Inspiration, Advice, Gear, and Training
These big adventures are true American classics. They are the quintessential adventure experiences you organize your year around because they require fitness, specialized gear, and maybe a large chunk of time off work. Our top ten cover life-list terrain in the mountains, ocean, and the desert and include the expert advice, gear tips, and training ideas you'll need to go from dream to reality. —Brendan Leonard
Climb Mount Rainier, Washington
Photograph by Tim Matsui
The Experience: Mount Rainier is the "big mountain" of the Lower 48, a white giant standing alone 14,000 feet higher than the sea-level city of Seattle, a mere 60 miles away. Mount Whitney may be taller, other mountains may be more photogenic, but up close, Rainier feels more Himalayan than American, what with its seracs, huge glaciers, crevasses, bad weather, and high altitude. Twenty-six glaciers cover the peak, adding up to a cubic mile of snow and ice. The mountain gets 50 feet of snow every year, and the average temperature on the summit during the warmest month, August, is a brisk 32ºF.
More than 10,000 people attempt a climb on Rainier every year, and at least half of them head up the classic, but far from casual, Disappointment Cleaver route, almost all on snow and ice. Day one is typically a five-mile, 4,700-foot hike up the Muir Snowfield to Camp Muir, a group of spare huts perched at 10,080 feet at the edge of the Cowlitz Glacier. Day two, beginning with an alpine start between midnight and 2 a.m., tackles 4,400 vertical feet of snow, ice, and rock to Columbia Crest, Rainier’s proper summit at 14,410 feet. The 10- to 15-hour summit day, climbing up 4,400 feet and then descending 9,000 feet back to the parking lot, is a huge day. It’s an achievement, and one that often whets the appetite for more—once you’ve sat down for a post-climb burger and a beer in the town of Ashford at the base of the mountain.
Expert Opinion: Melissa Arnot has guided clients on more than a hundred summits of Rainier while working for the mountain’s oldest guide service, Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI), which has held a guide concession on the mountain since its founding in 1969. Arnot started guiding for RMI in 2004, and has gone on to guide internationally—and summit Mount Everest five times, the record number of summits for a woman.
Only about half of all climbers summit each year (the success rate is about 45 percent for self-guided climbers and 60 percent for guided climbers), and those who do gain an understanding of mountaineering—and often go on to climb Denali, Aconcagua, Everest, and other big mountains.
In 1962, for example, Jim Whittaker, twin brother of RMI founder Lou Whittaker, used Rainier to train for the 1963 American Everest Expedition, and the members of the expedition used the mountain for a practice run in September of that year. Jim Whittaker became the first American to summit Everest in 1964.
“Rainier is one of my favorite mountains in the world," Arnot says. "It’s a long endurance climb that weaves through crevasses, over rock fins, and across beautiful open glacier slopes. It gives you every opportunity to challenge yourself and experience what mountaineering is all about. It offers all the challenge and requires all the skill you will need to climb similar peaks in the Andes, Himalaya, or really anywhere in the world.”
Time: Two to four days
Season: May through September
- A full-length ice axe for protection on the steep glaciers
- Glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness
- A durable rain shell pant and jacket
- A big, warm down parka with a hood for summit day
Training: “The best preparation for climbing is climbing,” Arnot says. “If you can mimic the activity you're going to do that's the best. Filling up a pack with 35 to 40 pounds and hiking uphill (on stairs, in the gym, or outside are all good options) for an hour at a time is the best preparation.”
Guide: Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.
Ski Tuckerman Ravine, New Hampshire
Photograph by Brian Post
The Experience: There is no more famous rite of passage for East Coast skiers than their first trip up and down Tuckerman Ravine. An amphitheater of rock and snow on Mount Washington’s southeastern face, Tucks holds snow well into May each year and is the classic line for eastern off-piste skiers.
On weekends in late April and early May, dozens of cars carrying hundreds of skiers line the road at Pinkham Notch, 45 minutes from the town of North Conway, New Hampshire. By mid-morning, everyone’s plodding up the three-hour, three-mile hike to Tuckerman Ravine. Some will ski and snowboard—and some will just drink beer and watch the action. Skiers travel from as far as Washington, D.C.—eight hours one way—to get in their turns after all the East Coast ski resorts have closed for the season.
