With international tourism reaching over 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, 2023 marked an enthusiastic and eager return to the travel scene for many of us, both domestically and internationally.
Overland Journal publisher and co-founder Scott Brady began his much-anticipated long-axis Trans-Africa continental crossing in the capable Ineos Grenadier, while Associate Editor Stephan Edwards took on a new challenge by learning how to ride a motorcycle and taking to the Montana backroads as a beginner.
Graeme Bell, our 4WD senior editor, sought icy adventures in Arctic Canada before thawing out in Mexico, where Arden Kysely also enjoyed travel by horseback. Senior Editor Ashley Giordano and Bikepacking Editor Jack Mac spent time in Europe, with Ashley returning to full-time overlanding and Jack embracing life as a local in Lofoten, Norway. Editor in Chief Tena Overacker stuck closer to home with ventures to Montana and Idaho, but boarded that long-haul flight to Japan for something a little bit different.
These experiences will undoubtedly be spun into articles on Expedition Portal and Overland Journal (if they haven’t already), but in the meantime, read on for some of the best trips our editors took in 2023.
Stephan Edwards, Associate Editor
Oregon’s Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert
The landscapes found west of the Cascades dominate our conception of Oregon: the dramatic coastline and the cultural heft of Portlandia, alternately soaked in rain, espresso, and IPA. But the lion’s share of Oregon lies to the East, a land studded with Ponderosas in huge, dry stands and endless expanses of sagebrush. The Southeastern reaches are truly one of America’s empty quarters, where the dollars you count filling your tank will far outnumber the people in the town where you pump the gas. At its epicenter lies the Buddha-like Steens Mountain and the annealed playas of the Alvord Desert. I spent a languid week there in August with the Tune M1 camper, searching for herds of wild horses and remote hot springs, driving to over 9,000 feet on Steens, and simply zoning out at camp on the shores of the dry lake beds. There’s a whole lot of nothing there—which is exactly the point of visiting.
Joshua Tree National Park
For most of its existence, California’s Joshua Tree National Park was a national monument, willed into existence almost single-handedly in 1936 by the tireless efforts of Minerva Hoyt. One of America’s unsung conservationists and early environmentalists, she was prescient about the encroaching threats of development and unfettered prospecting in this singular country. Granted national park status in 1994, Joshua Tree is one of the few parks that feature dedicated backcountry roads for 4WDs to explore. While not as extensive as nearby Death Valley’s network of trails (Death Valley is the largest park in the Lower 48), the charming off-piste tracks and rugged canyons in Joshua Tree lead you to stunning views of the vast Mojave Desert and to groves of the park’s namesake trees that few are privileged to see. Visit in early spring or late fall, but with elevations ranging from just 500 feet to over 5,800 feet, prepare for all kinds of conditions.
Exploring Montana’s Back Roads by Motorcycle
Last year, as I reached the zenith (or nadir—your pick) of middle life, I learned how to ride a motorcycle. However, I didn’t just saddle up my KLR and beat tracks for Ushuaia. I began with tottering loops around my neighborhood and gradually fanned outward onto the hundreds of miles of forest service and county-maintained gravel roads that surround my home in the mountains of Montana. These slow and solitary rides—some only 20 minutes, others a whole day—are among my favorite safaris from 2023. Routes I thought I knew well from behind the wheel of my Land Rover unfolded in entirely new ways and offered fresh challenges on the bike. Learning to manage the motorcycle, read the terrain with recalibrated eyes, and exercise muscles I didn’t even know I had rekindled my passion for adventure. Whatever journeys are ahead for 2024, I guarantee many will be on two wheels rather than four.
Tena Overacker, Editor in Chief
Although I typically overplan, we descended on Japan with two weeks and an open agenda. I marveled at Tokyo’s cleanliness, the largest metropolitan area in the world, and the lack of moto traffic in Ikebukuro, where we stayed. The Tokyo Metro was an elaborate and efficient web, and the subterranean “cities” that manifested like octopus arms around its stations were novel to us. Over two million people pass through Ikebukuro Station each day, and by the time we were ready to bullet train to Kyoto, the people crush had me longing for the countryside. We found it outside of Kyoto, exploring the nooks and crooked streets of smaller burgs. While temple hopping is a popular pastime for tourists (we visited our share), wandering took precedence. A lonely side street in Gion led to an encounter with one of the 1,000 geisha left in the country, and Godzilla’s looming presence in Tokyo’s Shinjuku District was just plain fun.
I spent many a summer in Montana as a kid, camping in remote areas in the Beartooths and visiting the area’s national parks, favoring Glacier and Yellowstone. I hadn’t been back to Yellowstone since, and while visiting family this past summer, I spontaneously decided on a day trip. We had limited time, and though prepared for the overcrowding and tourist mania, miraculously, we evaded both. We entered at the North Entrance and took a whirlwind tour of Mammoth Hot Springs, Tower Fall, the Lower and Upper Falls, and Yellowstone Lake. We got out and hiked when we could, stopping frequently to view herds of bison and elk, and even spotted a mama grizzly bear with her cubs. It was magical. That night, we landed at the Chamberlin Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, where Ernest Hemingway finished Death in the Afternoon. Parked with a glass of wine and my laptop adjacent to his room, I could almost hear his typewriter keys clacking away.
