Top 26 wilderness experiences
From luxury tent-camping to glacier hiking, here are the best ways to have fun in the Western wilderness
The essence: Camping for people who love nature and indoor plumbing.
The vibe: Old West meets Old Money.
Don’t worry about: Pitching a tent.
The Resort at Paws Up is as glampy as glamping gets: Each of its palatial canvas-walled tent camps comes with butler service and furnishings worthy of the Ritz. At suppertime, you’ll gather with fellow campers in a sweeping dining pavilion to savor gourmet creations like sautéed quail with summer black truffles. Paws Up has its rugged side too: It sits on 37,000 acres of Montana wilderness and boasts 10 miles of the Blackfoot River (of A River Runs Through It fame). Guests sign up for everything from world-class fly-fishing to hot-air ballooning. Then, when they’re done adventuring, they retreat to Spa Town, a tranquil outpost of treatment tents ringing the edge of a meadow. Ah, wilderness. From $820, including meals; opens May 20; pawsup.com
• In Sequoia National Monument—next door to the national park—Sequoia High Sierra Camp gives you 36 canvas bungalows set on a Sierra mountainside, with ample hiking and fly-fishing ops nearby. Great food too. $250, including meals; opens Jun 15; sequoiahighsierracamp.com
• Idaho’s serene Huckleberry Tent and Breakfast has 3 tents (each with queen bed, woodstove, and adjacent kitchen) on 52 acres near Clark Fork. $125, including breakfast; huckleberrytentandbreakfast.com
• At Rockwater Secret Cove Resort (pictured), “tenthouse” suites—with king-size beds and tubs for two—perch on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. The resort spa takes advantage of the scenery too–you get your massage on a platform overlooking the Pacific. From $341 U.S.; rockwatersecretcoveresort.com
Experience needed: Beginner riders welcome.
What to bring: Seriously sturdy clothing.
Who shouldn’t go: Vegans.
Maybe you’ve mastered Angry Birds. But slingshotting a sparrow through the air is nothing compared with herding 500 head of cattle up a California mountainside.
If you’re ready to take the challenge, sign on for a spring or fall cattle drive at the V6 Ranch, in Monterey County’s Diablo Range. The four-day drive puts you up on a quarter horse, helping wranglers urge cows and calves and steers across the V6’s 20,000 acres. Each drive can handle 25 guests, and beginning riders are welcome (as are the kind of experts who bring their own horses). Food is from the V6 chuckwagon; there’s ample opportunity to hone riding and roping and campfire-ghost-storytelling skills. But maybe the biggest draw is the V6 itself. This little-known corner of California is spectacular—especially the drives’ base camp atop 3,600-foot Mustang Peak, with views east to the Sierra and west to the Santa Lucia Range. $750 for 3 nights, including meals; v6ranch.com
• Okay, your average cowpoke doesn’t get grub prepared by a Cordon Bleu–trained chef. But at the Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch, high in Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, you do. All the better to prepare for sorting, gathering, and driving cattle—and helping brand them too, if you want. Cabins from $1,795 for 4 nights, including meals; thehideout.com
What to bring: Historically accurate snacks ’n’ drinks: jerky, corn whiskey.
On the reading list: Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail.
• Pony Express Trail. In 2011, this 1,800-mile trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco may look like a failed start-up: The Pony Express lasted only 18 months. But that was enough to enshrine its riders as the epitome of American cool. The trail parallels U.S. Highway 50 through the Sierra Nevada, and a great place to hunker down while you explore it is Fallen Leaf Campground (pictured; from $28; 1.usa.gov/ft7fT3), just below Lake Tahoe in California. nps.gov/poex/index.htm
• Juan Bautista de Anza Trail. No dummy, Juan. His 1776 trek through what was then called Alta California took him along the most beautiful coastline in the world. Santa Barbara County holds the prettiest portion of his route: Experience it at its best at Gaviota State Park (from $35; 1.usa.gov/feAA3a). And while Anza didn’t bring a bodyboard, you should. nps.gov/juba/index.htm
• Oregon Trail. Two thousand miles of legends and lies: This is the trail that half of the West says their ancestors took. Its most beautifully evocative miles can be found, appropriately, in Eastern Oregon, specifically the Blue Mountains near Pendleton. Here, Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area (from $17; bit.ly/g5LHxz) is a fine place to pitch a tent and spin tales about your great-great-great grandmother in 1854. nps.gov/oreg/index.htm
• Nez Perce Trail. The story is heroic and tragic. In 1877, five tribal chiefs led the Nez Perce from Oregon across the Rockies to the Montana plains, fleeing the U.S. Army, hoping to find refuge in Canada. Today the aura of heroism is matched by the trail’s beauty: Our favorite stretch runs along Idaho’s Lochsa River, where you can set up camp at Wilderness Gateway Campground ($5; 1.usa.gov/hyM8e2). fs.usda.gov/npnht
Be sure to bring: Well, everything, often including potable water, and always a good map.
You’re on your own: Check BLM websites or offices for directions and weather conditions.
Shhh! The Bureau of Land Management is the country’s biggest camping secret. It oversees 245 million acres of fresh-air opportunities, or a whopping 40 percent of all U.S. public property—an astounding array of beauty, from tumbling waters to Mars-like deserts, skyscraping summits, and mysterious canyons. In most of those, campsites are primitive, free, and readily available—just roll up and pop the tent. Camping doesn’t get any easier, cheaper, or less crowded. In fact, you could argue that BLM should stand for “Beautiful Lands for Moi.”
