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The Great American Outback Trail

Updated: Jan 9

The 2,400 Great American Outback Trail is was designed to be the most remote overland track in the lower 48. Showcasing the history and geological wonders of the northern Great Basin desert and eastern Cascades, the 2,400 mile long GAOT is sure to be a hit among history and nature buffs. The horizon seems to go on forever in this big country, and trillions of stars scatter across a night sky that is dark as ink.



Route Overview


Trip Length & Season

Adventure Rating: Dakar Trip Length: 2,400 miles total. Refer to the individual segments below for mileage and trip times. Season: Most of the route can be traveled from summer to mid-fall, but please refer to the specific recommendations for each of the 4 segments below.

Digital Map & GPX Files

Technical Ratings & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto / Adventure Vans

Discovery Points

Permits & Papers


 

Route Details

Segment 1: The Modoc Plateau & Eastern Cascades

Trip Lengthy & Season

Trip Length: 583 miles, 5-10 days

Season: The best time to travel segment 1 is typically from September to October, as a means of avoiding the high desert heat in sections like Fort Rock (often in the 90s during summer). Cresting the Warner Mountains is the main seasonal barrier with segment 1, as snow can persist into early July some years. Generally speaking, this segment can be traveled from June to early November, but check be sure to check snowpack conditions in the Warners and around Paulina Lakes.

Technical Ratings & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto / Adventure Vans

Fuel, Provisions and Recommended Gear

Camping Recommendations

Alternative Routes

The official start of the Great American Outback Trail begins in the historic pioneer town of Cedarville, California. The first part of segment 1 traces much of the Modoc Backcountry Discovery Trail. After burning the pavement to Fort Bidwell, the route climbs into the oft-overlooked but incredibly wild and scenic, Warner Mountains. The Warners are an 85-mile long subrange within the greater Basin and Range province. The mountains create a formidable barrier between the Modoc Plateau in the west, and the Great Basin Desert to the east. Despite the rather barren and dry landscape of Surprise Valley (where Fort Bidwell and Cedarville sit), the Warners are filled with pine, lush meadows, and an abundance of wild flowers. Once you crest the Warners and make your way past Goose Lake, you're now entering the Modoc Plateau, an area with a violent volcanic past in the not so distance past. The Modoc Plateau is also home to a sizable population of wild mustangs that roam the Devil's Garden area. The landscape in the plateau tends to be dry, filled with grass, volcanic rock, and drought resistant flora like juniper. Interesting enough, there are a number of swamping sections in the Modoc Plateau, including Fairchild swamp. As you travel west, the route eventually climbs in elevation as it makes its way up to Medicine Lake, which sits in the crater of the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano and is the largest volcano by volume within the Cascade volcanic arc. Before making your way Medicine Lake, we highly recommend making the out-and-back trip to Cave Loop at Lava Beds National Monument. Cave Loop features 18 lava tubes varying in size from the size of a small apartment, to absolutely massive lava caves that extend hundreds of feet underground. Medicine Lake is a popular camping area, and the mountains in this portion of Modoc National Forest are filled with evergreens, lava flows, and lots of volcanic glass, better known as obsidian. From here, the route heads north through the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, which is a series of wetlands that are used by large populations of migratory birds. The track passes into Oregon and through the historic industrial town of Klamath Falls. As you make your way into Fremont-Winema National Forest, there are some fantastic views of Upper Klamath Lake and Mt McLoughlin to the east. The section through Fremont-Winema NF is mostly forested, filled with ponderosa pine and fir. The best views along this segment can be had atop Bald Mountain Lookout, which does entail a short hike when the gate to the lookout is closed. As you descend from the highlands around Bald Mountain, you enter the sage brush ocean of Oregon's high desert. Fort Rock, a massive 300 foot tall volcanic tuff ring rises about from the surrounding prairie is definitely worth visiting. A couple of miles away in"town", you'll come across the Fort Rock Homestead Village & Museum, which we also recommend stopping by. Heading north, you'll soon make your way back into the mixed pine and juniper forest that is prevalent around the Bend and central Oregon region. You'll split off the main forest road and begin making your way up and over the summit to Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Highlights in this section include Paulina Lakes and the impressive views atop Paulina Peak. From here, the route continues north along a windy secondary dirt forest road that brings you across a massive lava flow and down to highway 97, with additional stops at the Lava Cave, Lava Lands Visitor Center, and through old town Bend where segment 1 concludes.


