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Affordable urban adventures

SmarterTravel

The words “adventure travel” call to mind rappelling into a volcano or hiking through a dense jungle hundreds of miles from civilization. But your next active getaway need not take you so far from home. In fact, there are mountains of great adventures just perfect for the busy urbanite or visitor to a big U.S. city. We’ve chosen 10 activities in or near five major U.S. metropolitan areas for their combination of a great workout at a reasonable cost, often with a skyline view.

San Francisco

Most big cities don’t offer much to hikers. Not so with San Francisco, with its world-famous hills. One Bay Area native has made it her business to lead hikes all over town. Sylvia Allen, who runs San Francisco City Hikes, has a simple message to visitors: “You’ll never see the city from an automobile. Get out and walk.” With Allen, walk they do. She has designed 21 guided hikes to choose from, each focused on different aspects of the city, from the murals of The Mission district to the markets of Chinatown. Along the way, Allen educates and entertains with stories from San Francisco’s past and present. She also talks “about what I remember, myself, growing up running wild in the city, and how the neighborhoods have changed in my lifetime.”

The hikes are between four- and five-and-a-half-miles long, and each takes about three hours to complete. Currently, City Hikes caters to larger groups, with the minimum price of $200 per excursion. This typically works out to about $20 per person, though that price drops to $15 for larger groups. For those rates, hikers are guided on an exploration of San Francisco’s diverse neighborhoods.

If you don’t get your fill of hills in San Francisco, take your bike across the Golden Gate Bridge and explore the trails of Marin County. Marin is often credited with being the birthplace of mountain biking, and whether that’s true or not, it’s an amazing setting for any ride. Visit MarinTrails.com for maps and descriptions of the county’s top trails. MTB.LIVE.COM, the self-described “Internet’s mountain bike park,” is another excellent resource for Marin County mountain bike information, particularly as a portal to many other Marin bike websites, including Cycle Point Reyes, where you can rent a mountain bike from $32 per day.

New York

It doesn’t get much more affordable, or more urban, than the aquatic adventures offered by the New York City Downtown Boathouse. With free kayaks available to anyone on a first-come, first-served basis, the Downtown Boathouse provides an opportunity to explore the waters of the Hudson River while you look back at New York City and think about all the money you’re saving. In addition to making kayaks available to everyone, the Boathouse also runs three-hour trips on summer mornings from its Pier 26 location, introductory kayak classes, and youth sailing instruction.

The Boathouse is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, so donations are accepted, but they’re not required for any services. The only drawback is that it’s not possible to reserve boats or classes ahead of time. However, the Boathouse’s website indicates an ample number of kayaks, and states there is even more availability in the morning or on overcast days.

It may not have the prettiest name, and it’s a bit outside the metro area, but if you’re a rock climber in New York City, the Gunks are the place to be. Short for the “Shawangunks,” the Gunks are a mountain range of more than 150,000 acres near New Paltz, New York (about one-and-a-half hours from the city). Gunks.com is a great starting point for anyone interested in visiting the Gunks, as it provides area information and helps climbers find partners online.

For those who aren’t ready to scale these cliffs, there are a variety of alternative activities. Evan Marks of Gunks.com notes there are many excellent road and mountain biking trails, and kayaking on nearby rivers is also popular. With all of these great things to do, it’s no wonder the Gunks are often overwhelmed by visitors, particularly in the fall. To avoid the thickest crowds, go during the week or get there early in the morning so you can leave before traffic gets heavy.

Chicago

If you’re in the Windy City for a weekend and just want to get around, or live in town and want to get back on two wheels, Bike Chicago will get you rolling. With five locations and rental options from hourly to monthly, there’s something for every schedule. There’s also something for every type of rider, from those looking for speed to those in search of maximum comfort. There are even surrey bicycles for families who want to share a vehicle.

“Chicago is extremely bike friendly and has many beautiful places to ride along the lakefront and in the city,” says Lauren Rudy, Bike Chicago’s marketing and tour manager. We found adult rates as low as $34 for a full day or $8.75 per hour. Kids’ rates are lower, and prices drop significantly after the first day. You can book up to a month in advance, either online, or by calling 888-BIKEWAY (888-245-3929).

If dry land doesn’t do it for you, Lake Michigan awaits. Chicago Sailing rents J-22 boats that hold up to five people for as little as $35 per hour on weekdays until 4:00 p.m. In the evenings and on weekends, rates are higher. It’s also an extra charge to have a captain onboard, though that’s a wise option for inexperienced sailors. For those who’ve done some sailing, “Club Sails” offer good value. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, these three-hour excursions cost $40 per person, and Chicago Sailing matches participants by their experience levels.

The company recommends booking at least 48 hours in advance, or slightly more if you require a captain. To book a boat, call 773-871-7245 or fill out the reservation form and a staff member will contact you. The sailing season typically runs from early April through early October, depending on demand and weather.

Los Angeles

The days of the Wild West may be over, but you can still saddle up, even in L.A. For a real equine experience, gallop over to the Sunset Ranch Hollywood, located in the hills just below the movie capital’s famous sign. The ranch runs horseback rides on 52 miles of trails, with prices of $25 per hour plus tip for the guide. You may find even better value by booking one of the ranch’s longer tours, as two-hour rides are $40 and private dinner rides are $75 per rider, plus a $30 fee for the entire group. On Fridays, no advance reservations are accepted, but prices for the dinner rides drop to $60 per person. Riders hop off their horses to eat at a nearby Mexican restaurant, where dinners cost between $6 and $12. On the way back to the ranch, you’ll ride under the night sky, and arrive by 10:30 p.m.

If you’re not the cowboy type, but still want to experience the great views of L.A., try hiking Mt. Hollywood. Located in Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the U.S., Mt. Hollywood is a moderate hike suited to families and visitors to L.A. who want a bird’s-eye view of the city. From the peak, there is 360-degree visibility, and clear days allow hikers to see not just the City of Angels, but the Pacific Ocean, the San Gabriel mountains, and of course, the Hollywood sign. It’s not a super-challenging hike, though past hikers report a few things to watch out for, including rattlesnakes and coyotes (after dark). Other hikers have seen hawks in the sky and lizards on the sunny rocks.

Washington, D.C.

A visit to the nation’s capital typically involves walking around the famous buildings and monuments. From April through October, it’s possible to see some of those same sights while gliding along the Potomac River. For $15 per hour or $35 per day, you can rent a kayak in the heart of Georgetown at Jack’s Boathouse, which has been operating since 1945. Jack’s has 150 boats in total, most of which are kayaks, though there are also canoes and rowboats. And, because of a regulation that prohibits boats from creating waves in the area, it’s fairly easy to travel six miles up or down the river. That route affords views of the Washington Monument, the Watergate Building, and Georgetown.

Back on dry land, the C&O Canal provides bikers with the choice of everything from a short city ride to a long-distance excursion into rural America. According to BikeWashington.org, “many local bikers have considered trying to bike the entire 184 miles between Georgetown and Cumberland, MD.” For those who don’t have the time, conditioning, or energy for such an undertaking, the website divides the path into shorter sections, each with accompanying descriptions of what you can see and do along the way. The trail is unpaved and covered in clay and crushed stone, so the ride can be somewhat rough.

Make sure to outfit yourself with the proper equipment before heading down the trail. Big Wheel Bikes offers a variety of rental options for those without a cycle. Prices start at $5 per hour or $25 per day, and the store is conveniently located just one block from the C&O bike path.

These are just a few of the many possible adventures in cities all over the country and around the world. With a little research and not much money, you can explore your nearest metropolitan area in a new way.

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