Growing up, I vividly remember watching Mad Max and seeing these giant hulking cars & trucks driving over sand, rocks and boulders without any issue. The concept of a vehicle driving off road into the wilderness was such a foreign concept being surrounded by an urban jungle. Years later, I was given the opportunity to drive into the mountains on an unpaved ‘county’ road. It was such an adrenaline pumping thrill! It then made me ask the question, “What are the most amazing off road adventures in ski towns around North America?” So, I did some research and here are a few places to pack your Jeep or 4Runner and test your vehicle’s mettle.
Rubicon Trail – California
How it Began
Even before the Europeans arrived, the Rubicon Valley was the dividing line between two of the Indian tribes of the region:
- The Maidu-Nisenan Tribe to the west
- The Washoe Tribe of western Nevada
In 1848, gold was discovered in the area, and a mass migration began. Structures such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin were built in the coming years. By the 1880’s, the Rubicon Springs (now known as the Hunsucker Springs) began selling its ‘healing waters’ leading to its destination resort status. It was at this time that El Dorado county developed the Rubicon Trail to move cattle, sheep, and turkeys from the western slopes of the Sierra to Meeks Bay for summer grazing.
In the 1920’s, cars traveled the route using ropes and planks to cross the rougher spots. In 1952, several residents of Georgetown met to discuss the possibility of hosting an organized Jeep tour from Georgetown to Lake Tahoe via the Rubicon Trail. It wasn’t until August 29, 1953, that 55 Jeeps with 155 participants left Georgetown on a two-day trip that is now known as ‘Jeepers Jamboree 1’. Every year during the last weekend of July, 4-wheelers follow the tradition of these ‘pioneers’.
Being located next to Lake Tahoe, there is a plethora of options from restaurants and breweries you can check out before you even start your adventure. As the godfather of off-road trails, this should be on everyone’s 4-wheeling bucket list. It’s a 22-mile, part road – part 4×4 trail that is shockingly a county road. It’s unmaintained status makes it exciting for sure. The journey is so long and arduous it will take multiple days to complete, meaning you will need to camp along the way. Be forewarned! This is a technical path so be sure to have some experience before attempting. Or even better, check out one of these companies to get you outfitted and/or help guide you through one of the original off-road challenges:
Engineer Pass – Colorado
Located just down the road from the famed Silverton Ski Resort, Ouray, Colorado is home to an amazing network of off-road challenges. Before you even get to 4-wheeling, you must take the famous Million Dollar Highway. This road is considered one of the most dangerous roads in America. With multiple switchbacks and huge drop-offs, it is not for the faint of heart.
Once you get to town though, you have so many options you won’t know where to start:
- The Alpine Loop
- Yankee Boy Basin
- Imogene Pass
- Corkscrew Gulch
- Engineer Pass
- Brooklyn Road
- Black Bear Pass
- Last Dollar Road
- Ophir Pass
All of them seem amazing, but Engineer Pass is a solid option for beginners and experienced drivers alike. Built by the same engineer who built the Million Dollar Highway, which we talked about in our article Drive it if you can, you know it will be exciting. A little nervous about heading into the wilderness or don’t have a 4WD off roading truck? These tour companies can get you setup:
Summit Of 12,850 Feet Leads To Amazing Views
The Pass comes with amazing views of the San Juan Mountains along with multiple points of historical interest. Not the toughest route but don’t let that deter you. With one of the highest passes at 12,850 feet and some narrow steep sections, it will definitely get your attention.
Whipsaw Trail – British Columbia
Just to the west of the renowned Powder Highway is the Whipsaw Trail. One of the most historic routes in Western Canada, it’s a sweet option for anyone that wants to enjoy the wilderness & follow the footsteps of gold miners. The trail leads you through and around ponds, cabins, mine sites, and even side trails to explore. It’s also the first Canadian trail to be added to the BFG Outstanding Trails program. Everything from bottomless mud pits, tight technical sections, and gnarly hill climbs, it seems to have it all!
Most of the trail isn’t difficult and all of the tougher obstacles can be circumvented if need be. One of the tougher (and interesting) sections of the trail is called Falcon Hill. In 1979, someone decided to drive their 1966 Ford Falcon up it and actually made it! After that feat, how could it be named anything else? On a normal day, any 4×4 can make it up the trail, but if the weather isn’t cooperating, you could be ‘winching’ for hours! How the Ford Falcon made it is a wonder.
Blackcomb Glacier Safari – British Columbia
For those that don’t have access to an off roading vehicle but still want to experience British Columbia, head further west to Whistler. The Canadian Wilderness Adventures tour group offers you a chance to experience some off road adventures with a professional driver. Starting out from the valley, you’ll venture up to the summit near the Horstman Glacier sitting at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level. With a dash of adrenaline and a sprinkle of wildlife sightings, it’s a great introduction to the sport of off-roading without the worry of destroying your own vehicle.
Crystal Ridge Trail – Washington
Washington is home to the Cascade Mountain Range so it makes sense that one of the best trails in North America would exist there. Near Crystal Mountain Ski Resort lays the Crystal Ridge Trail. At around nine miles long, this can be accomplished in one day albeit a REALLY long one. Great views, hill climbs, off-camber, tight spots – you name it, it has it. In fact, this route isn’t for newbies looking for some off-road adventures. Rollovers are a common occurrence, and the cliff on the trail has had fatal consequences.
If it does get a bit too hairy, you can opt to exit early on the eastern half of the trail making the trek a bit shorter. It’s not all gloom & doom though. The views of the Cascade Mountains and Crystal Mountain ski resort make it well worth the challenge. There is even a place to park your RV near the entrance if you want to make it a multiple day journey. This whole voyage is well worth the potential heartache.
The U.P. Overland Tour – Michigan
We’ve talked about some of the most iconic and famous off road adventures in North America, but the next one on our list is in the Midwest. The Midwest?!? How can that be? Well, Upper Peninsula Michigan is a place you couldn’t even imagine existed east of the Mississippi. Sitting on the world’s largest body of fresh water, having 12,000 miles of rivers and streams, 4,300 inland lakes, and only one expressway, it’s a great place to get away from it all.
With thousands of miles of off-road trails, it can be difficult to map a route that makes sure you get to the places worth seeing. That’s where the U.P. Overland Tour comes in. Every August, they take 40 vehicles into the deep woods of the UP to showcase what’s out there. The best part? They’re NOT about making profit. They’re in it to show that the UP’s wilderness should be conserved. Don’t believe us? Check out their video below.
Hunter Mountain – New York
Off road adventures isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you say New York. Bright lights, tall skyscrapers, or maybe even Lake Placid for the Winter Olympics. Well, just three hours north of NYC Hunter Mountain provides an opportunity to do just that. Once the snow melts, there’s over twenty miles of logging trails, mud fields, and even a climb up to the 3,200′ summit of the peak for amazing views of the Catskills. If you own your own off roading vehicle, you can either book a one-day or two-day tour with Hunter Mountain. And no experience required either. For those that don’t have a 4X4, there are custom private adventures available too.
From Crystal Ridge Trail in Washington to the infamous Rubicon, there’s likely an off roading trail by your favorite ski resort. Is there one you enjoy that should be on this list?
For more ideas on how to have fun from relaxing vacations like stargazing at a dark sky preserve to adrenaline pumping experiences like Via Ferrata, check out our comprehensive guide: