9 Life-Changing Adventure Trips
You're a decent skier, a passable surfer, and a slightly timid mountain biker. Raise your game with one of these life-changing adventure makeovers.
Lake Superior, Ontario
You Have: Paddled long distances through mellow water.
You Want: To lead a burly multi-day trip.
The Trip: The North Shore of Lake Superior, in Ontario, is chock-full of mossy forests, Ojibwe Indian ruins, and empty sandy beaches. It’s also plenty rugged. Before tackling it, make sure you can self-rescue (climb back in your boat and bail it out). Then try this 25-mile island-hopping excursion from Gargantua Harbor to Old Woman Bay recommended by David Wells, kayak guide and owner of Wawa, Ontario–based Naturally Superior Adventures. Arrange a shuttle with Twilight Resort (US$120; 705-882-2183) in Montreal River Harbor; they’ll pick you up and drop you at Gargantua Harbor. From there, paddle past Agawa Rock and make for Grindstone Point, an area where erosion has formed smooth rock pools along the shore—perfect for lounging. Along the way, you can pick from beach campsites on several islands. On your last day, hit Still Creek Falls, where a 300-yard hike accesses a series of cascades. Then jump back in your boat and paddle past the soaring 400-foot cliffs of Old Woman Bay, the site of your take-out.
Essential Gear: Superior is rocky and cold, so go with a plastic sea kayak in the 15-to-17-foot range, a Farmer John wetsuit like NRS’s Ultra ($105), and neoprene booties like L.L.Bean’s Vortex ($39). The Canadian coast guard mandates that each boat have a signal device (whistle or flare) and 50 feet of floating rope and a bailer. You can rent everything but the booties from Naturally Superior (from $80 per day).
Mal Pais, Costa Rica
You Can: Paddle out consistently, catch waves, and occasionally pop up.
You Want: To surf bigger waves—and do it while staying in a sweet beach pad.
The Trip: Mal Pais isn’t a secret; this tiny surf village on the Nicoya Peninsula, accessible via puddle-jumper from San José, has a sushi restaurant on the beach. But convenience has advantages—once you arrive, you never have to take off your boardshorts. Set up shop at Florblanca’s Surf House, a beachside villa with an outdoor shower (from $350; accommodates up to six people). Then head for the water. Start with a lesson from Blue Surf Sanctuary ($55 for two hours) at La Lora, a break with consistent six-foot waves. If after a few days you’re confidently reading the direction of the surf and feel good about striking out on your own, try Suck Rock, a reef break with bigger rollers. Fresh fish and cold beers come courtesy of Roca Mar, right on the beach.
Essential Gear: Kina Surf Shop offers a full fleet of fiberglass rental boards, from South Point to NSP (from $8 per day). You’ll also need a good pair of boardshorts and a long-sleeve rash guard, like Quiksilver’s Plain ($33).
Mount Shasta, California
You Have: Climbed a fourteener.
You Want: To get into technical mountaineering.
The Trip: At 14,179 feet, Mount Shasta is far less dangerous than other big American peaks like Rainier, but, being covered in glaciers, it’s still plenty technical. Many hikers walk up the Avalanche Gulch route. You’ll scale the more challenging north face on a guided three-day mountaineering trip with Shasta Mountain Guides ($600), during which you’ll learn to self-arrest with an ice ax, walk in crampons, and recognize crevasses. It starts with a three-mile hike from the trailhead to your base camp, a large glacial moraine at 9,400 feet. The next day you’re up at 3 A.M., ascending 4,600 feet of 5-to-40-degree faces with ropes and crampons. Once you pass the Ramp, a 35-degree climb, you’ll see two 50-foot rock towers that let you know you’re close to the summit. After carefully crossing the slick, icy Bolam chute, scramble to the top for your hero photos, then hike back down to base camp. Be sure to hit Stewart Mineral Springs for a soak in one of the giant natural steam baths on the drive out ($28).
Essential Gear: You’ll need a backpack with about 2,400 cubic inches, like Osprey’s Variant 37 ($169). Also get a lightweight helmet like Petzl’s Meteor III ($100), an ice ax like Black Diamond’s Raven Pro ($100), lightweight strap-on crampons (Black Diamond’s Contacts are great; $140), and boots like La Sportiva’s Nepal ($475). Rentals are available from the Fifth Season Outdoor Store in Mount Shasta.
Southern Chile and Argentina
You Have: Two weeks off and enough money for a plane ticket to South America.
You Want: To kayak huge fjords, hike through icefields, and catch fat trout.
