Discovering Utah by 4WD - Australian Explorers in the USA

Posted on: 05/05/2014

Words by Mike and Jane Pelusey, Pelusey Photography 

There seems to be two types of 4WD vehicles in the United States of America – the long wheel based pickup trucks and the Jeep. We are driving the latter: a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 10th Anniversary edition.

4WDing in the USA is a popular pastime just as it is in Australia, particularly in the western third of the country. The iconic track that our Jeep is named after is the Rubicon Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Ranges, which is a brutal car busting 22 miles and the testing ground for Jeep Wranglers. If your vehicle does this track and stays intact, you not only have a real 4WD and in addition, you are a pretty good driver as well.  However, our journey would be taking us away from our vehicle’s namesake, and instead to the 4WD playground that so many off-road nuts dream about exploring: Moab.

Exploring Moab

Exploring Capitol Reef National Park in a 4WD; Dan Mick's Jeep is well prepared for the challenges in and around Moab, Utah.
LEFT TO RIGHT: Exploring Utah's Capitol Reef National Park; Good entry and departure angles make the Jeep a winner; Dan Mick, 'Mayor of Slick Rock'.

Just as the High Country and the Kimberley are iconic in Australia, Utah’s Moab region is equally significant in the USA. Moab was a uranium-mining town until the price plummeted and the town was forced to reinvent itself. With Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park on its doorstep, tourism was the ideal solution. Because of the old mining infrastructure, Canyonlands has a network of old mine roads that crisscross the canyon floor and which can be explored by a four-wheel driver under strict conditions and with specific permits. However, it’s in between Moab’s nearby national parks where the real four-wheel driving happens, against the clichéd backdrop of red mesas and smoothed rock.

Surrounding the adventure hub of Moab are petrified sand dunes and slick rock, complete with unbelievably steep elevations and descents. Here we met Dan Mick, the “Mayor of Slick Rock”, who actually was the deputy Mayor of Moab before creating the Jeeping playground he now endlessly explores. To experience more of the region’s aptly named 4WD challenges, we tried out a section called Hell’s Revenge with Dan. This is where we gained a newfound respect for the Jeep, and saw why the Jeep’s short wheelbase and good entry and departure angles make it the ideal choice for discovering Moab.

Different country, different policies

What is so impressive about the USA’s outdoor icons is how well the landscapes are maintained and kept open to recreational activities.

In the USA, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) looks after public land.Amazingly, BLM allows you to camp for free on most public land (as long as you are half a mile from the road itself). As a bonus, most national parks are surrounded by public land, so in the US four-wheel drivers can often camp for free in peace and quiet amongst some of the most spectacular scenery you can imagine.

The flip side of this excellent maintenance means many of the US’s national parks are highly visited, so they have bitumen roads. There is some four-wheel driving allowed in national parks, but its often restricted. In fact, off-road driving is prohibited in most American national parks, with 2WDing on sealed roads even being restricted in the busy season due to the huge numbers of visitors.

Zion National Park and Beyond

The drive through Zion National Park is stunning; Monument Valley; the view from the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway.
LEFT TO RIGHT: The drive through Zion National Park was stunning; Monument Valley's unique sandstone buttes; the view from the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway.

Our trip centred on 4WD-dense Utah, so after leaving Las Vegas we headed for Zion National Park. This is the seventh most visited park in the country and number one in the state, with all the roads in the park bitumen. As can be expected, the off-road opportunities around Zion are along BLM trails outside the park. For example, the Smithsonian Butte National Back Country Byway is a rocky steep at times dirt road that takes thirty minutes off the drive between Zion National Park and the North Rim of Grand Canyon. It is not suitable to drive in wet or snowy weather, and 4WD was recommended.  From the edge of the Smithsonian Butte you can see the entire edge of Zion, giving a great overview of a big park. Despite the lack of off-roading, it’s impossible to deny the stunning beauty of the USA’s national parks, with the sealed road through Zion one of the most spectacular drives we have ever been on.

The next place we explored were the Navajo Tribal Lands around Monument Valley, where vehicles are kept to a fairly tight network of trails while access to some trails is via a Navajo guide only. The classic landscape is featured in numerous movies going back to the 1930s. Ten dollars gets you access to 17 miles of unsealed trails in Monument Valley. The road weaves its way around mesa outcrops and overlooks (the American word for lookouts), with breathtaking sights a given at almost every stage of the journey.

Final notes

The biggest difference in 4WDing in America is of course, driving on the other side of the road. That is something to be really aware of when going down a track, and something that can get you into trouble if you forget what continent you’re on! The cost of fuel is another huge difference, which we rightly complain about as Australians. As much as Americans think it is expensive it has nothing on our costs, with our Jeep’s 80 litre tank costing a mere $50 to fill up, compared to the astronomical $120 it would cost in most areas of Oz. Perhaps we would be better off staying the US, for the rest of our days paying a pittance for fuel while we explore the USA’s many off-road wonders in our compact Jeep Rubicon. 

Monument Valley's unique sandstone buttes are iconic symbols of the US Southwest.