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Five great North American adventure destinations

You don’t have to travel far in the U.S. and Canada to find wilderness areas ripe with adventure sports potential. From red-rock deserts and wild rivers to high mountain peaks and dense green rainforests, North America’s diverse landscape offers something for outdoor lovers of all abilities and interests.

For adventure vacation inspiration close to home, here’s a look at five of my favorite outdoor destinations: three U.S. national parks, a U.S. national forest, and one Canadian park reserve. Some of the areas spotlighted are icons, while others may be lesser known, but well worth investigating. I’ve highlighted some of the best ways for travelers to experience each, from classic treks to more extreme adventures.

White Mountain National Forest

For the best alpine adventures east of the Rockies, head to the White Mountain National Forest in northern New Hampshire. Although the White Mountains, with their highest peak Mt. Washington standing at 6,288 feet, are less than half the size of some of the mountains in the West, the Whites more than match the Rockies for challenging trails, mountain-top views, and wild weather.

The White Mountains’ Presidential range experiences some of the most extreme weather in the U.S., with the highest wind gusts (231 mph) on earth recorded at the top of Mt. Washington. The severe climate means that the treeline turns to alpine scrub around 4,500 feet, with bare granite summits and ridges above. From these exposed areas, you can see more than 100 miles away into Vermont, Maine, Quebec, and New York State on a clear day.

With more than 1,200 miles of hiking trails including a significant portion of the Appalachian Trail, the White Mountain National Forest is a magnet for backpackers and weekend trailblazers from Boston and New York. There’s also paddling and mountain biking in the summer. In the winter, downhill skiing at the area’s numerous resorts dominates; backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, and ice-climbing are popular too.

Adventure highlights

Hike the Presidential range

For the ultimate White Mountain hike, traverse the region’s highest mountains along the Presidential range: Webster, Jackson, Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison.

Most people do the hike in the summer, but early fall tends to bring better weather and fewer people. “September is my favorite month to hike,” says Mike Kautz, huts manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). “Canadian air cools the weather down, the bugs are gone, the vegetation and birch trees start changing colors, and the trails are nice and quiet.”

Many have tried to make the 20-mile plus journey (varying depending on the trails you take) in a single day, but saner folk opt to break the trip up with a few overnights at the AMC huts, which are staggered along the ridge. For about $80 per night in the summer you’ll get rustic bunkroom accommodations and hearty homemade meals. You should book by mid-winter for a spot on weekends in July and August.

Strong hikers can do a 24-mile route over the “Prezzies” in three days. Start at the Webster Cliff Trail and follow the Crawford Path, Gulfslide, Osgood, and Air Line trails over the 10 summits and down to the road at the bottom of Madison. Overnight at the Lake of the Clouds and Madison Spring huts. You can also break the distance up into four days, spending the first night at Mizpah Spring hut.

Ski Tuckerman’s Ravine

Late March through May, downhill skiers flock by the thousands to Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman’s Ravine to ski the most fabled backcountry run east of the Mississippi. Skiing Tuckerman’s headwall, as steep as 55 degrees, is an experts-only proposition, although mellower runs are located nearby. There’s no chair lift here. Skiers must hike up about three miles from Pinkham Notch to the base of the ski bowl. At the bowl, it’s another short but grueling trudge up a steep icy slope to good start positions on the headwall.

“There’s nothing quite like the feeling of hiking for your turns,” says Tom Runcie, a member of the Dartmouth College Ski Patrol who’s skied Tuckerman’s three times. “The views are spectacular, the ravine is breathtaking, and early in the season you get to look smugly across Pinkham Notch at all the Wildcat Mountain [ski resort] skiers paying for their mellow groomers. Then you turn and point your skis over some of the steepest, gnarliest terrain in the world.”

Conditions in the ravine can be dangerous, so be sure to read the safety tips and weather updates posted on Tuckerman.org before going.

Resources

To begin your trip planning, go to the White Mountains National Forest website. The Appalachian Mountain Club website also has information about activities in the mountains, plus details on how to book AMC huts, guided trips, and workshops. You can read more about weather in the region on the Mount Washington Observatory website. For information about area lodging and dining, go to New Hampshire’s official tourism site.

NEXT >> Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

Of the five million visitors who come to the Grand Canyon every year, most spend an average of less than two hours in the park—hardly adequate enough to experience this vast and prodigious landscape.

“As someone who’s lived here for 12 years and hiked thousands of miles in the park, I’d say that the more time you spend here the more you realize that you’re just scratching the surface of what the Grand Canyon has to offer,” says Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, a program of the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association that works with the Park Service in support of science and education. “It would take lifetimes to really be able to say ‘I’ve done the Grand Canyon.'”

