Overlanding, or taking an off-road trip primarily to enjoy the journey itself, is one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have. You get to see some of the most beautiful sights while also experiencing life away from big cities filled with lights. Overlanding has gotten more popular in recent decades, leaving people wondering: what is the best state in the USA to go overlanding?
The top 5 states to go overlanding are:
- Winner: Utah
Let’s explore what makes these the top 5 states in the USA to go overlanding. I will also provide some must-see sights, stops, or routes on your overlanding trip in each state.
1. Winner: Utah
Well known for its diversity in both natural and geographic features, Utah is the best state to go overlanding in the USA.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages 42% of its landmass and is home to the Mighty Five national parks. Overall, Utah boasts some of the most beautiful sights in the USA.
Probably the most popular overlanding trip in Utah is to Moab. Arches National Park is 5 miles (8 kilometers) from Moab, and Canyonlands National Park is only 32 miles (51.5 kilometers) away. History buffs can see ancient petroglyphs and pictographs or experience the Moab Giants dinosaur museum.
There are plenty of off-roading trails in and around Moab for overlanders with more heavy-duty or 4×4 vehicles. There are 1.8 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of public land in and around Moab, so make sure you research before heading out!
New to overlanding? No problem! There are some excellent beginner overlanding routes, like the Valley of the Gods in southeastern Utah.
Only 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) long and 9 miles (14.48 kilometers) from the town of Mexican Hat, the Valley of the Gods has some of the most beautiful geologic features with its towering red sandstone buttes and mesas.
The Valley of the Gods is rich in Navajo lore. They believe that the rock formations are Navajo soldiers in stone, so respect the land when you visit. Don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you! Don’t forget to make time to visit the many photography spots in Utah National Parks as well.
California is another great state for overlanding. The geography in California varies drastically between Northern and Southern California. Northern California is known more for its natural beauty and lush forests, while Southern California is known more for big sprawling urban cities and deserts.
Plus, the BLM oversees about 15 million acres (6 million hectares) of California, about 15% of California’s total landmass! With all of that public land, there are some brilliant national parks and sites to visit on your overlanding trip.
One such national park is Joshua Tree National Park, located in Southern California, 140 miles (64.37 kilometers) east of Los Angeles. Here, the Mojave Desert meets the Colorado Desert, creating a wonderful mix of flora and fauna.
For an overlanding trip to Joshua Tree, always remember to stay on the established roads. No one wants to damage or alter the unique ecosystem! There are many off-road or backcountry roads to explore, though. These include:
- Berdoo Canyon Road
- Black Eagle Mine Road
- Covington Flat
- Geology Tour Road
- Old Dale Road
Another fantastic place to go overlanding in California is the Mojave Desert, specifically the Mojave Road. The Mojave Road is rich in history, originally used as a Native American trade route, then as a wagon trail for European settlers.
This trail is about 150 miles (241.4 kilometers) in length, so always check weather conditions before starting your overlanding trip along the Mojave Road. Between washouts from summer monsoons on Soda Lake to winter sleet or snow, portions of the road may be impassable at certain times or seasons of the year.
While Arizona’s climate is mainly associated with the desert and its iconic cacti, Arizona’s public lands are some of the most diverse in the USA. There are plateaus, mountains, canyons, and of course, deserts to explore on your overlanding trip.
Unsurprisingly, one of Arizona’s most popular overlanding destinations is the Grand Canyon. However, instead of going to the South Rim like 90% of the park’s tourists, be sure to head up to the canyon’s North Rim for your overlanding adventure.
The North Rim may be one of the most extended overlanding trips you take, at a staggering 547 miles (880.31 kilometers). Due to the rugged terrain and high elevation, the North Rim is closed from mid-October to mid-May. Still, when you do get a chance to go, you will witness some of the most breathtaking views of the Grand Canyon, arguably better than the views on the South Rim.
Another spectacular place to stop in Arizona is Lake Havasu City. You will find fantastic off-roading trails of varying terrains, from dunes to open desert to canyons. If you want a more mild and relaxing trip, you could camp along Lake Havasu. This lake is a large reservoir formed by a dam on the Colorado River along the Arizona and California border.
Fans of boating and other water sports will rejoice at the sheer variety of options of fun to be had at Lake Havasu, sometimes called “a capital of watersports and beach activities in the desert of western Arizona.”
Yet another excellent state for overlanding is Colorado. With the awe-inspiring scenery, wildlife, the sheer volume of national and state parks, and variety of outdoor sports and activities, you could explore Colorado for months and still not see everything.
The BLM manages 8.3 million acres (~3.4 million hectares) of public land, ranging from alpine tundra to canyons to sagebrush steppe to mountainous areas. The national and state parks’ climates vary significantly with this public land, creating some beautiful overlanding adventures in Colorado.
One such adventure is at the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Within the RMNP alone, you can visit lakes, subalpine areas, and mountains. Just be careful on your overlanding journey because the road conditions can change quickly!
Trail Ridge Road, which extends from Estes to Grand Lake, is a great trip to take if you are overlanding the Continental Divide. Along this 48 mile (77.25 kilometers) route, you will climb about 4,000 feet (1,219.2 meters) in elevation within minutes, allowing you to see how the scenery changes as you increase elevation quickly.
A common overlanding route in Colorado is that of the Alpine Loop. While this is a great trip to take as a beginner, note that Alpine Loop is rated as “moderate difficulty” due to its location in the steep San Juan Mountains.
The 63 miles (101.39 kilometers) loop connects three towns, passes two alpine passes, and stretches through seven ghost towns, allowing for several detours during your overlanding trip.
The last best state to go overlanding that I will discuss is Oregon. Like the other four states on this list, you experience a plethora of climates in the state. Oregon’s topography and climate are typically split into eight distinct regions:
- Oregon Coast
- Willamette Valley
- Klamath Mountains
- Colombia Plateau
- Blue Mountains
- Northern Basin
- Cascade Range
- the High Desert
With one national park, nearly 200 state parks, and 11 national forests, there are many overlanding adventures to enjoy.
Visiting Crater Lake National Park is a must on your first overlanding trip in Oregon. Created 7,700 years ago from a massive volcanic eruption causing a mountain to cave in on itself, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the USA. Due to heavy snowfall, much of Crater Lake is closed during the late fall and winter months. It is best to visit during spring and summer to have the best experience.
Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon is another awe-inspiring sight. The Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area (CMPA) is 428,156 acres (173,268.59 hectares) of public land, including the Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway.
The Steens Mountain Backcountry Byways is 52 miles (83.69 kilometers) in length and depicts the changes in the Oregon landscape. It starts in the High Desert and ends at the snowy Steens Mountain.
You will also witness some of the darkest skies in the continental USA on your overlanding trip at Steens Mountain.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.