IF YOU THOUGHT PALM SPRINGS was nothing but a dense collection of geezers wearing polyester Sansabelts assembled in the desert to bitch about Medicare, well, you thought wrong. The variety of stark natural landscapes and deluxe material comforts—little more than a hundred miles from smog-ridden L.A.—make Palm Springs the ultimate base camp. Where else can you nail a 5.10 crux move in Joshua Tree National Park or hike the alpine trails on 10,804-foot Mount San Jacinto, then hit any number of swanky hotel bars for cocktail hour and choose from 6,500 hotel rooms? If there's a downside to this schizo land of opportunity, it's that you'll have to pack two bags: one for all your gear... another for your dinner jacket and fancy shoes. Come winter, you can take advantage of a Southern California phenomenon: Within ten miles of downtown Palm Springs, the elevation jumps from 466 feet to over 10,000. Translation: You can spend the morning cross-country skiing and the afternoon lounging poolside in the sun.
From Palm Springs, it's a quick 26-mile drive north and east on California 62 to the first entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, the epicenter for the West Coast's winter rock-climbing season. Boulder the quartz monzonite piles around the Hidden Valley Campground and the Wonderland of Rocks, or try J-Tree classics like the elementary jamming up Right On (5.5) or the highly technical Iconoclast (5.13a).
Four miles west of downtown, the Ariel Tramway shoots up to the pines at 8,516 feet on the flanks of Mount San Jacinto. From there you've got a choice of 54 miles of hiking trails (no biking allowed) through the meadows and granite of Mount San Jacinto State Park, a connection to the Pacific Crest Trail, and in winter, nordic ski rentals and serene cross-country trails at the ski center. Snow permitting, you can make your way to the top of the 10,400-foot peak. And if you're lucky, you'll glimpse one of the mountain's bobcats.
Or explore rugged slot canyons in the Mecca Hills Wilderness, 30 miles east of Palm Springs. Two worth checking out are arid and beautiful Painted Canyon and an adjacent canyon with wooden ladders that makes a fine playground.
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A ten-minute walk or a five-minute bike ride from the hotel is Johannes, a small, unpretentious restaurant, with walls painted a refreshing tangerine, that serves modern California fusion food. Try the curried crab with apples wrapped in cucumber or the seasonal vegetables with couscous sprinkled with truffle oil.
Palm Springs came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the best place to immerse yourself in a retro Rat Pack martini mentality is the Orbit In. Built during the late forties and mid-fifties and restored in 2001, the one-story hotel is nestled at the foot of Mount San Jacinto and features rooms stocked with minibars, lava lamps, and vintage furniture by 1950s design icons such as Eames, Noguchi, and Bertoia. The Orbit In even loans out retro-cool Schwinn cruiser bicycles for exploring the city—the ultimate in sporty throwback fun.
Winter is prime rock-climbing season in Joshua Tree National Park (760-367-5500, www.nps.gov/jotr/), and the campsites with water and toilets ($10 a night) fill up fast. Uprising Outdoor Adventure Center (888-254-6266, www.uprising.com) has the nation’s largest outdoor climbing gym—a 55-foot-high, 8,500-square-foot behemoth under a shade canopy ($15 for a day pass). You’ll also find a full-service shop for climbers, hikers, and backpackers. Guided climbing trips to Joshua Tree start at $85. Tickets for the Ariel Tram (888-515-8726, www.pstramway.com) run $21 round-trip, and the tram’s Winter Adventure Center rents cross-country gear and snowshoes for $18 and $15 a day, respectively. Rooms at the Orbit In (877-996-7248, www.orbitin.com) run from a low of $169 during the summer to $269 per night in the winter high season. And reservations are recommended at Johannes (760-778-0017).
Green River, Utah
canyonlands national park
The Green and Colorado rivers carved Canyonlands' majestic landscape, benign from afar yet roiling with up to Class-V teeth.
HALFWAY THROUGH our five-day trip down the Green River's Stillwater Canyon, a fine milk-chocolate-colored silt has dreaded my hair, coated my skin, and invaded every body crevice. I match the water and the canyon walls, and I'm sure I'm getting extra sun protection. This is a good thing, as it's August, and midday temperatures in central Utah reach well over 90 and shade can be scarce, even at the bottom of a 2,000-foot gorge. Despite the heat, paddling Stillwater is blissfully easy. The canyon's rapidless, Class I water lets us imitate driftwood and relax, and getting started was even more mindless: a four-hour jaunt from Salt Lake City to Moab, where we rented gear, then boarded a shuttle to the put-in.
