The American Southwest is an Overlanders' favorite - which is why it's the perfect starting point for our series highlighting the best overland trails in each respective region of North America. From iconic and historical trails (such as the Mojave Road and El Camino del Diablo) to newer, vehicle-based compilations (such as the Arizona, Nevada, and Utah Traverses), all of these trails represent fantastic experiences and adventures. The goal of Expedition Portal is to inspire your continued travels, so hopefully this article will be an excuse to start checking these wonderful trails off your list.
Arizona is exceptional in its geological and biological diversity, and when combined with the rich aboriginal and western history, it is a veritable playground for the adventure traveler. Developed by the Expedition Portal online community, the Grand Arizona Traverse is long (requiring nearly two weeks to complete) and challenging. This route should be undertaken with a high-clearance 4wd with good quality tires and an experienced driver. A winch and at least one locking differential is advised.
Starting at the imposing and somewhat tragic Mexico/U.S. border wall, the route follows the ancient El Camino del Diablo trail before turning north and into the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. Continuing to the Harquahala mountains and Wickenburg, the trail becomes even more difficult as it enters the Bradshaws and Crown King. Continuing north, the trail passes famous western towns like Prescott, Jerome and Williams before ending at a remote campsite on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. The view from there is nothing short of breathtaking.
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona by Matthew Scott
Canyon de Chelly is one of the greatest Overland Adventures in North America - not just the American Southwest. Driving through this historic canyon, home to the Navajo – or Diné as they refer to themselves, will be sure to conjure thoughts of iconic American Western films.
The trail is located in the north-east corner of Arizona, to get there, take Arizona Highway 191 to the town of Chinle, AZ. There are two primary trails that you’ll want to drive, one follows the bottom of the canyon system, the other skirts the top. If you’re interested in traveling both, first drive the perimeter (top) trail. It will help you better appreciate and understand the scale of what you’ll be driving through.
The terrain can vary depending on the season you travel through the Canyon, in the dry fall, any 4WD vehicle with moderate ground clearance can pass through. However, there are times in the spring where even large, modified 4WD vehicles will have trouble. Deflating your tires will allow better traction in the soft sand found on the trail. Be sure to include a proper recovery kit, and leave the dogs and alcohol at home, as neither are allowed on Navajo land.
Continental Divide Trail, Colorado
Colorado is a majestic place, with the massive ridge of the Continental Divide bisecting the state's two agricultural regions and providing over 14 million forest acres for recreation. 14,000 foot mountains grow like trees, and the winter snow pack provides water for six states and Mexico. Colorado also provides near endless off highway recreation opportunities, from technical rock crawling trails to endless exploration above tree line. The Continental Divide trail skirts the line between east and west, providing epic vistas and beautiful sites to see along the route. For more information on the trail, you can read Scott Brady's article here. [link] Or you can research many of the threads on the Expedition Portal Forum.
Death Valley by Dave Druck [website]
Death Valley National Park is one of the worlds renowned marvels of California and the American South West. It's home to the lowest point in the North America and it's the largest park in the lower 48 at nearly 200 square miles. Many of these miles are in the desolate back country off highway. People travel from all over the globe to visit this beautiful place and its not uncommon to meet visitors from outside the USA. With really unique untouched and extinct old mining operations to mysterious salt lakes, hot springs, ghost towns and thousand year old craters, you'll find plenty to see here. In an overland vehicle you can travel to the park numerous times without ever seeing the same place twice. It is also one of the most brutal and unforgiving terrains in the country. There's a reason why they call it Death Valley. On a summer day, the heat can boil up to 128 degrees and in the winter you can freeze to death.
Taking your expedition rig out on a journey here means you'll have to come prepared and have your ducks in a row. Fuel and water is a major concern as there aren't many places to acquire it. You'll need to bring tools and common repair parts as in some areas you will not see another person or vehicle for days, maybe even weeks on end. You should never travel alone to the park unless you're an experienced traveler and have everything you need in case of a break down or an injury. For an area so harsh and rugged, the wildlife is healthier than one would think. In any given trip you'll see Coyotes, Wild Burros, Jack Rabbits, Desert Tortoise and of course the possibility of crossing paths with a slithering rattle snake. All the living combined with the thriving wild flowers that bloom in the Spring make this one amazing place to visit.
There are many overland routes and back country exploration trails you can select when heading to Death Valley. It's home to numerous long and remote stretches of remote road. Saline Valley and Eureka Valley are two of the more remote sections and can be made into a day run to travel out to see. Eureka Valley is home to the tallest Sand Dunes in California at 700 feet high. They make for a great day hike and a stunning base camp. Saline Valley road extends 90 miles from Northwest of Panamint Springs to North Pass East of Big Pine. This section of Death Valley is also home to the famous "Salt Tram". Lippencott Pass and some of the worst wash board you'll ever travel. Speaking of washboard, you can also rattle your truck or trailer loose heading to the Race Track Playa. This is a spectacular dry lake that houses mysterious rocks that somehow seem to move on their own and have researchers puzzled. At the end of a long day you can head into Panamint Springs Resort for some lunch or even head down south into Panamint Valley to the Ghost Town of Ballarat for a ice cold soda and chat with the locals. Death Valley has something for everyone, weather it be hiking to a water fall or a spectacular vista, driving an automobile off-highway or a moto on pavement, or even a round of golf at Furnace Creek you'll never get bored or run out of ideas. The park is surely breath-taking and the camping and exploration is second to none. With so many different routes and trails in the park we couldn't pick just one, but the park itself is why it's on our top 10 list Overland Route locations.