It’s a tradition that’s been going on since the 1930s. A few hardy skiers had climbed and skied the ravine in the 1920s, but in 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps cut a ski trail from Pinkham Notch to the base of the bowl and built a warming hut—making access easier and paving the way for ski races, from Ivy League duals to Olympic tryouts. In the 1939 American Inferno race, Toni Matt accidentally did a straight-line run of the headwall, flying down the slope at 85 miles per hour—and forever into the mythology of Tucks.
The huge bowl has ten lines and some variations of those. It’s bookended by Left Gully, one of the easiest and most popular at 35 to 45 degrees (and steepest at the top), and Right Gully, another popular 35- to 45-degree line.
Expert Opinion: “The terrain on the mountain is totally unique in the White Mountains and pretty much in the East as a whole,” says Bayard Russell, co-owner of North Conway-based Cathedral Mountain Guides. “When you look at the mountain, all of it pretty much looks like every other place with above-tree line terrain in the area—steep but rounded old mountains—except for the two ravines that carved out the mountain's east side. Once you're in the ravine on a good snow year it’s just beautiful. There are not many places in the east with safe run outs and no trees anywhere.”
In late April and May, the snow has consolidated, avalanche danger is low, and the masses flock to Tucks. But in the winter months, it’s real-deal backcountry skiing, with avalanche potential and sporty snow conditions.
“The thing about Tucks is it’s really steep, and unless you're catching an extremely elusive powder day or a perfect day of corn before the masses get there in the spring, you're going to have to ski on some variable surfaces, some of which will probably resemble ice,” Russell says. “The wind is so powerful on Mount Washington that very often the snow that’s there is pretty rugged.”
Time: One day
Season: All winter—but in late April and early May, avalanche danger is lowest and Tucks explodes in popularity.
- Beacon, probe, and shovel (until avalanche danger recedes in late spring)
- Climbing skins— “A much more efficient way to travel over deep snow than having to carry your skis while postholing,” Russell says.
- Screwdriver that fits the adjustments on your skis
- Plenty of energy food — “After a long and steep hike, you’ll want to fuel up before clicking in,” Russell says.
Training: “Skiing in the backcountry is always the most fun when you have enough time in the hills under your belt so you have some energy left after the hike,” Russell says. “The best way to train for hiking or skinning uphill is to do it. Plenty of time on the skis on variable snow conditions is also huge.”
Guide: Cathedral Mountain Guides
Surf Waikiki, Hawaii
Photograph by Morgan Masseen
The Experience: No other place on Earth can claim to be more important to surfing than Waikiki. Starting in 1901, Waikiki’s beach boys began to teach the sport to Hawaiian tourists, including writer Jack London, who then brought surfing to the world outside of Hawaii in a magazine article first published in the 1907 edition of Woman’s Home Companion. Duke Kahanamoku, the man thousands have called “the father of modern surfing,” mastered Waikiki’s waves on a ten-foot board as a young man in the early 1900s before introducing the sport to the U.S. East Coast, followed by Australia and New Zealand. Surfboard innovator Tom Blake invented the first hollow surfboards (solid wood had previously been used) in Waikiki in 1926, after discovering ancient Hawaiian olo boards.
Imagine a theoretical ski resort that’s open for business with perfect conditions for eight months of the year—that's Waikiki’s surfing, with 248 prime surf days per year. The average water temperature is 74°F in winter and 80 in summer. And, of course, there’s the weather: Daily high temperatures are nearly always between 70 and 90, and average annual rainfall is only 22 inches, almost half of that coming between November and January.
Expert Opinion: “It’s the spiritual and physical home of surfing,” says Ben Marcus, former editor at Surfer Magazine and author of The Surfing Handbook: Mastering the Waves for Beginning and Amateur Surfers. “It’s where hotdog surfing was invented, where the beach boys rule, where stand-up paddling was invented. And it’s just a beautiful place.”
Surfers can paddle out into the blue-green water and turn back to see the 17-foot-tall Duke Kahanamoku statue on one side of Waikiki Beach and a view of the iconic Diamond Head State Monument, a more than 475-acre grassy crater, on the other. Then they catch one of the most famous—and friendly—waves in the world. It’s been said that no other wave has seen more surfers stand up for the first time. The gentle waves, along with a lot of other factors, make it the perfect place to learn to surf, Marcus says.
