10 Best 4×4 Vacation Adventures in the USA

Drummond Island, Michigan

Photograph by Doc Borth, Courtesy of Drummond Island Tourism Association

Michigan’s Drummond Island offers a variety of terrain and trails to suit novice and expert ‘wheelers alike. Lots of ground clearance and skid plates help on trails like Turtle Ridge.

Drummond Island in Lake Huron sits right on the U.S./Canadian border and is reachable by a mile-long ferry ride. The island has an extensive trail network with 40 miles of routes for Jeeps, SUVs and other 4x4s, and another 60 miles of dedicated ATV trails. The terrain varies from muddy roads through hardwood forests to stone ridges carved out by the last Ice Age to scenic open meadows—something for every driving skill level.

The more challenging routes are best tackled by 4x4s with suspension lifts, big tires, skid plates and locked differentials, as there are some fairly tall stone steps to negotiate. Note that while some of the trail routes go near the shore, it is illegal to drive on the beach or in the water in Michigan.

Ozark-St. Francis National Forest, Arkansas

The 1.2-million-acre Ozark-St. Francis National Forests in northwestern Arkansas are home to more than 1,000 miles of roads and trails dedicated to off-highway-vehicle use. Driving these old forest roads can vary from easy to “very difficult,” say local rangers, with some trails limited to Jeeps and other high-ground clearance vehicles due to the steep and slippery terrain.

The Forest Service has produced Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUM) and brochures that describe the trails in detail; keeping a MVUM in your rig is a good idea, as Forest Service Policy dictates that motorized vehicles stay on these designated routes. 

Within the Ozark National Forest, along the Mulberry River, is a one-stop-shop for outdoor recreation called Byrd’s Adventure Center. Byrd’s offers 800 acres of off-roading trails, plus obstacle courses and mud pits. There’s lodging, restaurants and campsites on the grounds, plus opportunities for kayaking and canoeing, rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking and more.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

Photograph Courtesy of National Park Service

River Road East is among the 100 miles of primitive dirt roads in Big Bend National Park. Though it follows the course of the Rio Grande, actual views of the river are limited to just a few areas.

Located in Southwest Texas, Big Bend National Park  has the distinction of being one of the largest national parks in the country—covering more than 800,000 acres—but also one of the most remote. Within the park are more than 50 miles of improved dirt roads (usually passable by most vehicles depending on recent weather conditions) and more than 100 miles of primitive dirt roads that require a 4×4’s extra ground clearance.

The 51-mile River Road follows a portion of the Rio Grande, which forms the park’s southern boundary. The park recommends allotting a full day to explore this route; primitive campsites along the road enable lengthier stays. High ground clearance and 4WD are a must for the 18-mile Black Gap Road, known for its water crossings, frequent washouts, and the tricky, rocky Black Gap Step.

Arrive and Drive—or Ride?

Don’t let concerns about the cost of transporting your 4×4 keep you from experiencing these four-wheeling hot spots. Jeep and 4×4 rentals are available at many locations, so you can simply arrive and drive off into your adventure.

Renting a 4×4 locally offers the benefit of getting a rig that’s equipped specifically for the area’s terrain, from diff locks and body armor for rock crawling to aggressive mud tires for sloppy routes. Local outfitters can also provide good advice about the best trails in the area, any trail closures, and information about local laws in effect, such as campfire bans due to high fire danger.

Some of the more popular 4×4 destinations also offer 4WD tours of local trails. That can mean following a guide in your own vehicle or riding with a guide in the tour company’s 4×4. Letting someone else do the driving seems like missing out on the fun, but guides can be a wealth of information on everything from good restaurants to local history to the vegetation and wildlife that surround you. Plus they’re usually happy to share driving tips honed by years of experience.

If, for example, you’ve never negotiated near-vertical slickrock surrounded by sheer drop-offs, you may be more comfortable letting someone else take the wheel—the first time, anyway.

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