1. Arizona’s Northern Mountains and Canyons, 2. Road trip to a blue bayou in Louisiana, 3. Maine’s Adventure Coast, 4. Paddleboard the fjords in Alaska, 5. Snowmobile to hot springs in Idaho : Burgdorf Hot Springs, 6. Hike amid pueblo ruins in New Mexico, 7. California-Nevada: Lake Tahoe, 8. Washington’s San Juan Islands and Olympic National Park, 9. Maui’s Island Adventures, 10. Tennessee and North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains. From the snowy glaciers of Alaska to the sun-soaked islands of Florida, atop California’s mountain peaks, and into the depths of Arizona’s spectacular canyons, travelers can tackle domestic adventures from the East Coast to the West — and plenty of places in between. While the U.S. has dozens of destinations featuring outdoor fun, these ten must-visit spots showcase geographic diversity, feature unique regional specialties, and provide a range of bookable experiential travel activities that will excite anyone from extreme athletes to multigenerational groups. Let's find out the top 10 best extreme outdoor adventures in America.
- Arizona’s Northern Mountains and Canyons
- Road trip to a blue bayou in Louisiana
- Maine’s Adventure Coast
- Paddleboard the fjords in Alaska
- Snowmobile to hot springs in Idaho : Burgdorf Hot Springs
- Hike amid pueblo ruins in New Mexico
- California-Nevada: Lake Tahoe
- Washington’s San Juan Islands and Olympic National Park
- Maui’s Island Adventures
- Tennessee and North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains
Arizona’s Northern Mountains and Canyons
Arizona’s Northern Mountains and Canyons ranks 1st on the list of best extreme outdoor adventures in America. While Arizona is rightly world-famous for the Grand Canyon, the entire northern Arizona region, from Flagstaff to the Utah border, features a wide range of adventure opportunities. This area includes the bucket-list trifecta of rafting, mule riding, and hiking within the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park. The park’s central feature is the Grand Canyon, a gorge of the Colorado River, which is often considered one of the Wonders of the World. The park, which covers 1,217,262 acres of unincorporated area in Coconino and Mohave counties, received more than six million recreational visitors in 2017, which is the second-highest count of all American national parks after the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Four of the North Rim points are close to the road (Bright Angel, Cape Royal, Point Imperial, and Roosevelt Point), of which the best is probably Cape Royal. A further three may be reached by maintained paths (Cape Final, Uncle Jim, Widforss), though this latter needs a half-mile hike over the steep ground at the end of the official trail. The others (Atoko, Honan, and Naji) require an off-trail walk through the forest; Honan provides the best views of the three. The Phoenix Mountains are a mountain range located in central Phoenix, Arizona. With the exception of Mummy Mountain, they are part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. They serve as a municipal park and offer hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails at a variety of different access points. Helicopter rides give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the majesty of the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas, while deep within the canyon, whitewater rafting trips need to be booked far in advance but are worth the wait. For an alternate canyon activity, visiting the blast zone of Meteor Crater, outside of Flagstaff, makes for a good excursion.
Location: Coconino and Mohave counties, Arizona, United States
Road trip to a blue bayou in Louisiana
A road trip to a blue bayou in Louisiana ranks 2nd on the list of best extreme outdoor adventures in America. At 600,000 acres the Atchafalaya Basin is America’s largest river swamp — a place so big that when I-10 was built in the early 1970s to make the region more accessible, the challenges of extending a road across soggy land made this stretch of interstate one of the most costly ever. Lazing from New Orleans to Lafayette, this nearby drive leads visitors into that lush, liquid world of slightly exotic surprises: French accents, abundant wildlife, and flavorful food and music found nowhere else in America. The historic Maison Madeleine B&B has fantastic food and is tucked away amidst Spanish-moss-cloaked oak trees on Lake Martin, in Louisiana’s Cajun country.
Few places in the U.S. feel as “abroad” as Acadiana, where french toast is called pain perdu, alligators and egrets lurk and flit, and Cajun music is on surround sound. The road trip specialist All Roads North will curate a six-day itinerary that includes: a stay on the shores of Lake Martin at the Maison Madeleine, a gorgeously atmospheric two-bedroom Cajun home from the 1840s that’s now a B&B where James Beard-nominated chefs come to cook; kayak tours of the mazelike waterways of the vast Atchafalaya Basin; seaplane excursions; and visits to Breaux Bridge, New Iberia, and Jefferson Island, the heartland of the Cajun way of life. End, if you wish, in New Orleans, with a stay at the new Chloe, a 14-room Queen Anne–style mansion turned hotel.