Segment 2: Hart Mountain, Steens Mountain & the Alvord Desert

Trip Lengthy & Season

Trip Length: 663 miles, 6-12 days

Season: Segment 2 can typically be travelled from June through November, but the best time to travel segment 1 is typically from mid-September to early November. Snow on Steens Mountain Loop may persist into early summer and arrive in early fall.

Technical Ratings & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto / Adventure Vans

Fuel, Provisions and Recommended Gear

Camping Recommendations

Alternative Routes

As you depart Bend and head in a southwest direction, you get the feeling that you're heading deep into the Oregon Outback, and you are! The roads to Christmas Valley are mostly wide dirt and gravel roads (with a prolonged washboard section outside of Bend), with some shorter sections of bumpier two track. The remnants of the eastern Cascades are visible as you make your way south, with numerous low elevation buttes visible on the western horizon. The Christmas Valley sand dunes are a popular recreation site for off roaders, dirt bikers, UTVs, and overlanders. Be sure to check out the Lost Forest on your way to the dunes. More adventurous folks may wish to drive to Fossil Lake at the east end of the massive dune field. Passing the old SuperDARN radar site, the track makes a beeline towards Lake Albert. The track makes its way over the hill into the Warner Valley just north of Plush, Oregon. If you've got some time to explore, we recommend checking out the Glass House just south of Hart Lake (marked on the GPX track for subscribers). As you climb up the mountain into the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, be sure to stop and take in the views at the Warner Valley Overlook. Not far from the overlook you'll find the Hart Mountain visitor center, which is also worth visiting. If you're looking to camp in the area, you'll want to check out Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground. Just next to the campground sits the exquisite Antelope hot springs. The hot springs are surrounded by a stone wall which provides shelter from wind, and a concrete platform and metal ladder make this one of our favorite hot springs! Hart Mountain and Steens Mountain are effectively mirrors of one another, that are separate by a 25-mile wide fault-block. Where Steens Mountain drops precipitously to the Alvord Desert on its eastern flanks, Hart Mountain drops off on its western facing blanks. Between the two, sits a large low lying valley, where the fault-block lies. As you make your way towards the impressive Steens Mountain, you'll need to cross Flook Lake. When the lake is covered in water or wet (it's super easy to get stuck in these dry lake beds when they're muddy), be sure to follow the GPX track around the banks of the lake, as opposed to the main road that goes straight through the center of the lake. Just north of Flook Lake you'll follow a series of wide and well maintained dirt roads all the way to the pavement of Frenchglen Highway (highway 205).


The Steens Mountain Loop is certainly one of the highlights of segment, but forewarned, snow can persist at the top of Steens Mountain in July. At 9,738 feet, the views atop Steens Mountain could be called impressive, but that just wouldn't justify how awesome these views are. Some of the best viewpoints include Kiger Gorge Overlook, one of several rugged canyons that were carved by glaciers. Kiger Gorge is a u-shaped canyon that's over 2,000 feet deep and over a mile wide. The east rim overlook provides fantastic views of the Alvord Desert playa and 360 degree views of northern Great Basin Desert. From Steens Mountain, the track descends back to the highway and heads south, effectively wrapping around the southern end of the Steens and into the Alvord Desert. The Alvord is Oregon's answer to Nevada's Black Rock Desert. While the desert playa may not be as large as the Black Rock, the dark red volcanic cliffs and ridge lines of Steens Mountain creates a stark and mesmerizing backdrop against the Alvord playa. Like the Black Rock playa, you may also drive on the Alvord playa, just be sure to avoid the lakebed if any moisture or mud is present. From the playa, continue north on the gravel of Fields-Denio Road. Just before reaching Ten Cent Lake, head up into the mountains via bumpy and rocky doubletrack that is Burnt Flat Road. Once you reach the first major intersection, the road becomes much better maintained. Interesting sites along this leg of the trek include Riddle Mountain Lookout, Pete French Round Barn, Diamond Craters natural area, and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center overlooking Malheur lake. The final portion of segment 2 passes through the tiny hamlet of Crane, which affords opportunities to refuel and resupply. If you're a hot spring connoisseur, we highly recommend paying a visit to Crystal Crane Hot Springs resort just west of "town". From Crane you'll follow a series of wide dirt and gravel roads to the town of Vale, Oregon, which will act as your gateway to the Owyhee Canyonlands.



