The United States is the fourth largest country in the world by geographical area, but only 74th by population density. As a result, there are many vast and relatively empty spaces for overlanding enthusiasts to explore.
With a sense of adventure and ample research, there are almost infinite possibilities for planning overlanding trips, blending together public wilderness lands managed by the states and federal government.
Here, we will focus on more or less established overland routes in the United States that have been mapped out and tested by vehicle-based adventurers over the years. In most cases, these aren’t “officially” designated trails but rather routes defined by the people who first established them and grooved by those that followed.
Some do follow trails that are managed by various government agencies and sometimes enter private lands where the owners allow transit, so in those cases, you have to follow the rules established by the powers that be–meaning, don’t go off-trail if you aren’t supposed to.
Below are a number of terrific overland routes in the United States, listed in alphabetical order, not by popularity or quality. Some can be traversed in stock 2-wheel-drive vehicles, while others require serious off-road capabilities.
The Alpine Loop Backway is a 65-mile mountain loop in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado that connects the towns of Silverton and Ouray with Lake City.
The trail, which passes through San Juan National Forest, reaches an elevation of 12,800 feet as it passes through dramatic alpine tundra and old mining ghost towns from the 1880s, such as Animas Fooks and Capitol City.
|Time of Year||Upper passes are typically opened in May or early June and close again in late October. Areas at lower altitudes open earlier in the season. Check with the National Forest Service office to find out what’s open.|
|Vehicle requirements||You can access about two-thirds of the route in a two-wheel drive, but to complete the entire loop through the high-mountain passes you’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel drive.|
|More information||Colorado Tourism Office Guide and San Juan National Forest website and brochure (PDF).|
The route, which is only open in the summer, can be driven in a day. But spending more time along the way will allow you to explore the many opportunities for world-class hiking, mountain biking, off-roading, fishing, camping, and wildlife viewing. There are many side roads and trails that can be explored.
The Continental Divide, forming the spine of the Rocky Mountains, runs through the middle of the United States from Canada to Mexico. To the west of the divide, all water flows to the Pacific. To the east, it all ends up in the Atlantic.
|Length||It depends. But if you loosely followed the Continental Divide Hiking Trail, you’d be covering around 3,100 miles.|
|States||Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona|
|Time of Year||Year-round, but snow will likely close mountain passes in winter|
|Vehicle requirements||It depends. It’s entirely possible to travel along the Continental Divide all on paved or well-maintained gravel roads. If you want to get more adventurous, you’ll want an off-road capable vehicle.|
|More information||Exploring Overland Trip Report|
Continental Divide Hiking Trail Guide
Colorado Overlander guide to Colorado trails
Traveling the Continental Divide as an overland route isn’t as established as, say, the Pacific Crest Overland Route mentioned below. But there is plenty to see and do for intrepid travelers willing to blaze their own trail (or at least map it out on Google maps).
The Continental Divide runs through numerous states, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. It’s possible to plot a route through each state from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, or vice versa. Or you could just travel segments of the divide–the way people section hike shorter stretches of massive thru-hikes.
Of all the US overland routes, the James W. Dalton Highway is the most remote. Dalton Highway is a 414-mile stretch of gravel and dirt road that runs through some of Alaska’s most isolated wilderness, from the town of Livengood up to the outpost of Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay.
|Time of Year||Open all year, but winter (pretty much anytime outside of late June to early August) requires special preparation.|
|Vehicle requirements||An all-wheel-drive vehicle capable of handling snow is recommended, as snow is a possibility year-round. If you are tackling the route in colder months, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a vehicle capable of handling deeper snow and ice (not to mention appropriate supplies, clothing, and safety gear).|
|More information||Colorado Department of Transportation Guide|
Dalton Highway is one of the most northern roads in the world extremely remote: there are only three towns along the entire stretch, and the last 215-mile stretch offers nowhere to get fuel, food or lodging. If you’ve seen the show Ice Road Truckers, you’ve seen the road.
The road was built in the 1970s to facilitate the construction of an oil pipeline and to service the oil fields on Alaska’s North Slope. It’s now managed by the state of Alaska and mostly used by cargo trucks bringing supplies to the oil facilities in Deadhorse–and a few intrepid overlanding adventurers.
For explorers, the attraction is the remoteness of the area and the boreal forests, flanking the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, and the Arctic National Park and Reserve. There are a few campgrounds along the way and plenty of places for dispersed camping. The area is home to a range of wildlife, including wolves, bears, and musk ox.
The road is remote and driving conditions can be difficult, so an all-wheel-drive vehicle and extra gear and supplies.
Basically, you need to be ready to be self-sufficient should you get stranded in a remote area. The summer window for driving the road is narrow, as winder conditions can last from early August through June.