"The waves are long and rolling and allow lots of time to make mistakes, recover, and keep going," Marcus says. "They have enough power to propel beginners on big boards but not enough to drown them. There's a lot of space along Waikiki Beach, with a lot of different waves to surf, depending on ability. And there are a lot of instructors and other beginners around you, so you aren't intimidated."
The beach boys, Marcus says, have a long tradition of helping malahini, newcomers to Hawaii, take their first steps in the water. At more than a century old, it’s hard to imagine a longer-standing surfing tradition.
Time: As many days as you can stay and play
Season: Year-round, but summer (June to August) is prime season.
- Rash guard
- Waterproof sunglasses
- Sun hat
- Surfboard: “Rent a board on the beach—that’s part of the tradition,” Marcus says.
Training: In the weeks leading up to a surf trip, swim if you can and work on strengthening the "pulling muscles"—lats, biceps, and rhomboids—as well as core strength and torso rotational strength.
Guide: Hans Hedemann Surf School
Hike the Presidential Traverse, New Hampshire
Photograph by Erin Paul Donovan, Alamy
The Experience: It’s no stretch to say the 22-mile winter trek across New Hampshire’s Presidential Range is the Northeast’s premiere mountaineering achievement—and plenty of people would argue that it’s the most famous mountain traverse in America. Covering three days, more than 8,500 feet of elevation gain, and all the major summits in the range, walking the ridge in bluebird summer weather is tough enough—winter conditions can make it a matter of survival as well.
The Presidential Range isn’t high (Mount Washington is the high point, and its summit at 6,288 feet is barely 1,000 feet higher than the city of Denver, Colorado), but it’s burly. The convergence of multiple storm tracks means weather can change in a matter of minutes, catching many an unprepared hiker out on the mountain in summer, with tragic and sometimes fatal results. During the winter, it can be even more intense—the Presidential Traverse is no casual snowshoe romp in the mountains.
Most who attempt the Presidential Traverse do it north to south to get most of the elevation gain out of the way early in the hike, on the way up to the 5,366-foot summit of Mount Madison. On the ridge, hikers are exposed to the elements for almost a dozen miles—but, in good weather, can tick off as many as eight Presidential summits—before dropping back down to civilization in Crawford Notch.
Expert Opinion: Mount Washington, the centerpiece of the Presidential Range, has been called one of the cradles of American alpinism. Mountaineers who’ve cut their teeth there know that if you want to prepare for the best, you put yourself through the worst. Peter Doucette, owner of Mountain Sense Guides, knows this well: He’s completed a dozen winter Presidential Traverses and more than 75 winter ascents of Mount Washington, as training for ascents on peaks in Alaska, China, and South America.
“The Presidential Range is often used as a training ground for the world’s largest peaks, but they’re a worthy goal in themselves and shouldn't be overlooked,” Doucette says. “It's certainly beautiful, but I don't and wouldn't recommend a winter Presi Traverse to just anyone. It's worth doing if you have a strong winter-mountaineering skill set and you're looking for brilliant winter adventure.
“You must have—or want to develop—a tolerance for difficult winter conditions in a sometimes brilliant, more often fierce setting,” he adds. “I've seen it go from 35°F and raining with nearly calm winds to snowing, minus 10ºF, and winds of 80-plus miles per hour in the course of 90 minutes on Mount Washington. It routinely blows over 100 miles per hour there in winter.”
Time: Three to five days
Season: Winter (December through March)
- Reliable stove and fuel. “I like white gas over canister stoves in extreme cold—I often use an MSR Whisperlite,” Doucette says.
- Double boots that you've broken in
- Face mask and/or balaclava
- Ski goggles
- Gloves: a liner glove/mid-weight glove/mitten system
- Excellent down or heavy synthetic jacket
- Minus 30ºF sleeping bag—“Mandatory for those in tents January through March,” Doucette says.
- A shelter plan or a four-season tent—“And an idea of possible places to escape the wind,” Doucette says. “There aren't many good campsites up high in the range.”
- Reliable communication—“A satellite phone, cell phone, or personal locator beacon—bring something and realize that most batteries die in a few hours when it's below 15º F,” Doucette says.
Training: “A traverse of the Presidential Range in winter requires excellent cardiovascular fitness, and the capacity to carry a 40- to 45-pound pack with everything you'll need for three or more days up high,” Doucette says.
