North America, in total, covers over 9.3 million square miles. And many of its most incredible sights can be seen with a relatively short plane ride and an hour or two of driving. There are some places on the continent, however, where the journey is the destination.
Overland road trips are growing in popularity and for good reason. They remain one of North America’s untapped adventures. If you have a 4x4 vehicle that’s up for the challenge, consider taking on one of these incredible overland road trips.
1. Mojave Road
Mojave Road is an excellent intro to overlanding. It’s relatively short -- encompassing just 128 miles of unpaved roads. This east-to-west trail cuts across Mojave National Preserve in California. You’ll enter the trail near Piute Spring and continue down the sandy road until you reach the end near Soda Dry Lake. You’ll want to give yourself at least a couple of days to complete the journey. Primitive camping is allowed throughout Mojave National Park, however, you can only camp in areas that have already been used as campsites. Most of the road is easy driving, and there are only a few moderate sections with larger rocks or deeper ruts, making it a great journey for new overland adventurers.
You don’t need a special off-roading monster vehicle to complete the Mojave Road. A 4x4 vehicle with good clearance can tackle the road without much trouble. The park service will provide updates on trail conditions, so keep an eye out before you begin your journey.
This is an especially stunning trail if you appreciate desert landscapes.
2. The Alpine Loop
The Rockies run right through Colorado, so it goes without question that there are going to be some incredible off-roading and overlanding opportunities in the state. This route is only 63 miles long, but after driving through the gorgeous mountain passes, you’ll join others in calling it the Switzerland of America. The Alpine Loop begins in Silverton, Colorado. Catch State Highway 110 and follow it until it turns into County Road 2, and you’ll be on your way.
The journey takes about seven hours to complete, so wake up and hit the road early the morning you plan on driving the byway. The terrain is quite a bit tougher than what you’ll find on Mojave Road, so good clearance and four-wheel drive is a must. You’ll need to traverse two different mountain passes, Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass. Each takes adventurers 12,000 feet above sea level.
Throughout the journey, you’ll come across unmatched opportunities to see wildflowers and dramatic landscapes in addition to abandoned mining towns. Due to extreme weather in the winter, the trail is only open from June to September.
3. Dalton Highway
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet on overland road trips, it’s time to head for Alaska. There lies the Dalton Highway, a trucking road which allows supplies to be delivered to the Arctic Circle. This 414-mile gravel highway will put your resolve and your vehicle to the test. Since the highway is in use, you’ll be sharing the road with trucks, which adds to the challenge. You’ll want to yield to them as they are often traveling at high speeds to build momentum for longer inclines, and they kick up plenty of rocks. Don’t take a vehicle you care too much about.
You’ll also need to make sure you’re properly outfitted for a Dalton Highway trip. There are only two service stations, both of which are earlier on in the journey. Packing multiple spare tires, survival gear, warm clothing, and food is a must. If this all seems a bit too much to handle, but you’d still like the experience of traveling the Dalton Highway, there are guide services available.
4. Rubicon Trail
If you have a lifted 4x4 vehicle and a passion for taking on the most challenging trails in America, the Rubicon Trail is for you. The trail was originally used by Native Americans traveling between Lake Tahoe and the Sacramento region of California. Beginning in the mid-1800s it was slowly transitioned into a road. At one point a hotel was being constructed nearby and more resources were poured into the trail. However, the hotel closed in 1920 and currently the trail is a recreational mecca for those with a love of off-roading.
The trail is short compared to some of the others on our list at just 22 miles, but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in difficulty. The recommended vehicle outfitting is extensive including at least one recovery point (more are advised), limited slip differential, rocker guards, protection for the gas tank and transfer case, and 33-inch wheels with thick sidewalls. Off-road only vehicles are allowed, but they need to have a green sticker.
The Rubicon trail is so challenging and visually stunning that many take the time to camp along the trail and enjoy it over the course of two days. If you’re planning on visiting the Rubicon, be sure to check the event schedule to ensure you’ll have access to the trail.
5. Trans-America Trail
As the name suggests, this one is lengthy. It runs from Tennessee to Oregon, making it the longest trip on our list. There is one caveat to this trail: To travel it in its entirety, one must be on a dirt bike. However, a Jeep or other well-equipped vehicle will be able to tackle all but the most technical sections. Unlike the other routes on our list, the Trans-America Trail, or TAT, will take you over paved roads at some points, so it’s not entirely over land.
The longer your journey is, the more preparation you will need. The route is designed to be driven east to west, and TAT maps will keep you off restricted lands and private property.
How you decide to tackle the Trans-America Trail is up to you. You can break your journey up into several single-state journeys or try to hammer the trail out in one go. The more mountainous sections of the trail have short seasons running June through September and will be snow bound or otherwise impassable outside of that window. You’ll travel through many remote areas, so keep your tank full and don’t skip opportunities to fill up. Give your vehicle a tune-up before heading out. Camping supplies are highly recommended.
6. Tuktoyaktuk Highway, Canada
This route is the newest road on our list. The Tuktoyaktuk Highway opened in 2017, connecting the rest of Canada to the town of Tuktoyaktuk. It’s also the first all-weather road in Canada leading to the Arctic. The road itself is just 85 miles long and isn’t as technical as some of the more esteemed trails listed above. A decent four-wheel-drive vehicle with more clearance than a sedan shouldn’t run into much trouble reaching the isolated town of Tuktoyaktuk.
There aren’t any rest stops, restaurants, or visitor’s centers along the highway, so the only reason to stop is to enjoy the serene natural surroundings. Once you arrive in Tuktoyaktuk, you’ll be able to take a picture next to the Arctic Ocean and grab a bite to eat.
7. Black Bear Pass
The last trail on our list is located in Telluride, Colorado. Black Bear Pass is the place to go if you’d like to experience 12 miles of white-knuckle driving up steep terrain, alongside cliffs that feature razor-sharp switchbacks. Jeeps or similarly capable 4x4 vehicles are required. Like some other high-elevation trails, there are only a few months of year when the road can be accessed. Bad weather can close the pass at any time due to the risk of landslides, floods, and avalanches.
You don’t need to stick to the paved roads of North America to have an incredible road trip. There are plenty of overland routes that are waiting for you to unlock their splendor. Plan a trip on one of these seven incredible overland routes and you won’t be disappointed. Remember to pack some camping gear as well. Even the shortest routes can take many hours, and it’s worth a stop to enjoy the outdoors. North America is full of surprises just off the beaten path.
After adventure? Consider heading north to visit the Arctic Circle responsibly with these seven things to know.