A press trip in June brought me to Idaho’s Sun Valley region; it was my first time in the state, and I was blown away by its stupendous landscapes and vast, open pockets of green nestled in the Sawtooths. Encamped in luxury at Smiley Creek Lodge with locals, I learned how to say “Boy-see” correctly and to hunt for morels, of which we found pounds’ worth. We spent a morning in the woods with survivalist Benji Hill, crafting shelters and building fires from scratch using only found materials and the bow drill method, snacking on fresh bear meat cooked over the flames. A 20-mile E-bike ride on winding dirt roads wove through homestead country and across the Salmon River before depositing us on a trail that ended at Redfish Lake, where an exquisite farm-to-table picnic waited at the finish line. Neighboring Montana lays claim to Big Sky Country, but Idaho felt larger than life, and I long to return and explore further.
Ashley Giordano, Senior Editor
To kill some time during our 2008 Toyota Tundra’s cruise from Texas to England, my husband Richard and I flew straight to the tiny archipelago of Malta. Located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa, this island nation is filled with an array of historic sights, from megalithic temples to palaces, cathedrals, and bunkers. However, the history we were interested in was our own and involved tracing family roots. Inspired by Richard’s grandmother, we learned to make ricotta-filled pastizzi in Valletta and marveled at Gozo’s commanding Church of St. Augustine. Visiting an old family home took us by boat to Cospicua, passing multi-million-dollar yachts and a medieval fort that dominates the Grand Harbour. Perhaps my favorite memory of Malta was walking by endless strawberry patches and breathing in their sweet perfume carried by the Mediterranean breeze. I’ve never tasted better strawberries in my life.
Outer Hebrides, Scotland
Eager to escape the hustle and bustle of mainland Scotland, we ferried to the Hebridean islands of Lewis, Harris, and North and South Uist, searching for tranquility, rumored white sand beaches, and a few distilleries along the way. Indeed, the tropical-esque coastlines are real (although with a sharp, cold breeze in the Spring), and many are open for camping for a small honesty-box donation as the land is primarily farmer-owned. We found plenty of spots to call home temporarily, popping up the Starlink to catch up on article writing and enjoying a gin and tonic with locally sourced botanicals. Next up, we were drawn toward the ethereal Callanish Stones. Reportedly older than Stonehenge and accessible to the public on the Isle of Lewis, the stones inspired the fictional Craigh na Dun standing stones that play an instrumental role in the time-traveling Outlander series.
The dusty desert back roads of Northern Namibia proved the perfect contrast to the jewel-hued waters of Scotland and Malta’s busy European tourist hub. Donning my trusty navigator’s cap, I joined Expedition Overland’s Africa trip, piloting the team toward the Angolan border to admire the rushing waters of Epupa Falls and the rocky steps of Van Zyl’s pass. Invited to a nearby village, we spent time with the local Himba tribe, who shared their way of life. The women, who use a paste of ochre and fat to paint their bodies, love to barter, so we spiritedly negotiated a fair rate for colorful handmade bowls, jewelry, and figurines. Heading toward the legendary Skeleton Coast, we took on fun, sandy sections of the Kaokoveld Desert in search of the mysterious Lone Men and old, empty Caltex drums that reminded us of how far we were from the nearest fuel station—a total of 800 kilometers between fill-ups.
Jack Mac, Bikepacking Editor
In March 2023, I turned my compass south and drove my 1986 Vanagon Syncro 1,000 miles to Slovenia. At 7,827 square miles and with a population of just 2.1 million, it’s a relatively small country but perhaps one of the most beautiful and exciting I’ve ever visited. I arrived early in the season, and it felt like I had the country to myself, with the exception of Lake Bled. I focused my time on the Slovenian Alps, which are made up of three sections: the Julian and Kamnik Alps and the Karawanks. There are many thrilling mountain passes, with the 1,611-meter (5,285-foot) Vršič Pass being the most famous. Highlights included Predjama Castle, kayaking Lake Bohinj, the Church of St. Primoz, and the Škocjan Caves (which are a Unesco World Heritage site). Please note that wild camping is not permitted, which can be challenging in the off-season as many campsites are closed.
Seasonal work has been fundamental to my ability to travel. With this in mind, I returned to Lofoten from April until the end of September as a hotel manager. If you’ve always dreamed of visiting a country but simply can’t afford it, working overseas is a great compromise. The Lofoten Islands, located 95 miles north of the Arctic Circle, are widely considered one of the most beautiful places in the world, with my home-from-home Reine being arguably the jewel in the archipelago’s crown. Hiking and kayaking rule in these parts, with the midnight sun serving as the perfect excuse to explore into the early hours. I focused my free time ticking off peaks, trail running, and shooting a mix of digital and film photography from the kayak. I encourage visiting in early spring or autumn to avoid the crowds and also making the journey north to explore Senja.