- Do some longer winter hikes with a significantly heavy backpack (40-plus pounds).
- Spend some time breaking trail with snowshoes and develop your familiarity with crampons on variable surfaces. Depending on conditions and weather, there's a good chance you'll need both.
- Consider equally the technical skill set: Self-sufficiency and good pre-trip planning are crucial for success and a reasonable margin of safety.
- Be familiar with your clothes and equipment.
- Practice everything you can before you do it live—including melting snow for water—to understand the process and the time it takes and to develop your system. Set up your tent, consider how you plan to anchor it, make sure you have guy lines attached before you start your hike. Practice whiteout navigation with a GPS or map and compass, and consider doing the traverse in summer to prep for a winter traverse.
Guide: Mountain Sense Guides
Climb Desert Cracks at Indian Creek, Utah
Photograph by Alex Ekins
The Experience: Indian Creek is the United States’ most world-famous climbing crag. It’s truly like nowhere else on Earth, with miles of long, parallel-sided cracks shooting up red sandstone cliffs. If ever there was rock made for climbing—or at least crack climbing—Indian Creek’s splitter paradise is it.
Until 1976, what’s now known as the Creek was just a set of cliffs along Utah 211, the highway winding through the desert from Canyonlands National Park’s secluded Needles District to the nearest town, Monticello, 55 miles away. That year, however, a group of climbers from Colorado noticed a perfect 300-foot splitter crack on one of the undulating cliffs, towering above the desert floor atop talus slopes. They weren't sure it could be led safely—cams, which actively expand to securely hold in cracks, had only recently been invented, and the group only had hexes, or hexagonal chocks, that might just slide all the way down the parallel-sided cracks. Earl Wiggins stepped up to lead the climb and sailed to the top—hand jam, foot jam, hand jam, foot jam, all the way up. The climb became known as Supercrack and opened Indian Creek for climbing development.
Today, more than a thousand routes line the sandstone, and climbers flock to Indian Creek from all over the world. The advent of camming devices, which made climbing parallel-sided cracks safer, enabled extensive development of routes at Indian Creek over the following decades. It didn’t make the actual climbing of them easier, though: The dead-vertical nature of most climbs, along with the uniform crack size, means the climbing can initially be extremely challenging. If you don’t have crack-climbing skills—hand jamming, foot jamming, finger locks, ring locks—Indian Creek will make sure your ego is in check your first day there. After toproping a few routes and teaching yourself to trust the security of a hand or fingers wedged in the sandstone, you begin to understand its magical appeal.
Expert Opinion: Moab-based Windgate Adventures’s Eric Odenthal, who has guided and helped climbers learn crack technique at Indian Creek for eight years, says it is a great, if demanding, teacher.
“Indian Creek has the most pure splitter crack lines in the Moab area and possibly the world,” Odenthal says. “Crack climbing is absolutely a blast and the only way to learn is to try. The first time your hand jam locks, your shoes stick and you begin walking upward, it is the best experience—and that becomes quite addicting.” And even Odenthal’s first experience at Indian Creek was humbling. “My first trip there, I got schooled,” he says.
Time: As many days as you can stay and play
Season: Spring and fall—March through mid-May and mid-September through November.
- Cams: You may think you need to bring multiple sets of cams, and this is correct if you have them. Remember that you may be at a cliff with many other climbers who also have multiple cams that you could kindly ask to borrow. Always try to place their gear first in case the route takes longer than planned—this way you can also retrieve their gear first.
- Clothing that can take a beating
- Plenty of tape and chalk. Athletic tape can be used to attach your long sleeve shirt to your wrist and pants to your ankles so you won't get any sliding for the wide cracks.
- Multiple pairs of climbing shoes, from loose-fitting to snug face-climbing shoes. “I prefer the Five Ten Moccasyms for an all-around shoe and Anasazi Velcros for the technical edging and thin seams,” Odenthal says.
- Flip-flops—always great to let your feet breath after a route.
- Plenty of food and water (there are no filling stations, except for at Canyonlands National Park, 15 miles away)
- A 70-meter rope and rope tarp
- Colorado beer (of course)
Training: “I have to say the only way to train for Indian Creek is to climb at Indian Creek,” Odenthal says. “The best thing to work on is your cardio. Climbing is most of the time anaerobic, but with the Creek and its endurance-fest long pitches, you’ll be fighting to get to those anchors, and of course learning techniques on movement with every move.”
