From Colorado’s jagged mountains to cliff-lined Californian beaches to roaring rivers of New Hampshire, the United States boasts adventure vacation destinations for every kind of aficionado. The canyons, steaming hot springs, serpentine slopes of powder and dense mahogany forests in between make for endless entertainment.
We spend far too much time sweating over spreadsheets instead of sweating in the sun, and worrying about whether or not we’ll make it out of the office by six instead of whether or not we’ll hike high enough to catch the sunset by six.
We’re sending countless emails every day, instead of being out in the world, talking to countless new people every day. We’re drowning in too much work instead of swimming in blue seas.
But many of us are also notorious for not taking the vacation time we’ve earned and hole up on weekends instead of exploring. And there is so much to see in our own backyard. You just have to go looking for it.
You don’t need me to tell you about the benefits of traveling or the wonders of a post-hike dopamine high. What I can help with you with, however, is deciding where to go to seek your thrills in the U.S.
1. Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite is the gem in America’s crown of national parks and the ultimate destination for an adventure vacation. In every direction are miles of pure, unadulterated natural beauty. Mountains, forests, waterfalls—you can find it all within the boundaries of this mighty park.
One of the park’s many stand out features is its gigantic waterfalls. The park is home to five waterfalls over 1000ft high. During the spring, when the mountain snow is melting, the cascades are at full blast, making this the perfect time to see them.
The aptly named Mist Trail caters to all levels of adventurers, as there are sights worth seeing all along. Unlike most Yosemite hikes which lead to a lookout point, the Mist Trail has spectacular views the entire time.
Trek seven miles round trip to the Nevada Falls, a 594-feet-high waterfall on the Merced River, or take a three-mile round-trip trek to Vernal Falls, a 317-feet-high waterfall on the Merced River just downstream. Waterfalls tumble over jagged cliff faces all along the walk that’s challenging, but not punishing. It’s accessible to virtually everyone.
The Pacific Coast Highway is the ultimate California road trip and is definitely among the contenders for The USA’s best roads. It winds along the Californian coastline and has full ocean views virtually its entire length. Classic stops include San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and the gorgeous San Luis Obispo.
The Big Sur region stretches for about 85 miles, and while you could race through it in a few hours, I recommend you devote at least a day to it. As you drive through, you will see drivers pulled over to take the perfect photo of Bixby Bridge. Bixby is a beautiful bridge that stretches over a small crevice between two hills, and it’s worthy of some space on your camera’s memory card.
Pfeiffer Beach is another great pitstop in Big Sur (no connection to Michelle as far as I’m aware). It’s the premiere sandy beach in the region, flanked by a crescent of rocky walls. Alternatively, marvel at the giant redwoods and the colossal waterfalls in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Hire a convertible or rent a campervan in California, create the perfect driving playlist and buckle up for an adventure. This is the kind of vacation you will be telling your grandkids about.
3. Boulder, Colorado
Colorado might have hit headlines recently when they legalized marijuana, but Boulder has a lot more to offer than narcotics. The city sits in the Valley between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains and is resplendent with natural beauty. A glance in any direction will instantly reward you with mountainous backdrops or verdant, open plains.
The Flatirons sit pride of place in Boulder, Colorado. From the ground to the jagged peaks of the mountains run smooth cliff faces— as smooth as the bottom of an iron, as their name would suggest. The Flatirons look like the kind of cliff face you could slide down (but, please, don’t actually attempt this).
The Flatirons steal the show in this city, but if you look just behind them you will see three impressive peaks known as The Guardians of the Flatirons. It is towards these guys that you should be turning your attention. The three peaks of The Guardians are Green Mountain, South Boulder Peak and Bear Peak. Maxing out at an elevation of over 8,500 feet, these mountains are serious business.
The best way to experience The Guardians is by doing a point-to-point, meaning you climb each peak in succession. There is no single trail that will lead you the entire way. Instead, take a combination of different trails, including the E.M. Greenman Trail and the Shadow Canyon Trail.
Kauai is every Instagrammer’s dream come true. It has lush jungles, postcard-perfect beaches and endless sunshine, which means you can #nofilter those shots and make your friends even more jealous. Its beauty alone makes it an idyllic vacation spot.
