You’ve decided to take the big step and see the United States from the little used back roads and off road trails. This decision wasn’t a light one. Finding those lesser used roads isn’t easy and require a great deal of pre-planning that includes poring over maps and contacting with online Jeep clubs for advice. You discover that the best trail systems are in national parks, placing you within substantial distance of hotels, diners and other service facilities. This means a certain amount of self-sufficiency. Caution tells you to carry along everything you might need; practicality tells you to pack as lightly as possible. A weighted Jeep will give you poorer gas milage, and more difficulty in navigating rough terrain.
An extended trip means you’ll probably see some radical climate changes. Unless you’re adamant about make planning your trip strictly as a cross-country expedition through the northern regions, which include high mountains, blustery winds and cold temperatures at night, as well as snow from October to May, or wish to spend several weeks in the rain forest, you may find a soft top for your Jeep your most practical asset. A soft top will give you the versatility you need for both hot climates and chillier weather. It will protect you from temporarily adverse weather conditions, eliminating the need for piles of all-weather clothing. Ideally, the only clothing you should need to pack is a jacket, a couple of sweaters or fleece pull-overs, some tee-shirts, jeans, shorts, a pair of sandals, a pair of boots and a comfortable pair of shoes. For handling your winch and for mechanical repairs, don’t forget a pair of good work gloves.
If you own a Jeep Wrangler or other four wheel drive, you’ll want to visit states that have the most extensive off-road challenges. These states are primarily situated along the west coast and the Continental Divide, where the Rocky Mountains bite into the skyline and off road driving is a matter-of-fact statement of life. No West Coast trip is complete without stopping by the Redwoods in California and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. These two areas have extremely separate climatic and environmental conditions, so you will want to pack accordingly.
When going into the Redwoods, most people target Fortuna, in Humboldt County as their choice of entrance. However, if you want to get away from the tourist crowds and find a secluded spot, enter Mendocino County. Use Ukiah, California as your orientation point and prepare for a woodland trip like no other. Some of the oldest growth trees and some of the tallest are actually located in Mendocino County, along with pygmy forests where the soil is so poor, trees grow to only a few feet tall.
There are over 900,000 acres of National Forest in the Mendocino area, with mountains, canyons lakes and streams providing every type of recreational activity, including fishing, rock hounding, nature study and boating. There are also mineral hot springs, although the Fouts Springs, Hough Springs and Allen Springs have only some rapidly decaying buildings on the site.
Mendocino is part of the rain belt, although it does have plenty of warm, sunny days in the summer. The trails, which are marked from moderate to difficult, are mainly dirt and rock, and get quite boggy in wet weather, so you’ll want wide, slightly deflated tires. Pack enough food for at least three days, and fill up with gas at every opportunity. There are plenty of small towns in the Mendocino area, so replenishing supplies is not very difficult, however it is the only one of California’s national forests that is not crossed by a paved road or highway so you’ll want to take all precautions against getting stranded. While the coastal area has balmy evenings in the summer, the mountains turn chilly. The heavy rain season usually begins in September, with snow reports for the mountains from February to May. Elevations vary from 720 feet to 8092 feet, with both the highest and lowest elevation in Grindstone Ranger District.
There is a way to visit the Grand Canyon and avoid the crowds. One breath taking spot is the Toroweap/Tuweep area. The view from the Toroweap Outlook is a 3,000 foot straight drop to the Colorado River. The trail can be accessed from Arizona Highway 389 near Fredonia or Colorado City, or from St. George, Utah.
The routes going into the area are unpaved and only occasionally graded. During dry season, dust wallows appear. The road is very rough; flat tires are common, so be sure to bring your spare as well as your tire repair kit. The monsoon season begins in July and lasts throughout August. During this time period, there are flash floods, often washing the road out. The area is very sparsely inhabited with poor to nonexistent cell phone reception, so bring all your mechanical know-how and a full too box along as well.
Travelers are advised to bring extra water, food and gasoline. It’s a very dry desert area, so be prepared for some very hot weather. The Lava Falls route is extremely rough, steep and exposed to the sun, but it will get you down to the river. Camping is free, on a first come first serve basis, but due to the nature of the route, which is practically inaccessible to anyone except those with high clearance, four wheel drive vehicles, camping spots are usually available.
The most beautiful location along the Grand Canyon is Point Sublime. Not as difficult as the Toroweap/Tuweep area, you still have 18 miles in each direction, for a rugged dirt road drive. To get there, you need to drive south on highway 89, from Fredonia, Arizona to Jacob Lake, then take highway 67 42 miles to the Widforss Trail head.
The drive is mostly through forested area so there is little chance for viewing until you actually come to the Point. Then the tall pines are replaced by pinons, juniper and desert cactus. There are picnic tables and some camping spots, but you will need a permit to camp. The road is rough in some places so is best taken during the day.
The Kaibab National Forest has been another great place for four wheel drivers to get an alternative view of the Grand Canyon, but many there have been many changes in policy over the last year. Many of the trails are now closed to motorized vehicles, so you’ll have to stop at the Forest Offices regarding the rules for vehicle travel. However, with a little pre-planning, you can travel nearly the entire area of Arizona, Utah and Colorado on off-road trails. Some travelers have stated they’ve driven over three hundred miles without once hitting a paved road. Prepare for your trip wisely and maybe you can break the record.
This is a guest post from Karla Fetrow – 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, Jeep Wrangler or other sturdy off-road vehicle. Karla frequently writes on behalf of Extreme Terrain.