These adventures offer challenge, fun, scenic beauty and great camping that can only be accessed with a 4-wheel-drive.
By Drew Hardin
We go four-wheeling for many reasons. One is the challenge of traveling tough terrain armed with driving skill and the mechanical capabilities offered by a 4x4’s power and traction. Another is to experience the scenic beauty of areas of the country not accessible by car and difficult to reach by foot or other means.
So, with vacation time just around the corner, wouldn’t it be great to use those four-wheeling skills practiced at local off-road parks and recreation areas in other parts of the country, to literally broaden your 4x4 horizons?
This guide presents 10 of the best 4x4 vacation spots in the United States, spanning the entire breadth of the country, from the desert Southwest to the Outer Banks on the Atlantic Coast. There’s a wide range of terrain types here, from well-maintained dirt roads to narrow trails strewn with boulders. Most of these areas can be navigated by anyone with a modicum of off-roading skill; just a couple require expert abilities. We have also included destinations with more to offer than just four-wheeling, for family members who might rather hike, bike, swim, fish, or just doze by a pool. And almost all of them offer great camping opportunities for summertime vacationers.
Like any backcountry activity, four-wheeling requires a certain amount of preparation before you hit the trail. Use the links provided to learn more about where you’re going: recommended vehicle equipment; weather and trail conditions; what to pack (including how much water per person per day); local permits that may be required; closures due to weather, fire, or vegetation restoration; and so on. And check out our Quick Tip for 4x4 vacation options that don’t require you to transport your own rig over thousands of miles to get to your dream vacation spot.
Covering some 40 miles of the Pacific Coast edge of the Siuslaw National Forest is the Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area. About half of the Recreation Area's 31,500 acres is open to motorized vehicles in three main areas. The Northern and Middle areas consist primarily of open riding on the dunes, some rising as high as 500 feet above sea level.
The Southern area is more restricted, with designated trails running along the shore and winding through the plant life further up the beach. This is a busy place, drawing thousands of users every year. Many of them are zipping around in dune buggies or ATVs, so you'll need to stay alert to traffic as you enjoy the off-roading experience unique to driving in the sand. Camping is available in the dune area, but lodging can also be found in nearby coastal towns like Coos Bay, North Bend and Reedsport.
Generally recognized as ground-zero for recreational four-wheeling, the Rubicon Trail is on nearly every four-wheeler's bucket list. The difficulty of this rocky, 22-mile trail through California's Sierra Nevada mountains is legendary—it's a well-earned 10 on a scale of 10—but so is the camaraderie enjoyed by 4WD enthusiasts on the many organized Jamborees and other trips that cross the Rubicon every summer.
It's possible to take on the Rubicon in a stock 4x4, but few can without sustaining body damage. Better to go in a lifted Jeep or other short-wheelbase 4x4 with plenty of body armor and lockers front and rear. The trail is open for public use, but we highly recommend joining one of the organized trail runs to get the most out of the experience.
Quick tip: Every off-roader should carry a Tree Trunk Protector as part of their recovery kit. Not only do these straps protect trees from damage, they also provide an added winching safety precaution as you should never loop your winch cable around an anchor point and hook the cable back onto itself.
Lake Havasu City, on the Arizona side of the lake, is best known for its London Bridge (the second most popular tourist attraction in Arizona after the Grand Canyon), as a popular spring break destination. Havasu is also known for the various water sports and activities available on the lake and nearby Colorado River. But the area is also home to a number of trail networks in the heart of some of Arizona's most beautiful scenery: open expanses of desert, sand dunes, narrow canyon trails and more.
Four-wheeling varies from low-speed rock crawling to high-speed driving through sandy arroyos, so you can choose your adventure based on your abilities and your rig's modifications. Desert temperatures go well into the triple digits in the summer, so peak 'wheeling season is fall through spring. Additional OHV information can be found on the Arizona Game & Fish site.
Southern Utah has some of the most gorgeous scenery in the entire country, from the Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks to Monument Valley and the Canyonlands National Park. The area is a target-rich environment of four-wheeling opportunities that range from leisurely drives along the dirt roads in Zion to the thrill of clinging to Moab slickrock.
The White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park offers views of the sandstone arches and other rock formations the area is famous for; plan on taking two to three days to travel its 100-mile length. The National Park Service deems it “moderately difficult” for 4WDs, even in favorable weather conditions. Moab, like the Rubicon Trail, is a popular four-wheeling destination that's home to Jeep Jamborees; www.rr4w.com and other organized activities, including the week-long Easter Jeep Safari put on by the local Red Rock 4-Wheelers club.
Drummond Island in Lake Huron sits right on the U.S./Canadian border and is reachable by a mile-long ferry ride. The island has an extensive trail network with 40 miles of routes for Jeeps, SUVs and other 4x4s, and another 60 miles of dedicated ATV trails. The terrain varies from muddy roads through hardwood forests to stone ridges carved out by the last Ice Age to scenic open meadows—something for every driving skill level.
