Top Historic Off-Road Trails in the US

Pony Express Trail
Imaging by markhillary

Having the freedom to travel the land around us provides everyone with a treasure trove of untapped stimulus to fascinate over. Jeepers and outdoor adventurers alike enjoy hopping in their Wrangler or 4×4 and exploring historically famous areas of the US. For those with the time and drive to follow in the footsteps of history, here are 4 trails you won’t want to miss out on.

In 1978, Congress passed the National Parks and Recreation Act, designating 19 historic trails as protected areas allowing recreational use, including hiking and other outdoor activities. All but one of these trails is a land route and they are usually connected to a highway system, although portions remained unpaved. The remaining historical trail, The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, is the only water route.

The Lewis and Clark Back Country Byway

Yellowstone national Park Lewis and Clark Trail
Imaging by Yellowstoneton

Perhaps one of the most famous trails in the United States, the Lewis and Clark Trail is a coast to coast experience. Beginning in Washington D.C., it travels over 4,600 Miles, crosses four time zones and introduces you to some of the most rugged territory in the United States before touching down on the Pacific Ocean between Oregon and Washington State. Considering the antiquity of the trail, as well as its length and fame, it’s difficult to imagine there could be portions of it that are the “road not taken”, but there are!

The Lewis and Clark Back Country Byway and Adventure Road is a 36 mile loop drive through rugged mountains, evergreen forests, grassy foothills and by deep canyons that look much the same as the untouched wilderness Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805. The portal to the byway is located in Tendoy, Idaho, nineteen miles south of Salmon on Idaho Highway 28. The exit point is at Clark Canyon Reservoir south of Dillon onto Montana Highway 324.

The Byway is a single lane gravel road with clearance. Motor homes, buses and trailers are not recommended as the narrow road has some very tight corners and reaches a 4,000 foot elevation. Cell phone reception is sporadic along this remote trail system. Locals recommend driving very slowly, even if you are accustomed to mountain driving as parts of the byway travels along steep, exposed slopes and there are no guard rails. The road is normally free of snow from early June through October; the ideal time to plan your vacation.

The Pony Express Trail

What could make you more appreciative of the astonishing feat of the Pony Express Riders, who routinely covered their 1,800 mail route in ten days, than by traveling the same trail their sturdy and valiant ponies traveled to deliver the mail? Begin your adventure west of Utah Lake, in the town of Fairfield, and then continue on through Faust, Simpson Springs and west to Callao. There are no services along this 133 mile byway, so fill-up and take along plenty of provisions before beginning your journey.

The first five miles and the last two are asphalt, but the rest is a maintained dirt and gravel road. During good weather, two wheel drive vehicles are adequate, although only four wheel drives are recommended after heavy rains or snow fall. The pony express byway is marked with monuments or ruins of fourteen Pony Express stations. The byway travels through desert valleys, climbs into rugged mountain passes and serves as the main street for small, isolated communities, such as Callalo and Ibapah. You should also be sure to plan an afternoon picnic at Fish Springs, the most remote wildlife refuge in the Continental United States.

The Ala Kahaki Trail

Wrangler Jeep Off Road in hawaii
Imaging by Ken Curtis

If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii’s big island, you might wish to try an adventure along the Ala Kahaki Trail. “Ala Kahaki” means shoreline trail, and travels the coastline one hundred seventy-five miles from Kohala to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The trail was established in the year 2000 as National Historic Trail for the preservation and understanding of Native Hawaiian culture and resources. The trail will carry you through hundreds of ancient Hawaiian settlement sites and through two hundred ahupua’a (traditional sea to mountain land divisions).

Much of the trail receives only limited maintenance and is recommended primarily for four wheel drive. Some sections are severely eroded, and parts of the trail have been transformed into public roads. Because of its coastal nature, it gives you ample coverage of a wide variety of sparkling beaches and an opportunity to haul out your surf board or canoe.

The Cherokee Trail of Tears

While much of US history deals with triumphant endeavors, astonishing courage and fortitude, its greatest blight was its early treatment of the Native Americans. Conquered and brutalized, they were forced to leave their homes and cross miles of unfamiliar territory to settle in reservations. The Cherokee Trail of Tears follows the march of the Cherokee tribe through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Illinois, and Arkansas. They walked hundreds of miles and were also taken by wagons, steamboats and flatboats to present day Oklahoma.

There are convenient signs placed along this National trail, including an auto route for all weather traveling, crossing signs that alert to when the trail crosses an existing road and the well documented original trail route. For the off-road experience, look for the Local Tour Route. It will direct you through segments of the trail over various terrain following local, low-speed and dirt roads. It was along these trails that round up forts and camps were established to capture remaining Cherokee and send them to the reservation. From a historical perspective, this is one trail definitely worth visiting.

Have you explored one of these historic trails? Share your personal experiences below!

Written by Andrew

"You're telling me it's got four wheels, two seats and goes faster than the speed limit? Good, I'm driving."

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