Our daily routine involves gathering our seven-person crew to drink coffee and fry eggs before donning giant sun hats and long-sleeve linen shirts and stepping into our armada of four canoes. We float downstream at the speed of molasses, at times drifting downriver in life jackets next to our boats. Twisting silently between towering walls inspires a sublime sort of vertigo. I search for 1,300-year-old Anasazi cliff dwellings, lapsing into daydreams and imagining what's beyond the corners I can't see past. For lunch, I take to eating my sandwich seated in the river, with only my hands and head above water. In late afternoon, we pick campsites with pleasant beaches, then nap or scramble up side canyons. One night before dinner we catch sight of a lone desert bighorn sheep. It looks us over sternly and then bolts toward the canyon rim and disappears. Don't worry, we say aloud, we'll be gone tomorrow, back on the lazy river.
At almost every campsite and lunch stop, you'll want to hike the side canyons. One of the best steep-walled slots begins near Anderson Bottom (about halfway through the trip). Pull ashore on river right at mile 32 and follow the trail to the upstream side of the dry meander. After you head right into a side canyon, the slot will present itself and is worth at least an hour of exploration, though you could make a day out of it by hiking up to the mesa. And if you can time your trip right, a full-moon float in Stillwater Canyon is surreal. The soft light transforms the red-rock crags and pinnacles into spooky castles. Just don't fall asleep and cruise past the confluence with the Colorado Riverthe Class IV rapids of Cataract Canyon would make for a particularly rude awakening.
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Since the canoe (not you) carries your gear, bring all you need. To eat like royalty, pack two big coolers, layering the bottom with large ice blocks and the top with dry ice. (If you want cold cuts late in the trip, don't even crack one of the coolers until day three.) The king of all river-rat dinners? Steak fajitas with camp-made guacamole and ice-cold sour cream.
During summer, a ground cloth, sleeping pads, cotton sheets, and pillows are usually all you need, but do bring a tent in case of thundershowers or mosquitoes. The best campsites have sandy beaches, cottonwood trees and boulders for shade, and access to bluffs where you can get a wide view of the river. For camp comfort, carry a roll-up table and a couple of folding chairs to make lounging and cooking that much easier.
Red River Canoe Company (800-753-8216, www.redrivercanoe.com), in Moab, rents Wenonah canoes ($30 per day), toilets ($30 per trip), and river-running essentials. They'll also shuttle you the hour and a half to the Mineral Bottom put-in. Tex's Riverways (435-259-5101, www.texsriverways.com) provides a three-hour jet-boat ride ($115 per person) up the Colorado from the confluence (there's no other way out). Most of Stillwater is in Canyonlands National Park, so you'll need a permit ($20 for a group; 435-259-4351, www.nps.gov/cany/permits.htm). Early September is the best time to paddlesummer's blistering heat has subsided a bit, yet the long evening light makes camp life easy.
The Tetons, Wyoming
STAND AT THE BASE of Wyoming's magnificent Tetonsat somewhere over two million years old the newest range in the Rockiesand look up to see a massive wall of rock and ice piercing the clouds 6,000 feet above you. Recipe for our favorite mountain formula: Explore these jagged 13,000-foot peaks by day; then, by night, bask in the sounds of classical guitarists at Jenny Lake Lodge, in Grand Teton National Park. Many travelers rush through this park, a 30-minute drive from Jackson, on the way to its better-known neighbor, Yellowstone National Park. But those making a beeline for Old Faithful miss out on a haven of moose, elks, bears, wolves, and even white pelicans, as well as some of the country's best climbing. During a May visit, I enjoyed a medley of horseback riding through the aspens, floating the Snake River, andmy favoriteclimbing the 5.8-5.10 Guide's Wall. After it all, I watched the evening light dance across 12,000-acre Jenny Lake, tinting pink the glaciers that slash across the Tetons, geological new kids on the block.
Weaving among the hills atop a horse gives a heightened perspective on the park. Grand Teton Lodge Company leads two-hour trail rides that take you off the beaten path, where you're much more likely to catch a glimpse of a griz than on traffic-jammed park roads. Their rafting trips on the Snake River, which bisects the park, are a relaxing two to four hours of lazy floating, matched with grilled steak or trout for dinner. But for white-knuckle action, go climbing with Exum Mountain Guides. I was lucky to climb with Amy Bullard, who led the first unsupported American women's expedition up an 8,000-meter peak when she climbed Cho Oyu, in 1999. After taking a boat across Jenny Lake, we hiked 90 minutes through pine forest and along the rushing Cascade Creek, where we were joined for a moment by a moose. A short scramble over a steep scree field put us at the base of Guide's Wall, one of the most beloved climbs in the Tetons. The route follows the lower southwest ridge of Storm Point and is known for its variety: We tackled chimneys, dihedrals, faces, and finally a tiny vertical crack. Five pitches and 700 feet later we were cross-legged on a rocky ledge, munching on cheese and oranges.