But Kauai is more than just a pretty face. Kauai is filled with adventure activities, from the formidable Kalalau Hike – it’s a 22-mile round trip! – to the trek to the Waimea Canyon lookout point. If there was ever a more picturesque place to sweat, I’m yet to find it.
Thrill-seekers, there’s something for you too. It goes by the name of the Koloa Zipline. This zipline will take you racing at high speeds over the treetops attached by just a harness. You can take in panoramic vistas of the forests that cover the island, and get your heartbeat racing simultaneously.
The Koloa Zipline is well worth the $150 since it’ll really get your adrenaline pumping. The entire experience takes around three and a half hours. That’s because it encompasses eight ziplines, three of which are among the longest on the island. The longest line, the Waita Line, for example, is a ridiculous half a mile long.
5. Yellowstone National Park, WY
If you go to Yellowstone you are going to hike—that’s a no-brainer. There are dozens of trails from which to choose. And all of them will give you great views of the plains, creeks and hills that make up Yellowstone’s landscape. The Fairy Falls Trail is among the most popular thanks to its views of the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring.
The park is also filled with hot springs. Hot springs are touted for increasing blood circulation, ridding the body of toxins and aiding cell oxygenation and regeneration. Though many of the springs in Yellowstone are too hot to swim, there are two spots in the park that are perfect for taking a dip.
The first spot worth visiting is Boiling River. Despite the name, this stretch of water will not burn your skin off. At one point in the river, a wall of rocks has built up in the middle of the water. On one side the water is freezing cold and on the other it is bath-temperature. A little to-ing and fro-ing is required but you can get pretty comfortable.
Note: While it’s illegal to swim in the actual Boiling River, you are allowed to swim in the pool in the Gardiner River where the Boiling River falls.
Next, submerge yourself in the noticeably colder Firehole River. Here, you can swirl around in whirlpools, race along speeding currents or just float leisurely in the big pool. This is a wise option for those looking to infuse their swim with an adrenaline rush.
The entry to Yellowstone is $30 per vehicle and, once you’re inside, swimming and hiking is all free. Fill up a car with friends or family before you go, and you’ll find this makes a wonderfully cheap adventure vacation.
Yellowstone is chock full of adventure so what’s on your mind?
Grab your favorite tour at those links and get to exploring!
6. The Grand Canyon, AZ
Is there anywhere more iconic in the US than the Grand Canyon? Photos simply do not do the Canyon justice—you need to see it in the flesh to appreciate just how insanely expansive it is.
Most people will walk the well-trodden routes that carve through the Canyon. The Bright Angel Trail is a favorite thanks to its scenic views. It winds 9.3 miles along paths that hug the sides of the Canyon’s reddish cliffs. But hiking through the Canyon will only show you the tiniest fraction of the big picture.
If you really want to see the Grand Canyon, then you need to get some air time. Helicopter rides might not be the most budget-friendly way to experience the Canyon, but they are so worth it. The views of the orange Canyon, rolling out to the horizon and baking under the Arizona sun, are outstanding.
The Grand Canyon is the perfect vacation destination for anyone who wants to feel like a tiny speck while they gawp in awe at the power of Mother Nature. Basically, anyone who likes big stuff.
As far as adventure destinations in the US go, Asheville is seriously underrated. The hiking in Asheville is some of the best in the country (and I’m definitely not biased because I used to live there). When it comes to fresh air and the great outdoors, you could do a lot worse than vacation in Asheville.
The stand-out trail in Asheville is the Black Balsam Knob. The walk is tough due to the length and incline but far from impossible, and it affords spectacular views of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.
As far as the eye can see, a thick blanket of green spreads across the landscape, peppered with sugar maple, American beech, white and red oak, yellow birch trees and more. If you’re from the city and don’t get to spend much time in the great outdoors, this trail will remind you how peaceful nature can be.
If you want something a little more leisurely, the Craggy Gardens Trail is easy on all fronts. It is easy to access, easy to hike and easy to fall in love with. Fun fact: The views out over the Great Craggy Mountains are so impressive that the summit of this trail is often used for wedding photos.