Dusy Ershim by Garrett Matt [website]
The Dusy Ershim is a no-kidding, hard, multi-day run that separates the men from the boys. Forget thinking your stock FJ Cruiser is going to make this one, because this is the endurance-run of the off-road world. Set aside 4 days of driving to accomplish this 31-mile trail. It is one of the most remote places in California you can drive in a vehicle. In a very well built truck, plan on 32 hours of drive time to make it from Courtright to Kaiser.
The difficulty of the trail can be directly correlated to the previous year’s snowfall. In heavy snow years, expect to need a heavily built truck with lockers front and rear. The snow loosens up the top layer of soil creating an environment where the rocks constantly slip out from under your tires. In dry years, the ground stays fairly solid. This is the year to take your mildly-built truck on 33’s. Be warned, your vehicle may file a restraining order against you after how much you will beat it up on this trail.
The trail starts off at 8400ft at courtright reservoir. And ends at over 10,000 ft on Kaiser pass. On your average year, the trail opens with the snowmelt in August, and then closes with the first snow in October. I highly recommend calling the forest service, and visiting the trail early in the year.
Dusy Ershim has been named over and over as one of the best off highway trails in the country, and I have to agree. If you’re a rock crawler, expedition driver, hunter, or fisherman, you’re in for a surprise with one of the most amazing places in the United States.
El Camino del Diablo
El Camino Del Diablo is an unpaved, 150 mile trail through the most remote section of the Sonoran Desert in the United States. The trails history dates back hundreds of years as it was first a Native American footpath, and later a Spanish colonial trail route. The modern day trail is a bit shorter than the original 250 mile route that starts in Mexico, however there are several detours that can make this trail longer, and more technical. The most difficult part of the El Camino Del Diablo is carrying enough water, provisions, and fuel to survive the harsh environment which can reach temperatures of 120 degrees in the summer months. For a more in depth review and description of the El Camino Del Diablo you can read Scott Brady's account of the trail here. [link]
Mexican Hat to Moab, Utah
This route is one of the finest in the world, with stunning scenery, challenging terrain and rich aboriginal history. Starting in Mexican Hat and the San Juan River, a visit to the Goosenecks before starting on the dirt track in the Valley of the Gods. A quick stretch of pavement and the route continues up Comb Ridge (filled with Anasazi ruins). Crossing Hwy 95, the route continues north on Cottonwood Canyon Rd. The trail gains elevation, reaching over 3,000 meters before descending into Beef Basin, the Needles District and ultimately Elephant Hill. This route requires a vehicle with good tires and ground clearance. At least one locking differential will make the route easier on the driver and vehicle.
In 1925 the industrial revolution was building momentum, and Mr. Ford’s cars clogged the streets of Manhattan. The world was changing; leaving the “wild west” behind. However, in the Mojave Desert, a gunfight was erupting between the cattle ranchers and sheepherders of the New York Mountains. Drought had put a stranglehold on the land, forcing the homesteaders to leave and tempers to flare at Government Holes, one of the few productive wells in the area. The Cattle companies’ hired gun, and the sheepherders blazed away at each other, until all lie dead; ending a fateful chapter of Mojave history.
A present day 160 mile trek along the Mojave Road occurs under considerably more peaceful conditions, but the history and arid environment of the Mojave Desert are still available to the hardy traveler. This route, which starts near Barstow, and travels all the way to the Colorado river is one of the longest continuous off-highway treks available in the West, ranging from dry lake beds to nearly 6,000 feet and Pinyon Pines. Three or more days are required to cover its distance, which provides the opportunity for excellent remote camping.
Nevada Traverse by Tim France
The Trans Nevada route begins at the Needles Highway at the Nevada/California boarder and ends at the Nevada/Oregon boarder. Total length is 648.65 miles with only 15 miles being pavement. Rating is 1 to 3.5 and can be completed in 5 days, but 7 days allows a person to take in all that is offered. Tonopah and Winnemucca are the only two populated places that are entered along to the entire route, which make these places great for refueling and resupplying. There are many more towns one passes through, but these are only populated by the ghosts of the past. From desert to high-altitude passes this route provides a person with the best wilderness and historic experiences this state has to offer.
Utah Grand Traverse by Sinuhe Xavier [website]
I love Southern Utah. I was married deep in Escalante Canyon with the Cottonwoods changing colors, I have lived in Moab and Boulder at different times of my life. My wife and I are constantly looking for property in Boulder to buy and setup our home for the Golden years, so it's natural that I am constantly going back, finding new routes from point A to Point B.
While I think Moab is the armpit of all of Southern Utah, it serves it's purpose as the industrial recreation capitol of the West. Just keep them there. For some reason or another I am always drawn to the old uranium boom town, even if just for a couple days, to remind how good it is elsewhere.
So for the sake of this "trip report" I am combining 5 years worth of trips across Southern Utah in what I think is the definitive Overland Trail from St George to Moab. While I have never done it from start to finish I will some day and I am dubbing it the Utah Traverse. I have broken it up into sections, which could be compressed into days if wanted, but I suggest spending more time per section than a scant 24 hours.
I don't have GPS coordinates or a map so please don't ask, it's all there in the pictures, fill up your tank and let your mind wander while your curiosities guide you, it worked for me and it will work for you.
It's important to note that this isn't the definitive list - everyone has a personal favorite trail which you're welcomed to share below in the comments if it wasn't already included.