We’ve got vacation ideas in the West for folks who live on the edge and folks who just want to relax.
America’s long infatuation with road trips of all kinds has always transcended the beaten path — especially in the West.
Up a glaciated mountain in the Cascades with crampons. Behind a team of huskies in the Alaskan outback. On an endless stretch of mountain bike single track along the Continental Divide.
In a sea kayak, jeep, or twin-engine Piper Navajo. By steam-powered train or dual-sport motorcycle. Aboard a Hummer in the Arizona desert, a helicopter in the Black Hills, a sand rail in the Oregon dunes, a bobsled in Park City, Utah, a paraglider off the edge of California ...
Or on a horse, of course.
What inspired us to list 25 top off-road adventures in the West, featuring just as many different modes of conveyance (including our own two feet)? Well, we had to stop somewhere. Plus, what better way to celebrate the magazine’s silver anniversary than by spotlighting 25 transporting experiences in so many of our favorite places?
Some of these trips can be done in an hour or three. Others may require days, weeks, or even months, and some serious planning. And many might be a little too adventurous for your taste. That’s why we’re rounding things out with a bevy of milder experiences.
You don’t have to be Iditarod material to have a doggedly good time learning the ropes behind a tireless team of Alaskan canines. Sign up for dog-sledding school with Paws for Adventure and you’ll be warming up to Fairbanks in winter as fast as you can say “mush.” The 20-year-old company introduces clients to the sport with some basic training and terminology: how to harness, snow hook, ride the runners, and safely establish a working relationship with a three- to four-dog team. Then it’s time to put new skills to the test on a 10-mile “Fun Run” through the nearby field and spruce forest. Follow it up with one of several dog-sledding overnight offerings, including a three-day beginner’s tour and a six-day mush along the Denali Highway from Paxson to Maclaren Lodge.
Where: Fairbanks, Alaska
When: November – March (November – January for mushing school)
Why: As much as we can appreciate a good snowmobile ride, mushing is Alaska’s official state sport for good reason.
No, it’s not a mirage. Those enormous sand dunes rolling from Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean for 40 miles along the central Oregon coast are really there. Predictably enough, so are a handful of roadside operators in and around the sleepy town of Florence waiting to give you an unforgettable spin through Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, one of the largest expanses of temperate coastal sand dunes on the planet. ATVs and dune buggies have their rightful place in this mini desertscape. But for the real stomach dropper, there’s the sandrail — a low-slung, barebones race-car version of a dune buggy built for handling this terrain like a Lamborghini would.
Where: Florence, Oregon
When: March – December
Why: Best thrill ride on the West Coast’s biggest dunes.
It’s where Big Bend National Park gets its name — from that broad canyon-flanked crescent of the Rio Grande where you can “go for days without seeing another boater,” notes the National Park Service. It’s also where dedicated adventure-seekers making it all the way out here are richly rewarded with one of the best float trips between deep West Texas and the rest of the universe. Visitors can opt for single- or multiday floats with veteran local adventure tour operator Far Flung Outdoor Center, headquartered near the old ghost towns of Terlingua and Lajitas. A favorite section: Santa Elena Canyon — featuring 1,500-foot canyon walls, myriad wildlife, and a growing suspicion that you have the whole world to yourself.
Where: Big Bend Park, Texas
When: Spring and fall — for milder temperatures and more stabilized river flow
Why: Coolest Float trip after a very long drive
Thanks to our resilient fondness for train travel and some dedicated preservationists, vintage trains are still chugging through the California redwoods, Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush country, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the canyons of Utah and New Mexico. For sheer history, scenery, and vertiginous drama all in one 45.4-mile ride aboard an 1880s-era passenger car pulled by a century-old steam locomotive, there’s no time machine quite like southwest Colorado’s Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Rolling from Durango to the once-booming mining town of Silverton (now a National Historic Landmark), the trip climbs to more than 9,300 feet along a narrow, winding route above the Animas River Valley that could only have been inspired by late-19th-century gold and silver fever. Gape out the window or from a seat in the open-air gondola.