8. Bend, OR
Bend, Oregon is a mosaic of lakes, trees, peaks and the mighty Deschutes River. It’s easy to spend a day strolling along the river trails, taking in the vistas of endless trees that look like a green Dulux color palette. There are also some challenging hikes to undertake, including the path to Crater Lake
and the route to the summit of South Sister.
But, who said that going on an adventure tour has to result in screaming muscles as you wring sweat out of your clothes? This is an adventure vacation for people who people who want to take it easy as well as those who want to hike. It’s called tubing and it really couldn’t be easier—all you have to do is sit.
Tubing on the Deschutes River is a much-loved summer pastime and definitely a favorite local thing to do in Bend. When the sun bathes the town in a golden glow, the locals love nothing more than grabbing an inflatable donut and taking to the water. The river flows slowly but steadily past rocky slopes, sparsely covered with vegetation and trees flanking the riverbanks.
You’re not technically supposed to drink on the river, but a cheeky beer on the down low is never a problem. Just don’t get drunk and act like a jerk (this is a good rule of thumb for all situations come to think of it).
9. Lake Tahoe, CA/NV
Lake Tahoe’s water is the shade of turquoise you see in those heavily filtered photos of the Philippines on Instagram. Except that this isn’t a tropical island; it’s a lake in the US, and the water doesn’t need a filter to look this beautifully blue. Plus, most tropical islands don’t have snow-capped mountains as the backdrop.
You could probably spend an hour just gawping at the lake. Or you could hop on an ATV and drive around the edges of it. Your call. Everyone knows that all of the best adventure vacations involve an ATV at some point. Or at least an OHV (Off-Highway Vehicle). There’s something about the big tires and roaring engine that makes even me feel like the coolest guy in the world (no comments please).
There are loads of ATV rental places near Lake Tahoe. Once you’ve got your vehicle, there are loads of routes you can follow both alongside the lake and in the surrounding woods. One particularly popular route is the Rubicon Trail, which encompasses some steep sections covered with loose rocks. As my friends down under would say – it’s pretty gnarly man!
A vacation at Lake Tahoe means spending your days combining thrills with exceptional Kodak moments. I can think of worse ways to spend a summer.
Acadia National Park is beautiful. Situated predominantly on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, the park is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and covered in woodland that changes color along with the season. In fall, the entire park is a brilliant red as the leaves perform one last trick before falling to the ground.
Acadia National Park’s most iconic feature is Cadillac Mountain. From October through to March, Cadillac Mountain is the first place you can see the sunrise in the US. Pretty cool, eh? This is because at this time of the year the sun rises south of due east.
You can either walk to the summit, sitting at a modest elevation of 1,530 feet, or you can drive the 3.5-mile road. If you decide to hike then you will need to add an extra 1.5 miles on to your total distance to get from the parking area to the trailhead. The walk takes around two hours each way so be sure to factor this in so you get there in time for sunrise.
Whichever you choose, make sure you set off early. The highlight of a trip up Cadillac Mountain is getting to the top in time for sunrise. You will join the other sun-seeking pilgrims in a synchronized gasp as the first rays of the sun stain the Atlantic Ocean orange and pink.
There are plenty of camping grounds so you can spend your entire vacation within the boundaries of the park, allowing you oodles of time to explore every nook and cranny.
11. Hyalite Canyon, MT
Ice climbing is definitely not your average weekend activity, but, it is something that you should do at least once in your life. And where better to do it than at the reliable Hyalite Canyon. Not only is ice climbing exhilarating, but you look like a total badass while you do it. Cue thousands of likes on the Instagram shot of you oh-so candidly climbing a wall of ice.
There are over 250 different routes in the Hyalite Canyon. The Mummy I and II are popular choices for those with less experience as the difficulty level is low and the incline is not too steep. Those with no experience at all—I imagine this is most of us—might benefit from the one-day beginner ice climbing course on offer.
If you don’t fancy scaling a vertical cascade of ice then just go and look around. The scenery here during the winter months is unparalleled. It’s all ice, ice baby as far as the eye can see. Or, go during the summer months and soak up the green, tree-speckled landscape, broken up only by the mountain tops in the distance.
