Contributor Blog Post
Client: Wayward Stock
Writing and contributing to Wayward Stock has been a good outlet for me to expand my creative writing abilities as well as write about topics I am personally interested in.
Contribution: Words and Photos
Originally Published: 9/8/15
HIT THE DIRT HIGHWAY
If you’ve ever spent any time on Google Earth, you may have noticed a labyrinth of dirt roads that appear the more you zoom in. Winding, twisting, and switchbacking their way over mountains, along rivers, and through valleys, Forest Service roads are hidden byways among the mountains, a parallel universe to the paved highways. Created by the Forest Service to maintain, monitor, and access National Forest land, most Forest Service roads are open to the public for recreation and camping. One of the best things about this semi-secret system of roadways is, aside from a handful of people, they are hardly used.
It’s easy to plan a roadtrip and stick to paved roads. That’s what we’re used to and that’s what Siri is going to suggest. They’re smooth, you get to drive fast, and food, fuel, and lodging are nicely spaced out along the route, it’s a real American experience. But if you have the time, and a sense of adventure, planning your route through Forest Service roads is a great alternative. It may take a bit longer, but the scenery and lack of traffic is worth it. Most roads are in fairly good condition and don’t require four-wheel-drive, but by having a higher clearance, and by paying attention to the road, many vehicles can easily make it through without a problem.
There are plenty of Forest Service roads, especially in the western half of the U.S., just begging for some vehicle traffic. Some connect through to main highways, some climb their way to the tops of peaks with sweeping views, some are gated shut, and some just dead end for no apparent reason. No matter where they lead, adventure isn’t in the destination, it’s in the journey. The feeling you get after making it back to the highway, seeing cars cruising at top speed with no idea where you just were, how you got there and what it was like--it makes the paved road seem so boring and easy.
Just because you’re jumping onto a dirt road, that doesn’t mean you need to pack for an overland expedition, but having a few necessities isn’t a bad idea. Stuff like extra clothes, a sleeping bag, water and food, and the means to start a fire can make a huge difference if you have car trouble and can’t get a cell signal to call for help. If you’re planning on camping, you should be pretty set, but if you’re just out for a drive, be sure to load up.
The Forest Service has these handy maps, Motor Vehicle Use Maps, for free to download for most National Forests. They are usually broken into ranger district and show much more road details, where you can camp, and what level of repair or disrepair the roads are in. Downloading the app PDF Maps to view them on your smartphone and using your built-in GPS to see exactly where you are on the MVUM is a real game-changer.
Nothing would be worse than running out of gas in the middle of nowhere, so make sure to head into the forest with at least three-quarters to a full tank of gas. Driving that much slower over rough terrain will burn more gas than keeping it in cruise-control on the highway. Limited cell phone service and distance from the highway could keep AAA from coming to your aid for quite a while too, but that’s why you packed all that survival stuff.
Plan Your Route
As mentioned above, some roads are gated shut or just dead end. Using the MVUM maps you already downloaded, in combination with Google Maps, plan your route to make sure it connects to where you are wanting to go. Stopping at the ranger station and asking questions is always a good idea too. They are usually pretty friendly, quite knowledgeable about the road conditions, and can offer some great camping suggestions as well.
Give Yourself Time
If there’s one thing you learn, generally through trial and error, is that taking a scenic dirt road is going to take much longer than the highway. Crawling over rocks and going over potholes at 10-15mph is going to really add to your driving time compared to flying down the highway at 70mph. As long as your plan for that time and don’t get too ambitious, it’s all good.
The reason you’re taking these scenic routes is to enjoy the scenery, so make sure to take your time, stop often for photos, and don’t rush it. Finding a spot to make lunch out in the middle of nowhere is not only a great alternative to hitting the drive-thru, but can give you the best seat in the house. Often there are historic sites along the roads like old mines and ghost towns, so be sure to do some research ahead of time or pay attention while you’re driving so you don’t miss them.
With a little preparation and planning, taking a forest road detour on your next road trip is totally a possibility and worth the time. Use some of the resources listed above to plan your next dirt road adventure.