Guide: Windgate Adventures
Mountain Bike the White Rim Trail, Utah
Photograph by Chris Noble, Getty Images
The Experience: The White Rim Trail is the quintessential mountain biking tour in Moab, Utah—that’s a “tour,” not a “mountain biking ride,” mind you, in a town famous for its single-day, single-track rides. In the spring and fall, when thousands of cyclists descend on Moab for technical classics like the Slickrock Trail, Porcupine Rim, and Poison Spider, only a few small groups ride the White Rim Trail, which tracks along the 103-mile sandstone bench encircling Canyonlands National Park’s more than thousand-foot-high Island in the Sky mesa. It’s actually a 4WD road, meaning a mountain bike is the most comfortable bike for it, but you don’t have to have mountain biking skills in order to ride it. Its major climbs total only 4,000 vertical feet, and the short technical sections are easily walkable.
Most groups plan a three- or four-day, vehicle-supported trip—keeping daily mileage reasonable and the camping comfort level fairly high and allowing time to explore the terrain off the trail. At the beginning of the ride, the trail immediately descends 1,200 feet from the top of the mesa to the White Rim, overlooking a 500-foot cliff drop at riders’ left to the Colorado River below. The trail rolls over brief ups and downs, circling the mesa through some of the best remote desert terrain in the Southwest—prepare for soaring red-rock landscapes during the day and sleeping under dark, star-filled skies at night.
Thousand-year-old Anasazi ruins; the six-foot-wide, 187-foot-long Musselman Arch; and 500-foot tall sandstone pinnacles dot the map along the route as it circles the rim, eventually dropping down to the tempting waters of the Green River before beginning the climb back up to the top of the mesa.
Expert Opinion: It’s become popular to ride the entire trail in one long day (the fastest known time is somewhere around six and a half hours), but taking it slow is rewarded on the White Rim, says Anne Clare Erickson of Western Spirit Cycling Adventures, a Moab-based outfitter that runs more than two dozen trips each year. “The White Rim Trail is not about the riding,” says Erickson. “It’s about being deep in Canyonlands and having only one thing to worry about—getting to the next camp by a certain time.
“Canyonlands excels at vastness,” Erickson says. “You see both the Colorado and Green Rivers from above or below, and off in the distance you can see the confluence of the two rivers, plus amazing views looking off into the Maze and Needles districts of Canyonlands. There are huge sandstone towers, wildflowers in the spring, and lovely sunsets in the fall.”
Time: Three to four days (although it’s popular to complete it in one day, unsupported)
Season: Spring and fall (March through May; September through October)
- Mountain bike (full-suspension is nice but not required)
- A 4WD support vehicle
- Coolers to keep food cold for four potentially hot days in the desert (and don’t underestimate the amount of beer you’ll want—remember, it’s being carried in a Jeep)
- Lots of chain lube
Training: Over four days, Erickson says, the mileage on the White Rim Trail is manageable for people who are fit, whether they’re regular cyclists or not. However, she says, “We suggest doing some riding to get your butt used to being on the saddle.”
Hike the John Muir Trail, California
Photograph by Dimitri Alexander
The Experience: The John Muir Trail has a spot on many backpackers’ life lists for a number of reasons: It’s 200-plus miles of trail traversing the Sierra Nevada, leading past alpine lakes and soaring peaks of clean white granite and crossing eight mountain passes and three national parks. Its start and finish are American legends themselves—Yosemite Valley and 14,495-foot Mount Whitney, the high point of the Lower 48.
Maybe the best reason, though, is that you don’t have to quit your job to thru-hike it. Most hikers tackle the entire 211-mile trail in two to three weeks, much more manageable (but just as—if not more—amazing) as longer megahikes like the Colorado Trail or the longer Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails.
Named for John Muir, who arguably saved much of the Sierra for recreation, the trail was actually the vision of Theodore Solomons, who dreamed up the idea as a 14-year-old and began talking about it in the 1890s, shortly after Muir founded the Sierra Club. Muir died in 1914, the year before construction began on the trail, but no doubt he would have approved of his namesake path in the mountains he dubbed "the range of light.”