The more challenging routes are best tackled by 4x4s with suspension lifts, big tires, skid plates and locked differentials, as there are some fairly tall stone steps to negotiate. Note that while some of the trail routes go near the shore, it is illegal to drive on the beach or in the water in Michigan.
The 1.2-million-acre Ozark-St. Francis National Forests in northwestern Arkansas are home to more than 1,000 miles of roads and trails dedicated to off-highway-vehicle use. Driving these old forest roads can vary from easy to “very difficult,” say local rangers, with some trails limited to Jeeps and other high-ground clearance vehicles due to the steep and slippery terrain.
The Forest Service has produced Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) and brochures that describe the trails in detail; keeping a MVUM in your rig is a good idea, as Forest Service Policy dictates that motorized vehicles stay on these designated routes.
Within the Ozark National Forest, along the Mulberry River, is a one-stop-shop for outdoor recreation called Byrd's Adventure Center. Byrd's offers 800 acres of off-roading trails, plus obstacle courses and mud pits. There's lodging, restaurants and campsites on the grounds, plus opportunities for kayaking and canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking and more.
Located in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park has the distinction of being one of the largest national parks in the country—covering more than 800,000 acres—but also one of the most remote. Within the park are more than 50 miles of improved dirt roads (usually passable by most vehicles depending on recent weather conditions) and more than 100 miles of primitive dirt roads that require a 4x4's extra ground clearance.
The 51-mile River Road follows a portion of the Rio Grande, which forms the park's southern boundary. The park recommends allotting a full day to explore this route; primitive campsites along the road enable lengthier stays. High ground clearance and 4WD are a must for the 18-mile Black Gap Road, known for its water crossings, frequent washouts, and the tricky, rocky Black Gap Step.
Don't let concerns about the cost of transporting your 4x4 keep you from experiencing these four-wheeling hot spots. Jeep and 4x4 rentals are available at many locations, so you can simply arrive and drive off into your adventure.
Renting a 4x4 locally offers the benefit of getting a rig that's equipped specifically for the area's terrain, from diff locks and body armor for rock crawling to aggressive mud tires for sloppy routes. Local outfitters can also provide good advice about the best trails in the area, any trail closures, and information about local laws in effect, such as campfire bans due to high fire danger.
Some of the more popular 4x4 destinations also offer 4WD tours of local trails. That can mean following a guide in your own vehicle or riding with a guide in the tour company's 4x4. Letting someone else do the driving seems like missing out on the fun, but guides can be a wealth of information on everything from good restaurants to local history to the vegetation and wildlife that surround you. Plus they're usually happy to share driving tips honed by years of experience.
If, for example, you've never negotiated near-vertical slickrock surrounded by sheer drop-offs, you may be more comfortable letting someone else take the wheel—the first time, anyway.
New Jersey's Pine Barrens offer a serene antidote to the East Coast's congested urban living. Wharton State Forest, located roughly between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, is the largest of New Jersey's state forests, at more than 122,000 acres. Within it are some 225 miles of unpaved roads to explore, most of which were originally used during the 18th and 19th centuries to support local industry. The historic Batsto Village within the forest, for example, was a bog iron and glass-making industrial center from the mid 1700s to the mid 1800s.
Though they're called “roads,” these routes can be soft, loose and sandy, and can easily mire a vehicle, especially after a rainfall. 4WD is recommended, as is recovery equipment such as a high-lift jack, tow strap or winch. And be sure your winch kit has a tree saver (see Quick Tip).
The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia, offers the activities you'd expect from an expansive resort property: tennis, golf, a spa, even skeet and trap shooting. But the Greenbrier also includes a private, 11,000-acre wooded mountain preserve, where Jeep Wrangler Rubicons and Polaris side-by-sides are used for the Greenbrier's Off-Road Adventures.
Guides will instruct you on the finer points of negotiating the property's terrain and its 30-mile course, starting with an entry-level session that teaches off-roading basics. The more advanced session traverses rocks, water crossings, hill climbs, mud pits and other obstacles.
The Outer Banks in North Carolina is one of the few East Coast shoreline destinations that allows driving on the beach. Four-wheeling on sand isn't difficult—it's a lot like driving in snow—but on the flat beach it can be easy to dig in and get stuck, especially when starting from a dead stop. Air the tires down to widen their footprint, and bring some recovery gear (a shovel, traction mats and a tow strap) just in case.
Permits are required to drive in most of the beach areas, and travel is generally limited to the time between October 1 and April 30. Among the must-sees in the area are the wild horses roaming around Carova at the northern end of the Outer Banks, and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.&
Drew Hardin’s work in automotive journalism began while he was still in college in the late 1970s. After a 14-year stint at Petersen Publishing, where he was Editor of 4-Wheel & Off-Road and Sport Truck magazines, he transitioned into a freelance career, covering topics that range from vintage hot rods and classic muscle cars to 4x4s and green vehicles.