Here are four incredible Jeep adventures from Alaska to Texas that let you sample off-road driving before investing in your first 4x4.
By Drew Hardin
If you’re thinking about buying your first 4x4, the cost of buying a truck or SUV, and the investment in parts to make the rig truly trail ready, is a lot of coin to drop to find out later that getting dirty is just not your thing. So, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to try out an off-road excursion before you invested your money? Fortunately, there are companies all over the country with fleets of 4x4s—primarily Jeeps—available to rent, so you can try off-roading before you buy a 4WD of your own.
These are not the SUVs you hire at airports but rigs built to take on the specific kinds of terrain found in the country’s most popular 4x4 destinations. Most of these companies supply not just the vehicles but also experienced guides to show you the local ’wheeling spots and how to negotiate them properly.
For absolute beginners, some companies will rent you a seat in the guide’s Jeep, so you can sit back, sight-see and get a sense of the vehicle’s capabilities without the stress of picking through a boulder field for the first time. Experienced off-roaders love these tours, too, as they can sample the terrain a new locale has to offer without the expense and hassle of transporting their own rig across the country.
The trips selected here vary in length, from an hour or two to full-day excursions. Some trips are follow-the-leader, with a guide always nearby, while other companies rent you the 4x4 and help you plan your own adventure. Most welcome newbie off-roaders, though one company listed here requires drivers have four-wheeling experience due to the area’s difficult trails. Minimum age to rent a Jeep for most of these companies is 25; the minimum age to be a passenger varies with the company.
Off-road rental adventures are available all over the country; our examples range from Alaska to Texas. So, find that bucket-list trail and have some fun!
Big Bear Lake is situated in the San Bernardino Mountains about 100 miles east of Los Angeles. This is an all-season destination for Southern Californians, with excellent fishing and a number of ski resorts in the area for winter excursions. The surrounding San Bernardino National Forest also boasts miles of hiking, horse, and 4WD trails.
The folks at Big Bear Jeep Experience promise a “full, interactive Jeep experience,” says owner Desi Hauer. Guests get a complete briefing on the company’s vehicles before heading out in their rented Jeep behind a guide in his own. Once on the trail, the Jeeps are linked via radios, which the guide uses to not only discuss driving techniques but also to explain the area’s rich history and its abundant vegetation and wildlife.
Trails vary from beginner-friendly dirt fire roads to more advanced rock crawling. When traversing the latter, the guide will cross an obstacle first to demonstrate the techniques needed, then help the guests drive through themselves. “We will train you to be an expert off-road driver,” says Hauer, so you’ll be able to tackle local favorites like the John Bull Trail and Gold Mountain.
The Jeeps in the fleet are all “built trail rigs,” Hauer says, riding on 37-inch Nexen tires, GenRight suspension lifts and Currie axles. Tours range from one to four hours, with prices (per Jeep) from $199 for the shorter tours to $599 for the four-hour Gold Mountain trail, an advanced rock-crawling adventure. Custom tours are also available to visit local mines and nearby off-roading areas.
Tour buses won’t travel on it and rental car companies don’t want their cars on it because of its remoteness and the road’s rough condition. But visitors to Alaska can experience the scenic Denali Highway, which runs just outside the Denali National Park boundaries, in a Jeep furnished by Denali Jeep Excursions.
Kyle Davis, the tour company’s co-owner, explained that this experience is unlike many other Jeep adventure tours. “We’re not doing hardcore off-roading. We’re on a state-maintained road, which can get rough. But really this is a scenic tour in a Jeep.”
Guests drive rented Jeeps in groups of six or so behind a guide, who narrates the tour via CB radio and will pull over when asked for photo opportunities of the mountains, glaciers, and wildlife visible from the highway. The tour encompasses more than 100 miles of the gravel Denali Highway and lasts about four hours. Tours depart twice daily, and cost $169 per person for adults, $99 per child 12 and under.