Expert Opinion: Two or three weeks of hiking the John Muir can be enough to hit your reset button, according to Colby Brokvist, senior backcountry guide for Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, who’s hiked the JMT a dozen times.
“There’s something to be said for the long trip,” Brokvist says. “You can take someone on a four- or five-day trip, and they’re refreshed and rejuvenated and all, but if you take someone on a hike like the John Muir Trail, it doesn’t matter what was happening in their lives or at work. On a long trip, say on day six or day seven, you see something change in people, where all that other stuff is just gone.”
Most JMT thru-hikers go north to south on the trail, starting in Yosemite Valley beneath iconic El Capitan and Half Dome and ending on the summit of Mount Whitney. The trail gains a cumulative 80,000 vertical feet between its north and south ends—which during a three-week hike means an average of almost 4,000 feet of uphill per day. A third of the terrain is above 10,000 feet, and most of the trail is above 8,000 feet, so it’s big on unobstructed views. And solitude: After parking your car, you’ll see very few over the next couple weeks.
"What’s cool about the Sierra is it’s one continuous crest. You go 211 miles in one linear direction and you never cross so much as a Jeep track. There are no passes between Tioga and Tehachapi," Brokvist says. "The JMT was built specifically for recreation. The whole intent is to keep you up high in the mountains.”
Time: One to three weeks
Season: July through September
Gear: “Go light, light, light,” Brokvist says. Cut weight wherever you can, except for your backpack—get something comfortable first and lightweight second. “I always carry a good backpack with a good suspension system, not an ultralight pack,” Brokvist says.
- Bring water bottles instead of hydration bladders—“Bladders will eventually fail, and bottles have other uses,” Brokvist says.
- Trekking poles
- Tarp shelters instead of tents—“In the Sierra, the bugs are pretty light after July, and so are rainstorms,” Brokvist says.
- Water filtration: SteriPENS or iodine (you don’t need to filter out sediment)
- Hygiene: “Leave behind the lemon-scented handy wipes,” Brokvist says. “The Muir Trail has crystal-clear lakes every single day; there’s no reason to pack wet trash like handy wipes with you.”
Training: “Training for strength is just as important as training for the endurance you’ll need for a 211-mile hike,” Brokvist says. “We recommend you start two or three months beforehand and concentrate on things like running stadium bleachers, hiking with a weighted pack, and using the stairs at work during the day.” Brokvist says getting comfortable with your camping routine is also important—it’s easier to relax during the day if you’re not worried about how to do things like cook, set up your tent, or filter water.
Climb a Colorado 14er
Photograph by Jody Grigg
The Experience: Colorado has more terrain above 10,000 feet than any other state in the U.S., with more than a thousand summits above this height. If you want to see what it’s like at high altitude, Colorado is target-rich. Not surprisingly, most of the peak-bagging attention is focused on the state’s 58 peaks higher than 14,000 feet, or “14ers.”
It’s hard to not gravitate to the skyline of the Colorado Rockies in the summertime: The majority of 14ers have fairly gentle slopes, no glaciers, and easy access to nontechnical routes to their summits. If you’re fit, respect mountain weather and conditions, and can handle 3,000 or so feet of elevation gain, taking in the view from the roof of the Rockies is within reach. One of the most common 14er hikes, 14,060-foot Mount Bierstadt, is an 80-minute drive from downtown Denver and only a 3.5-mile walk to the summit with a 360-degree view of the expanse of high peaks cutting across Colorado. The noticeable lack of oxygen up there is worth considering (to be scientifically correct, it’s not that there’s less oxygen at 14,000 feet but less pressure, so your lungs don’t take in as much).
Expert Opinion: Jon Kedrowski is a Colorado native familiar with the environment up high. He has more than 500 14er summits on his résumé. He checked off his first ascents of all 58 of them before his 18th birthday, and over the course of 95 days in 2011, he climbed and slept on each one and wrote about it in his book Sleeping on the Summits. He went on to climb Denali, Aconcagua, and Everest, among other summits, but his climbing foundation came from his home state’s peaks.
“There is nothing like catching a sunrise on or near a summit,” Kedrowski says. “The magical 14,000-foot elevation cuts out 33 percent of the oxygen compared to sea level, and Colorado in the summer is one of the few places in the world that you can hike to a snow-free place that is so high yet not on a glacier.”
