Best Adventure Vacations in the USA
“Vacation” doesn’t always translate into a poolside cabana or a Broadway show. For some, escaping the monotony of the daily grind means getting the adrenalin pumping; like on a rugged mountainside or 50 feet below the ocean surface. Others search out snowy peaks and alpine lakes simply for a change of scenery. This list highlights some of America’s most exciting spots to take a thrilling walk on the wild side.
Why go: When Lewis and Clark first spoke of Yellowstone’s awesome natural beauty, no one believed them. However, no one doubts them today. Filled with geothermic wonders like Old Faithful and the Mammoth Hot Springs, America’s oldest national park offers miles of undisturbed wilderness that beckon to adventure-thirsty visitors. Take a walk on the wild side along the park’s numerous trails and come face to face with bison, elk and bears.
Why go: This park — which is roughly the size of Rhode Island — in California’s Sierra Nevada region is home to mountains, meadows, massive sequoia trees and the country’s highest waterfall. And every year, millions of visitors flock to Yosemite Valley. Opportunities to hike, bike, ski, fish and horseback ride draw the attention of adventure-lovers all over the country, while wildlife enthusiasts can spend their days watching birds, bears and coyotes mingle in the valley.
Why go: Alongside Bora Bora and Rarotonga, Kauai is one of the world’s most spectacular islands for adventure-seekers. Featuring acres of misty rainforests, plummeting waterfalls and jagged cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the natural wonders are enough to excite even the most jaded visitor. Miles of cliff-side trails call to intrepid travelers, while seemingly endless strips of shoreline welcome surfers looking to ride the perfect wave.
Why go: Like its sister islands, Kauai and Big Island, Maui welcomes outdoors enthusiasts with open arms. Visitors have a plethora of heart-pounding options from sea kayaking to mule riding. If you’re really hoping to get your blood pumping, tour a hidden lava tube deep below the island’s surface or spend the night in Haleakala’s volcanic crater after a long day hiking. But this is just the beginning; head to Maui’s northeast coast for a look at roaring waterfalls, belching blowholes and steep jagged peaks.
Why go: In Puerto Rico, you can find thrills to suit nearly any adventurer’s taste. Twenty-foot waves keep surfers happy. And the coquí tree frogs of the El Yunque National Rainforest elicit smiles from the naturalists. Hard-core hikers will dig the rainforest’s many trails too. Even spelunkers will be ecstatic with 268 acres of caves to explore at the Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy. There are even secluded islands to enjoy — Vieques and Culebra, anyone?
Why go: The Grand Canyon gets your adrenalin pumping with strenuous hikes along the North Rim and whitewater rafting trips on the Colorado River. After a day of excitement not to mention exertion, you can relax around the flames of a campfire, admiring the rusty red canyon walls and trading tales with fellow adventurers. This natural wonder is still full of surprises for those that traverse its trails.
Why go: The island that lent its name to the entire Hawaiian archipelago is home to black volcanic deserts, tumbling waterfalls, lush rainforests and five volcanoes (one of which is still active). Visitors can snorkel, boogie board and kayak of the island’s coast or hike through Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.
Why go: The quiet Outer Banks attract anglers from all over the country with the promise of tuna, marlin and sailfish. However, if baiting and reeling aren’t your idea of a good time, the high winds that sweep across this seaside paradise fuel great windsurfing, sailing and hang gliding. And the sandy dunes of Jockey’s Ridge State Park offer incredible scenery and some challenging terrain for joggers.
Why go: Here’s a little-known fact: Forest Park just west of downtown is one of the country’s largest urban parks — and it’s crosshatched with hiking, biking and jogging trails. But if that’s not enough terrain, you should head to massive Mount Hood. And because Portland sits at the crossroads of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, there is all sorts of kayaking and canoeing to be done. So, grab an oar (or your hiking boots) and head to Portland.
Why go: The waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands support every type of watersport imaginable. From snorkeling and scuba diving to swimming and sailing, you’ll have no trouble finding ways to enjoy the crystal clear Caribbean. For those who haven’t found their sea legs, the islands host plenty of hiking, fishing and golfing opportunities. Also, the true nature-lover will jump at the chance to stay at Cinnamon Bay Campground on St. John.
Why go: On the surface, Key West is not a thrill-seeker’s paradise, but that’s because here the real adventure lurks beneath the waves. Shipwrecks litter the already gorgeous reefs just off the coast. Scuba divers can explore these sites by day or night. Above sea level, anglers relish tossing out their lines in hopes of a colorful catch. And if you prefer to stay on dry land, you can explore the island along several bike paths.
Why go: Just looking at those hilly streets, you might break a sweat. And to truly see San Fran, you’re going to have strech those legs. Stroll along the Coastal Trail for spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge or get a bird’s eye view from a hot-air balloon. And don’t forget to hit the beach for some sun, sand and surf. If this urban jungle isn’t verdant enough for you, head to nearby Yosemite.
Why go: Serious surfers go West — and San Diego’s epic waves are what call them. And fishermen and kayakers are equally fast to leave the shore. But perhaps you’d rather fly over the water; then hang gliding’s for you. For the land-lovers, this SoCal city offers relatively easy hikes at the Torrey Pines State Reserve and death-defying ones at the nearby Devil’s Punchbowl in Ramona, Calif.
Why go: You won’t be sleepless in Seattle because you’re lovesick, but because you’re so dang pumped about all the nearby adventures. In the winter, fresh powder drops from the heavens and blankets the Olympic Mountains to the cheer of powder hounds. But when winter fades into spring and summer, the out-of-doors activities continue on: Hikers and mountain bikers replace the skiers, and kayakers take to Puget Sound and Lake Washington.
Why go: Most travelers don’t come to South Padre Island for relaxation. The Spring Breakers sure don’t, and neither do the adventurers. From kite-boarding to hiking to dolphin dives and sea turtle excursions, there are plenty of family-friendly activities. Plus, consistently warm Gulf Coast weather makes watersports enjoyable year round.
Why go: Yes, the golden sand does attract hundreds of loungers every year and the scenery can feel a bit sugar-coated, but most adventure-seekers will probably be too tied up in their fishing or snorkeling gear to notice. If watersports aren’t enough, a biking excursion along South Beach or a trip to Shark Valley in nearby Everglades National Park are popular alternatives in this water-centric destination.