Location: Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, United States
Maine’s Adventure Coast
With 3,500 miles of winding, craggy coastline and 2,000 offshore islands, Maine’s Atlantic coast offers enough adventure opportunities to last a lifetime. And there’s no better way to explore than on a traditional sailboat like those in the Maine Windjammer Cruises fleet. Experienced sailors can charter their own sailboat, while newbies can rent a kayak for an hour or two to test the waters. The 375-mile Maine Island Trail provides a pathway via guided tours or on one’s own to find waterborne wild adventure across 240 island and mainland sites that are ideal for camping, fishing, and exploring.
Coastal hiking abounds, as well, with Camden Hills State Park and the Bold Coast Trail showcasing Maine’s rugged cliffside ocean views and sweeping forested hills. Acadia National Park is on an island that’s ideal for biking and hiking, and it offers the new nearby Under Canvas glamping location, along with several plush lodges. Adventure does not stop along the coast during winter, with hundreds of miles of snowmobile, snowshoe, and cross-country ski trails available. Camden Snow Bowl also offers downhill skiing with ocean views.
Paddleboard the fjords in Alaska
Paddleboard the fjords in Alaska is one of the best extreme outdoor adventures in America. Within the Wild has two Alaskan lodges where activities abound and the kitchens are in the hands of an award-winning chef. The Within the Wild company is a rare thing, two remote Alaska lodges owned by one of the state’s most revered backcountry guides, Carl Dixon, who also happens to be married to an award-winning chef. Winterlake lies at the entrance to the Alaska Range, and Tutka Bay comprises six cabins on a private cove outside Homer, open from May to September.
Big nature activities abound at both. Winterlake has a new High Mountain Camp, a base for ridgeline and downhill glacier biking. Tutka Bay launched a new helicopter day trip to the outer coast of the Gulf of Alaska for bear viewing by boat and standup paddleboarding on the fjords. No worries if you work up an appetite: Three-course meals back at the lodge might feature reindeer tenderloin with blueberry gastrique or black cod. Take a boutique, small-group kayaking trip with experienced guides at Liquid Adventures and get close to glaciers in kayaks or paddleboards while looking for whales and other marine mammals. You can even combine your adventure with a jetboat, helicopter, or wildlife cruise. There’s nothing quite like it in all of Alaska!
Location: Alaska, United States
Snowmobile to hot springs in Idaho : Burgdorf Hot Springs
Wear a swimsuit under that snowsuit: This joy ride at Idaho’s Shore Lodge ends in some hot water. The country around Shore Lodge, the historic lakefront resort two and a half hours from Boise, is rugged: the Salmon River Mountains, glacial lakes, and 2,600 skiable acres. But the area’s real bragging rights are its 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails, on which the resort organizes private daylong, 30-mile backcountry adventures. Go at a leisurely pace to spot elk and moose—or chase your guide, kicking up snow at 50 mph. The endpoint: rustic Burgdorf Hot Springs, which has three mineral-rich pools that have been lowering blood pressure since 1870.
To reach Burgdorf Hot Springs, you’ll need to venture about 25 miles into the Payette National Forest. You can rent snowmobiles for the journey or take one of the guided tours offered by several outfitters in the area. As the forest transitioned to a large valley, a group of wooden structures with the likeness of an Old West town appeared on the horizon. A large wood stove heated the separate men’s and women’s dressing rooms to a comfortable 70+ degrees. With swimsuits on, it was time to hit the water. Burgdorf Hot Springs is open by reservation only to cabin guests and limited day soaks.
Location: 404 French Creek, McCall, ID 83638, USA
Hike amid pueblo ruins in New Mexico
The outfitter Extraordinary Journeys crafts the ultimate insiders’ itineraries to the very best of New Mexico—including hot-air-ballooning over the Rio Grande Gorge. Most visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site follow the paths through Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl – as they should. However, it’s hard to appreciate the massive scale of these magnificent ruins, while you’re in them. Until the 19th century, the buildings here were the largest in North America. That’s why this 4.5-mile trail is so great; you can view both ruins from above since the path takes you around the canyon rim. Bear in mind that the climb is on the more strenuous side.
The outfitter Extraordinary Journeys built its reputation on safaris in Africa, pivoting to U.S. adventures during the pandemic. Hiking among the Puebloan archaeological ruins in Bandelier National Monument, either along the mellow 1.4-mile Main Loop, dotted with sites, or the 12-mile roundtrip to the Yapashi Pueblo, which has some arduous ascents from pine-shaded canyons. Experiencing the Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico’s answer to the Grand Canyon, either from a hot air balloon or by riding its class III rapids. Lodgings include luxe tents in the dark sky–designated Chaco Canyon, Santa Fe’s landmark Bishop’s Lodge, and Ted Turner’s 550,000-acre Vermejo ranch, where you can hike, mountain bike, and ride horses.
