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Dirt Road Dreams By Bret Edge

Dirt Road Dreams By Bret Edge

Dirt roads offer mystery and adventure, and while sometimes they’re dead ends, sometimes they lead to epic campsites and amazing trails.

For many road-trippers—myself included—a random dirt road holds an undeniable allure. Where does it lead? What will I discover along the way? From sandy, arrow-straight tracks disappearing into barren deserts, to rocky roads climbing high into mountains, dirt roads practically beg to be explored. They promise (mis)adventure and freedom, campsites with jawdropping views, and beautiful solitude. If you’re lucky, the bars on your cell phone disappear with the miles in your rearview mirror. Devoid of technology, we pick up books and read them, play card games with family, or simply lie on the ground beneath a blanket of stars, hoping to catch one hurtling through an inky blue sky.

The reasons that we adventurers can’t help but explore dirt roads are as varied as the rigs we drive. For some, it’s the lure of trout in a crystalline mountain stream, while for others it’s a quest to find remote campsites where coyotes outnumber people. Maybe there’s a little-known trail at the end of the road that winds between smooth sandstone walls to a slot canyon waterfall or a crumbling ghost town whose story begs to be heard. And sometimes, we’re not looking for anything. The draw is the unknown, that insatiable feeling that if you don’t turn off the pavement, you might always wonder what you missed.

My family has been wandering dirt roads for over three decades. Living in Moab, Utah—world famous for, well… everything outdoors, and a landscape so striking it’ll literally stop you in your tracks—we’re graced with high desert to high alpine landscapes, both of which are crisscrossed by a web of dirt roads. Calling a place like Moab home almost requires that you drive a vehicle with at least some off-road capability, because your weekend plans are likely to revolve around the outdoor adventures on offer here.Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, canyoneering, rock climbing… getting to the goods often includes a stretch of dirt-road driving. Hell, even our local national parks are filled with gems that you can’t access unless you’re willing to stir up some dust. We’ve discovered some of our favorite hikes and hidden campsites by succumbing to our curiosity and
turning off the pavement.

That same insatiable desire to explore the unknown also leads us away from Moab, and we’re fortunate to have traveled throughout the American West, into the Rockies and the Cascades, out to the Oregon Coast, down to the Sierra and into the Sonora. Though they’re vastly different landscapes, the common denominator remains the joy of discovery while driving the road less traveled.

In Wyoming, we woke early one morning and watched a grizzly sow and her two adorable cubs walk along a tree-lined creek, where the baby bears splashed little paws with not-so-little claws in snowmelt water. In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, a long drive down an increasingly rough double track delivered us to a campsite with its own private waterfall.

Surrounded by wildflowers in one of Montana’s many alpine meadows, which was itself ringed by craggy mountains, we sat in our camper, silent and scared shitless as lightning flashed and thunder boomed for over an hour, each time echoing off the granite walls around us. When the storm faded out at sunset, clouds previously as dark as a bruise exploded with intense colors that painted the entire landscape in every shade of orange and yellow.

In Arizona, after multiple turns on multiple dirt roads, eventually ending on a rocky two-track that was a little too narrow for our rig, we popped out at an almost perfectly level campsite surrounded by a natural cactus garden with commanding views of the legendary Superstition Mountains. We may not have found the Lost Dutchman’s treasure, but waking up to the sound of coyotes yipping and saguaro soldiers bathed in golden sunlight was a treasure in and of itself.

It’s easy to romanticize dirt-road adventures, sharing only stories about colorful sunsets and spectacular views, but for every win there are at least half a dozen failures. Not in the tragic sense, thankfully—more like driving for hours and finding no views, no photogenic campsites and no interesting wildlife; or just a long drive after a long day when you’re already tired, hungry, and perhaps even grumpy. This is when dinner is skipped and arguments come easy.

That Montana campsite surrounded by wildflowers? Before we found it, we drove through a forest-fire burn scar on an endless and muddly road that got worse the higher we climbed. Shortly after crossing a cattle guard, our truck began slowly sliding toward a drop-off in mud as slick as ice. Luckily, the tires found just enough traction to halt our slide, and we very carefully turned around, absolutely defeated.

In California’s remote White Mountains, while we were searching for a bristlecone to photograph at sunset, a sharp rock sliced through an expensive allterrain tire. After making roadside repairs in falling darkness, and exhausted from our day of hiking and tire changing, we crawled into a makeshift bed under the camper shell. We spent the night shivering under sleeping bags designed for much warmer weather.

And one night, on the Oregon Coast, we were determined to find a logging road climbing up into the Coast Range that would deliver us to a campsite with unmatched views of the Pacific. Multiple dead ends and one raging argument later, we parked our truck on the side of a highway just outside of Pacific City. It was a restless night listening to vehicles zipping by just a few feet from our truck, and wondering when the occupant of the house next door would knock and demand that we leave.

Occasionally, wisdom comes from the strangest of places. In his song “Many Men,” 50 Cent raps, “Sunny days wouldn’t be special, if it wasn’t for rain. Joy wouldn’t feel so good, if it wasn’t for pain.” If every random dirt road ended at a gorgeous campsite, would they have the same appeal? If we were guaranteed not to blow a tire, spend the night on the side of the road, or have marmots terrorize the wires and hoses on our motor, would it still be exciting to kick up a dirt cloud behind us? I’ll bet it wouldn’t; we’d look at dirt roads completely differently, without a sense of wonder.

Whatever it is we’re looking for, it’s out there on a random dirt road. And if we drive enough of them, some day we might just find it.

Bret Edge is a professional adventure and nature photographer/writer in Moab, Utah. He and his family travel throughout the West in their off-road camper—affectionately named the FunHawg—usually in search of rad trails to hike and mountain bike. Find him at, or on Instagram @bretedge.

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