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If you’re looking to escape in your off-road vehicle, or take a tour, these destinations offer the chance to get out there and appreciate the beauty of nature on two, three or four wheels.
Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley may sound ominous – and it is, particularly in the summer. Go in the spring or winter, when temperatures are more manageable, and you can enjoy more miles of roads than any other national park. While 91% of the park’s 3.4 million acres are protected in roadless wilderness areas, nearly 1,000 miles of paved and dirt roads provide an abundance of opportunities for recreation and exploration. This park is all about four-wheeling adventures that await in dozens of canyons, hidden from view of the average passerby. A favorite trail sits just south of Panamint Springs Resort, known as Lookout City. Rising quickly from the valley floor up into the Argus range of mountains where mining was rampant up until World War II, rock piles await along the road, while magnificent vistas greet you at the end of the road. A number of interesting sites can be visited, including the famous Modoc mine and the Charcoal Kilns in Wildrose Canyon, 25 miles across the valley, and even the famous Manson Ranch where the notorious murderer Charlie Manson hid from law enforcement and nurtured his cult.
One of the best places in the country to get off the beaten path on an ATV is in the red rocks of Moab, an area renowned for some of the best riding in the world. It offers a little bit of everything, including legendary scenery, sand, water, cliffs, ginormous boulders, and slick rock. The terrain can be unforgiving, requiring intense physical and mechanical skill, but it’s worth the reward for what many consider to be the ultimate adventure destination. Trails, like the high-altitude Paiute, traverse two mountain ranges and miles and miles of red rock cliffs, while brilliant blue skies and wildlife like deer, elk and moose also add to the unforgettable experience.
What better place to ride than a ghost town? Calico was a silver mine mecca that went from boom to bust in the 1880s after hundreds of miles of tunnels had been carved into the mountains by fortune seekers. It once had dozens of saloons, along with houses of ill repute, as a quintessential Old West town. It’s since been recreated, and now resembles what it was like at its peak. Calico was purchased by Walter Knott in the 1950s, who restored all but five original buildings, making them look just like they did in their heyday. The town was designated a historical landmark and is part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system today, visited by people from across the globe. The colors that gave the town its name continue into the surrounding canyons and hillsides. For off-road enthusiasts, the real draw is just outside of town, here among the abandoned placer claims and shafts found throughout the region.
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
The Silver Lake Sand Dunes of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula draw many off-road adventurers, but if you really want to get away from it all, head further north, past the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. Here you can get lost in a forest canopy of pine and cedar, taking one of the hundreds of miles of trails that will bring you across abandoned railroad tracks and high, river-spanning trestles to deserted beaches of Lake Huron or Lake Michigan. The region hosts dozens of beautiful rivers and pristine lakes, along with the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Tahquamenon Falls. While you’ll have practically an endless number of trails to choose from, Drummond Island, located off the eastern tip of Upper Michigan in Lake Huron, is ideal for advanced ATVers, with its challenging 60-mile Drummond Island Trail, known for its narrow trails, very rough terrain and steep grades.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Idaho
In the mountains of Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, you’ll not only find epic riding on hundreds of miles of ATV and single-track motorcycle trails but some of the most breathtaking views in the country. Many of the single-track trails are for the more advanced rider, with steep drop-offs, narrow switchbacks and some rocky sections, but the ATV trails are fairly moderate and easily handled by someone with average skills. The Baumgartner area, located alongside the South Fork Boise River near Featherville is a favorite, with many riders staying at Baumgartner Campground as it offers trail access in addition to a natural hot spring and swimming hole. In addition to off-road opportunities, the region offers great fishing, hiking, whitewater rafting and wildlife watching, with more than 300 species calling this forest home, including deer, elk, black bear, coyote and beaver.
Hidden Falls Adventure Park - Marble Falls, Texas
Located just an hour or so from Austin, Hidden Falls Adventure Park is considered an off-road treasure, with 240 miles of marked trails that offer something for every type of off-road enthusiast from motorcycles and jeeps to ATVs and trucks. The trails are made up of everything from soft and hard pack dirt to rocky dirt and solid rock sections, and along the way, you’ll enjoy picturesque scenery that includes waterfalls and natural springs that are ideal for taking a cool dip. Fishing, hiking and mountain biking are all popular activities here too. If you want to spend the night, the park offers tent and RV camping, as well as cabins and bunkhouses. And, if you don’t have a vehicle of your own, you’ll find dirt bikes and ATVs available for rent.
Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
The beautiful, lush Black Hills of western South Dakota boasts more than 600 miles of trails for off-road vehicles with landscapes that include everything from grassy plains to heavily wooded trails and challenging rock climbing sections. Many of the trails are connected by 500 miles of “Roads Open to All Vehicles,” which together offer abundant opportunities for outings of various degrees of difficulty and lengths, including loop route options. There are 13,000 acres of wilderness, 11 reservoirs and 1,300 miles of streams to explore, along with the occasional old mining site. Campgrounds are in abundance as well, with over 30 in the forest offering easy access to the trails, and a variety of other activities like swimming, fishing, biking, hiking, horseback riding and wildlife watching. Some of the animals that call the area home include elk, buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, wild burro, whitetail and mule deer.
Bald Eagle State Forest, Pennsylvania
The Bald Eagle State Forest includes nearly 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Union, Snyder, Centre, Clinton and Mifflin Counties, and is considered a true jewel in the world of outdoor recreation. It spans high, sharp ridges and features miles of pristine mountain streams and numerous tracts of old-growth forest in addition to miles and miles of four-wheel-drive trails, dual-sport motorcycle trails and trails for ATVs as well as non-street legal motorcycles. Dual sport motorcyclists especially love the network of single-track and dirt roads here as they’re the largest network in the state and take days to explore. In addition to off-roading, fly-fishing enthusiasts can hit the famous White Deer Creek and Penns Creek, while paddlers will find water trails for canoes and kayaks.