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After watching the sunsetgin and tonic in handon the porch of the Jenny Lake Lodge, move inside the elegantly rustic dining room for a five-course dinner that might start with golden tomato coulis soup followed by organic field greens with watermelon and an appetizer of rabbit loin. Entrées rely on local game: pheasant, elk medallions, and trout; the menu rotates every five days. Dessert would seem impossible if the spicy Asian pear tartin weren't so tempting.
Arriving at the venerable Jenny Lake Lodge, which opened in 1952, is like returning to a summer home you visited as a child. Set at the foot of Grand Teton and a short stroll from Jenny Lake, the 37 log cabins are surrounded by lodgepole pines and feature private baths, hand-made quilts, and patios with rocking chairs. It's the perfect yin for your adventurous Tetons yang.
In addition to one-day climbs (starting at $110 per person), Exum Mountain Guides (307-733-2297, www.exumguides.com) offers multi-day outings such as a four-day trip up Grand Teton, the park's tallest peak at 13,770 feet, and backcountry skiing. For float trips ($52, includes three hours on the river and dinner) and horseback rides (starting at $25), contact Grand Teton Lodge Company (800-628-9988, www.gtlc.com). One-room cabins at Jenny Lake Lodge (800-628-9988, www.gtlc.com/lodgejen.shtml) are $444 per night, double occupancy, including breakfast and dinner at the restaurant (307-733-4647) and a mountain bike to tool around the lodge grounds. For information about Grand Teton National Park, call 307-739-3600 or visit www.nps.gov/grte.
The Keys, Florida
IF THE DIAGNOSIS IS STRESS, Islamorada is the cure. One of a narrow string of islands halfway between Miami and Key West, it very deliberately maintains the pace and feel of a small-town fishing resort with a mañana attitude. The relaxed vibe is best suited for drinking beer in a hammock, but I've come here to see why Islamorada calls itself the Sport Fishing Capital of the World. Late one afternoon my guide takes me to a deep, cool channel where we chum the water with bloody juice from the bait cooler, our hooks laden with hunks of flesh larger than any fish I've ever caught. A brief rain shower lowers the barometric pressure, which "really turns the fish on," and with more than 600 species stocking the surrounding watersfrom big-game marlin to devilishly elusive bonefishit doesn't take long for my reel to scream with life. After a 30-minute struggle with a jumping tarpon, I finally land the beast, which weighs in at 110 pounds, larger than any shown on the outfitter's Web site. In awe, we release it back to the sea with a slap on its broad, scaly side.
If you burn out on fishing, you can snorkel among the banded coral shrimp populating Alligator Reef or sea-kayak among the mangroves of the Backcountry Islands. Road biking past the artists' studios and boutiques lining U.S. 1 is good for a sweat; cool off with a scuba dive to the Eagle, a 287-foot freighter scuttled to create an artificial reef.
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For such a small town, Islamorada enjoys a remarkably healthy selection of restaurants, most of them very casual. The Village Gourmet starts you off with focaccia drenched in olive oil and balsamic vinegar, whets the appetite with an organic vegetable soup, then closes the deal with blackened shrimp. Bentley's Restaurant is famous for its cioppino: linguine smothered in a spicy marinara sauce laden with mussels, clams, shrimp, crab, scallops, mahi-mahi, and half a lobster.
The Casa Morada hotel brings Miami South Beach style to the Keys, with modernist wicker chairs facing lushly manicured grounds, a bocce ball court, and a sleek pool rimmed by palm trees. My room featured a king-size bed blanketed with a fluffy, white comforter, a separate sitting room with day bed, a stocked refrigerator, and cable TV with DVD. Sliding doors opened onto a screened-in patio with a deep Jacuzzi bathtub.
