Riding The Trans-America Trail

October 16, 2008
By Scott Brady of Overland Journal 
The TAT begins in eastern Tennessee working its way through Arkansas  Oklahoma  Kansas  Colorado  Utah  Nevada and ending on the Oregon coast.
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If I mentioned to you that I had just ridden 5000 miles across a country, mostly on remote, dirt tracks, with sparse fuel availability and simple accommodations, you would likely think my adventure had taken me through a country in Africa, or the remote deserts of Australia. In reality, this remote, rugged and challenging adventure is available right here in the continental United States, the Trans-America Trail…

About the Trail
Thanks to the hard work of Sam Correro, the Trans-America Trail (TAT) project is a genuine success, due to a passionate group of TAT riders who helped Sam scout the trail, maintain its routes, and provide updates on any trail closures or bypasses. The TAT is essentially the solution to a puzzle, as all of the roads and trails in Sam’s roll-charts were already in existence, but it took him nearly 12 years and tens of thousands of miles of riding to assemble the key to the route.

At first glance, this might seem somewhat easy to accomplish, but the route’s success goes well beyond connecting dirt roads and tracks. What makes the TAT so exceptional is how Sam planned this remote route, while still providing fuel stops within the range of the typical dual-sport motorcycle. In addition to the fuel stops, each leg of the trip includes a technical portion of riding, if even for 15-20 miles, which allows for a highlight each day.

The ghost town of Animas Forks in Colorado is a popular stop on the TAT and for general travelers in the Rocky Mountains. The site is easily accessed by well-maintained roads.
The ghost town of Animas Forks in Colorado is a popular stop on the TAT and for general travelers in the Rocky Mountains. The site is easily accessed by well-maintained roads.

The TAT begins in eastern Tennessee and snakes its way westward, dipping into Mississippi before shifting north through Arkansas and into Oklahoma. The trail in the East is not exceptionally technical, but can increase in difficulty if the roads are muddy or the water crossings are deep. Once through Oklahoma, the Trans-Am becomes more challenging, gaining and losing elevation as it nears the Continental Divide. From my experience, the Colorado segment of the trail was the most beautiful, including crossing epic mountain passes like Hancock and Tincup (or the bypass on Cinnamon) and Ophir. It is likely that the main passes identified on the roll chart will be closed, even in late July. This will require a series of bypasses, and while they are less challenging, the views are no less spectacular. The trail through Utah was the highlight of my trip, as the routes through Moab and the San Rafael Swell were remote, challenging and scenic. Black Dragon Canyon in particular captured all of what the TAT is about, with ancient pictographs, washouts, big rocks and deep sand. Like most true adventures, I was physically spent by the end of the day, but not tired enough to stop smiling.

The trail heads over Cinnamon Pass  one of many high-elevation mountain crossing in Colorado.
The trail heads over Cinnamon Pass, one of many high-elevation mountain crossing in Colorado.

The Nevada portion of the trip is best defined as rugged and remote, with hundreds of miles of the trail only ridden by those braving the TAT (with the occasional ranch truck). The weather was also the most intense. We encountered a major storm, which turned the heavily silted tracks into endless bogs. All we could do was put our tires in a rut and plow forward, hours on end. Fuel availability was also a challenge in Nevada, and we had to use our reserve cans more than once on my big KTM. The longest stretch was over 160 miles of challenging two-track.

From Nevada the trail travels into California for less than 30 miles before turning north to Oregon. While Oregon is the least technical riding of the western states, the navigation is the most intense, as we encountered trail after trail that was blocked by trees, closed for logging or gated off by a private landowner. All of this added to the sense of adventure, and we used my Delorme PN-20 GPS with topo maps installed to find a bypass. There is a great sense of anticipation in Oregon though, as you know the trail is coming to an end and that you will eventually smell the salty air of the Pacific. The final leg of the route rewards you with a beautiful ride along a ridgeline, with the ocean visible in the distance. After crossing Highway 1, you can ride down a sandy slope out to the cold waters. Just don’t get stuck in the sand below the high-tide mark.

The Trans-Am Trail can only be described as epic, with every ingredient for an exceptional adventure represented, and it can all be accessed without even having a passport – exceptional indeed.

Choosing the Right Adventure Moto
The Trans-Am Trail is not for the faint of heart or for the typical moto. The route places several distinct demands on the motorcycle you choose. The first option for the TAT rider is to go light and fast, and trailer a 250-550cc dual-sport to the start of the TAT in Tennessee, and then run with a support crew, or eliminate camping all together. Most lighter dual-sports cannot run the TAT self-supported. The advantage of a lighter moto is that all of the challenging segments of the trail are much easier on the bike and rider.