The Trip: For a DIY road trip in a foreign country, you can’t do much better than Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia. The crime is low, the food is great, and you can ramble between fjords, mountains, and trout-filled rivers. The roads can be crappy, though, so you do need a 4x4. Fly into Chile’s Punta Arenas (there are direct flights from Santiago) and pick up your rental. From there, drive six hours to the iconic Torres del Paine National Park and trek the French Valley. Stay at Cerro Guido (from $200), a working ranch that serves a mean roast lamb. Now start heading northeast. Next stop: El Calafate, Argentina, four hours away, where you’ll crash at the Hotel El Quijote (doubles, $104; 011-54-2902-491017) and fall asleep to the sound of cracking glaciers. Then it’s on to El Chalten, near 11,020-foot Fitz Roy. After hiking the surrounding icefields, head back into Chile on Route 40. Fill the tank first—it’s a 12.5-hour drive through empty desert, after which you’ll be ready to crash at the Hacienda Tres Lagos lodge (doubles from $150) near Chile Chico. Have the lodge’s fly-fishing guides take you hunting for fat brown trout on the Rio Baker (from $290 per person per day). Prefer to go it alone? Make for the emerald waters near Coihaique and hit the Rio Simpson for hot mayfly action. You can fly out of the nearby Balmaceda airport or (recommended) extend the trip with a 250-mile jaunt north on the famed Carretera Austral highway to fjord-punctuated Pumalin Park. Rent a sea kayak from Alsur Expeditions, located in the park (from $50 per day), then head to Quintupeo Fjord, floating under waterfalls and past towering granite walls.
Essential Gear: This one’s simple—a passport, good travel insurance like Travel Guard (a $500 policy will protect you in the event of everything from health issues to car breakdowns), a six-weight fly rod with a variety of dry flies and woolly buggers, and a good vehicle. The most popular models here are the Toyota Hilux and Chevrolet Tundra. Both start at $1,000 for a two-week rental from Punta Arenas.
Whistler, British Columbia
You Can: Confidently, if conservatively, ride moderately difficult terrain.
You Want: To corner faster, clear larger obstacles, and bomb down technical trails.
The Trip: Book a few lessons at Whistler Bike Park, which features thousands of man-made and natural obstacles—berms, rollers, cliffs, rock slabs, and even a foam pit to jump into (from US$217 per day with bike rental and lift ticket). Your coach will help you master the terrain and make quick downhill turns on switchbacks without putting your foot down, and will offer tips like how to prevent crashing while taking a banked turn (lead with your chin). Then head out on the hundreds of miles of trails that surround the ski resort. By night, soak in the Pan Pacific’s pool and hot tub (doubles from US$199), both of which overlook the bike park.
Essential Gear: On top of a good all-around ride like the Santa Cruz Blur LT (US$1,850), you’ll need a full-face helmet, biking gloves, goggles, and total body armor. You could buy all these accessories from a quality manufacturer like POC for around US$1,000, or you can just rent everything you need from the park for US$45 a day. The Whistler Bike Shop also rents Giants, Treks, and Konas, from entry level to the same downhill bikes the pros use (US$99 per day).
Green River, Colorado and Utah
You Have: Rowed your buddy’s raft on mellow rapids.
You Want: To lead your first float trip.
The Trip: To guide a multi-day Class III trip, you have to know how to read and navigate moderate whitewater, avoid obstacles like strainers, communicate with other boats, and self-rescue in the event that you flip. You want your first expedition to have a few fun rapids but nothing too hairy. Which is why we recommend the four-day, 44-mile trip through the Gates of Lodore, on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. It features seven Class III rapids and sandy, preassigned campsites surrounded by high red-rock walls. (A park ranger will direct you to your site when you pick up your permit; $15 application fee; $185 for a multi-day permit.) Side adventures include a trip to Jones Hole Creek, a 1,200-foot-deep canyon with cascading waterfalls and Fremont Indian petroglyphs.
Essential Gear: A trip like this requires sturdy, self-bailing boats (14 to 16 feet), a few kitchen boxes and coolers, an extra oar and life jacket for each raft, a groover or ammo can as a portable toilet, rescue kits, and drybags. The beauty of the Gates of Lodore, though, is that you don’t need to actually bring anything except your tent and sleeping bag. River Runners’ Transport, based in Vernal, Utah, sets you up from the get-go (that includes shopping for, pre-making, and packing meals in coolers) and arranges the shuttle between the put-in at Lodore Ranger Station and the takeout at Split Mountain (rafts and other gear are $75 per person per day; meals are an additional $20 per person).
Wasatch Mountains, Utah
You Can: Confidently ski the sidecountry.
You Want: To break into the backcountry safely.