Kedrowski has climbed all the 14ers multiple times (including 150 winter summits and ski descents), and says his three favorite “first 14ers” to recommend, listed below, are in three different mountain ranges.
Mount Bierstadt (14,060 feet): "Bierstadt, just west of Denver, is probably the best 'starter' 14er. It has a high trailhead elevation (almost 12,000 feet) and a paved road to the trailhead. Hiking is relatively easy on a well-built trail to the top."
San Luis Peak (14,014 feet): “This isolated San Juan peak has a great trail to the summit but it's also an adventure on some long dirt roads to get to the trailhead. While the hike is about 14 miles round-trip, it's not too difficult, and you'll be rewarded with some great wildlife sightings like elk, black bears, and moose—and few people."
Humboldt Peak (14,153 feet): "This peak has a well-marked and well-maintained trail all the way to the top, and the views of much harder Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle will make you feel like you are on a much more difficult 14er."
Time: One day
Season: Mid-June through early October
- Plenty of water (and sometimes a purification device)
- Food you can eat no matter how you might feel at high altitude
- Rain jacket and pants
- Sunscreen and sun hat
- Warm hat and gloves—“Even mid-summer, the summits can be chilly and windy,” Kedrowski says
- An extra pair of socks if there are stream crossings
Training: “I recommend about four to five days per week, up to two hours each day, any sort of cardio activity, such as biking, swimming, or jogging,” Kedrowski says. “Adding hill training that includes hikes to local hilltops or peaks is a great way to test yourself before trying your first 14er. I also recommend adding one to two days per week of hill interval aerobic training.”
Bicycle Across America
Photograph by Cultura/Alamy
The Experience: Riding a bicycle across America certainly isn’t new. Thomas Stevens completed the first transcontinental bike ride, amounting to 3,700 miles from San Francisco to Boston, over three and a half months in 1884. He accomplished this on a penny farthing, the classic Victorian-era bicycle with a 50-inch-diameter front wheel—which was, of course, a single-speed, fixed-gear bike.
Thankfully, it’s gotten easier. We have paved roads, for one thing. Stevens’ ride was a mere 15 years after the U.S. completed the first railroad track across the country. And, of course, we now have geared bikes and mapped routes. The distance, however, is still the same: Even the shortest ride across the U.S. is 3,000-plus miles, requiring a lot of time in the saddle and plenty of time off work.
Expert Opinion: A bicycle is still the best way to see America, says Jim Sayer, executive director of the Adventure Cycling Association, North America’s largest membership cycling organization and creator of three cross-country bicycle routes—the 4,265-mile Northern Tier, the 4,232-mile TransAmerica Trail, and the 3,070-mile Southern Tier.
“When you're riding your bike and carrying some gear, just about everyone wants to know your story—and more often than not, they want to help you on your journey,” Sayer says. “On a bike, you're open to the world, the people, and the terrain. Every day there are dozens of opportunities to meet, greet, learn, and be challenged.”
Cross-country tours are at their highest point in the 38-year history of the ACA, Sayer says. Although the organization doesn’t keep official statistics, two signs point at growth: Since 2004, sales of maps of the ACA’s three cross-country routes have increased from 20,000 per year to 35,000 per year in 2013; and drop-in visits from cross-country cyclists to the organization’s Missoula, Montana, office (which is on only one of the ACA’s three routes) are now more than 1,200 per year (an average of 23 per week).
Van-supported and guided groups, self-supported solo cyclists, and fundraising groups all start the bike trip across the country each year, following their own routes from west to east or east to west (the old idea that east-to-west rides have fewer headwinds has been largely disproven) to see the U.S. at 10 or 12 miles per hour. Daily mileage varies as much as the cyclists themselves—young, old, big, small; riding bicycles, tricycles, recumbents, or tandems. "Whatever they’re looking for out there," Sayer says, "they usually discover something inside themselves along the way.
"Bike travel makes you a stronger person, physically and emotionally," he adds. "During the first week for most people—and especially those who don't prepare—it is a time of high suffering and vulnerability. They question what they've gotten themselves into. But after a week of pain, they have an epiphany; they realize how strong they are and how ready they are for any contingency. That breakthrough is one of the highlights of any trip—along with the moment you learn you can eat as much as you want and still lose weight."