Segment 3: The Owyhee Canyonlands, Snake River Plain, and Jarbidge

Trip Lengthy & Season

Trip Length: 681 miles, 6-10 days

Season: Segment 3 can typically be travelled from June through early November, but snow at Bear Creek Summit above Jarbidge can persist into July (take the alternative route Snow Reroute around the pass if the snow becomes impassable). The recommended time of year to travel this segment is September - early November.

Technical Ratings & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto / Adventure Vans

Fuel, Provisions and Recommended Gear

Camping Recommendations

Alternative Routes

Segment 3 presents a diverse array of landscapes across the northern Great Basin Desert and Snake River Plain. Just east of Vale runs the Owyhee River, separating Oregon and Idaho. The Owyhees are a vast land of rolling hills and canyonlands covering over 2 million across southeastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and northern Nevada. From just outside of Vale, the track follows along the river banks of the Owyhee, until the track leaves the pavement and heads up into the highlands via Fisherman Road. Segment 3 hits some of the better known areas in the Owyhees like Leslie Gulch, Succor Creek natural area, and Three Fingers Gulch. The hills and canons are littered with miles upon miles of dirt roads and two tracks. If you're feeling adventurous and in a capable rig, go out an explore! Upon leaving the Owyhee Canyonlands, the track passes through Jordan Valley. If you've got time to explore, we recommend exploring the volcanic fields of Jordan Crater, just to the east of "town". As you cross the north fork of the Owyhee, you're now following the Owyhee Uplands Backcountry Byway, gateway to the Snake River plain. Along the banks of the Bruneau River sits the historic village of Bruneau, an agro-town like many of the other towns, villages, and census designated places in these parts. Just downstream of town the Bruneau spills into the Snake. If you dabble in fishing or are serious about, the Snake is legendary across the entire west for its fantastic fishing opportunities. From Bruneau head south until the pavement turns to dirt. You're on your way to the most remote town in the lower 48, Jarbidge, Nevada. Originally founded as a mining town in the 1800s, aside from electricity and vehicles, not much has changed around these parts, and that's just the way the people like it! Outside of Lake Tahoe, Nevada isn't particularly known for its alpine scenery, but a drive through the rugged and incredibly wild Jarbidge Mountains will change your mind-- and the solitude, you'll feel like you own the place once you get far above town. The track makes a zig zag through the Jarbidge Mountains, showcasing this near-forgotten mountain range in all of its wonder. The track ends on the pavement, just south of the village of Mountain City-- and a city it certainly is not!


Segment 4: Northern Nevada & the Black Rock Desert

Trip Lengthy & Season

Trip Length: 681 miles, 6-12 days

Season: The best time to travel segment 4 is from September to early November. We recommend traveling during the summer months given the heat, typically in the 90s in the high desert. You may travel this route as early as mid-May (check with BLM on the gate status at High Rock Canyon, opens in May) but you may hit snow through the Santa Rosa Mountains and Hinkey Summit.

Technical Ratings & Terrain

Recommended Vehicle / Moto / Adventure Vans

Fuel, Provisions and Recommended Gear

Camping Recommendations

Alternative Routes

Segment 4 presents a cornocopia ecoregions within the northern Basin & Range province. After experiencing the alpine wonders of the Jarbidge Mountains, you've probably come to realize there's more to Nevada than endless sagebrush and barren mountains and hills, and segment 4 exemplifies the biological diversity that can exist within the desert.


We begin segment 4 on the dirt, leaving the Owyhee River and Jarbidge Mountains in our rear view. You'll be heading deep into the deserts of northern Nevada with a few quick jaunts into a few of the mountain ranges that form the Basin and Range province. The track begins by following a series of well graded dirt roads through the hills until eventually hitting the pavement of Highway 226. Not long after jumping onto the pavement, the route follows a series of dirt and gravel county roads through some of the least visited places within the state. There's not a whole lot of anything in this part of Nevada than seemingly endless wide open spaces, so be sure to prepare accordingly. As you travel westward, keep an eye out for Willow Creek reservoir on your right, one of the few landmarks/discovery points along the eastern section of segment 4. As you wrap around Jack Creek and Kelly Creek Mountains and head north, see if you can spot the absolutely masive open pit mining complex at Twin Creeks Mines. You may be wondering why we're traveling north, well it's to check out another alpine wonderland within northern Nevada, the Santa Rosa Mountains. Be sure to drive out to Lye Creek Campground as the views of Granite Peak to the south are impressive, and it's certainly not a bad place to camp either! The track snakes through the mountains cresting at Hinkey Summit before dropping down to the small village of Paradise Valley. Follow the pavement until you pass through the old industrial town of Winnemucca. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Winnemucca was a thriving center of commerce and transportation. The town served as a hub for the mining industry in the region, as well as a center for agriculture and ranching. The town also played an important role in the development of the western United States, serving as a stop for travelers, traders, and settlers moving westward. If you'd like to learn more about the history of Winnemucca and northern Nevada, we highly recommend visiting the Humboldt Museum.


