The 10 Greatest Overland Trips in North America
Scott Brady is the Publisher and Chairman of Overland Journal, one of the finest adventure travel publications out today. Scott and his staff of intrepid correspondents traverse the globe both on wheel and on foot, fueled by a curiosity that is equal parts anthropological, zoological, and of course, mechanical. Their field notes, journals, and pictures are compiled quarterly into a new edition of Overland Journal that is dense enough to last you through a cross-country flight, yet striking enough to lay on your coffee table. It’s a must read for any serious, modern day adventurer. When we think of overland travel, our thoughts often wander to a Land Rover in Africa, cruising down a dusty track, the dust lifting skyward and punctuating the brilliant red of the setting sun. Having traveled by foot, motorcycle and expedition vehicle on six continents, the world has never ceased to transfix me, much like the pages of a wonderful book, each chapter revealing something special and unexpected- something exotic. As adventurers, we often seek the unknown and distant as the most appropriate of destinations, and while that is often the best course, we frequently forget the pleasures and rewards of traveling a little closer to home. This list is to remind us of the destinations accessible without a plane or without a ship; places we can access with a little determination, a sturdy vehicle and a sense of wonder. Holmul, Guatemala If dreams of Camel Trophy occupy most of your nights, the jungles of Guatemala will check every box on the adventure list. From the crossing at Belize, a dirt track parallels the border for about 50kms before turning inland. From the turnoff, the route becomes biblical with deep mud, winching, fallen trees, phosphorescent spiders, jaguar, snakes and even the occasional drug runner. Once at the Mayan site, you can camp in the temple square, surrounded by 20 meter tall pyramids and ancient stele. This Peten region is filled with Mayan structures and artifacts, most concealed by centuries of earth and flora. The city was first inhabited 800 B.C. and reached its height of power between 750 and 900 A.D. It is real Indiana Jones stuff. The route can continue (with permission from the minister of forestry) to the Mayan site of Nakum and ultimately into Tikal. Make sure your winch works – really works. Mexican Hat to Moab, Utah, USA 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. Baja, Mexico At least a month should be reserved for exploring this desert peninsula. Little time should be spent on the border cities, as the real treasures exist further south. There are two routes that rank amongst my favorites, starting with the backroad to Mike’s Sky Rancho, a dirt track that leaves from MEX3, just east of Lázaro Cárdenas and travels south towards the San Pedro Martir. The route continues towards Meling Ranch before turning east again and climbs to the tallest mountain in Baja, Picacho del Diablo. If a serious overland trek is on the schedule, then the remote and rugged route to San Evaristo is my second favorite in Baja. The route starts at MEX1 (waypoint) and winds its way east through washouts, loose climbs and narrow shelf roads. Route-finding can be difficult, so this trip is best for the prepared and experienced, but the rewards are stunning. Deep gorges and canyons extend off from this heavily eroded plateau and small ranchos and villages provide a unique experience. Several old missions can be accessed with the 4WD or by foot and the route eventually terminates at the gulf. Fuel and supplies may not be accessible (especially diesel) in San Evaristo, a small fishing village halfway through the route, so plan accordingly. There are many remote campsites and some beautiful beaches at the end of the trek. The route continues south along the coast, eventually turning to pavement and then finishing in La Paz. Canyon de Chelly Canyon de Chelly is one of the greatest Overland Adventures in North America. Old John Wayne westerns will play in your head as you drive through this historic canyon home to the Navajo – or Diné as they refer to themselves. 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. The Dempster Highway (in winter) Ends of the Earth; There is something about distant places, their terminus that resonates deeply within the adventurer. A mountain summit, a coastline, the end of a road; all pull at us, inspiring the commitment and sacrifice necessary to continue to the horizon, or past another false summit. The Dempster Highway and McKenzie River ice road accesses the last vehicle-accessible human outpost in Northern Canada, Tuktoyaktuk, over 230 north of the Arctic Circle, clinging to the edge of land and the start of the frozen ocean. Getting to Tuktoyaktuk was not easy, in fact it took over 3,000 miles and eight days of solid driving to just reach Whitehorse. From this outpost town, the Dempster turn due north and winds through beautiful mountains before crossing the Arctic Circle, and leading you onto the ice of the Mackenzie River, and eventually all the way up to the small Inuit town of Tuktoyaktuk. The Trans-America Trail The concept of the Trans-America Trail (TAT) is fascinating; finding a way to traverse the US from east to west on dirt roads, two-tracks and single-track. The man credited with this project is Sam Correro, who spent 12 years piecing together the route from Tennessee to Oregon with a combination of map research and on-the-ground riding with his Kawasaki KLX. For me, the Trans-America Trail represents one of the greatest motorcycle trips available in the 48 states. It has all of the components of a grand adventure, including technical terrain, the requirement for complicated navigation, difficulty in obtaining fuel and supplies, remote and rarely visited destinations and a fantastic goal, which is to cross the US on 92% dirt, for a total of almost 5,000 miles. The Mojave Road 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. The Grand Arizona Traverse 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. The McKenzie Trail 12 years before the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, the first European to cross North America and reach the pacific Ocean was Alexander MacKenzie, in 1793. The final 420 km of his route was along a traditional aboriginal trail used to transport fish grease from the coast to the interior of British Columbia for trading. So the official trail name is the Nuxalk-Carrier Grease Trail, but most people today still refer to it as the Alexander MacKenzie Heritage Trail. The trail starts near Quesnel BC, 641 km North of Vancouver, and travels East to Bella Coola on the coast. Although most travelers hike the trail, it is still open to vehicles, but the lack of traffic and the changing conditions can make the week-long (one-way) trip an ordeal to complete, even for the most competent trucks and drivers. Conditions vary from dry and dusty wagon tracks through ranch-land, to seemingly bottomless mud-bogs through the Canadian forests, to swamps, blowdowns, hills and technical terrain. A minimum of three very well set up trucks with winches, aggressive tires, and multiple chainsaws are required. Sat phones or Spot devices are recommended. Punta Mariato, Panama Punta Mariato is the southernmost point in North America and is located in Panama, within the geographic region of Central America. The point is remote, nearly 100 miles south of the main highway and accessible via a spiderweb of muddy dirt tracks, river crossings and wide, boulder-strewn washes. I used a KTM640 Adventure motorcycle for my trip to that remote point and was supported by a Land Rover Defender. The road was hard work for both vehicles, made more intense by the deep mud. However, the route was stunningly beautiful and captured much of life in Panama, including cowboys, shaded from the sun by the country’s namesake, wide-brimmed hats and little cafes serving $4 lobster tails and $1 ice cold beers. You cannot drive to the very point, as that requires either a panga boat ride or a day-long trek through the jungle. I took the boat and was rewarded by a brilliant sunset as the sun sank into the Pacific.
Wanting take on an overland adventure of your own!? Swing over to Into The Wild Expedition Rentals and check out our Sportsmobile Rental packages!!
Photo Credits: Holmul, Guatemala pictures are by Ben Edmonson. The Mackenzie Trail photos are by Dave Blair.