See also: the Colorado-New Mexico Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
Where: Durango, Colorado
When: May 5 – October 27 (shorter winter trips available November – May)
Why: The ultimate 19th-century thrill ride on a historic narrow-gauge railway
Twenty years ago, the Adventure Cycling Association launched the mother of all off-road “bikepacking” trails — the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — roughly tracing the Continental Divide for more than 2,700 miles through two Canadian provinces and five Western American states. Yes, hardcore mountain bikers complete the entire trail every year and there is an annual self-supported race open to both single-speed and tandem bicycles. No, you don’t have to go it alone, do the entire GDMBR, or break the current speed record (13 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes) to fully appreciate this ever-evolving mountain-biking masterwork. Favorite doable portions of the largely dirt and gravel route run through Alberta’s Flathead Valley, Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, Colorado’s Boreas Pass, and New Mexico’s remote Gila Wilderness. This year, the ACA will be hosting five guided tours along select spots, ranging from British Columbia’s Wigwam River Valley to Wyoming’s high plains to a sky-scraping spin through the Colorado Rockies.
Where: Select routes between Banff, Alberta, and Antelope Wells, New Mexico
When: Spring, summer, and fall
Why: Pedal the world’s longest mountain-bike route — or a supreme leg of it.
Doing the 17-mile scenic drive past the Mittens and other instantly recognizable sandstone mega-sculptures from Stagecoach and several more of your favorite westerns may be the first order of business. Getting on a horse and riding off into the sunset and/or sunrise in this remote 91,000-acre Navajo Tribal Park and iconic movie setting (John Ford alone shot 10 films here) takes you to an entirely different place. Monument Valley horseback rides — bookable through authorized Navajo guides within the park — range from hourlong rambles to full-day trips into the backcountry with an overnight in a traditional Navajo hogan.
Where: Monument Valley, Navajo Tribal Park, Utah-Arizona border
When: Temperate shoulder seasons — spring or fall
Why: It’s the closest you’ll get to starring in your own John Ford movie.
Tough as it is to turn your back on southern Oregon’s dramatic sea-stack-adorned Pacific Coast, one of the biggest temptations to point your outboard inland hides in the sleepy town of Gold Beach. Here’s where the historic Rogue River — one of eight original rivers included in 1968’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — meanders through the state’s most awe-inspiring forest-draped outback. And here’s where visitors can bounce up and down a not-so-lazy river — past schools of steelhead and lone fishermen in waders; through peaceful valleys, roaring canyons, old-growth pinelands, and lost-in-time river towns where the mail is still delivered by watercraft — on a specially designed hydro jet boat. Launched in 1958, Jerry’s Rogue Jets plies the white-water-laced Rogue on 64-, 80-, and 104-mile round-trip river odysseys, piloted by mail-delivering local guides whizzing passengers through outer Oregon’s wildest, wettest, and (since 1895) most die-hard postal route.
Where: Gold Beach, Oregon
When: May 1 – October 15
Why: The mail just isn’t delivered this way back home.
How do we get away with recommending a 2,650-mile hiking trail covering the mountain-spined lengths of three giant Western states for your next little walkabout? By singling out a few stellar legs of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (PCT) to sample before taking those thru-hiker dreams to the next level. California: The greatest hits of Sierra Nevada backcountry are everywhere along the 215-mile John Muir Trail, stretching from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney. Oregon: Follow the PCT/Timberline Trail into Mount Hood’s Paradise Park for gorgeous wildflower shows and magnificent views of the state’s highest peak. Washington: Way up in the Cascades, Goat Rocks Crest has been called “the PCT’s aesthetic high point” by Backpacker magazine, featuring prize vistas of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount St. Helens. For hiking and equestrian intel along the PCT — from safety and logistics to permits, gear, and volunteer programs — visit the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
Where: Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail
When: Late spring (Southern California) – late summer (Northern California through Washington)
Why: Any spectacular portion of the West’s epic hiking trail will suffice.
Lake Tahoe’s ski resorts hog most of the attention in California/Nevada’s famed winter playground. That leaves miles of prime snowy backcountry open to small convoys of snowmobilers blasting through some of the finest machine-groomed track and off-trail powder “roads” in the Sierras. Ride to the crest of 8,200-foot Mount Watson with Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours. Zip through the pine-studded meadows and ridgelines of Tahoe National Forest with Eagle Ridge Snowmobile Tours. Or set out even farther through the Truckee-Tahoe backcountry with Coldstream Adventures. For a full list of snowmobile outfitters, contact the area’s North Lake Tahoe and South Lake Tahoe visitors centers.
Where: Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada
When: Late November — Mid-April
Why: Best way to make bigger tracks in Sierra country.
