Off-road means off the beaten path, away from the surging crowds and into the breathless heights of nature, unspoiled by over-development by human hands. Although there are plenty of advertised areas for spectacular views and guided tours, the real ambition is to find those little traveled areas where the country side is rugged and life is simple, so you’ll have an adventure to talk about when you get home.
Popular destinations such as the Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, are certainly not places to ignore. You’ll have some of the most rugged and challenging trail conditions imaginable, as well as stunning views, and a chance to absorb a bit of prehistory and examine ancient North American Native cultural artifacts. If you’re doing a tour, you’ll want to put them on your list as the top five places to go, but these are National preserves, icons of American history, and hardly a secret.
Hawaii for Variety
Okay, Hawaii is a tourist designation, with high rise hotels and crowded beaches, but it is also a series of islands, each with its own unique off-road offers and a culturally distinct population. Many off-road enthusiasts enjoy the Big Island, and why not? The Hawaiian Island is larger than all the other islands combined and is home to the world’s most active volcano. A tip from Hawaiians, however. There are no places you can go with a rental Jeep that you can’t take by car. If you rent a Jeep and go to an off-road designation, you are basically on your own, and they mean it. Any damages you incur will have to be paid out of your own pocket.
Of course, everyone raves about the road to Hana. The fifty mile trek is all about some of the most mind boggling scenery you can imagine, with waterfalls, botanical gardens, and the most fantastic extreme surfing around. However, the once rugged road is now paved, and though it still has those harrowing hair-pin’s, it’s so crowded with tourists, it has bumper to bumper traffic all day. If you really want to get off the beaten track, you need to go to Lanai.
The Munro Trail of Lanai can only be traveled on foot, bike or four wheel drive. The conditions are often muddy, always challenging, but an experience you’ll never forget. The trail climbs to the top of Lanai’s highest elevation; 2,370 feet, through rain forest, canyon’s and gulches. From those elevated plateau’s, not only will you see the ocean thundering into shore, but Maui, Molokai, Kahoolawe, Oahu and Hawaii’s Big Island.
Retreat to Mendocino
Mendocino is not on everybody’s list of places to go, but it’s a fantastic back road experience. While the tourists are bumping their way through the Redwoods in Humboldt County, you can find plenty of Redwoods while cruising the back-roads of Mendocino County. That Oregon Coast everyone raves about? Those cliffs along the Mendocino Coast are just as high and black, the ocean below as ferocious as anything you’ll see in Oregon. There is something very sleepy, yet very alive about Mendocino, with humble farms, fishing villages, small towns, and lots of rugged, unpaved back roads to explore. Much of the wild country of Mendocino is a National Park, so mind your p’s and q’s, chat a bit with the locals for tips, to make the trip the event of a lifetime and not blunder into unwelcome territory.
Colorado Boom or Bust
Colorado is amazing. As soon as you spin outside the somewhat inhospitable desert of Utah, which by the way, does have some great off-road spots and those hanging rocks are awesome; there’s Denver, crowded right up to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Once you leave Denver, you’re traveling straight up, but man, what a breath of fresh air. Those Rocky Mountains are a rock climber’s dream. The back roads tumble, they slide, they grind around curves, and each time you catch your breath, you find another challenge you just have to try out. It might be one of the best spots around to ski, but it’s also one of the most exhilarating back road experiences.
The Heart of the Appalachians
The Appalachian Mountains are beautiful. As the oldest range in the United States, the sweeps and swells are far more gentle, more pastoral than the wild west coast, but that’s not to say they are as easy as flipping pancakes. That rolling countryside tumbling far below you is an off-road delight, and nothing is quite as sweet, as rustic, deep and warm as West Virginia. Cascading creeks and rocky interfaces lie just under the dream of a pastoral setting, with misty sunrises to start your day right, and wonderful, helpful people that make you understand what all the hype is about in Blue Ridge charm.
Where Back Road is Home
Alaska is best known as a fisherman’s paradise, but most of those best fishing spots can only be accessed with a four wheel drive. Alaska is probably the only place in the United States where there is more unpaved road than there is paved. Driving your Jeep that far is expensive, and the Alcan is no longer as challenging as it once was. The 1,600 miles that wind into the Alaska Range is now paved, and the cost of gas along the way is staggering, but don’t worry. There are two ways you can get your Alaskan off-road adventure without it costing you an arm and leg. Either ferry out from Seattle to Valdez, or buy a used Jeep when you fly into Anchorage. Four wheel drive is our preferred mode of transportation.
If you ferry into Valdez, you’re going to immediately have an opportunity to test your Jeep on some of the most fabulous off-roads you can imagine, but be sure to make friends with the locals, first. The off-roads are all open to the public, but they keep the locations secret from the average tourist as they like the solitude of being surrounded by waterfalls dumping from dizzying heights, the undisturbed communion with the wildlife, not to mention, those are also their favorite berry picking spots.
If you fly into Anchorage, you’ll find your off-road experience as soon as you leave the city limits. Go east, and you’ll find a number of off road trails surrounding Portage Glacier, or beyond, to Seward or Homer. Go north, and simply choose your destination. There are two mountain ranges; the Chugach, which is really an extension of the Rockies, and the Alaska Range. For the real knuckle biting climbs, I’d choose the Glenn Highway over the Parks. The highway itself is downright gnarly, with dizzying drop-offs, hair-pin curves and an astonishing view of the Matanuska glacier.
For the mud slinger, you just can’t beat the Cook Inlet. With hundreds of miles of bootlegger clay and barely maintained dirt trails that flood over on a regular basis, you can throw around mud until the sun goes down; which it doesn’t do until well into August.
A few words of advice from the locals; do not ride your Jeep out onto the tundra. The tundra is very sensitive terrain and Jeep tracks can remain there for years to come. If you go out on a back road, always fill up first and carry an extra container of gas. Make sure your spare tire is a good one, and carry along some basic mechanic’s tools. Once you’re in the wilderness, gas stations are few, far apart, and cell phone transmission is poor.
About the Author: Karla Fetrow is an experienced off-road driver tackling some of the toughest terrain in the U.S in Alaska on a daily basis. Having been raised in the remote areas of Alaska, it is common knowledge to the rural inhabitant that there are places you just can’t go without a Jeep or other sturdy off-road vehicle. Karla frequently writes on behalf of Extreme Terrain.