In November, I flew to Italy to complete the Wolf’s Lair bikepacking route in Abruzzo. It’s an epic 241-mile ride through three national parks with over 8,594 meters of climbing. The recommended riding season is between May and September, so I knew I’d face sub-zero temperatures and turbulent weather. It was every bit of the adventure I’d hoped for, accompanied by world-class Italian cuisine and hospitality, epic wild camping, and landscapes that left my jaw agape. Heavy rain made the 70 percent unpaved route especially demanding, but with the Lord of the Rings lo-fi soundtrack and a full belly, I was in high spirits. Bikepacking is one of the rawest and most rewarding forms of overlanding and often provides access to wild places that are either impossible or prohibited for motorized transport. It’s also an opportunity to embrace a heightened and sometimes extreme level of physical and mental hardship that makes reaching your destination all the sweeter.
Caballos en México
The back of a horse is a fine way to see the countryside. Slower than driving, faster than walking, and more exciting than bicycling, a rider experiences all the great outdoors has to offer. My wife and I have taken horseback vacations since 1999; this year, we chose a rancho in the highlands north of Mexico City at an elevation of 7,500 feet. This is an area of small towns, irrigated fields, and wide-open views. We enjoyed cool nights and warm days in April but were told the weather doesn’t change much throughout the year. Young horsemen lead the rides, stopping at small stores when available for refreshments and to put a few pesos into the local economy. There are hills and mountains to climb for a better view, rivers and creeks to follow, and dirt paths perfect for fast gallops. Left to their own, the guides prefer fast. So do we.
Mountains, Desert, Ocean
A three-day motorcycle trip in June was the escape from civilization I needed. Empty serpentine roads delivered me to a camp under the oaks, all to myself. That night, I replaced a melted luggage strap and bolted a flattened beer can to my heat shield to protect a partially cooked pannier. Carrizo Plain National Monument beckoned on day two, and I quickly left asphalt for dirt and wide-open spaces. The Carrizo did not disappoint, serving up byways to explore, expansive views, quiet camping, and summer heat. The following day, I left for the coolness of the coast, stopping to reunite a wandering dog with its owners and clean the dust off my tires on twisty Highway 58. San Simeon State Park on Highway 1 bathed me in fresh ocean air, but the pitiful, sloped campsite I endured there was the worst. Next time, I’m boondocking it.
Graeme Bell, 4WD Senior Editor
Tuktoyaktuk, Arctic Circle in Winter
Driving to the Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean is a feather in the cap for many overlanders. What made this journey especially challenging, and therefore rewarding, is that we chose to overland there in early March, encountered temperatures as low as -58°F, and camped in our Nimbl camper all the way there and back, except for a night in Whitehorse where we repaired the shocked Cummins 5.9 engine’s mysterious oil leak. The route to Tuktoyaktuk was treacherous; our convoy mate rolled his vehicle in a snow bank east of Dawson City and had to join us for the rest of the journey, as giving up was not an option. The route was as beautiful as it was dangerous. We had the opportunity to see many thousands of miles cloaked in a sheet of deep white; we marveled at frozen blue lakes and a sky of icy blue; we witnessed the Aurora Borealis and vowed to return armed with our newly acquired cold weather skills and a set of snowshoes.
Jasper National Park, Canada
Heading south from the Arctic, we took the opportunity presented by the onset of spring to visit Jasper National Park and engage in some much-needed hiking and relaxed camping after weeks behind the wheel. This remarkable and mind-numbingly beautiful area in the Canadian Rockies is home to the world’s second-largest dark sky preserve, and the vast national park is a part of the UNESCO-listed Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. The park is divided into five distinct regions, each offering unique landscapes and experiences. We enjoyed solitary hikes and marveled at the candlestick ice of the many serene, defrosting lakes as we soaked up the warm sun, cool air, and endless views of the mighty Rocky Mountains. It seems Jasper is a relatively well-kept secret as we later found restless herds of tourists in Banff National Park and promptly left, returning to Jasper and the solitude and beauty of wild camping outside the park.
After collecting our battered and bruised Land Rover Defender from the port in Vancouver, BC, we headed south to mainland Mexico. Nursing the 22-year-old Land Rover from Canada to the blistering heat of the Mexican desert, we soon yearned for the cool temperatures of the north. The Sinaloa region is synonymous with cartels and drug trafficking, and rightly so, but it is also a fertile region of exceptional natural beauty with rolling hills of deep green and a long coastline facing Baja California Sur across the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California). Skirting the city of Culiacan, where we had narrowly avoided the conflagration of violence following the capture of Ovidio Guzman Lopez back in January 2022, we headed to the beach every night to await the cool evening breeze, and to enjoy the palm trees with friendly people and a BBQ. Sinaloa left a lasting impression, and we plan to return as soon as possible to explore Copper Canyon.
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