Black Dragon Canyon is part of the rocky  scenic terrain in southern Utah.
Black Dragon Canyon is part of the rocky, scenic terrain in southern Utah.

The downside is that you are always looking for the next fuel stop and motel. The second option for crossing the TAT is to use an adventure-class of motorcycle, like a KTM 640/950/990, or a BMW F650 Dakar or GS Adventure. These larger bikes have the framework to support expedition loads and have the fuel range to travel unsupported. Riding the TAT on a large adventure moto is much more demanding physically, but you are rewarded with night after night of remote camps and fewer dependencies on towns along the way. I chose to ride the TAT on a big-bore KTM Adventure and my travel partner rode a BMW F650GS, which was heavily modified with new suspension and skidplates. Both were well-suited to the trail, though the KTM had a visible advantage when the TAT was at its most technical. The BMW yielded amazing fuel economy, nearly doubling efficiency over the big KTM.

The basic requirements for a motorcycle traveling the TAT are:
1. A dual-sport or adventure motorcycle designed to be operated on dirt trails for extended periods
2. 160+ mile fuel range (dirt)
3. Good skidplates for the motor and extra fuel cans
4. A model known for good reliability in rough terrain
5. A good GPS with detailed basemaps and a roll-chart case
6. DOT-approved dirt tires (like the Continental TKC80 or the Dunlop D606, etc.)
7. The moto should be street-legal as 7% of the trail is on public roads, and many of the dirt roads require a license plate

Every day has some technical  challenging terrain. Be prepared to encounter some difficulties.
Every day has some technical, challenging terrain. Be prepared to encounter some difficulties.

Packing the Best Gear
As with most adventures, success often depends on solid planning and high-quality gear. Taking the trip of a lifetime across the TAT is not the time to skimp on equipment, repair and service of your moto, or not wearing the best riding gear. Traveling 5000 miles across the U.S. will guarantee that you encounter severe weather, mechanical problems and navigation challenges. Here are some key pieces of equipment to consider:

1. A dual-sport or motocross helmet to manage dust while ensuring good visibility.
2. High-quality riding gear that provides good fall protection, breathability in hot weather, insulation in cold weather and is also waterproof. We used BMW Motorrad equipment, though companies like MSR and Moose Racing also produce quality adventure moto gear.
3. Soft Luggage – It is possible to ride the TAT with hard luggage, but the chance of damage to the panniers or your legs increase significantly. I recommend using Wolfman luggage, which is designed specifically for lightweight expedition motorcycling. Ortlieb also makes a good-quality dry-bag pannier and top-bag set.
4. Lightweight camping equipment – You will not find any of this at Wal-Mart, so save your pennies and buy a lightweight and compact tent from Nemo or Snow Peak (the founder of Nemo tents owns a nice BMW 1200GSA). We used the Nemo Morpho AR, which utilizes air beams instead of poles, and sets up in about 30 seconds with two people, or 40 seconds with one person. For cooking, we used an all-titanium Snow Peak cookset and a Brunton Vapor, all-fuel stove. The Vapor will burn nearly anything, including unleaded fuel, diesel and compact fuel canisters. Our entire cook kit

There are plenty of attractions that will demand futher exploration. It s important to allow some extra time for checking out unexpected interests.
There are plenty of attractions that will demand futher exploration. It’s important to allow some extra time for checking out unexpected interests.

weighed less than two pounds.
5. Spares and tools – With more than one rider, share the load and split tools to one moto and tire repair equipment to another. Bring along spare parts for known failure points on your particular bike. The fuel pump of the KTM was a known problem and I had a spare along. We needed it 100 miles from the end of the trail.
6. Cameras – Each member of the team should bring a camera along to document your adventure. Modern digital cameras can be both light-weight and also capture beautiful, high-resolution images and video. For our trip we used a Leica D-Lux 3 and a Canon G9. Both shoot in RAW and have better than 10-megapixel resolution. For video we carried a Samsung HDV unit, which captures 720P onto flash memory.

Crossing the Continental Divide was a highlight for the author and his travelling companion.
There are plenty of attractions that will demand futher exploration. It’s important to allow some extra time for checking out unexpected interests.

Transamtrail.com – The official site for the trail and for obtaining the maps and roll charts. Out of respect for Sam’s endless hours planning this route, please make sure to buy a set of roll-charts for each rider in your group and do not share this information with others.
Advrider.com – A web-based community with dozens of TAT ride reports.
Overlandjournal.com – A vehicle-dependent expedition travel publication which features adventure motorcycle expedition stories, equipment reviews and project motorcycles.
Wolfmanluggage.com – Manufacturer of expedition-quality soft bags, made in Colorado.
Nemoequipment.com – Manufacturer of expedition-quality motorcycle tents.
Snowpeak.com – Manufacturer of ultra-light camping equipment.