Whatever you decide to do, the Hyalite Canyon is a unique and beautiful destination for an adventure vacation. If nothing else, you’ll have those Insta pics.
12. Maui’s North Shore, HI
The thing I love about Maui’s North Shore is the peacefulness you can find there. The crowds are smaller, the golf resorts are fewer in number and nature still reigns queen. Sure, you’re still going to see tourists here, but it is a far cry from what you might find on the West and South shores.
The sun shines just as bright on the North Shore and in recent years, the area has seen a flurry of activity as a number of quirky eateries, boho boutiques and family-run inns have popped up. Despite this entrepreneurial wave that has swept the shore, the region has stayed classy. There is still a distinct lack of cheesy tourist crap – thank God. This makes it easy to vacation here for weeks at a time without getting disheartened.
Kiteboarding is another activity that will make you look like a badass if your friends manage to snap a photo before you faceplant the water. For those unfamiliar with the sport, kiteboarding is basically surfing but you hold on to a giant sail, which traps the wind and pulls you at high speeds along the water. It can get pretty extreme on a windy day.
The aptly named Kite Beach is where the kiteboarding action happens on Maui’s North Shore. The wind blows here all year round and the layout of the coastline makes the beach ideal for all levels. Beginners can stick to the shore where they are more sheltered from the strong wind and waves. Further out to sea, the pros can seek their thrills among the powerful gusts that sweep over large waves.
13. The Missouri River, MT
The Missouri River is the longest in North America and the scenery that flanks its riverbeds is virtually unparalleled. Through the Montana section, rocky cliffs frame the sky as they gently slope down to meet the edges of the water. Think Norwegian Fjords meets the Wild West. For miles around there is nothing but silence, broken only by the calls and cries of wildlife.
Some of the best adventure trips are the ones that get you away from civilization and reconnect you with nature. Paddling along the Missouri River does exactly that. As you float through some of the most remote parts of the US, the thrum of the city couldn’t seem farther away.
If you have the time and stamina, there are over 300 miles of river you can paddle. When you get tired, simply pull up along the banks and take a rest or set up camp for the night. Paddling for days on end might sound more exhausting than thrilling, but you can’t get bored of the ever-changing scenery that sits on either side of the river.
One day you will be staring out at the sandy, savannah-like plains, and the next you will be in the shadows of verdant woodlands. Every moment brings something new; all you have to do is hop in a kayak and watch the world go by. Oh, and paddle. You have to do that, too.
14. Trek the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK
The Wrangell-St Elias National Park is the largest national park in the US. It encompasses over eight million acres and is almost a million acres larger than the next biggest park. The probability is very high that if you set off into the park, you will not see another soul the entire time. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be the last living person on earth, a vacation to Wrangell-St. Elias will do the trick.
Just as you would expect from a national park in Alaska, Wrangell-St.Elias is a glistening white expanse, interrupted by the occasional glacial lake or forest. However, unlike most national parks, Wrangell-St. Elias has next to no well-trodden or even well-marked trails.
If you want to make the most of the park I thoroughly recommend getting a guide to take you around. This will stop you from getting lost or wasting your time walking through the boring parts of the park (if there is such a thing). Get a guide on board and get them to take you straight to the glaciers.
It is possible to strike off alone and wander around solo. The freedom that comes with such a decision is refreshing and the nature you will find will be astonishing. Just make sure your map-reading skills are up to scratch and you go well prepared. Oh, and keep an eye out for grizzlies.
15. Telluride, CO
Telluride boasts over 2,000 acres of skiable terrain. Even the most voracious skier would struggle to cover all of that in one adventure tour. If you want a skiing vacation where you can explore new runs every day, Telluride is your gal.
Maybe you’re at the other end of the spectrum and are too advanced for mere black runs. If you’re looking for some extreme snow action, Telluride has four hike-to-terrain options that will get your blood pumping. The hikes aren’t easy, but you will be rewarded with the freshest untouched snow you’ve ever skied.
If you are confident with a pair of skis or a snowboard then you might also want to check out the terrain parks, which are filled with ramps, jumps and bars for you to slide along. Wow onlookers with your mad skills, take tentative jumps or fall flat on your face. Whatever you do, you’ll have fun doing it. Except maybe the falling on your face bit.