What’s even more liberating for easy riders than sharing all those Rocky Mountain freeways with SUV and RV summer traffic? Straddling a dual-sport motorbike and disappearing even deeper into the Wild West, to where the two-lane blacktop ends and the gravel- and dirt-road magic really begins. For able riders looking to push that freedom envelope a touch further, Golden, Colorado-based 106 West Motorcycle Adventures offers some of the most comprehensive guided backcountry runs between greater Denver and outer Utah. With a fleet of BMW and Triumph dual-sport bikes built for this demanding terrain, their trips typically range from eight to 14 days. A best-of-both-worlds “Mountains and Canyons” two-week odyssey loops from Golden through Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and Utah’s canyons, passing Native ruins and old mining towns along the way, with stops in seven national parks and monuments.
Where: Colorado and Utah
When: June – October
Why: Throttle through the real Rocky Mountain and canyon country backroads on the perfect pair of wheels.
The most well-heeled 19th-century stagecoach commuters would’ve dreamed of a ride like this, beginning and ending as it does at a Forbes-rated five-star luxury guest ranch nestled in a secluded valley in the heart of Big Sky Country. The Ranch at Rock Creek’s lineup of wilderness adventures includes horseback rides through 6,600 acres of rolling backcountry, mountain biking along 20 miles of scenic trails, and wading through freestone mountain streams with a fly-fishing rod. There’s also the rare opportunity to ride inside the plush upholstered cabin of a fully restored Wells Fargo stagecoach, pulled by two Belgian mares through a particularly beautiful patch of timeless Montana. A vehicular no-brainer for Western culture-seekers of all ages. During winter, the coach’s wood wheels are replaced with runners for horse-drawn sleigh rides — wool blankets, cocoa, and satisfied sighs included.
Where: Philipsburg, Montana
When: June 1 – September 1
Why: The Pony Express is long gone, but is there a nicer place to briefly pretend?
Much as we love Seattle, rolling past Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and the Space Needle on the usual tourist bus doesn’t scream off-road adventure — even if your guide is a clever punster in a plastic Viking hat named Clem Chowder. Ride the Ducks of Seattle covers all of those mandatory must-sees on the first leg of what appears to be a standard bus tour. On the second leg, you’re in for a surprise when the vehicle abruptly turns into a watercraft and drives straight into lovely Lake Union, gliding past houseboats, taking in sweet offshore skyline views, and providing a roadless reason to include at least one splashy city tour on this list.
Why: For the sheer novelty of driving into a large urban lake on a fun city bus tour.
You can admire only so much roadside saguaro in southern Arizona before lapsing into cruise-control mode. The cure: a reviving four-hour plunge into the area’s rugged outback in an H1 Hummer chauffeured by a Sonoran Desert naturalist. Leaving Scottsdale in the dust, Arizona Hummer Tours runs half-day adventures along old stagecoach trails, past desolate canyons, and through roadless desertscapes fit for an abnormally wide, resilient 4x4. Highlight stops along the way include visits to an old ghost town and 1,000-year-old Indian fort, indigenous wildlife sightings (tarantulas, scorpions, Gila monsters, coyotes, and more), and a desert sunset vista that could rejuvenate even the most desiccated spirit.
Where: Phoenix, Arizona
Why: A rental car only gets you so far in the Valley of the Sun.
Red rock country doesn’t get much more fictitious-looking than Sedona — a feel-good magnet of glowing buttes, canyons, hoodoos, mesas, vortexes, and New Age-y storefronts that, amazingly, have not been color-enhanced in the slightest. Where else could a conspicuous fleet of Pink Jeep Tours vehicles have been launched, acquainting visitors with Sedona’s blindingly beautiful outback for the last half century in extremely color-enhanced 4x4s? Choose from several backcountry rides through some of the reddest rockscapes in the West — along with stops at Native art sites and Sinagua cliff dwellings that predate the earliest pink Wranglers by several centuries.
Where: Sedona, Arizona
Why: Even the brightest 4x4 can’t upstage Sedona’s natural tones.
Not that we would suggest you shrink from the challenge of walking that vertical mile to the bottom of the Grand Canyon — and then (yep) all the way back up again. Just know that the 600,000-plus folks over the last 130 years who have opted to go on muleback have had few regrets about partnering up with the finest hiking companion on four legs. Book your mule at least a year in advance with park concessionaire Xanterra for the overnight ride from the park’s South Rim with an evening at historic Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. For quieter North Rim mule trips, contact Canyon Trail Rides.
