You don’t have to fly to the other side of the world for an epic outdoor experience, says George Wendt,founder of OARS.com, an outdoor river adventure company. This country offers incredible opportunities from rafting to hiking to mountain biking. “There’s a lot of joy in these experiences, and it isn’t as tough as people think,” he says. Wendt shares some top adventures with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
Rafting through the Grand Canyon, Ariz.
Plan at least five or six days away from civilization for this epic Western adventure on the Colorado River. “It provides excitement and at the same time it offers an amazing tranquility that most people can’t find in everyday life,” Wendt says. Rafters start at Lee’s Ferry, Ariz., and camp along the way. It’s fun to spend a night at historic Phantom Ranch, and while some people then hike 10 miles out of the canyon at that point, others chose to double the length of their trip and float all the way to Diamond Creek. nps.com/grca
Bucket list tip: Wendt suggests scheduling your float toward the end of the April-through-October season. It’s less crowded and the softer lighting later in the year makes for great photos.
THE BUCKET LIST: More must-see destinations
Kayaking the Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii
The best way to appreciate this scenic tropical rainforest is to float along the 17-mile coast in a kayak. “It’s dramatically beautiful with cliffs rising from the ocean to heights of at least 4,000 feet,” Wendt says. While the six-hour trip calls for upper body strength, it’s easily doable by someone in moderately good shape and first-time kayakers do make the trip. Visitors find a roadless area with emerald greenery and bright red mud cliffs, all fronting the blue Pacific Ocean. 808-245-3971; gohawaii.com/kauai
Bucket list tip: Several outfitters run trips April through early October, but the best time to visit is in August, when the waters generally are calmest.
Hiking Zion National Park, Utah
Explorers can find a full range of adventure in this park, from nature trails to multiday expeditions. A classic hike is to descend the 16-mile Virgin River canyon, where the rock walls climb as high as 2,000 feet and narrow to slot canyons as little as 20 feet wide. It’s impossible to stay dry on this hike. “You’re actually walking right in the river,” Wendt says. “It’s a super adventure.” Although the water is mainly knee deep, an occasional spot may reach the waist. If you’re bringing a camera or cell phone, remember to stash them in a dry bag or a zip lock. 435-772-3256; nps.gov/zion
Bucket list tip: Flash floods are real danger in canyon country, so it’s important to check the forecast before setting out. April and May are best avoided due to spring flooding.
Exploring Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.
This stunning mountain region offers thrills for technical climbers and hikers alike. They are some of the most iconic peaks that can be reasonably accessed by a large cross section of the population,” Wendt says. “They’re dramatically beautiful even for those who just want to see them from the valley floor.” Scaling Grand Teton requires ropes and safety equipment to reach the 13,770 foot summit, while Middle Teton, at 12,804 feet, is not as difficult. 307-739-3300; nps.gov/grte
Bucket list tip: The biggest danger for hikers is lightning, not falls, Wendt warns. “These peaks are sticking up there in the clouds and summer thunderstorms are not uncommon.” When weather looks threatening, seek shelter.
Bicycling Glacier National Park, Mont.
Gravity is on your side when you bicycle down the park’s famous Going-to-the-Sun Road. But you need to time your visit carefully – the National Park Service doesn’t allow cyclists on the highway until after 6 p.m. “It’s not going to take very long, but it’s just spectacular going on a road that hugs the cliffs,” Wendt says. “For almost the entire highway, you’re above the tree line where you’re getting grand vistas.” 406-888-7800; nps.gov/glac
Bucket list tip: Plan an outing early in the day, be it a hike to Grinnell Glacier or paddling on Lake McDonald.
Rafting the Gauley River, W. Va.
You’ll find the best rafting east of the Mississippi on this waterway, which offers Class IV and V rapids if you visit September through mid-October when water is released from an upstream reservoir. Your outfitter will provide a wetsuit and helmet, and expect you to paddle. “This is not an amusement park ride, this is real life,” Wendt says. But anyone in good shape can handle it. And the thrills aren’t just aquatic. “The fall color sometime in that period is just over the top with reds and yellows that are so intense.” 304-465-0508; nps.gov/gari
Bucket list tip: Try to time your visit for Bridge Day, the third Saturday of October (Oct. 18 this year), when daredevils jump off the nearby 876-foot-tall New River Gorge Bridge. “Even my boys chose not to do the jump, but it was a lot of fun to watch.”
Hiking the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains, N.H.
Few people have the time or stamina to hike the entire 2,160-mile trail from Georgia to Maine, but this New England section along the Presidential Range of the White Mountains – from mile 1833.3 to 1859.3 — offers particularly impressive scenery, Wendt says. The trail traverses several peaks over 4,000 feet, including 6,288-foot Mount Washington. “Since much of this rugged area is above tree line, it offers spectacular vistas.” 304-535-6331; appalachiantrail.org
Bucket list tip: For extending hikes, the Appalachian Mountain Club runs an elaborate hut system, which allows hikers to avoid carrying heavy packs. 800-372-1758; outdoors.org
Mountain biking the Kokopelli Trail, Fruita, Colo., to Moab, Utah
This 142-mile route offers cyclists a variety of memorable scenery, starting and ending in red rock canyon country. Along the way it reaches high points of over 8,000 feet in pine forests and passes Bureau of Land Management campsites. “You’re able to go on a lot of dirt roads that are very little used and on some single-track trail. It’s going to get the heart rate going a little bit but provides a real sense of accomplishment,” Wendt says. Water is scarce, so plan ahead for supplies. 970-244-8877; copmoba.org
Bucket list tip: While this trip is a real undertaking, it’s possible to break it up into shorter one- or two-day journeys.
Climbing Mount Rainier, Wash.
One of the country’s signature peaks rises more than 14,000 feet and is visible more than 100 miles away. “People in Seattle can look up and see this amazing volcano and it looks like they can reach out and touch it,” Wendt says. It’s best climbed with a group over several days, allowing time to acclimate to the elevation. Since it’s snowcapped year round, climbers will need crampons, ice axes and rope to make it to the top. The ascent starts shortly after midnight to reach the peak in early morning before the day’s heat begins to melt the ice surface. 360-569-2211; nps.gov/mora
Bucket list tip: It’s essential to fuel up for a demanding ascent. Since some people lose their appetite at high altitude, pack what you really like, even if it’s cold pizza, chips or a Snickers bar.