You probably associate the Southwest with tawny canyons, not rushing rivers and college towns. But as more and more relocated California and New York creatives are finding out, Durango is a whitewater–blessed center for all–American fun. Roll in on Labor Day and this town of 16,000 is still celebrating like it's July 4. Main Street is packed with visitors browsing photo exhibits; head down to Santa Rita Park, on the Animas River, and you'll find a circus of kayakers, fly–fishermen, and college students on inner tubes sipping beers from one of the four local breweries. But the real synergy here is in the two–wheeled community—the town, sitting in the shadow of fourteeners, offers more than 300 miles of mountain–bike trails, including a 22–mile loop that starts on Main Street (rentals, $40; hasslefreesports.com). Post–ride, feast on prime rib at the Cosmopolitan, a year–old extension of chef Chad Scothorn's farm–fresh Telluride operation (cosmodurango.com). Then crash nearby at the Strater Hotel, where Louis L'Amour wrote an entire series of novels in room 222 (doubles, $175; strater.com).
Tucson, ArizonaTucson, Arizona
Thanks to a huge university, a low cost of living, and 360–degree mountain views, Tucson is like a postgraduate magnet for out–door enthusiasts. It's also hot, with average highs of 95 degrees in September. When the sun beats down, head 14 miles north to Catalina State Park, which is cooled by 9,000–foot Mount Lemmon. The two–day, 28–mile round–trip hike to the top of Lemmon is a good option for ma–sochists. For everyone else, the three–mile jaunt to the Romero Pools on the Romero Canyon Trail should suffice. Want to explore the park the old way? Pusch Ridge Stables offers a two–day horseback ride ($200; puschridgestables.com). Stay in town at the historic Hotel Congress (doubles, $70; hotelcongress.com); the club downstairs plays host to a thriving indie rock scene, and the jukebox in the adjoining bar is tough to beat.
Green River, UtahGreen River, Utah
Labyrinth Canyon, the 45–mile stretch of the Green River just north of Canyonlands National Park, is not teeming with rapids. But the trade–off is that access is free (permits from blm.gov) and you get to bring your dog. Take a canoe in September and you're guaranteed huge sandy campsites and cool evenings. Moab's Tag–a–Long Expeditions will shuttle you to the put–in at Ruby Ranch (four–day rental and shuttles, $615; tagalong.com), then take your time—those side hikes into sandstone canyons are worth it. Back in town, reenter civilization with a massive burger from the Moab Brewery (themoabbrewery.com).
Big Bend Country, TexasBig Bend Country, Texas
If you really want to get away from it all—or escape the law—800,000–acre Big Bend National Park and its relatively diminutive 300,000–acre neighbor, Big Bend Ranch State Park, are the places to go. No trip to the bigger Big Bend would be complete without hiking the iconic South Rim Trail, in the Chisos Mountains. At points along this 14–mile hike, which climbs 1,600 feet, you'll swear you can see clear across Mexico. If you're a biker, head 17 miles west, to the state park, which features 200 miles of single– and doubletrack winding through old abandoned ranch trails. Make Terlingua, the 300–person former ghost town located between the two parks, your base camp. Desert Sports offers guided rafting trips in either park, and also rents bikes (desertsportstx.com). Crash at La Posada Milagro, a comfortable four–room inn overlooking Terlingua's ruins (doubles, $185; laposadamilagro.com).
Taos, New MexicoTaos, New Mexico
A testament to how eclectic Taos is: Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld once owned adjoining properties here. But as much fun as it is to hang out on Main Street and eavesdrop on the dreadlocked crowd at the Bean coffee shop, you'll want to spend most of your time outside. Until the first snow makes Taos the best ski area this side of Silverton, pack a fly rod. The Red River, about 25 miles north of town, is the main brown trout spawning tributary for the Rio Grande. Fish near Questa, above the confluence of the two rivers, use a caddis fly nymph, and adhere strictly to catch–and–release rules—the fish are spawning in September, and you're a stone's throw from the Los Alamos atomic labs (guided day trips, $275; thesolitaryangler.com). Back in Taos, chow down on duck–fat fries at what may be the best restaurant in New Mexico: Joseph's Table, in the Hotel La Fonda, on the plaza (josephstable.com), which is just a short walk from El Monte Sagrado, a Native American–influenced luxury resort (doubles, $180; elmontesagrado.com).
Mountain Biking in Fruita, Colorado
Empty slickrock and singletrack in Fruita
Over the past eight years, Fruita has nearly doubled in size, to 11,000. But despite the boom, you can still find plenty of empty trails here—unlike in Moab, that other mountain–biking mecca to the south. West of town, there are some 50 miles of ledgy slickrock; south, toward Grand Junction, are the climbing–heavy Tabawash trails; and just to the north you can bomb 50 miles of fast singletrack (rentals from $40 at Single Tracks bike shop; single-tracks.com). For a wilderness experience, take a four–night, 86–mile hut–to–hut bike trip from Fruita to Gateway Canyons Resort through Colorado Backcountry Biker, which has an office inside Single Tracks ($645 per person; backcountrybiker.com). In town, load up on spinach–and–bacon pizza at the Hot Tomato Café, which is owned by former pro mountain biker Jen Zeuner (hottomatocafe.com), before soaking in the hot tub at the Stonehaven Inn (doubles, $100; stonehavenbed.com). If you still haven't had your fill, ride the 142–mile Kokopelli Trail to Moab. Just watch out for Jeep grilles when you get close to town.
Surprise Endorsement: Lake PowellSurprise Endorsement: Lake Powell
Yes, this 1,932–square–mile, houseboat–riddled result of the Glen Canyon Dam is a somewhat tasteless destination. But this year, high snowmelt and higher gas prices have conspired to make Arizona's unnatural wonder a little wilder: The lake rose 40 feet between April and July, and houseboat–rental companies such as Aramark have seen significant dropoffs in business since last summer. All of which means more lake to paddle and fewer floating RVs. Just don't expect to see the famed Cathedral in the Desert—it's underwater.