The Trip: When first tackling 35-degree faces and chin-deep powder, it helps to be able to turn. Set your sights on the really, really light (and forgiving) snow that blankets Alta, Utah, where Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) runs day trips on 900 acres of glades and chutes behind the resort (from $155). AMG will teach you how weather and terrain affect the snowpack, how to dig snow pits and perform other stability tests, what to do in the event that you’re caught in an avalanche, and how to locate and rescue somebody using beacons, probes, and shovels. Guides also show you the safest places to skin up and ski down as much as 11,000 vertical feet in a single day. Bonus: sign up for an overnight trip, during which guests camp atop Grizzly Gulch, a 9,500-foot-high wooded area, and, if the moon is bright enough, take midnight runs down wide-open chutes ($380).
Essential Gear: A beacon like the Mammut Pulse Barryvox ($490), a sturdy avalanche probe, and a shovel, preferably one with a large metal blade (we like Backcountry Access’s A1 shovel-and-probe combo; $95), all of which AMG will loan you free of charge.
Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
You Have: Done a few multi-day hikes.
You Want: To trek through one of America’s most rugged wildernesses.
The Trip: This 53-mile trek—scouted for us by local ultrarunner Jeremy Humphrey—is everything your first multi-day backpacking trip should be: navigable but isolated. “You can go days without seeing another person out there,” says Humphrey. It’s also home to plenty of bears; go with a group, which diminishes the chance of an encounter. Day one: Catch a shuttle flight from Salmon Air in McCall to the Indian Creek landing strip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River ($100). Hike northeast, crest a small ridge, and drop into the lush Indian Creek drainage. The trail then climbs upward as the canyon narrows. After ten miles you’ll reach the Kwiskwis hot spring. Set up camp in nearby Kiwah Meadow. Soak. Day two: Your most scenic day of trekking is also your toughest: you’ll gain and lose 8,500 feet of elevation while covering nearly 15 miles. The trail leads southwest past Pistol Rock, a 700-foot granite spire, and up to the top of Big Baldy Ridge. From there hike eight miles at 9,705 feet, taking in views of the Salmon River Mountains and the Gospel Hump Wilderness. Camp at Buck Lake. Day three: The ridge continues climbing toward Big Baldy’s summit, where you’ll find a lookout tower. (Climb it for views of the Sawtooths, the White Cloud Peaks, and the Middle Fork itself.) Retrace your way back to the Big Baldy Ridge Trail, then head on to the Garden Creek Trail before making your final descent back to the landing strip.
Essential Gear: Going light and fast is the name of the game. Long-distance backpacking guru Andrew Skurka’s new book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools and Techniques to Hit the Trails ($20), is packed with hundreds of tips on everything from how to choose the best maps to how to take care of your feet to how to bear-proof your campsite. Packing a rescue beacon like the Spot ($170) is a good idea.
You Have: Regularly ridden 30 miles three days a week, mostly on rolling terrain.
You Want: To tackle some professional-grade climbs.
The Trip: The USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a seven-day stage race billed as the American Tour de France, is based in Colorado for a reason: it’s the only place in the States that can rival the climbs in the Alps. Your goal is Independence Pass, just outside Aspen, a 12,095-foot switchbacked monster where Lance Armstrong occasionally rides. If you’re on a recession-proof budget, drop your bags at the Little Nell (doubles from $565), which offers cyclists complimentary GPS units and helmet cams. Or save cash at the Hearthstone House (doubles from $149). Warm up on these three rides. Day one: Ease in. Acclimatize on the mostly flat, 42-mile Rio Grande Trail, which runs the length of the Roaring Fork Valley. Feeling strong? Connect the ride with the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Trail for another 16 miles through a spectacular canyon along the Colorado River. Day two: Ramp up. Spin from Basalt to Ruedi Reservoir, a 16-mile route along the Frying Pan River, including a steep mile-long ascent just outside the town of Basalt. Extra credit: once you get to the reservoir, extend the ride another 14 miles to where the pavement ends at Hagerman Pass for a 60-mile out-and-back. Day three: Short climb. Aspen to Ashcroft, a 15-mile moderate climb (with a couple of steep sections) up Castle Creek Road to the ghost town of Ashcroft, will build strength. To extend the ride, descend back to the Aspen roundabout, then climb a 5 percent grade for seven miles up to the Maroon Bells. Day four: Tackle Independence Pass, a 20-mile climb that starts just outside of town and gains 4,200 feet while passing snowfields. Pack a good shell—your sweat will freeze as you zip down.
Essential Gear: Riding in the mountains, where afternoon showers and temperature fluctuations of 30 degrees or more are normal, is all about micro-adjustments. Midweight arm warmers like Pearl Izumi’s Thermal Lite Arm Warmers ($20) are great because you can roll them down on the fly when you start heating up. Even if the forecast is good, you’ll want an ultralight wind-and-rain-resistant shell like Hincapie’s Pocket Shell ($90).