16. Jackson Hole, WY
Just days ago Jackson Hole hit the headlines when Kanye West decided to hold a listening party for his new album there. Yeezy might not be a pinnacle of good judgment but when he chose Jackson Hole as his listening party venue, he got something right.
Jackson Hole is a stunning part of Wyoming. Immense grassy plains stretch out like a rich green carpet until they reach the bases of the jagged, snow-capped mountains that plunge into the sky and cast dramatic shadows over the land. The area also includes several bodies of water that are ripe for a spot of paddle-boarding.
So, paddle boarding is apparently quite a good core workout. There’s something about balancing on the board while it rests on the water that makes for an ideal adventure vacation.
There are several lakes in Jackson Hole that you can explore by means of paddleboard. String Lake and Leigh Lake are both popular choices as the water is calm and the views of the Teton Mountains are excellent.
A fun and slightly naughty fact: The Grand Teton National Park, which encompasses Jackson Hole, translates into English as Big Boobs National Park. Only the French could name something so crass and make it sound so poetic at the same time.
17. Chattanooga, TN
Don’t worry, if you go to Chattanooga you won’t have to listen to that song about the train the whole time.
What you can do, however, is fling yourself off a cliff and glide through the air like some sort of majestic eagle. Chattanooga offers some of the country’s premier hang gliding and some world class views to go with it. In the summer, you will be treated to green as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by snaking rivers.
The Lookout Mountain is the stand-out feature here—a gigantic, jutting rock with sheer faces and a viewing point on top. Once you’re done hang gliding, why not catch the incline railway to Lookout Mountain and soak up yet more outstanding views?
If you had “fly 3,000 feet over Tennessee attached to nothing but a sheet of fabric and some poles” on your bucket list, then now is the time to tick that off. Options for both one-off tandem hang glide tours and proper pilot lessons are both available from tour operators in the area. Cue some lame Hangs Solo joke.
Chattanooga is a great vacation spot for those who want a mixture of city life, nature and adventure. Spend the morning gliding through the clouds, the afternoon exploring Ruby Falls (an underground waterfall) and the evening tucking into gourmet fare at a bistro downtown.
18. Moab, UT
Moab is the adventure capital of Utah, and, boasting five of Utah’s national parks, filled with hiking and cycling trails, it is perfect for an adventure vacation. This desert-like landscape is a labyrinth of canyons and valleys, walled in by craggy orange cliff faces. It has an other-worldly feel to it and is one of the top destinations in the US for an adventure on two wheels.
The mountain bike trails in Moab are second to none. One of the most popular totes the amusing name “The Whole Enchilada.” It’s a downhill path with a peak elevation of around 11,000 feet. The trail is challenging and previous mountain biking experience is recommended. If you want easier trails, Dead Horse Point has a whole bunch of different routes, ranging from beginner to intermediate.
Even if you weren’t a fan of mountain biking before, Moab will change your mind with its magnificent scenery and gorgeous bike routes.
19. White Mountains, NH
Despite the name, the White Mountains of New Hampshire are notably green for most of the year. While the glossy green that paints the landscape in spring and summer is aesthetically pleasing, it’s nothing compared with the colors of fall. In fall, the White Mountains are set ablaze with orange and red as the leaves change color.
But, looking at scenery doesn’t constitute much of an adventure. White water rafting, however, does. The Androscoggin, Magalloway and Kennebec Rivers have rapids ranging from moderate class II to hardcore class IV. You won’t have much chance to admire your surroundings as you are jostled and bounced around in your raft, but you will have a lot of fun.
Not keen on getting soaked? Hiking through the White Mountains is equally thrilling and significantly drier than white water rafting. If the aim of your game is to get away from it all while on vacation then the White Mountains will sort you out. With huge green slopes in every direction and often not a single living soul to be seen, it is the perfect place to forget about everything and enjoy being immersed in nature.
The US is full of adventures, and some of them might be right at your doorstep. So step out of your comfort zone and seek your thrills amongst the forests, mountains, and glaciers of this vast and diverse country. Time, money or passport issues are not excuses.
Which is these adventure trips in the USA are at the top of your list? Let us know in the comments!