Location: New Mexico, United States
California-Nevada: Lake Tahoe
The Lake Tahoe area, on the border of California and Nevada, traces 70 miles of shoreline along the crystal-blue waters of the high alpine lake outward to the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The area is crisscrossed with hiking and biking trails, more than a dozen ski resorts, and a host of surrounding lakes and reservoirs. This is truly a four-season outdoor playground. In summer, visitors can go sailing, powerboating, and wakeboarding on the lake, or try cycling on terrains that range from flat, gentle paved trails to experts-only single tracks. Clients can also climb along cliff faces on Alpenglow’s via feratta at Squaw Valley or test their balance at the three high ropes courses of Tahoe Treetop Adventure Parks all year round.
Winter brings world-class skiing at mega-resorts Heavenly and Squaw-Alpine, but also at smaller family-friendly hills, such as Diamond Peak and Tahoe Donner. Fall is a great time to hike trails through Tahoe’s prime leaf-peeping terrain, including around the appropriately named Fallen Leaf Lake. Local guide Trout Creek Outfitters can help perfect travelers’ angling skills in the Truckee River or Lake Tahoe. Spring skiing is a sunny celebration of the outdoors that can be complemented by a round of golf — either frisbee or with that little white ball — at many world-class area courses.
Location: Sierra Nevada Mountains, United States
Washington’s San Juan Islands and Olympic National Park
Northwest of Seattle, the archipelago of the San Juan Islands is an epicenter for land and water adventures in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Prime activities include sea kayaking, whale watching, hiking in rainforests, and exploring the magnificent Olympic National Park on the peninsula to the south. But the region is not just for serious adventurers; many cruise companies ply these waters, offering their guests active, but relaxed, wildlife-viewing excursions. For example, UnCruise Adventures’ trips through the San Juans feature kayaking, hiking forests, and exploring remote islands.
Location: Washington, United States
Maui’s Island Adventures
While many people think of Maui for its relaxing resorts and swaying palm trees, the island also hosts a surprising variety of easy-to-access adventure travel options. “Hawaii has year-round perfect weather and a diversity of experiences,” said Leanne Pletcher, director of public relations for the Maui Visitors Bureau. Adrenaline junkies can test their mettle on Haleakala with a downhill bike ride dropping more than 6,500 feet of elevation on hairpin switchback turns across 25 miles of roads.
Clients who prefer to go by foot can try Hike Maui, which guides visitors through lush rainforests to spectacular waterfalls, or Rappel Maui, which features rappelling by rope on cliffs beside the falls. Kualoa Ranch, which served as the shooting location for the “Jurassic Park” films, is now a site for guided tours by ATV, Jeep, or bicycle, complemented by a canopy zipline carrying guests as fast as a velociraptor. Out in the Pacific, the adventures continue with snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, and fishing trips. But nothing says Hawaii like surfing. Beginners can take lessons on the gentle beaches of Kaanapali and Lahaina. Maui’s diverse landscapes are the result of a unique combination of geology, topography, and climate. Each volcanic cone in the chain of the Hawaiian Islands is built of dark, iron-rich/quartz-poor rocks, which poured out of thousands of vents as highly fluid lava over a period of millions of years. Several of the volcanoes were close enough to each other that lava flows on their flanks overlapped one another, merging into a single island. Maui is such a “volcanic doublet,” formed from two shield volcanoes that overlapped one another to form an isthmus between them.
Location: Hawaii, Pacific Ocean
Tennessee and North Carolina: Great Smoky Mountains
The East and West coasts do not have a monopoly on domestic adventure travel — there are plenty of wild destinations in other parts of the country, as well. None are more popular than the Smoky Mountains, the most-visited national park in the U.S. The wider Smoky Mountains region across Tennessee and North Carolina, between the city hubs of Knoxville and Charlotte, is a hotbed for outdoor adventure companies. Activities include canopy tours, ziplines, hot air ballooning, guided fishing trips, and rafting expeditions. Plus, there’s the more relaxed option of booking a quiet bed-and-breakfast for a weekend of forest hikes and bike rides.
Fall foliage is a huge draw in the region, coupled with climbs to waterfalls and mountaintop viewpoints. Spring through fall, whitewater rafting is one of the most popular adventure activities in the Smokies, with tours available from companies such as Smoky Mountains Outdoors and River Rat along the Pigeon River. Trips range from kid-friendly paddles (or innertube floats) to adrenaline-pumping day trips through Class IV rapids in the upper sections of the river. For flat-water fans, Douglas and Fontana’s lakes provide ample space for fishing trips, jet skiing, and wakeboarding.
Location: Swain & Haywood counties in North Carolina; Sevier, Blount, & Cocke counties in Tennessee, United States