Time: One to four months
Season: Year-round, depending on the route—the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier Route is best in spring and fall (and even mild winter months), but most routes are best April through October.
- Touring bike
- Padded cycling shorts
- Rain jacket and pants
- Comfortable, lightweight helmet
- Panniers or touring trailer (or a support vehicle and driver)
Training: The more you ride your bike before your tour, the easier the first few weeks will be. If you don’t have time to ride much, the first few weeks will be your “training” period.
Raft the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Photograph by Justin Bailie
The Experience: The Grand Canyon is one of the most visited natural phenomena in the United States: In 2012, 4.4 million people from all over the world saw it in some capacity. Only 10,000 of those people got a chance to run the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon in a nonmotorized boat—a 225-mile trip that takes 13 days at minimum.
It’s the most famous river trip in America, and although it doesn’t travel through designated wilderness, you can be sure it’s wild. After boats are put in at Lee’s Ferry, there’s no road access for a takeout until Diamond Creek, 225 miles away. If you want to get out of the bottom of the canyon, your options are by foot (hiking at least 4,000 feet up to the rim of the Grand Canyon) or by helicopter. There are no cell phone signals in the canyon, and emergency rescues from the river are usually initiated by satellite phone or by contacting commercial airline pilots flying over the canyon.
Oarsmen and -women must navigate rafts loaded with supplies and equipment through more than 40 rapids rated 5 or higher on the Grand Canyon’s own one-through-ten whitewater rating scale. In flows of 7,000 to 13,000 cubic feet per second, righting a boat flipped or pinned in a rapid can be a half-day affair. But those who negotiate the hazards are rewarded: The Colorado River is the only thoroughfare through the Grand Canyon, and the best way to see it all is from the bottom. River runners have access to miles of side canyons—most of which are otherwise unreachable except by technical canyoneering descents from above—and more than 200 river campsites only accessible by boat.
Expert Opinion: Caroline Dove and her husband, Donnie, have outfitted self-guided Grand Canyon river trips through their Flagstaff-based business, Canyon REO, since 1991, and have dozens of trips between them.
"There’s one reason why we're here: because there isn't anything else like it in America—both the size of the river and the length,” Dove says. “It’s an amazing combination of this beautiful wilderness on a grand scale, but you’re going in and around it so slowly that, on a smaller scale, you’re in each moment. It is really an honor to go down the river.”
About 55 percent of river runners were on guided trips in 2012—the other 45 percent were self-guided and applied for trip permits through the National Park Service’s weighted lottery system, instituted in 2006 to replace the wait list for permits. At one point, the wait list had applicants waiting up to 27 years for a chance to run the river. Now, the weighted lottery gives more of a chance to those who have applied multiple times or have not previously been down the river. The privilege of taking a trip through one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World still comes with a price of cash, luck, or patience: In 2012, more than 5,000 people applied for the permit lottery, and thousands more paid $3,000 to $6,000 for guided trips. Regardless of the size of your wallet, Park Service regulations prohibit anyone from taking two Grand Canyon river trips in one year—because after you’ve been down there once, you’ll want to go back.
“It’s so difficult to explain the power of the canyon because there’s so little that does compare.” Dove says. "Everybody's heard about it, but when you go, you really understand."
Time: 13 to 28 days
Season: Guided trips run April to October; permits for self-guided trips are year-round
- A sun hat—“Not a baseball cap,” Dove says. “You need to protect the back of your neck.”
- A good pair of water shoes
- Hand lotion or bag balm—constantly being in and out of the water, your hands will dry out and crack
- Personal flotation device (PFD)
- In the summertime, bring a sheet instead of a sleeping bag—it’s warm even at night in the bottom of the canyon.
Training: Be prepared to hike and scramble one to six miles to explore side canyons when you’re off the boat.
Top National Geographic Adventures Trips
About the Writer
Brendan Leonard is the creator of Semi-Rad.com, a contributing editor at Climbing Magazine, Adventure Journal, and The Dirtbag Diaries, and has explored America by bicycle, by raft, on foot, and at the sharp end of a rope. Of all the wild places on this list, he is particularly addicted to the Grand Canyon, which he has explored four times by foot and boat. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, was published in July 2013.
A coast-to-coast bicycle ride is just one of our favorite 10 classic adventures.