started a rock plant on the ranch. About 30 years later after his father retired, Smith sold the automotive shop and returned to the ranch to run the rock plant.
“I did that for about a year,” he says, though he missed owning his own business. “Plus, my dog was getting a little short on conversation, so I thought, why don’t I just buy a couple ATVs and do a couple tours and see how it goes?”
That was in late 2007, and nine years later, Smith owns a fleet of 55 ATVs and 33 snowmobiles.
Though Smith fled Truckee – Truckee – because it was getting too crowded, he realized his land should be appreciated by others. While some from his neck of the woods might sneer at “flatlanders” and city folk, Smith wanted “to find a way to share it with others.” That “way” to share the ranch started out with a few ATVs and two- and three-hour guided tours, including instruction.
“We definitely use a guide, ‘cause there’s too many ways for people to get themselves in trouble,” laughs Smith, who says about 99 percent of the people who come up there have never been on an ATV before.
“So we start off nice and easy with a couple curveballs to test ya.”
Tours are tailored to the group, and groups larger than eight usually have a second guide, which allows groups to split up relative to experience.
Smith had originally built about 15 miles of ATV trails, one end of the ranch to the other with nine play areas throughout the course. These “loop trails” off the main trail have names like Booby Trap, Twister, Curvaceous and Busted Wing, named fondly after historical and hilarious occurrences that Smith will happily retell in person.
For a little extra, the ATV tour can come with a barbecue hosted at the ranch’s barn, or trap shooting in the middle of the ranch.
The snowmobile trails essentially rule the roost of the ranch, but thanks to a Forest Service permit, Smith guesses they have about 300 miles of trail at their fingertips.
While tours last two or three hours, depending on the option and size of the group, Smith is the kind of guy that enjoys what he does, and it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for him to extend the tours a little longer.
“Well, they usually do, and when you get into snowmobile season it really does ‘cause I’m a snowmobile junkie,” Smith says with a laugh. If we’re having fun and you don’t need to be back right away, we’ll probably go a little longer.”
Some of the other ways Explore! is encouraging people to experience adventures is through electric bike tours and falconry – yes, falconry.
“These are serious bikes,” says Smith. The Santa Cruz mountain bikes are fitted with electric assist, which means a whole family can bike up the 3,000 feet and keep up with the fastest.
“I’m 55,” says Smith, “and I’m not in perfect shape but I’m in decent shape.” He says he went up with a group of professional riders and kept up the entire time. The best part, nobody was the wiser if he used the assist or not.
Raptor Adventures is perhaps exactly what you’d expect. Students are given a two-hour instruction session by licensed falconer and Jim Tigan, founder of the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center. Using a gauntlet, students can experience falcons flying to their arms from perches. The experience, says Smith, is a rush.
“I think people are starving for real, I really do. People come up, twisted up, cellphones out constantly, and you can tell they’re caught up in it. But put them on a quad and they’re not thinking about the office anymore,” says Smith. “When they get back to the barn they’re all muddy and have a big smile on their face, and they’re laughing. It’s like a whole new person.”
It’s the real deal, Smith emphasizes. And maybe more importantly, and this is something he can speak to: “It’s like being a kid again.”
Diamond S Ranch • 2634 County Road A23, Beckwourth
www.exploresierra.com • (800) 596-8840