More than a million acres of land await exploration in the park. Those who are prepared for the Canyon’s sometimes extreme heat and difficult terrain will discover a myriad of natural and archeological treasures within the canyon and along its rims. You can hike along, into, and across the Canyon on marked trails, or head out into the backcountry. If you’d rather not hoof it yourself, mules can be hired to carry you down to the canyon floor. And then there’s the trip many consider the experience of a lifetime: rafting the Colorado River through the canyon.

Adventure highlights

Hike rim to rim

The best way to experience a full biological and geographic cross section of the park is to do a rim-to-rim hike, a challenging but deeply rewarding trek. “Botanically speaking, hiking the 14 miles from the North Rim to the bottom of the canyon is like hiking the coastline from central Canada to central Mexico—you leave the aspens and end up in cactus,” says Buchheit.

There are several routes you can follow, but the 23.5-mile trip from the North Rim to South Rim on the North Kaibab and Bright Angel trails has reliable water sources and avoids the additional 1,400 feet you’d have to ascend if you hiked from the South Rim to the higher-elevation North Rim. It’s wise to break the trip into two or three overnights, staying at the Cottonwood, Bright Angel, and Indian Garden campsites.

You’re limited as to when to go because the North Rim is only open from mid-May to Mid-October, and the inner Canyon is dangerously hot in the summer. “The best times are mid-May to the first week of June and then mid-September to mid-October,” says Buchheit.

If you’re planning the trip yourself, you’ll need to obtain a backcountry permit, which costs $10 plus $5 per person per night spent below the rim. Demand for permits is high, so make a reservation early. The earliest you can apply is the first of the month, four months out from your start month.

You can avoid the permit headache and learn about the natural and human history of the park by going on a guided rim-to-rim backpack with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. “Hiking on your own you’re likely to hustle right past any number of amazing points of interest such as fossil beds, rock art, and wildlife,” says Buchheit. “An instructor can point these things out to you and explain their significance.”

Trips are scheduled throughout the year. The $555 tour cost covers instruction, a backcountry permit, North Rim shuttle service, and pre-class literature. You provide your own camping gear and food.

Raft the Colorado River

If a rim-to-rim hike is the best way to see a microcosm of the Canyon, rafting the length of it (or part of it) gives the best panorama. It’s one heck of a ride too.

For the most comprehensive experience, raft the full 277 miles of the Colorado River that flows through the canyon from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead. On this trip you’ll hit more than 100 rapids, including the legendary Lava Falls, which has the highest rating possible (10 out of 10) on the canyon’s white-water difficulty scale. As you twist and turn down the river, you’ll witness the changing face of the canyon, its walls turning from the pink sandstone of the upper canyon to the dark volcanic rock of the lower canyon. “For every mile you travel in the canyon, you go farther back in geological time,” says Barb Steffen of Outdoors Unlimited, a rafting outfitter.

While some Grand Canyon rafting companies do the trips in motorized boats or rafts powered by a guide with a set of oars, Outdoors Unlimited has the option for its clients to do the paddling themselves, something that adds much to the sense of accomplishment at the end of the trip. The company has 13-day full canyon trips (from $2,895), or, for those with less time, five- or six-day upper canyon trips (from $1,395 and $1,595) and eight- or nine-day lower canyon trips (from $2,045 and $2,315). There is an extra charge for paddle rafts.

Resources

The National Park Service website has detailed information about recreation options, camping, permits, and safety in the park. Go to the Grand Canyon Field Institute website to learn about more guided tours on topics ranging from photography to backcountry medicine. For general travel information, visit the Arizona Office of Tourism website.

NEXT >> Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Although not well known among Americans, Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a narrow coastal plain that stretches along the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island, boasts one of the world’s great multi-day hikes as well as top-notch sea kayaking and surfing. Shaped by the forces of wind and water, the park has storm-swept beaches and rocky cliffs, scores of islands, massive 1,000-year-old cedars, spruces, and hemlocks, and a temperate rainforest of twisted trees draped in moss.

The park is divided into three distinct units—the West Coast Trail, Long Beach, and the Broken Islands Group—each offering different wilderness experiences and activities. Backpackers come to the West Coast Trail to hike this former life-saving path, originally created to give shipwrecked survivors safe passage through the dense forest. Kayakers can get close-up glimpses of gray, humpback, and killer whales paddling around the Broken Islands Group, and the Long Beach unit has the best surfing in Canada.

Adventure highlights

Hiking the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail runs 47 miles from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north. Most hikers plan to be out five to seven days, camping in designated areas along the trail. The wet, often mist-shrouded route cuts through the rainforest and skirts along the coast, passing waterfalls, sandstone cliffs, and rock pillars. Although the trail stays close to sea level, it involves climbing some steep slopes and wading through rivers. Ladders and cable cars are used to cross some of the more dangerous sections.