Casa Morada (888-881-3030, www.casamorada.com) has doubles ranging from $199 a night for a garden-view room in the summer off-season to $519 a night in the winter high season for a suite overlooking the sea. The concierge can arrange fishing, diving, and kayaking. A three-hour snorkeling trip costs $30, scuba diving is $60-$85 per dive, and kayaks and Marin bicycles are free. There are several fine fishing guides in Islamorada, including Captain Eric Bass of A Florida Keys Fishing Guide Connection ($300 for a half-day trip; 305-664-6099, www.floridakeysadventures.com/fkfgc). Call ahead for the cioppino at Bentley's (305-664-9094)seating is limited. For daily specials at Village Gourmet, call 305-664-4030.
Shore to Summit, Maine
maine katahdin state park
Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail
IN THE FEW HUNDRED YEARS since crustacean-weary indentured servants in colonial New England rebelled against being fed too much lobsterstipulating to their bosses that they not be forced to endure more than three meals of it per weekHomarus americanus has gone from being the food of the poor to the salivated-over icon of Maine. But while these tasty sea-bottom scavengers deserve praise, there's more to the Pine Tree State than shellfish and 3,500 miles of island-bespattered coastline.
The perfect four-day tour pairs the spruce-topped granite islands in Penobscot Bay, the hub of the world's most productive lobster fishery, with the rivers, lakes, and peaks of the Great North Woods. You'll sea-kayak around Vinalhaven Island, relax on the shores of Moosehead Lake, and raft the Penobscot Riversome of the Northeast's best whitewaterand then end with a bid for the summit of 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin, Maine's highest peak.
In the waters off Vinalhaven Island you can kayak among dozens of granite islets, within sight of lobstermen hauling in the delicacy you'll enjoy that very evening.
Greenville, a former lumberjack crossroads at the south end of Moosehead Lake, is the staging area for your next phase. Mellow out here with a scenic floatplane ride, then thrill yourself on the Class IV-V whitewater of Ripogenus Gorge and the Cribworks rapids on the wild West Branch of the Penobscot River, about an hour north of Greenville. Rapid River Outfitters offers small, personalized raft trips and has the closest base to the river.
For the finale, continue northeast to Baxter State Park, home of more than 40 peaks and 200 miles of hiking trails. Baxter's jewel is Mount Katahdin, the sacred mountain of the Penobscot. Six main trails lead to the summit; several depart from Chimney Pond, in Katahdin's majestic South Basin, and require eight to ten hours (and good weather) for the 11- to 12-mile round-trip. Some of the best views of rolling alpine tablelands and thousand-foot precipices are found by taking Saddle or Cathedral trails.
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After leaving the ferry, provision yourself at the Market Basket, on Vinalhaven, a gourmet store with carry-outs, wines, and cinnamon doughnut muffins. In a wood-floored dining room perched over a tidal mill channel, the Harbor Gawker Restaurant serves up steaming lobster dinners.
Vinalhaven Island's 19th-century granite boom left several funky Victorian mansions that have been transformed into B&Bs. The five rooms at the Payne Homestead, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, retain pressed tin ceilings and marble mantels installed by the original owner, granite magnate Moses Webster.
In Greenville, stay at the Blair Hill Inn, built as an estate and farm in 1891. The inn is perched on a hillside above Moosehead Lake, with mountain views and 15 acres of lawns, gardens, and woods. The eight bedrooms are flooded with natural light.
After rafting, plant yourself at one of the 55 campsites or cabins at Allagash Gateway Campsite, on Chesuncook Lake, 25 minutes from Baxter State Park.
Ride the Vinalhaven Ferry ($11 round-trip; 800-491-4883, http://www.state.me.us/mdot/opt/ferry/maine-ferry-service.php) from Rockland. SeaEscape Kayak (207-863-9343, www.seaescapekayak.com) offers a Vinalhaven paddle tour and picnic for $75. The Harbor Gawker Restaurant (207-863-9365) charges market price for lobster. Doubles at the Payne Homestead (888-863-9963, www.paynehomestead.com) start at $90 per night. See Moosehead Lake from a floatplane with Folsom's Air Service (tours from $20; 207-695-2821, www.folsomsairservice.com). Doubles at the Blair Hill Inn (207-695-0224, www.blairhill.com) start at $250. A full-day raft trip with Rapid River Outfitters (877-733-7238, www.rapidrivers.com) is $112 per person and includes two meals. A spot at Allagash Gateway Campsite (207-723-9215, www.allagashgateway.com) costs $12 per night. Jockey your car into position in the Togue Pond Gate lineup before 6 a.m. to get into Baxter State Park ($10 per nonresident vehicle; 207-723-5140, www.baxterstateparkauthority.com) to climb Katahdin. Day use is limited to the number of parking spaces at the trailheads.