Though most people journey to the Grand Canyon to raft class II and III rapids, you can get on the legendary Colorado River in this town 100 miles northwest of Denver. With outfitter Liquid Descent, rafting is paired with dips in riverside hot springs. $50; liquiddescent.com
Best time to go: For beginners, June.
Stay: Sitting at the base of the cliffs, the 10 Muddy Creek Cabins have mountain views. From $109; muddycreekcabins.com
Moody beauty can be found year-round here, where practically every road leads to quintessential Northwest coastline. A top-notch trek lies on the west shore at Ebey’s Landing. The 3.2-mile Bluff Trail descends to the rugged beach below, with Olympic Mountain vistas. nps.gov/ebla
Best time to go: Try winter, for storm-watching.
Stay: Captain Whidbey Inn in Coupeville is 100+ years old, with throwback nautical charm. From $103; captainwhidbey.com
Deep in the Rockies is one of nature’s best gifts for spa lovers: the healing thermal waters at Glenwood Hot Springs. These 93° natural pools are the world’s largest and come with Rocky Mountain views. $15; hotspringspool.com
Best time to go: For fewer crowds, November.
Stay: Teddy Roosevelt and Al Capone stayed at the 1890s Hotel Colorado back in the day. From $99; hotelcolorado.com
Marina del Rey may be the low-key neighbor to Santa Monica, but it has the largest manmade small-boat harbor in the country, with more than 5,000 vessels. So forget about just staring at the sea—learn to sail it with Blue Pacific Boating (bluepacificboating.com), or try kayaking with Action Watersports (actionwatersports.com).
Best time to go: February or March, when winds kick up around 9 a.m. and last until 4 p.m. for great sailing.
Stay: The Jamaica Bay Inn has a tropical-mod feel and a pool overlooking Mother’s Beach. From $197; jamaicabayinn.com
The old-timey Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has rides from the ’20s, like the wooden Giant Dipper, to a modern spinning roller coaster, Undertow, slated to open in May. Get a primer on this beautiful stretch of coast at the new Exploration Center, run by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. $32 rides pass; beachboardwalk.com
Best time to go: April or early May, for great weather and fewer crowds.
Stay: The newly renovated Beach Street Inn (pictured) has ocean views and a firepit. From $189; beachstreetinn.com
The Hastings House Hotel gives you a chance to try crabbing for yourself with a fisherman. Catches are brought back to the hotel chef.
Best time to go: June, for best weather.
Stay: Hastings House is a Tudoresque group of buildings in a protected bay on Salt Spring, one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. From $499 U.S., 2-night Crab Patch package from $1,405 U.S.; hastingshouse.com
Bay and its picturesque beach, with a backdrop of jagged peaks.
Best time to go: May, before the crowds and after the rainy season.
Stay: The Hanalei Colony Resort is end-of-the-road quiet, with some rooms overlooking the sea. From $295; 3-night min.; hcr.com
All that slimy green stuff the ocean sweeps in? It’s pretty interesting. Put on wellies and head out with Kristine Pearson, who combs the shores of Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour. $35 U.S.; sea-flora.com/education
Best time to go: June, for lowest tides.
Stay: The oceanside Sooke Harbour House makes culinary magic with seaweed finds. From $301 U.S.; meals $$$$ U.S.; sookeharbourhouse.com
Simple pleasures really can be the best. They’re what Northern California’s Lakes Basin area has to offer. About an hour and a half northwest of Lake Tahoe, the basin holds more than 50 alpine lakes—Gold, Packer, and Lower Sardine are the most popular—accessible by car or hiking boots.
The region has its plush side—just sample the Citron cocktail at sunset at Sardine Lake Resort—but its true heart is easygoing, low-key, and thrifty. There are more than 10 public campgrounds, including Sardine Campground, where every site has a view of the jagged Sierra Buttes. You can rent boats at Sardine Lake Resort. Or hit the area’s dozens of trails: Families can wander the easy 0.5-mile path to Frazier Falls; intrepid hikers can climb about 2.5 miles to the top of Mt. Elwell or conquer the mighty pinnacle topped by the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout, a 7-mile round-trip.