The number of people on the trail is limited to protect the area from overuse. Hikers must apply for a permit at $109 CAD (about $97 U.S.; see XE.com for current exchange rates), which should be reserved in advance through Parks Canada. Many people make the trip in July and August, but May, June, and September are viable, too, and less busy.

Kayaking the Broken Islands

Sea kayaking in the waters of Barkley Sound is an ideal way to explore the more than 100 islands and islets that make up the Broken Islands Group. Wildlife viewing opportunities abound here. In the spring, a sea lion colony is in residence and a population of about 20,000 gray whales migrates through the region. “Sometimes gray whales come right up to the boats,” says Tracy Eeftink, owner of Majestic Ocean Kayaking. In the summer, whale watchers can see groups of playful humpback whales performing aerial acrobatics, and occasionally spot more reclusive orcas swimming by.

The islands themselves are fascinating. Pockets and depressions around the island form tidal pools that teem with sea creatures; ancient remnants of the Nuu-chah-nulth native people, like stone fish traps and fortifications, can be found on the islands.

Majestic Ocean Kayaking runs one- and four-day sea kayaking tours of the islands from nearby Ucluelet. One-day tours cost $225, which covers equipments use, guides, boat transfers from Ucluelet to the islands, and lunch. Four-day tours include overnight camping on the islands, equipment, meals, and guides for a cost of $999 per person.

Surfing off Long Beach

The Long Beach unit of the park is pounded by waves from storms formed in the Gulf of Alaska and Pacific swells generated off Japan. The area has the highest mean annual temperature in Canada, and the water temperature holds at about 50 degrees year-round, meaning that surfing is viable at all times.

Most surfers head to Tofino, a town near the northern edge of the park, to catch the waves. “Tofino is Canada’s surfing mecca,” says Jenny Stewart, the owner and founder of Tofino’s Surf Sister Surf School. “We get the same waves that hit the shores of Hawaii. Our beaches are sandy with gradual slopes so the waves break miles out and roll to shore. Winter swells can be up to about 30 feet [and] summer waves are about three to six feet.”

Canada’s only all-female surf school, the Surf Sister Surf School, offers surf clinics and camps for women, plus daily lessons that are also open to men. Lessons cost about $66, which covers equipment and instruction.

Resources

The Parks Canada website has information about the park and details on permits. For more information about activities, lodging, tour operators, and other travel providers, go to the Tourism Vancouver Island website or TourismTofino.com

NEXT >> Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

In the 19th century, conservationist John Muir, who helped found Yosemite National Park, described the area as “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” Since then, the park’s grandeur has earned it many more devotees, some who return time and again. “Every visit to Yosemite is different from the last,” says Simon Williams of Alexandria, Virginia, who’s been to the park numerous times with his wife Danielle. “There is always something new to discover. Just when you think you’ve ‘seen’ Yosemite, Mother Nature will surprise you with a new vista or cast a new light on a scene that completely changes your perspective.”

Hoards of tourists congregate in the campgrounds and visitor facilities within the Yosemite Valley, but most don’t venture far off the beaten path. If you want a true wilderness experience here, you can have it. “Even in the often-crowded Valley, just a few minutes’ walk away from your car, you can be standing alone in a quiet meadow, surrounded by towering cliffs and plunging waterfalls, or treading a quiet trail interrupted occasionally by a foraging squirrel, or the sound of the Sierra air whipping through the canyon walls,” says Williams.

Hikers can experience the park’s granite domes, waterfalls, and alpine meadows by covering some of the more than 800 miles of trails in Yosemite, including portions of the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails. Advanced rock climbers head to the 3,000-foot sheer face of El Capitan, the largest chunk of exposed granite on earth, to attempt the most coveted big wall climb in the U.S. Winter visitors have the park almost all to themselves, and take advantage of some of the most scenic cross-country skiing there is.

Adventure highlights

Hiking Half Dome

“Half Dome is an epic hike that people travel here to conquer,” says Park Ranger Sheree Peshlakai. The 17-mile round-trip journey to the top of the 8,842-foot dome can be completed in one long, strenuous day by fit hikers. It’s best to start the hike at dawn so you can be off the summit before mid-afternoon, the time of day when dangerous thunderstorms tend to hit. You’ll start the hike in pine forest, and slowly switchback your way up more than 4,000 feet until you reach the final stretch, a naked granite slab that requires climbing up slopes as steep as 45 degrees. Normally, rock-climbing equipment would be necessary to safely make it to the top, but the park service has installed cables that hikers can use to pull themselves up the final 200 yards. From the top, you get a spectacular bird’s eye view of the valley.