There are hundreds of miles to ride in West Virginia, with conditions varying from gravel and rock to sand and hard-packed clay. Most of the mountains are covered with vegetation, oaks, hickories, beech, and all the usual undergrowth, and many are frequently shaded in a high canopy of leaves that brings relief in the hot summer months. The Hatfield & McCoy Trail System offers 500 miles of off-road trails in five counties that include systems open year-round to dirt bikes, ATVs and utility vehicles, often connecting community trails that allow visitors to access “ATV-friendly towns” in southern West Virginia. If the routes alone aren’t enough to get your blood flowing, the realization that you’re riding over some former Civil War battlefields just as soldiers did in the mid-19th-century, is sure to do the trick. If you’re new to off-roading, try the Little Coal River Trails near Danville and Madison. The Pinnacle Creek West Virginia Trail System near Pineville offers a good variety for all types of riders and is known for its incredibly scenic views in addition to being close to world-class whitewater rafting.
Molokai Forest Reserve Road, Hawaii
Unlike most forest reserves throughout Hawaii, the Molokai Forest Reserve comprises multiple different non-contiguous geographic areas, totaling more than 11,000 acres of public land on this small Hawaiian Island. Driving the Main Forest Road, also known as Molokai Forest Reserve Road brings the reward of incredible views that include waterfalls and plunge pools, sea cliffs and Waikolu Canyon. Your off-road adventure includes the Waikolu Lookout and the nearly 5,000-foot-high Kamakou Peak, which are part of the Kamakou Preserve. Overnight camping is an option here too, at the Waikolu Lookout Campground, situated deep within an upland forest, where you’ll also enjoy a panoramic view of the canyon.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
One of the Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon is truly America’s geological masterpiece, so it’s no surprise that one of the most popular destinations for ATV riding within the National Parks System is the Grand Canyon. Much of the outlying parkland is operated by the Bureau of Land Management and open to off-road recreation. As there is a wide range of guided tours available throughout the area, this is an ideal place for those that can’t bring their own vehicle, or would like to try off-roading for the first time. If you do want to bring your own, you’ll find a host of trail adventures that await, and some of the trails around the canyon, like those that depart from the town of Mesquite in Nevada, will lead to overnight accommodations at working guest ranches. BLM officials can offer advice on the best trail route for your particular needs.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Cottonwood Canyon Road, also known as Road 400, is a dirt road that connects U.S. Highway 89 with Utah SR 12 at Cannonville and traverses portions of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, offering a unique view into its heart. As high clearance vehicles are recommended, it’s ideal for four-wheeling, and drivers will be rewarded with an up-close look at some stunning natural features, including colorful rock formations. If you want to get out on your feet, there are a number of outstanding hiking trails that can be accessed along the route too, like the Cottonwood Narrows, Hackberry Canyon and Round Valley Draw. Other attractions located on the northern end of the road include Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park, best accessed from Cannonville.
While Lanai only has 30 miles of paved roads, the island offers many more miles in off-road adventures, including the Munro Trail. The 12.8-mile, one-lane, dirt road begins just north of Lanai City, past the stables of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, and offers incredible vistas among the majestic Cook pine trees, George Munro, a naturalist from New Zealand, introduced when he arrived in 1890. You’ll enjoy sweeping canyon views as well as the chance to ride through a rainforest filled with pine, eucalyptus, ironwood and ohia lehua trees. The scenic lookout at Maunalei gulch offers views of the neighboring islands of Maui, Molokai, the Big Island, Oahu and the glistening Pacific before reaching Lanaihale, the island’s highest peak at 3,370 feet.
Mendocino National Forest, California
The Mendocino National Forest offers the opportunity for a myriad of adventures, from hiking and biking to off-roading and wine tasting, and while it’s close to the San Francisco Bay Area, it still manages to be one of the state’s least-visited national forests. Enjoy some four-wheeling and then hit the area wineries to sample some of the region’s fabulous vino. The forest is California’s only national forest not crossed by a paved road which makes it especially attractive for enjoying the great outdoors. At its southeastern edge, Bartlett Springs Road enters the forest, traveling through the southern tip offering hundreds of miles of trails and breathtaking views as well as fantastic camping and fishing.
Imperial Sand Dunes - Yuma, Arizona
All of those movies you’ve seen with the hero stranded in the middle of the desert, like “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Scorpion King” weren’t shot in the Sahara, but here in Imperial Sand Dunes. This is the nation’s largest mass of inland sand dunes, which extend for more than 40 miles along the eastern edge of the Imperial Valley. With summer temperatures approaching 120 degrees, this is the home of some of the most brutal desert conditions in the country – and it’s easy to lose yourself in the dunes and wind up crossing the Mexican border. But with razorback peaks rising hundreds of feet from the desert floor, dune bowls nearly a mile in diameter, and some of the most glorious sunsets you’ll ever see, this is a favorite spot for many. The area acts as a magnet for off-road enthusiasts in all but the hottest months and welcomes more than one million visitors every year. Vehicle camping is permitted in all areas open to vehicle use, with sites available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Oceano Dunes, California
Formerly known as Pismo Beach, this 3,600-acre stretch of beach along California’s central coast is a rare find. Nearly half of its terrain is open for off-road riding, and there is nowhere else in the entire state where you can drive your vehicle right out onto the stand, pick your perfect spot to camp and spend your time enjoying fun rides across the dunes. The area is recognized by conservationists, scientists, the public and other organizations as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes that remain in the state. While the dune area can be explored in just a day of riding, there are plenty of other activities too, including swimming, surfing, horseback riding and fishing.