Overlanding is not about any one destination or traveling to get somewhere specific. Rather, it is about the journey out into the unknown and freeing yourself by getting away from society.
Overlanding has been around for nearly as long as cars and motorized vehicles have been in existence. However, it has recently gained much more popularity and has become a booming industry with equipment and parts for modifying cars into backcountry overland vehicles.
Especially with regard to Jeeps and Land Rovers becoming more commercially available, overlanding is more accessible than ever for anyone who wants to get out there. It is an incredible way to experience the great outdoors while traveling on dirt roads and trails in a car, adventure bike, or 4X4 ATV.
Often, these road are tough to drive and typically will require 4 wheel drive and higher vehicle clearance if you have a car. Don’t let this discourage you from going overlanding yourself if you are intrigued. There are some relatively easy overlanding trails throughout the United States. There are even overlanding trails covering the entire globe from the plains in Africa to overlanding’s roots in the Outback of Australia.
If you are going to go overlanding on any of the trails mentioned below, make sure you are completely prepared. Some of the these trails could take up to weeks to complete and thus having enough gas, food, and adequate provisions is paramount to completing the journey. Alright, let’s get into the specific routes! Here’s our top 10 recommendations…
Where to go overlanding in North America:
1. The TransAmerica Trail (TAT)
The TransAmerica Trail is the paramount overlanding trail in the United States. It traverses the nation over 5,000 miles from coast to coast and uses only publicly accessible dirt roads, and 2 track trails. The original route mapped by Sam Correro in 1984 started in east Tennessee and ended on the Oregon coast.
Since then, an open source community has added and updated the trail with starts on the coast in New York, Virginia, and North Carolina, and finishes in both in Oregon and California at the Pacific Ocean.
Keep in mind, the eastern portion of the route is a lot of farm roads and forestry tracks which will progressively get more difficult as you make it further west and encounter the high points of the trail in the Rocky Mountains.
You should plan on budgeting up to a couple of weeks to drive if you want to complete the entire trail in one trip. The driving difficulty is moderate if only for the fact that the trail is so long but the entire trail is accessible by overland vehicles as well as adventure bikes, touring bicycles, and ATV’s.
The best time to attempt to complete the TAT is in the summer when there will be no snow in the higher Colorado sections of the trail. However, this will also be the busiest time of year for the trail. I would recommend starting in early June if you are heading east to west in order to miss most of the middle and late summer traffic on the TAT.
You can find incredible information on the TAT at this website devoted specifically to The TransAmerica Trail
2. The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR)
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is an incredible overlanding trail that very closely follows the Continental Divide Trail. It is nearly 3,100 miles long and goes from Jasper, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
It offers unbelievable views including Flathead Valley, British Columbia; Glacier National Park, Montana; Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming; South Park, Indiana Pass, Boreas Pass, and Salida in Colorado; and the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.
You could complete this trail in around 3 weeks with a motorized vehicle however if you are biking it could take as long as 2 months to complete. There are also many remote sections on this trail so make sure you are conscious of where you can refuel, stay the night, and resupply.
The best and only time of year to attempt the entire GDMBR is in the summer. Unfortunately because of how high altitude a lot of this trail is and how far north it runs, it will be snowed out for at least 8 months out of the year. The route is typically taken from north to south and if you start in late June or early July you should be ok.
However, you should still bring cold weather gear as well as rain gear because even in the middle of summer there could be snow on the high mountain passes. Once you make it further south in Colorado you will be away from the highest altitude and hopefully the bad weather as well.
You can find great information on the GDMBR from the Adventure Cycling Association here.
3. Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway
This scenic byway is a 70 mile loop that starts and ends in Silverton, Colorado but can also be accessed from Ouray, Colorado. It goes over both Engineering Pass to the north as well as Cinnamon Pass to the south and even takes you through some old ghost towns and former mining establishments.
There are incredible views of the mountains throughout and if you are thinking of doing some overlanding, this is a perfect way to start.
There are some technical potions of the drive however, most stock 4 wheel drive vehicles should have no problem completing this trail. It can even be completed in around 8 hours of continuous driving but I’d recommend at least spending 2 days on this trail to truly experience all it has to offer.
The best time of year to complete this trail is anywhere from June until early October. The leaves in the trees will be changing in October which is amazing to see. Because the trail is at such a high altitude, make sure to check both the weather report before you head out as well as reports on the road conditions.
There can be avalanches in this area as late as May and you do not want to be snowed in so far into the backcountry.
For more information on the Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway check out this article.
4. The Rubicon Trail
The Rubicon Trail is one of the most well known and beloved overland trails in North America. It is a 22 mile trail in El Dorado National Forest located in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. The Rubicon Trail is extremely difficult to drive and will require a modified 4×4 vehicle to complete.
You will want someone with experience behind the wheel when attempting this trail and it could take a couple of hours to complete.