Where: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
When: Year-round (South Rim), May 15 – October 15 (North Rim)
Why: Whose hooves look sturdier here? Yours or theirs?
Park City’s proudest property is Olympic Park, home of the 2002 Winter Olympics and a 1,335-meter, 15-curve luge-bobsled-skeleton track that still sees plenty of warp-speed action — and not just for the next crop of world-class sliding hopefuls. Also welcome here: Winter “Comet” Bobsled Ride thrill-seekers eager to climb inside an official three-passenger bobsled behind a certified pilot for an 80-mph, 5G “Comet” ride down one of the world’s fastest sliding tracks. After your adrenaline normalizes, you’ll never think of gravity in the same way again.
Where: Park City, Utah
When: December – April
Why: You don’t have to be a Winter Olympian to blast down an official bobsled track like a human missile.
Hovering in a helicopter with private panoramic views and noise-reducing headphones is something everyone should try at least once. One of our favorite places to splurge above the crowds: South Dakota’s Black Hills — home to millions of annual Mount Rushmore pilgrims, and a few lucky folks whirlybirding at presidential eye level. Custer-based Black Hills Aerial Adventures runs chopper trips in and around the country’s most iconic memorial. Its flagship, 24-mile Mount Rushmore Tour (out of the Crazy Horse Heliport) includes a memorable face-to-face meeting with the four presidents and a bonus flyby at Crazy Horse Memorial.
Where: Custer, South Dakota
When: May – October
Why: Greet the Mount Rushmore presidents and Crazy Horse at eye level.
Glide out of Roche Harbor on the quiet west side of Washington’s San Juan Island in a sea kayak. Paddle into the saltwater tidelands of the Salish Sea. And you’re home. Home, that is, to a natural marine land of seals, otters, sea lions, oystercatchers, great blue herons, bald eagles — and one of the top orca habitats within easy paddling distance from a gorgeous archipelago. Around 80 whales from three resident pods frequent the waters of the newly proposed “Killer Whale Sanctuary” in this sheltered saltwater wilderness featuring postcard-perfect Pacific Northwest isles in every direction. Head out for a half-day, 10-mile West Side Killer Whale Sanctuary Tour with San Juan Outfitters during prime orca-viewing summer months and you stand a reasonable chance of spying a 6-foot dorsal fin along the way.
Where: San Juan Island, Washington
When: July and August, for best orca viewing
Why: Best paddle through prime killer-whale territory.
Some serious aerial history has been logged off the 300-foot bluffs of Torrey Pines Gliderport, a storied launchpad just north of the tony shores of La Jolla near San Diego. A National Landmark of Soaring and registered Historic Place that’s home to some of the nation’s top paragliders and hang gliders, this is where Charles Lindbergh flew along the coast in a Bowlus sailplane in 1930, along with a who’s who of legendary local aviators (William Hawley Bowlus, Bud Perl, Bill Beuby) who have given this place its nickname: the “Kitty Hawk of the West.” Offering a full lineup of beginner to advanced paragliding classes and clinics, the Gliderport is also popular with first-time tandem riders coming to check this one off the list as a wide-eyed passenger.
Where: La Jolla, California
Why: Launch your first flight in the
Kitty Hawk of the West.
In his 12-chapter classic, Charles Kuralt’s America, the late, great CBS News icon and On the Road correspondent chose a favorite place to spend each month of a single year. July led him to Ely, Minnesota, and a cabin with a canoe in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — home to more than a million acres of pristine lake country with almost no sign of human interference save the occasional Indian pictograph or faded portage footprint. “If it is absolute solitude you want, you have only to paddle far enough,” Kuralt wrote about northern Minnesota’s vast liquid landscape preserved to sustain the spirit of the French Voyageurs of 200 years ago. “You could keep this up, visiting a different lake every day, for a hundred years, and you still wouldn’t get to all the lakes.” Today, Ely and its neighboring Boundary Waters are still commonly called “The Canoe Capital of the World.” A quick “BWCA-Outfitters” Google search will lead you to more rental and tour operators than you could shake a paddle at.
Where: Ely, Minnesota
When: Summer – early fall
Why: Charles Kuralt would never steer you wrong.