• It’s only 17 miles from Sin City, but you’d never know Las Vegas exists: The warm sandstone cliffs of Red Rock Canyon (pictured; on.doi.gov/3AjpQ8) are a world unto themselves, with seriously beautiful desert day hikes, secret troves of rock art, and more climbing routes than you could scale in a lifetime. Camping $15; campground closes May 31 for the summer; call 702/515-5350 for fall reopening.
• Mountain bikers recognize Utah’s Sand Flats as the spot for access to the legendary Slickrock Trail ($5 per vehicle; on.doi.gov/erDOtJ). But savvy outdoor lovers know it as some of the best car camping in the West—with quick access to civilization in nearby Moab too. Camping $10; discovermoab.com/sandflats.htm
• Pick your passion: In Wild Rivers Recreation Area, 45 minutes from Taos, New Mexico (bit.ly/bkhlkO), the Rio Grande and Red River boast paddling, mountain biking, hiking, angling, camping, birdwatching … whew! Camping from $5.
• Rekindle the romance of exploration at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (bit.ly/frsaax). This south-western Colorado preserve has more than 6,000 archaeological sites, from dwellings to art—few of them marked. McPhee Reservoir Campground; $15; 1.usa.gov/gkQxrp
• Swimming, rafting, and paddling are elements of a perfect summer’s day, and no waterway offers more splashing fun than Oregon’s Rogue River, one of the country’s first designated “wild and scenic” rivers (bit.ly/hHhoha). Indian Mary Campground; $19; bit.ly/ghq61d
Pros: Backcountry adventure the easy way.
Cons: You feel guilty when you look at your horse.
I don’t get it. The horse is the one who’s been sweating—why am I so tuckered out? Then I realize I’m just really, really relaxed. By the time orange-purple twilight settles over canyon country around Hell’s Backbone Ranch and Trail in southern Utah, all I desire is a slab of steak, dutch-oven taters, strawberry shortcake, and maybe a shooting star as I settle into a sleeping bag. Then I relive the journey: the view from the saddle of my quarter horse into the labyrinthine canyons of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, or up onto Dixie National Forest’s Boulder Mountain, or to the 11,000-foot Aquarius Plateau. The air, which might be the cleanest in the Lower 48. The lessons from owners Breck and Becky Crystal, who taught primitive outdoor skills for years at the prestigious Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) and lead every pack trip. By the time I polish off something sweet from Becky’s garden and tumble into the sack, I’ve had the fullest of days under the sun for both mind and body—and I can’t wait to wake up, saddle up, and do it again. From $550 for 3 days, including meals; intermediate riders and up; bouldermountaintrails.com
Be sure to bring: Tent, sleeping bag.
Bring this too: Camera with extra-large memory card.
• Walk on a glacier. Why should polar bears have all the fun? Strap ice-gripping crampons to your feet with MICA Guides and tiptoe on Alaska’s pristine Matanuska Glacier (pictured), where you’ll come to know a serac from a crevasse from a bergschrund on one of the West’s most exotic hikes (from $45; micaguides.com). Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site; $15 tent sites; 1.usa.gov/hTngiO
• Soak in a hot spring. All that geothermal rumbling beneath southwestern Colorado makes for some mighty mellow hot tubbin’ in the Rocky Mountains. Start with a soak in Ouray’s million-gallon magma-heated town hot pool ($10; ourayhotsprings.com), then stroll to more natural hot pots nearby. Amphitheater Campground; $18; bit.ly/fVKISW
• Bathe in a waterfall. Seven months after devastating floods washed away the campground, improbably blue-green desert water is running clear again in Arizona’s Havasu Canyon, a red-walled branch of the Grand Canyon, and the tribal reserva-tion is reopened for campers ($60 entry fee; 1.usa.gov/hNJUPB). The payoff for a 10-mile hike, mule ride, or chopper flight? Aquamarine showers. Camping $17.
• Let the tide guide the day. Firs behind, sea stacks ahead, Oregon’s Harris Beach State Park (bit.ly/mCwNH) is in the state’s temperate “banana belt,” so you can dip your toes for a salty Pacific pedicure any time of year. Camping from $22.
• Swim in the perfect mountain lake. Yes, it really is shaped like a heart—and this tiny pool will steal yours. Scramble 3/4 mile to float in the crystal water of Northern California’s Heart Lake (bit.ly/ftljML) and gaze at Mt. Shasta from this little lake with a big view. Castle Lake Campground; no fee; bit.ly/hqODl0
Biggest problem: Portable toilets with long lines.
The solution: Bring your own RV.
Where’s the money? Not here—it’s a “gift economy” except for the coffee at Center Camp Café.
Not the weather, not the hiking, not the job opportunities. No, this is why you, and everyone before you, came West: freedom. You want to be able to get naked, do drugs, play human foosball, set up a booth where you can smell other people’s armpits. Or at least see other people do that stuff. At Burning Man, you see what happens when 50,000 people set up a city in the remote, barren, lifeless, cell-phone-service-free, windstorm-ridden playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert over Labor Day week and then take it completely down. You want to walk lost down apparitional streets of people in camps, pushing your way through 90° windstorms with a towel turbaned around your head, looking for the girl with the body paint and bird wings who called herself Octodaughter and somehow gave you a warm cookie at 4 a.m. the night before, the one who said she worked at Twitter or Foursquare or maybe it was a coffee shop. You want to see what a lawless culture built by forty-niners and Deadheads and cyberpunks leads to. You want to see a place so free that there’s no money, though there is still a post office, diner, coffee shop, dating service, airstrip, transportation, bars, nightclubs, and giant installation art. You want to see freaks. And if you don’t, then maybe you belong back in New England, thrilling to the surprise of discovering what people brought to your church potluck. Aug 29–Sep 5; advance tickets and extensive preparation required; burningman.com