“Overlanding” almost universally conjures images of a dusty Land Rover rolling across Sub-Saharan Africa, lions in its wake. And “North American road trip” sparks images of Route 66, or Big Sur. But there scores of adventure-worth dirt treks closer to home, and no worries about big cats.
Here are the five best.
1. Baja California, Mexico
Baja is magic, filled with adventure and perfectly bordered by the restless Pacific on one side and the tranquil Sea of Cortez on the other. One of the best Baja routes is to cross the mellow border at Tecate and explore the wine region north of Ensenada. From the Pacific coast, the track heads inland to Mike’s Sky Rancho, a famous 4WD road and lodge that also serves as part of the Baja 500 course. Continuing eastward to San Felipe, travel south along the Sea of Cortez and to the fish tacos at Alfonsina’s. The paved road turns to dirt and climbs along seaside cliffs and through the bizarre outpost of Coco’s Corner. Further south, the best route is to Bahia de Los Angeles and the remote two-track to San Borja, an ancient Jesuit mission tucked amongst date palms, hot springs and CochimÃ rock art. Finish the adventure with a drive to the French mining town of Santa RosalÃa and then a few days (or months) on the beaches of Concepcion Bay.
Is Baja safe? It’s no more dangerous than any other travel destination and the only people that will say otherwise is your grandmother and those who have never been. The greatest threat is drinking too many margaritas and forgetting how many tacos you ate. . .
2. The Utah Traverse
The Utah Traverse (photo, above, by Sinuhe Xavier) is a 10-year passion project for adventurer and filmmaker Sinuhe Xavier, who’s spent countless days and nights exploring the best possible all-dirt route across Utah, connecting the most breathtaking vistas with the most captivating campsites.
This route is not for the faint of heart or vehicle, many tracks requiring a high-clearance 4WD with low range and legitimate driver experience. The route is also intentionally vague, piecing a loose connection of destinations and trails with, er, nothingness. This means a real dose of adventure and a full helping of logistics. Think of it more as a treasure map then a track you can load in the Garmin. Point “A” is Mesquite, Nevada and point “Z” is Telluride, Colorado: Highlights include Ruin Canyon, the Needles District, the Colorado River, Salt Creek, Beef Basin, the Aquarius Plateau, and Comb Ridge.
3. The Trans-America Trail (TAT)
Few realize how big the continental United States really is until they try to ride a motorcycle across it on dirt. This top overland route is the brainchild of Sam Correro from Missouri, an avid motorcyclist and traveler. His goal was to create a 5,000-mile adventure from Tennessee to the Oregon coast, primarily off-highway. While this route is primarily designed for mid-weight adventure bikes (think Kawasaki KLR650), it can be ridden by bigger machines with experienced riders or even driven by 4WD. The route has been extremely popular with adventure riders because of the technical difficulties and genuine remoteness achieved along the way. In 2013, Land Rover veteran Tom Collins led a group of LR4s across the route, garnering wide media coverage and establishing the “TAT” as the must-drive overland route in the USA.
The great charm of the TAT is the variety of terrain encountered and the remote locations that few ever visit. From dense (and muddy) forest in Tennessee to the rocky mountain passes in Colorado (including Hancock and Tincup) the TAT climbs and winds through 10 states before terminating at the rugged Oregon coastline. When I rode the TAT in 2009 it was a truly exceptional adventure and I have long since forgotten how many times I had to pick up the KTM 950- only the great memories remain. transamtrail.com
4. Tuktoyaktuk, Canada
The warm temperatures and sunny beaches of Baja need to be balanced with teeth-chattering Arctic cold- enter the Dempster Highway. Mistakenly, the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay gets all of the attention (because it is slightly further north), but the Dempster is where the real adventure lives. This route is also best attempted in late winter, when the tourists have fled and the mosquitos are dormant. March also ensures that the nights are still dark enough for the aurora borealis to put on a show and that the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers are frozen five-feet thick. The scenery is beautiful and most of the road follows rugged mountains until Eagle Plains, a critical fuel stop and the beginning of the spruce forests and ultimately the tundra at Inuvik.
For this adventure, preparation is critical, including sufficient fuel range for 300-plus miles of dirt road. Truck traffic is light in late March, so travelers need to be entirely self-sufficient with extreme cold weather gear, satellite communications, a ditch bag (if your vehicle falls through the ice), and a camera capable of photographs at minus 57°. The real adventure starts in Inuvik when the gravel road ends and the ice road begins, requiring 150-plus miles of driving the frozen Mackenzie to the final destination on the Arctic Ocean: The Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk.
5. The Continental Divide
The Great Divide route was originally developed by Tom Collins of Camel Trophy fame, creating a continuous adventure from southern Canada to the border with Mexico, following the Continental Divide as much as trails and roads allowed. Originally completed in 1989 with Range Rover Classics, the route has since taken on several personalities and a variety of difficulties. While Collins has never fully published the exact route, it can easily be pieced together using the original video and a USGS topo map app.
The divide adventure starts in Banff, then the international border at Glacier National Park before crossing briefly into Idaho. It continues through Yellowstone National Park and into Colorado, where the technical challenges increase dramatically. Intermediate routes start south of Steamboat Springs and then turn difficult in the Rio Grande National Forest. The fun ramps up even further near Telluride and then wanes into New Mexico. Sporadic challenges continue all the way to the border with Mexico. With the completion of the Continental Divide, you will have traveled one of the most difficult and visually stunning overland routes on the planet. Planning resources: GPSKevin
Photos by Scott Brady, except for top, by Sinuhe Xavier