The Georgia Traverse is an overland route that visits the southern states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. Mapped out by David Giguere, the route covers 390 miles of paved and unpaved roads, with 226 miles traveling along with dirt or gravel roads and trails.
|States||North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia|
|Time of Year||The route is open year-round, but snow or heavy rains might impact the dirt and gravel portions of the road. Check the national forest alerts for important information on road conditions.|
|Vehicle requirements||An SUV with higher clearance and more capable vehicles should be fine (e.g., Subaru wagons).|
|More information||Georgia Overland Website|
The trail starts in Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests near the North and South Carolina border and ends on the Alabama/Georgia border, near the Chattooga River.
Giguere has put together a detailed guide to the route on his website, Georgia Overlanding, including a map with over 500 waypoints along the way. Nobody can say he isn’t thorough!
The Mojave Road is America’s OG overlanding route. The rugged 150-mile-long route, first used by indigenous people and then by European settlers in the 1800s, traverses the Mojave Desert from near Los Angeles to the California/Nevada border.
|Time of Year||November – May (Summer is crazy hot)|
|Vehicle requirements||An all-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.|
|More information||Mojave Road Guide Book|
NPS Overview of Route
NPS Road Conditions Report
This is an overland route where high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended, as the road is not maintained and gets sandy and rough in places.
Most of the Mojave Road is within the boundaries of the Mojave National Preserve, and the road passes through a remarkable landscape of canyons, mountains, mesas, and the remnants of human history, including mines and homesteads.
The map below shows the portion of the route that passed through Mojave National Preserve.
It generally takes around three days to complete the trial. There are a number of undeveloped campsites and camping is first, come first served.
Pan American Highway
The Pan American Highway is one of the longest defined overlanding routes in the world, stretching over 19,000 miles (that’s three zeros!) from the Arctic Ocean to the southern tip of South America.
|Time of Year||Year-round (except possibly the Alaska portion)|
|Vehicle requirements||Other than the Alaska portion, a two-wheel-drive vehicle will work for the North American portion. If you plan to head all the way to Argentina, an all-wheel-drive vehicle may come in handy.|
|More information||Excellent Wikipedia page|
Lonely Planet Guide
History of the Pan American Highway
In contrast to the other routes on this list, the Pan American Highway is overlanding in the more classic sense of adventure travel that crosses multiple continents – along the lines of the Silk Road and the route across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. It was originally conceived in the 1920s as a way to establish political and economic links between countries in the Americas.
The Pan American Highway starts at Prudhoe Bay, the terminus of Dalton Highway in Alaska mentioned above, and uses an interconnected system of highways (with the exception of an area between Panama and Colombia known as the Darién Gap) to reach the city of Ushuaia in Argentina.
The portion of the route in Alaska travels from Deadhorse south to Fairbanks then passes into Canada. More recently, the United States has declared the entire U.S. highway system part of the PAH, so there are multiple routes you can take through Canada and the US to the Mexican border. It’s a bit of a choose your own adventure situation.
The Rubicon Trail is a legendary, 22-mile-long off-road trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains that travels through rugged terrain and amazing views. The trail runs from Georgetown, California to Tahoma, California, near Lake Tahoe.
|Time of Year||The trail is open year-round and some intrepid souls attempt it in winter. But most people stick to the warmer months when the trail is clear of snow.|
|Vehicle requirements||A serious off-roading rig: 4-wheel-drive, suspension lift, and axle lockers are recommended.|
|More information||Eldorado County Guide|
What it lacks in length, the Rubicon makes up for in difficulty and spectacular scenery. Widely regarded as the premier off-road trail in the United States, the route requires a serious off-road vehicle, ideally lifted, armored, and ready to tackle some serious obstacles.
While the Rubicon can be tackled in a single day, some drivers chose to camp overnight and explore the area on foot as well as by vehicle — hence we’re including it in this list of overland routes. Due to the technical nature of the trail, cumbersome overlanding rigs aren’t ideal for this journey, and it’s more typical to see people tent camping than lugging a roof-top tent.
Trans America Trail
The Trans America Trail (TAT) is a 4,253-mile overland route that crosses the United States east to west. The route was mapped out and popularized by Sam Correro, who charted a way to cross the continent using public roads and trails.
|Time of Year||Year-round, though summer heat and winter snows could prove inconvenient.|
|Vehicle requirements||A high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, to handle deep sand, mud, loose gravel, rocks, and snow that may be found along the trail.|
|More information||Trans America Trail Website|
The original route started in Tennessee a made its way across the country to finish up in Oregon. Additional spurs of the trail have been mapped out over time. Correro developed the route as a motorcycle trek, but it is also traveled by trucks and SUVs as well. Adventure cyclists have mapped out their own cycle-friendly version.
The trail mostly passes along dirt and gravel roads, with brief sections of paved roads connecting them. To get a sense of the route, you can check out the episode of Jay Leno’s Garage below, where the comedian travels with Correro.
It’s also worth reading this article by Motor Trend journalists, who were the first to travel the route in an electric truck in 2021.
More overland routes coming soon…