When it comes to overlanding, it’s the journey—not so much the destination—that matters most. Though truth be told, you can’t really beat the Rockies when it comes to an overlanding destination. Stretching from Montana to New Mexico, the world-famous Rocky Mountains offer a wealth of off-road opportunities with a wide diversity of public lands and thousands of miles of backcountry roads and four-wheel-drive trails. Overlanding—the art of traveling across remote terrain with off-road capable transport—has taken the outdoor world by storm in the last few years. And it’s easy to see why—overlanders get access to some incredibly wild nature. They witness crazy beautiful landscapes, spend the night at pristine secluded campsites, and find remote refuge in the back of the beyond.
Here are five of our best Rocky Mountain overland routes for families to get lost and found on the road.
Know before you go
When traveling in the Rockies, overlanders should plan on being self-sufficient, bringing plenty of food, water, and camping supplies, along with a Leave No Trace attitude that preserves our natural wonders. Enjoy these natural wonders. But most of all: enjoy the journey!
Colorado: Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway
The Alpine Loop, a designated Backcountry Byway, twists through southwestern Colorado’s skyscraping San Juan Mountains for 65 rugged miles. The four-wheel-drive track connects the historic towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City. It crosses exposed 12,780-foot Engineer and 12,620-foot Cinnamon Passes and passes through historic ghost towns as well as wildflower-filled meadows. It also offers a wealth of side roads, hidden campsites, and trails that lead to lakes and waterfalls. While parts of the route can be driven in a passenger car, the demanding high passes—with steep grades, drop-offs, and slick conditions—can only be crossed by 4x4, high-clearance vehicles with a skilled backroad driver at the wheel. Side diversions include driving over Stony and Hurricane Passes and climbing a Fourteener on foot like 14,048-foot Handies Peak.
New Mexico-Colorado: Enchanted Rockies Trail
The Enchanted Rockies Trail, the big daddy of Rocky Mountain overland routes, is an enchainment of mostly dirt roads that runs 1,200 miles from Queen in southern New Mexico to Estes Park in northern Colorado. The moderate route—which passes through nine national forests and two national parks—features almost 800 miles of off-highway travel on rough roads. Highlights include Hot Sulphur Springs, the old mining town of Victor, the towering dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park, and New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Range. Not to mention extraordinary solitude and off-the-beaten-track campsites. Plan on taking up to 10 days to drive the route and partner up with another rig for safety.
Utah: Pony Express Trail National Historic Trail
A desperate scheme was hatched in 1860 to deliver mail in only 10 days between Missouri and California, so for 18 months riders pounded over 1,840 miles of plains, mountains, and deserts on the Pony Express Trail. Now, overland travelers can experience the history and hardship of those young riders on 133 miles of the old trail in western Utah. The route, a designated National Historic Trail, traverses isolated basins and ranges and lets travelers relive the Old West. Stop along the dirt track at Pony Express sites like Simpson Springs Station and Faust Station. Find distant views at Lookout Pass. Hike and mountain bike on countless unnamed trails. And spend the night under a magic carpet of stars. Later, explore the rugged Fish Springs Range at the trail’s end or drive north to the Silver Island Mountains Backcountry Byway, a 54-mile primitive road adventure beside Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Montana: Missouri Breaks Backcountry Byway
In Montana’s Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, the Missouri River twists through 149 miles of canyons lined with the Breaks—an eroded badlands of white cliffs and broken bluffs. A 73-mile backcountry road traverses this scenic wildland, forming an overlanding loop filled with dramatic views, crazy rock formations, remote campsites, and plenty of solitude. The area is largely unchanged since Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery paddled up the wide Missouri in May 1805. The dirt track, a designated BLM Backcountry Byway, is renowned for its wildlife, including bighorn sheep and elk, and 233 species of birds. Bring a canoe to paddle the muddy Missouri and hiking boots to explore its many secret canyons. The Bureau of Land Management recommends driving a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle and checking the weather beforehand since the roads are impassable after rain.
Wyoming: South Bighorn/Red Wall National Backway
The South Big Horn/Red Wall National Backway—which starts 15 miles west of Casper, Wyoming—makes a horseshoe-shaped loop across high plains, blunt canyons, and rounded hills on the southern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. The 101-mile route follows dirt roads through a landscape dotted with fleet-footed pronghorn antelope, vegetated sand dunes, and historic rangeland still used to graze cattle and sheep. Most noteworthy of all is the towering Red Wall—a distinctive 45-mile-long, sandstone escarpment. Historic sites along the track include Rough Lock, where pioneers locked wagon wheels and skidded down slopes, and the famed Hole-in-the-Wall, the hidden home to notorious outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The excursion ends near Hell’s Half Acre, a badlands of sculpted rock fins, hoodoos, and spires. Plenty of primitive campsites and two BLM recreation areas are scattered along the backroad. For more overlanding adventure, follow the 64-mile Seminoe to Alcova Backcountry Byway from south of Casper to I-80, where you can expect un-trampled country, wildlife, and stellar scenery.
Written by Stewart Green for Matcha in partnership with Osprey Packs.
Featured image provided by Image via Mahir Uysal