From Winnemucca you'll follow the dirt and gravel of Jungo Road all the way to the Black Rock Desert. It's hard not to be awestruck upon arriving at the Black Rock Playa. Covering over 200 square miles, the Black Rock Playa is the largest dry lake bed in the United States. The track follows Jungo Road all the way to Highway 447, which leads into the small desert outpost of Gerlach. Follow the pavement that wraps around Gerlach and then use one of the access points north of Gerlach to access the playa. Upon reaching the playa, it's incredibly easy to zip across the salt flats to the large black point in the distance, which is Black Rock Point. The track traverses past a couple of microplayas and bumpy track leads to one of the best viewpoints of the Black Rock desert,-- 1,200 feet above the playa with incredible 360 degree views. Be forewarned, the main track from Black Rock Point to Soldier Meadows is very bump. If you'd like to travel at an expedited pass, consider crossing the playa to one of the access points and take Soldier Meadows Road north (one of the alternative routes). The Lassen, Applegate, and Noble's emigrant trails all passed through the Black Rock, and if you keep an eye out you may just come across one of the T-shaped markers that denote these historical trails. The track passes Soldier Meadows hot springs and heads into the incredibly scenic and rugged High Rock Canyon. The canyon is home to a number of interesting rock formations, as well as hundreds of nesting birds that make their homes in the cliff walls. Subscribers will be lucky enough to visit discovery points that lead to the old Post Office Cave and Pioneer Graffiti. Upon reaching the refurbished Stevens Camp cabin, the track begins heading east towards the Summit Lake Indian Reservation. After passing through the Summit Lake Reservation, the next destination is the Pine Forest Range-- another mountain range full of trees and bubbling brooks. Be sure to visit the out-and-back trek to Knott Creek Reservoir, which is a fantastic place to camp and features a number of off rock formations. After leaving the Pine Forest Range, you'll follow the pavement of Highway 140 until reaching Denio Junction, where you'll swing a sharp left to stay on Highway 140. From here you'll head into the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, with the first stop at the impressive Thousand Creek Gorge. If you've got the time, we've heard there's a trail that leads into the gorge, but prepared to do a bit of bushwhacking. Much of the landscape within Sheldon Wildlife Refuge is similar to the rolling hills of sagebrush that you find upon exiting High Rock Canyon near Stevens Camp. There are a number of small dry lakebeds and microplayas in these uplands. Some can make for a great camping spot, just be wary if there's been any recent precipitation in the area, but the rains typically don't arrive until winter and spring. As you zig zag down the switchbacks below Yellow Mountain, Massacre Rim comes into view. Massacre Rim is actually a designated IDA Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of the best places for stargazing in the lower 48. From Massacre Rim, the track follows a series of county roads passing through the old ghost town of Vya, and then up and over the mountains and into Surprise Valley. Surprise Valley straddles the California-Nevada border, and perhaps as a bonus an appropriate ending to the track, the Great American Outback Trail passes through the Surprise Valley Hot Springs Resort before meeting the end of this grandiose overland track four miles later, in the same place you began, Cedarville, California.

 

Terms of Use: Should you decide to travel a route that is published on Overlandtrailguides.com, you do so at your own risk. Always take the appropriate precautions when planning and traveling, including checking the current local weather, permit requirements, trail/road conditions, and land/road closures. While traveling, obey all public and private land use restrictions and rules, and carry the appropriate safety, recovery, and navigational equipment. The information found on this site is simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due-diligence. In spite of the fact that this route, associated GPS track (GPX and maps), and all route guidelines were prepared under diligent research by OverlandTraxx, the route accuracy and current conditions of roads and trails cannot be guaranteed.

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