Before you head out to the Rubicon Trail, check the road conditions online. During the winter months there may be snow closures as well as sections of the trail washed out from heavy rains. Thus, the best time to visit the Rubicon Trail is in the summer but it is still accessible in the spring and fall.
During the summer, there will be a lot of traffic on the trail so if you want to avoid that, plan on visiting outside of the middle of summer especially because there are a number of events that will restrict access to the trail during teh summer.
Check out more information from the Rubicon Trail Foundation where you can see road closure and events happening on the Rubicon Trail.
5. The Dalton Highway
The Dalton Highway is a 414 mile highway open year-round that begins just north of Fairbanks, Alaska and ends in Deadhorse, Alaska near the Arctic Ocean and the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field. It was originally built as a supply road for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and follows that pipeline basically for the entire route.
There are only three towns along the entire route and the final 250 miles are completely remote. So, if you want to overland the Dalton Highway, make sure you plan and prepare accordingly but be ready for some spectacular views as well as a look at the northern lights. This road is also famous because it is featured on the show Ice Road Truckers.
You can find more information on The Dalton Highway here.
6. The Mojave Road
The Mojave Road is a 150 mile dirt road located in Mojave National Preserve, California. It goes from Beale’s Crossing on the west bank of the Colorado River, to Fork In The Road located along the Mojave River. It could take as little as 2 days to complete the entire journey.
You will need a 4×4 vehicle to complete this trip however there are only a few technical sections where you should be extra careful. Otherwise it is a beautiful drive through the desert with plenty of places to hike around and check out relics from many years ago.
The road itself is over 150 years old and was initially created by Native Americans in the region and later used by Spanish Missionaries and colonizers in the area. It was forgotten because of newer faster routes west along the railroads. But, overlanders have retaken this amazing route and it is now a popular destination to camp and enjoy.
Because this road is in the middle of the southern desert in California, it is best to visit during the spring or fall. There will not be as much traffic on the road then and you will also avoid the extreme heat of summer and cold in the winter. Make sure you check conditions of the road before you head out because rains can quickly turn lake bed into bog that is impassable.
Check out this article for a complete rundown of The Mojave Road.
7. The Utah Traverse
The Utah Traverse is one of the newer overland routes on this list and certainly the least explored. It basically starts near Mesquite, Nevada, and ends near Telluride, Colorado.
There is no true set route for this trip and thus anyone wanting to complete the Utah Traverse will need to do plenty of planing and research to figure out the best route for themselves. Furthermore you should have either an adventure bike or a lot of experience with a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle.
The best time to attempt The Utah Traverse is around September. This time of year is great because Utah is still dry from the summer and will not be getting cold just yet. I would recommend budgeting at least 5 days to make the entire trip however you may need longer depending upon the route you want to take. There are many sections with dirt paved roads but also many difficult sections to cross.
8. White Rim Road
White Rim Road is a loop road located in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. It is about 70 miles round trip and requires a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle. The driving on White Rim Road is difficult at points and I would recommend budgeting two days to complete it although it can be done in one.
You will need a permit both for day use of the road as well as overnight camping and permits are reserved long in advance. If you want to overland this road I would suggest looking into getting a permit as soon as possible to reserve your spot. There is also no place on the road to get water or supplies so make sure you bring all the provisions needed in order to have a great time overlanding White Rim Road.
The National Park Service offers great information on White Rim Road here.
9. Black Bear Pass
Black Bear Pass is an 8 mile road near Telluride, Colorado that is extremely difficult in some sections and requires an expert driver to complete. It is one of the highest and most dangerous roads in North America.
The views throughout the road are spectacular but make sure to check road conditions before you head out. Black Bear Pass is only open from around late July to September and may even be closed due to rock fall in the area, avalanche danger, or bad weather. The road itself takes visitors past Bridal Veil Falls.
The most dangerous section of Black Bear Pass is near the falls where the switchbacks are steep and tight. Once you begin the descent, there is no going back.
For more information on Black Bear Pass, check out this link.
10. The Dempster Highway
The Dempster Highway is a 450 mile road that runs between the central Yukon and ends just short of the Arctic Ocean in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. It is an extremely remote road that could take up to a week to traverse depending on the weather and road conditions which you should certainly check before heading out.
The road was originally a sled dog route from Dawson City to Fort McPherson during the Klondike Gold Rush. It was named after Inspector William John Duncan Dempster who lead a patrol to find “The Lost Patrol,” a group of men who were lost on the route in 1910.
There are no major road or highway intersections on The Dempster Highway and it is open year-round. There is a ferry service to cross both the Peel and Mackenzie Rivers. If you are going to undertake this journey, you need to be carrying extra gas with you because of a lack of facilities as well as extra water, and a spare tire.
For more information check out this link to The Dempster Highway.
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