Top 5 West Coast Off-Road Trail Wheeling Destinations
Just the other day, I was talking with some friends about our next wheeling trip. Living on the Carolina Coast, I have to drive at least three hours (sometimes further) to find a more challenging spot to play in the dirt. I don’t mind the road trip as getting out of town always adds to the excitement and adventure. After living out west for a few years, I became spoiled by my proximity to some incredible wheeling. Not to say the East Coast doesn’t have plenty of great off-road trail spots, it’s simply a different landscape out west. Over the years, I have made the trek back to hit some of my favorite wheeling destinations. As my buddies and I were contemplating our next adventure, we discussed the concept of a big West Coast run. After throwing around the logistics and what spots to hit, it was interesting what must-do wheeling destinations kept coming up.
This got me thinking about some of the top West Coast off-road trail locations I’ve been to over the years. These are not only challenging wheeling locales, but ones that have an epic backdrop to compliment the off-road experience. Very quickly, five stood out in my mind above the rest – and here they are in no particular order:
1. The Rubicon Trail
It doesn’t get any more iconic than the Rubicon trail. Located near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the Rubicon trail is what wheeling is all about. Despite its legendary status, it’s not an overly difficult trail. In fact, I’ve actually completed the trail in a stock Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (it was a Rubicon model however, go figure). There are a few optional obstacles that you won’t be able to conquer in a stock Jeep, but don’t let that keep you from hitting the trail. What makes the Rubicon so memorable is that it’s more than just a 22-mile-long rockcrawling adventure; it’s scenic wheeling at its best. Can you make it out of the trail in a day? Absolutely, but I strongly suggest taking your time and doing it over a long weekend. This will give you the full experience. For more information on the trail, visit rubicontrail.org.
2. Moab, Utah
With over 30 designated OHV trails and amazing scenery everywhere you turn, Moab, Utah, is one of the most enjoyable and picturesque places you can take a four-wheel drive. In the Jeep world, it’s well known for being home to the annual Easter Jeep Safari put on by the Red Rock 4-Wheelers. In fact, it’s one of the spots I’ve gone to consistently over the past eight years. The mix of challenging and sometimes spooky trails always brings me back. The fact that you don’t need an extremely modified 4x4 to enjoy many of the trails is also a major plus in my book. For those new to Moab, I always suggest hitting Fins and Things first, then head over to one of my favorites, the Hell’s Revenge trail. Despite its namesake, Hell’s Revenge can be run with a stock 4x4. It has just enough to keep you on your toes and is close enough to town that you can scoot back if the weather turns bad (something that can happen quickly in Moab).
3. The Hammers, Johnson Valley
Nestled just outside of Lucerne, California, are the infamous Hammer trails in Johnson Valley. Home to the King of The Hammers race, Johnson Valley can chew your 4x4 to pieces in just one trip. My first weekend in the valley resulted in a broken brake line, destroyed shock and mount, crumpled transmission pan and rock rash in places on my Jeep that I never imaged could get damaged. Despite the carnage, I had an absolute blast. The mix of desert and extremely difficult rock trails makes for a great time. It’s a tough place to wheel, but worth seeing if you and your rig is up to the challenge. Get some advice from Mel Wade on DrivingLine's Hammer trail series, or check out 4x4 Trail Maps for more info on the Hammer trail system.
I don’t think I have ever been as nervous behind the wheel as I was the first time I went to the Imperial Sand Dunes in Southern California. More commonly known as Glamis, the 40 miles of massive dunes span all the way to the Mexican border. The towering dunes require driving skill, concentration and absolute commitment. It’s a dangerous place to wheel, but is also a blast once you get the hang of it. The place can be a circus on the weekends, especially during the fall and winter months. I can do without the party atmosphere, but it’s worth checking out at least once. Remember to air down your tires and always check what’s on the other side before powering over a dune!
5. Black Bear Pass
Hands down, Colorado is my top pick for the state with the best mix of scenery and challenging trails. It was tough to pick my favorite trail from this state, but I had to go with Black Bear Pass. This is a complex trail that greats you with epic scenery and certain death if you are not careful. This one-lane road will have you literally driving down a mountain side and reaching just under 13,000ft. in elevation. A mini-truck or Jeep Wrangler is about as wide of a vehicle as I would consider taking. The longer the wheelbase, the more challenging the switch backs will be. The trail is roughly 12 miles in length, but it’s not something I would rush. The trail is regulated to one-way downhill traffic, and access to the trailhead is just off Highway 550 between the towns of Silverton and Ouray. Here’s a clip to give you an idea about what you are getting into: On the map, only a few of the trails are positioned closely together. Here’s what it would look like if you started off at the Rubicon and ended at the Hammers. Of course, after looking at it, I’d probably call the trip good after surviving Black Bear Pass and maybe just end in Vegas!