Need to get away from the world for a bit? Well then look no further, because thankfully there are still many natural, wild, and pristine places to visit. In an increasingly digital world, it’s good to come back to our roots, and explore the natural world with all it has to offer. One of the best ways to do that nowadays is overlanding, which can essentially be described as vehicle dependent travel. Imagine having everything you need to survive packed into and onto your vehicle, with the capability to explore some of the world’s most remote areas. Thankfully, it’s easier than ever to put together a rig, rally with others in the community, and get outside to explore new trails. That’s why we put together this list of the 7 best overland routes in the Americas, so that you can start your adventure today.
Located in Southern Utah, the Smoky Mountain Road is a relatively mellow excursion to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This designated scenic backway runs 78 miles from Page, Arizona to Escalante, Utah. Naturally, the best part of the drive is going to be navigating through the heart of Escalante National Monument, one of the most pristine natural areas in the world. In fact, due to how remote it is, Escalante was one of the last areas in the United States to be mapped1. Spanning over one million acres, Escalante is truly a sight to behold. You can stop to see primitive cultures’ rock art, or any of the amazing views that the different ecosystems have to offer. There are five different life zones in Escalante, from desert to forest. If you’re looking for a remote area with spectacular desert views, this is a great trip to make.
Technically speaking, a 4x4 high clearance vehicle is recommended for this journey. It typically takes about 6 hours to navigate the 78 miles, with some sections going slower than others. Expect some rock crawling through different sections, but even a truck camper is able to pull it off. Passenger vehicles will not make it, as the road is just too rough and rocky in certain spots. As always, bring lots of water and fuel, and give an itinerary to a friend or family member.
The Rubicon Trail is one of America’s most historically significant overland routes that still exists today. Originally used by Native Americans to navigate through the Sierra Nevada range, this trail evolved over time when Mark Smith first ran his Jeep Wrangler through the trail in 1953. Smith’s guided trip of Jeeps later came to be known as the Jeep Jamboree, and this group event is still going strong. Going the more typical west to east route, overlanders will begin in Georgetown, California. The Rubicon Trail is 22 miles long, with lots of major obstacles to navigate throughout. If you can get past some of the more intense obstacles (Big Sluice, The Soup Bowl, and Little Sluice, to name a few…), you’ll be rewarded with truly beautiful California scenery. Lakes and mountains surround you throughout, and any passengers who make the trek with you will not be disappointed.
A high-clearance 4x4 vehicle is a necessity for this trail. The Jeep Jamboree actually has mandatory guidelines on what types of vehicles they will allow to join the event. For example, you must have 35” tires, front and rear lockers, tow points, and skid plates2. Is all of this absolutely necessary? Probably not, but the Jamboree guidelines are a good barometer for how your trip will be. You can make it with less, but I would expect the vehicle to take some damage and need a few wrench stops along the way
Gemini Bridges is a low-difficulty trail to run for first-timers visiting Moab, Utah. Moab is famous for its outdoor activities, as it serves as a natural home-base to people seeking rock climbing, rafting, mountain biking, trail running, and overlanding. If you hang out in town for the day, I guarantee you’ll see a plethora of Jeeps, 4Runners, and Razrs outfitted to the max and ready for an adventure. The trail itself is a 48-mile round trip, but only 14 miles are in the 4x4 trail category. As you progress through the run, you’ll get to see vistas, mesas, and of course the famous twin arch Gemini Bridges, located on an arm of Bull Canyon.
A 4x4 vehicle is ideal for this trail, though not necessary. Again, the type of vehicle you take will likely affect how your experience is. If you’re not planning on bringing or renting a 4x4 vehicle, be prepared to take more than the typical 2.5 hour timeframe this trail is usually allotted. However, this trail is rated as easy, and should be no problem as long as the driver is experienced.
Want to take on one of the ultimate overland challenges? Look no further than the Pan American Highway. This epic series of connected roads and routes extends across the American continents for over 19,000 miles. Literally, the run starts at the northern tip of Alaska, and ends at the southern tip of South America. What’s there to see along the way? Way too much to describe here. However, consider that this route will take you through dense forests, thick jungles, deserts, tundras, you name it. If you’re needing to take the road-trip of a lifetime, this is one for the bucket list.
It’s hard to say how long 19,000 miles of driving will take the average person, as there are so many different ways to approach this type of trip. Most people that have completed the journey have done it in 9 months to two years. However, focus more on what type of vehicle you would like to complete such a journey. You won’t need a 4x4 or heavy duty vehicle to make the trip, so comfort should play a big role here; it all depends on your travel preferences. Also consider that there is one un-drivable section in South America known as the Darien Gap; this small section between Panama and Colombia requires you to ship your vehicle across the gap. If you can commit, the Pan American Highway promises to be the trip of a lifetime.
Perhaps you want a long, epic adventure, but 19,000 miles is a bit too much at the moment. Consider the Trans-American Trail, which runs 5,000 miles across the United States. The best part? This trail is 92% off-pavement. That’s right, you can see the entire country using nothing but dirt and backroads in your vehicle of choice. In fact, there are 3 main spurs off of the trail. Including the Shadow of the Rockies, the Atlantic Ocean spur, and the Pacific Ocean spur. There’s no shortage of sights to see. This trail runs through a myriad of National Parks, including: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and many more.
As this trail runs for so long, and through so many different terrains, a 4x4 high clearance vehicle will ensure you are able to access all the different opportunities the Trans-American Trail has to offer. Thankfully, the founder of this trail, Sam Correrro, has continued to maintain and update information about the various sections. He even has GPS tracks that enthusiastic overlanders can use to their advantage!
Okay, so you don’t have the time or the energy for a 5,000 mile trip either. That’s quite alright, as we have another shorter but more technical route to share with you. The Alpine Loop Trail begins near Silverton, Colorado, and runs for approximately 70 miles. You’ll get to see a diverse set of landscapes, 12,000ft mountain passes, and even some ghost towns.
This route is considered moderate difficulty, so you will definitely want a 4x4 vehicle to make the trek. Even relatively inexperienced overlanders should be able to pull it off with the right vehicle. Just as long as you are prepared with tools, water, and fuel. This probably goes without saying, but portions of this trail are closed in the winter. So it’s best to go during the summer when the weather is more temperate.
This trail begins in Dalton, Alaska. This overland route runs 414 miles of gravel and dirt through the rugged backcountry of the Alaskan north. You’ll definitely need to stock up for this one. Long stretches of the highway have no services or rest stops. Known as the “Haul Road” for good reason, this highway was made famous by the tv show “Ice Road Truckers”. If you’ve seen the show, you already know all the different dangers this route can present. Rocks flying up at the windshield, incredibly cold temperatures, and icy/muddy conditions make this route practically impossible for the faint of heart. However, if you’re ready for a tough route, you will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful, remote areas in the United States all to yourself.
Needless to say, a 4x4 vehicle is an absolute necessity for this route. In fact, most rental cars are not allowed on the Dalton Highway. Make sure your rig is ready to rock with lots of extra supplies if you’re going to make the trek!