You can also break the hike into two days, spending a night camping off the trail. “Little Yosemite Valley is the halfway point to Half Dome and is the first place to pull over and seek a campsite,” says Peshlakai. “Wilderness Permits are a requirement for any overnight stay. They can be picked up at the Wilderness Center in Yosemite Valley the day before or day of [the hike]. There are quotas so you may want to think of reservations, which can be made [by calling] 209-372-0740.”

Cross-country skiing to Glacier Point

If solitude is what you’re looking for, the colder months are the ideal time for you to visit. Many of the roads through the park are closed in the winter, but you can penetrate the wilderness by strapping on a pair of cross-country skis.

The Badger Pass Ski Area, located south of Yosemite Valley, is the start point for more than 90 miles of marked trails, including a 10.5-mile groomed track to Glacier Point. Glacier Point, a favorite photo stop of Ansel Adams, is a high point 3,000 feet above the valley that offers a dramatic view of Half Dome and the High Sierras in the background.

A ski hut for overnight trips is maintained at Glacier Point in the winter, and the Yosemite Cross Country Ski School offers tours that include guides, meals, and accommodations. One-night trips start at $160 per person and two-night trips start at $240. You’ll have more time to explore the area around Glacier Point on the two-night excursion.

Resources

Start researching a trip on the Yosemite National Park website. The nonprofit Yosemite Association also has a helpful website.To learn about park lodging, guided tours, rock-climbing classes, and skiing in the park, go to YosemitePark.com, a website run by Delaware North Companies, a park concessionaire. For general travel information, check out the California Tourism site.

NEXT >> Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Stretching across western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to some of world’s oldest mountains and one of the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystems on earth. The 200- to 300-million-year-old Great Smokies range of the Appalachian chain bisects the park with peaks as high as 6,643 feet. The area’s warm, wet climate provides ideal growing conditions for plants and animals: More than 10,000 different species have been documented in the park. The weather also accounts for the mountains’ namesake fog, which often drapes the valleys in smoky blue tendrils.

A third of the U.S. population lives within a day’s drive of the Smokies, so it’s no wonder the park is the country’s most popular, seeing more than nine million visitors annually. What’s surprising is that once you get away from the roads, established campgrounds, and the most accessible trails, you can have the mountains (mostly) to yourself. “There’s a misconception that the park is crowded, but … about 90 percent of our use is on 20 percent of the trails,” says Bob Miller, a park spokesman.

With 800 miles of trails, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail, the park lends itself to hikers. “Our trails are high in wilderness character: very minimal development in the backcountry, little or no [phone] coverage, and low levels of human noise. They can take you to the most remote lands in the Southeast,” says Miller. Fly-fishing and angling for trout in the park’s well-populated streams and rivers is also popular. Paddling in Lake Fontana and horseback riding are other options.

Adventure highlights

Hiking to the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower

For a taste of wild Appalachia, forgo busy trails like Laurel Falls or any route to Mt. LeConte, and head to the little-visited northeastern corner of the park. You can get a good workout and see some of the best views in the park by hiking an 11-mile up-and-back route along the Low Gap and Appalachian trails to the Mount Cammerer Fire Tower. You’ll start at the Cosby Campground and follow the Low Gap Trail before making a left on the Appalachian Trail (AT). A short side trail off the AT will take you to the tower.

“The fire tower offers a 360-degree view. On cool autumn days when the wind is brisk, you may be able to see as far as 50 miles, with the ridge tops and horizon blurring together,” says Marti Davis, a staff writer and hiking columnist for Knoxville’s News-Sentinel. The tower itself is beautiful, a historic fire watchtower made of stone and hand-cut logs that was recently restored. “It’s now one of the treasures of these mountains and well worth the work it takes to get there,” says Davis.

Fly-fishing for trout

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a gold mine for anglers. The park has one of the last natural trout habitats left in the U.S., and its rivers can have thousands of fish per river mile. “There are about 730 miles of fishable streams in the park which contain entirely non-hatchery fish,” says Miller. “Some of the best streams are Little River, especially above Elkmont Campground, Cataloochee Creek, and Hazel Creek on the north shore of Lake Fontana.”

If you’re a beginner, you can sign up for fly-flying lessons with Little River Outfitters in Townsend, Tennessee. Basic one-day classes cost $115 and include classroom instruction, outside casting lessons, equipment, and lunch. For an additional $115, you can sign up for a second day that includes an outing to the park with instructors, equipment, lunch, and a fishing license. Guided trips for more experienced anglers are also available.

Valid Tennessee or North Carolina fishing permits are required to fish within the park and size limitations and other restrictions apply. You can read the rules on the National Park Service website.

Resources

The official Great Smoky Mountains National Park website is a good place to familiarize yourself with the park’s history, activities, and regulations. The website of the nonprofit Friends of the Smokies organization is also helpful. You can learn about the surrounding towns and travel to the region by going to the North Carolina or Tennessee tourism websites.

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