As these are road-going Jeeps, they don’t need much modification to handle the terrain, Kyle says. But they do upgrade the air filters and run tires with Kevlar belts to minimize flat tires. In addition to the CB radios in the Jeeps, the guide carries a satellite phone for emergencies, as there’s no cell service in the area.
When to Go
As with other tourist destinations, summer can be the busiest season for adventure tour companies. If you plan to take your 4x4 tour in peak season, you may find yourself competing with other off-roaders for a limited number of seats. Instead, go in what the travel business calls “shoulder season,” those weeks before and after the hectic summer months.
In many of these areas, the weather in late spring and early fall can be as beautiful, and actually more temperate, than July and August. Crowds are thinner, too, enhancing your “get away from it all” experience.
When making your travel plans, check the tour company websites for dates of operation. Some are open year-round, while others close during winter months because the trails are impassable due to snow.
Located at Hidden Falls Adventure Park near Austin, Jones Jeeps/Crawler Adventure Tours requires its Jeep rental customers to be experienced off-roaders. The Park is located in the Texas Hill Country, and the terrain is very rocky, “so you have to have a certain amount of skill to complete a two-hour drive through the Park,” says Pauline Jones, who heads up the Adventure side of outfitter Jones Jeeps. “You can’t just jump in and drive having never done it before. Some of the trails are dangerous. A majority of our customers have Jeeps of their own at home.”
Hidden Falls is a magnet for Jeep enthusiasts, Jones says, much like the Rubicon Trail in California or the slickrock in Moab, Utah. In fact, many of her customers are Jeepers from those areas who rent the Jones Jeeps when visiting Texas rather than bringing their own. “They do this as part of their vacation,” she says. “If you like to Jeep, you like to Jeep everywhere you go.”
The company offers guided tours of the park, in half- and full-day versions. Trail choices for the tour are based on the skill level of the participants. The Jeeps available for rental ($499 for half-day, $799 for full) have been built by Jones Jeeps specifically to meet the demands of the local terrain, with 3.5- to 4.5-inch lifts, 37- to 40-inch-tall tires, body armor, and other mods. “Our guide Jeeps have winches on them,” Jones says. “We can get you out of anything with our Jeeps.”
Guests can bring their own Jeeps on these guided tours, too, provided they meet certain equipment requirements—lift and tire height, and so on. And while anyone can pay an entry fee and use the park’s trails on their own, the Crawler Tour folks “provide certified guides to get you through obstacles without tearing up your Jeep or injuring yourself,” Jones says. Not to mention the camaraderie that comes from hanging out with other Jeepers.
Craig Anderson at Rocky Mountain Jeep Rentals offers off-roaders and prospective off-roaders two different ways to experience the high-altitude beauty of the Colorado Rockies. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, his Salida home base (about 100 miles west of Colorado Springs) is in a county with more 14,000-foot mountain peaks than any other in the state, and local 4WD trails can climb as high as 12,000 feet.
He rents Jeeps (from $180 to $260 per day) for those who want to strike off on their own. But before they leave he sits down with customers to “map out their adventure according to their driving ability, comfort zone, and what they want to see. Do they want to see old mines? Narrow-gauge railroad beds? Vistas? I want them to get what they want, not just what we have.”
Customers can also ride in a Jeep with an experienced guide who can both negotiate the area’s more challenging trails and talk about its beauty and history. “We have guides who really love the mountains and can express that in a positive way, whether it’s for families, senior citizens, even disabled veterans. We have no cookie-cutter tours.” Half-day tours cost $112 per person; full-day tours are $199 per person.
Anderson says he “puts 16 Jeeps out every day,” all modified to handle the area’s steep and rocky terrain. “Everything I own is lifted, with oversize [33 to 37 inches] tires and skid plates, all the necessary stuff to make them ready to travel these back roads safely and efficiently. My Jeeps can do 95 percent of the trails up here.” For the other 5 percent he will rent out his personal Jeep, with 37-inch tires, 4 inches of lift, 5.13 gears and lockers front and rear.
Related articles that may interest you:
About The Author: 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.