1970s Australia Army Vehicle
Hiding off a lonely stretch of I-80 in southwestern Wyoming’s high desert that might otherwise still pass for Overland Trail country, Sweetwater County doesn’t draw the same tourism hordes as Jackson Hole, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone a few hundred miles north. But if you want to see the wild horses, this is your place. For 15 years, Green River Wild Horse Tours has been introducing visitors to one of the largest remaining populations of wild and feral horses roaming the West. Specifically on a vast sagebrush- and sandstone-blanketed swath of backcountry called Pilot Butte that interstate drivers whiz right past without a blink. The off-road vehicle: a 1970s all-terrain Austrian Pinzgauer military truck that almost always finds its herd.
Where: Green River, Wyoming
When: Late spring – early fall
Why: Roam the West’s most underappreciated wild-horse reserve.
Of course there are roads in Alaska. But in the nation’s largest, wildest corner, you won’t be doing much driving if you want to see brown bears up close on a remote beach in a national park (with Homer Air). Or gape down at the “Grand Canyon of the North” in Misty Fjords National Monument (with Misty Fjords Air). Or meet the fish in Lake Clark National Park & Preserve (with Lake Clark Air). Or land on a glacier in Denali National Park (with Talkeetna Air Taxi). Notice an upward trend here? In a state with hundreds of commercial airline operators, Alaska is flightseeing nirvana. Typically aboard a Cessna, Piper Navajo, or DeHavilland Beaver operated by a seasoned commercial bush pilot flying you about as far off the Delta and United Airlines grid as you can get in one big country. For a first glimpse of carriers offering a range of destinations and itineraries, visit the Alaska Air Carriers Association.
Where: Coastal Alaska
When: May – late September
Why: Look 500 feet below you. See any roads?
Utility Terrain Vehicle (UTV)
Mention Moab to singletrack fans and the immediate connotation is two wheels, a good set of bicycle shocks, and the world-famous Slickrock Trail. Double-trackers opting for a gas pedal have their run of Utah’s red-rock recreation mecca, too — along hundreds of miles of old mining roads and 4x4 routes that feel specially designed for the latest Polaris or Kawasaki. Guided UTV tours cater to every off-road comfort level here, from beginner-friendly backcountry routes with names like Secret Spire and Chicken Corners to more adrenaline-pumping four-wheel drive experiences like the favorite Hell’s Revenge Trail. For rentals and tour outfitters, contact the Moab Information Center.
Where: Moab, Utah
When: March – October
Why: Four wheels are at least as fun as two in the Southwest’s prime red-rock ’n’ rolling adventure playground.
Few voluntary endeavors are as humbling and exhilarating as climbing a big snowy mountain. Novice climbers can learn the ropes safely and thrillingly with the Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute, one of the country’s most respected climbing schools and guide services. AAI’s classic climbing 101 class — Alpinism I — is the six-day Alpine Mountaineering course in and around Washington’s North Cascades. Day 1 has students belaying and rappelling at an idyllic rock climbing site on the Pacific Coast, followed by five days of camping and mountaineering training on the glaciers of Mount Baker, with a final day summit push, conditions permitting. If you’ve caught the mountaineering bug after that, AAI leads trips even higher, in the Alps, Andes, and Himalayas.
Where: Bellingham and Mount Baker, Washington
When: May – September
Why: Learn the ropes of mountaineering with a top climbing school in the Cascades.
Back Country Skis Or Snowshoes
When the snow falls and the sun shines in Sun Valley (which it does in reliably equal measure at the West’s original ski resort), there’s no better place to snap on the cross-country boards, skins, or snowshoes and vanish into your own private Idaho. The Pioneers. The Smokies. The Sawtooths. Those magnificent mountain ranges ringing Sun Valley are secretly equipped with some of the finest backcountry ski trails and cozy rustic digs for multiday backcountry ski adventurers of all levels. Two favorite overnight hideaways here — Fishhook Yurt (comfy bunks, heating and cooking stoves, and a hot tub perched at 6,800 feet beside a trickling mountain creek) and Bench Hut (wood-fired sauna, powdery hills right outside the door, board games if you need them) — are just 4 miles apart on a set of hut-to-hut trails that don’t see any lift lines. Book through local outfitter and guide service Sun Valley Trekking.
Where: Sun Valley, Idaho
Why: Yurt euphoria in the Sawtooths.
From the 2018 May/June Issue.