Make this the year you check one of these iconic Western experiences off your bucket list
This is no spur-of-the-moment getaway. You’ll need to book the trip at least six months ahead, take a week off work, spend upwards of $2,000. But then you get on the river. The raft floats beneath towering rock walls apparently colored using the largest box of crayons in the universe: all ochres and umbers and corals. You trail your arm in the cool river, and the water is heaven—literally, you are sure this is what heaven feels like. The current speeds up and your guide shouts, “Hold on!” because you’re approaching one of the rapids that would make the World River Rapids Hall of Fame if there were such a thing: Sockdolager, Upset, Lava Falls. The raft spins, buckles, cold water floods in on you, but amazingly the raft doesn’t flip over and you don’t fall out and you realize that every adventure you ever had in your life was just preparation for this one. OARS Grand Canyon: 7-day trips from $2,278 Apr–Oct, including meals and gear; oars.com
Two days into the six-day, nearly 50-mile High Sierra Camps loop, I feel like I’m free-floating. There’s no going back to the car now. I’m roaming the granite bowls of Yosemite National Park’s backcountry, surrounded by only wind and sky and the occasional marmot. At night, there’s a hearty family-style dinner and a real bed in a tent cabin. (Did I mention the flush toilets?) You earn the luxuries: Every last rocky mile of trail is above 7,000 feet. But as the sun sets over Half Dome, I think, If this is what camping can be, count me in. $151/night, including some meals; typically open Jun–Sep; yosemitepark.com for lottery info.
I’m standing on the nation’s spine at Hagerman Pass, having pedaled my mountain bike up to 11,925 feet. No, it was not easy. But when I see the cloud shadows flow across the Colorado Rockies before me, I’m grateful for my pounding heart. Over five days—covering far more ground than if hiking—I see sapphire lakes, tousled meadows, and aspen forest after aspen forest, their leaves making soft applause as I breeze by. Paragon Guides: Holy Cross 100, outside Vail; from $1,770 Jul 1–Sep 30, including meals and lodging in 10th Mountain Division Huts; paragonguides.com
Imagine a weekend of eating nothing but healthy food, sweating (a lot), no driving or phone calls, not a computer in sight. In the mountains above Santa Barbara, the White Lotus Foundation hosts three-day yoga retreats for people at any level. Days are centered around a couple of two-hour sessions led by renowned teachers Ganga White and Tracey Rich, who have more than 70 years of experience between them. When you aren’t working on your breathing or pigeon, you can visit the year-round waterfall, hike the miles of trails on the 40-acre property, book an on-site massage, or just stare at the ocean, hills, and sky. To call it purifying or rejuvenating doesn’t even come close. $725, including meals, shared yurt, and yoga; whitelotus.org
It would take you five months to walk the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. But for a long weekend that’s high on thrills per mile, try the 17-mile stretch through Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness. Hiking from Frog Camp/Obsidian Trailhead on State 242 to the South Sister Trailhead at Devils Lake offers a sampler of the fir forests, waterfalls, jagged peaks, and serene alpine lakes for which the PCT is famous, plus the wondrous Obsidian Limited Entry Area, covered with the sharp-edged black rock. It just may inspire you to hike the other 2,633 miles. Willamette National Forest, McKenzie River Ranger District: 541/822-3381 for permit info.
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
Nearly a million people visit Yellowstone in July. By September, half that number are back to the daily grind, leaving you, the bugling elk, and whoever else may be roaming. A bike trip led by Western Spirit Cycling covers 30 to 50 miles per day, a surprisingly doable distance when you stop often for bubbling mudpots, sulfuric geysers, and cascading falls. At the slower pace, time seems to elongate. When you tuck into bed at one of the national park’s classic lodge hotels, you’ll think, Was today really only one day? 5 days $2,195; westernspirit.com
The San Rafael Swell, a 2,000-square-mile sandstone slab west of Moab, looks like, well, a lot of rock. But descend into its labyrinth of slot canyons, carved by rain and runoff and polished by wind, and you’re in a whole new world. You’ll twist your way through bacon-striped stone passages, and scramble, squeeze, or even swim through unforgettable narrows. This is remote country, yet you’ll feel like you’re at the center of the action. Moab Cliffs and Canyons: day trip $175 Apr–Sep, including lunch and gear; beginner trips available; cliffsandcanyons.com
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
The bulbous granite of Joshua Tree is spectacular from the ground. But when you get on the rocks, you go to a higher plane with views both vast (you can see forever) and minute (there are entire ecosystems in crevices no bigger than your palm). The best part: Even the noodle-armed among us can do it. Is it scary? There will be a moment, maybe several, of heart fluttering or leg quivering. But then you climb and stand strong on your two legs and, somehow, everything feels in balance, even 80 feet up. Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School: 2-day basic rock climbing $270, including gear; joshuatreerockclimbing.com