Stay: Spots at Sardine Campground can be reserved ($21; recreation.gov). Gold Lake Campground is first come, first served ($10), as are some sites at Lakes Basin Campground; others can be reserved (from $18; recreation.gov).
The 315-mile ferry route from Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, to Prince Rupert, in northern B.C., is the same one that Alaskan cruise liners follow. And B.C. Ferries’ newest vessel, the Northern Expedition, offers a decidedly cruise-ship-like experience: 55 staterooms, buffet with linen napkins, and a lounge with plush recliners stationed by picture windows. Skip the ship’s movie theater and watch the nature show outside: rain-forest islands, white-sand beaches, snow-clad peaks, orcas, porpoises, and bald eagles.
Stay: On land, spend a few days poking around Rupert, with its small inns and cafes. From $187 U.S./person plus $425 U.S./vehicle; bcferries.com
When it comes to surfer snob appeal, Waikiki sucks. The Kelly Slaters, the Alana Blanchards, they’re shredding monster waves in Bali, Tahiti, across Oahu on the North Shore. But for beginners? Waikiki is utter bliss. Start with the water, a caressing 72°. Add a break that generates the world’s most gentle, evenly spaced 3- to 6-foot swells. Finally, note the wealth of instructors. We’re in awe of Hans Hedemann for a boardside manner that makes the far-fetched (you, standing up on a surfboard) seem easy. Here, you will ride a wave, and if Kelly and Alana aren’t shredding beside you, you’ll be having too much fun to care. Hans Hedemann Surf School: 2-hour group lesson $75, private $150; hhsurf.com
This island retreat, only 40 minutes by ferry from the mainland, is the ultimate SoCal beach paradise and a great choice for a family weekend. You can splash around on Avalon Beach, stroll through the harbor town of Avalon, or take a jeep tour of the wild backcountry.
More: Explore Catalina
It’s easy to be dazzled by talk of spotting breaching orcas, playful harbor seals, and colorful seastars. But once you’re bobbing serenely in 3-inch wavelets in the San Juan archipelago, you’ll understand the deeper seduction: the kayaking life, in which you’re no mere observer of the weather, the tides, and the marine life but a full participant among them. And there is just no better place to spend the night than camping on these serene islands. You might hear the distant thrum of boats on the water, but you’re in a different universe—one where your itinerary is shaped by nature. Anacortes Kayak Tours: 2- to 5-day tours $349–$849 May–Sep, including meals and gear; anacorteskayaktours.com
A blue mirage set in red rocks, Lake Powell—which forms the watery heart of Glen Canyon National Rec Area—has nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, which means a lot of Lake Powell beaches to choose from. A few, like Lone Rock Beach, can be reached by car. But some of the best are nameless coves accessed only by boat. Good thing you can rent powerboats at three lake marinas: Antelope, Bullfrog, and Wahweap. (Houseboats are also popular, but you can’t navigate into narrow coves as well.) Don’t miss a cruise to the lake’s south shore and Rainbow Bridge National Monument, home to the world’s largest known natural rock bridge. $15 per vehicle; nps.gov/glca or lakepowell.com (boat rental).
With El Capitan and Half Dome towering above, the Merced River beaches in Yosemite Valley sometimes get forgotten. Which is a mistake, especially in summer, when valley temps sizzle and the river water is blissfully cool. The two main beaches, Cathedral and Sentinel, are great for splashing or bobbing around in an inner tube. Don’t miss taking on the Merced by raft. Rent a four- to six-person raft at Curry Village Recreation Center, and float 3 miles to Sentinel Beach; the $26 fee includes shuttle service back to your start. In summer, take the El Capitan Shuttle to stop E4 and walk 1/4 mile to Cathedral Beach, or get off at E5, 1/2 mile from Sentinel Beach; $20 per vehicle; nps.gov/yose or 209/372-8319 (raft rental).