No matter what type of outdoor enthusiast you might be – curious first-timer, recent convert or seasoned pro – you’ve definitely come to the right place. And while you may be familiar with the USA’s more illustrious standouts – exploring magnificent national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone – it’s the lesser-known treasures that beg discovery, and unveil the country’s true, untamed essence.
Consider the USA your enormous playpen for outdoor activities, and yours to customize as you wish. The country is so full of accessible and diverse terrain that choosing where to go and what to do is the biggest challenge. You simply need to pick your desired activity and terrain. Here are our top 10 suggestions:
1. Bobsled at Lake Placid, New York
Become a momentary Olympian as you step aboard a bobsled on Mt Van Hoevenberg at Lake Placid, the United States’ only dedicated bobsled track. Pressed between a professional driver and brakeman, you’ll spend little more than 30 seconds whooshing through the zig zag turns and up the finishing curve at such speed you’ll think you’re on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral rather than in the Adirondacks. If you prefer to be your own pilot, take a seat on the Luge Rocket and scurry through its 17 bends.
2. Ice climb Valdez, Alaska
Ask anyone with an ice-axe - this is climbing central. Keystone Canyon undoubtedly has the best ice climbing in the United States. The waterfalls through this huge canyon freeze into glorious multipitch routes and Keystone Greensteps, which is ascended in four 60m pitches. Dozens of climbs begin right beside the main road, so you won’t have to carry all your equipment to climbs. Stick around a while for Valdez’s annual Ice Climbing Festival in early March.
3. Snowshoe at Mesa Verde, Colorado
You’ve no doubt seen images of cold people in cold places wearing what appear to be tennis racquets on their feet. Snowshoeing allows you to walk trails in the depth of winter, when all other hikers are home keeping their toes warm for summer. And at Mesa Verde National Park, nestled into the crook of the Four Corners, it comes with a surreal edge: snowshoeing in the desert, among ancestral Puebloan sites. Winter here brings unreliable snows, opening the park to snowshoeing for only a few days a year.
4. Snowmobile the Moosehead trail, New England
Maine’s Interconnecting Trail System alone contains almost 20,000km of trails that wind throughout the woods. There are a number of trails around Moosehead Lake (you can even snowmobile to a wrecked B-52 bomber) but the standout ride is the Moosehead Trail, a 267km track that circumnavigates the lake. If you have petrol for blood, you can tear around the trail in a day, but you can also break it with overnight stops in the nearby towns.
5. Rock climb El Capitan’s nose, Yosemite
El Capitan is an imposing granite monolith rising 1000m above California's Merced River. The most famous route on the most famous bit of climbing rock in the world guards the entrance to the sublime Yosemite Valley, and it’s a rock to which most climbers can only aspire. Most climbers now take five days to make the 31-pitch ascent, bivvying each night and hauling food up the rock with them. The elite scale it in a single day. The quickest have done it in less than three hours.
6. Canyoneering in Paria Canyon, Utah
Much of the southwest USA’s most stunning beauty is within serpentine corridors of stone. Some of these narrow to become slot canyons, and offer some of the best canyoneering anywhere, with technical climbing, swimming in pools and shooting down waterfalls. Paria Canyon, on the Arizona-Utah border, is one of the most beautiful canyons. Paria’s biggest attraction is Buckskin Gulch, a deep, 19km-long canyon only 5m wide for most of its length. Serious canyoneers can tackle the five-day, 61km trek through to Lees Ferry, Arizona, the longest and most flash-flood-prone canyon in the world.
7. Storm chase in Tornado Alley
Tornado Alley stretches between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains, covering central US states such as Oklahoma, Colorado, Arkansas, Texas and Nebraska. In spring winds spin wildly at up to 500km/h and Tornado Alley can experience more than 400 twisters. You can join one of the growing number of tornado-chasing tours. Typically, they run for six days, beginning in twister-central Oklahoma City. Using satellite radar imaging, your guides will trace and chase the big storms, delivering you to a box-seat view of twisters or giant thunderstorms. You probably are in Kansas now, Dorothy.
8. Sandboard dunes, Oregon
Head to the Oregon town of Florence to turn yourself into sandpaper at the world’s first sandboarding park, set in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, the largest expanse of oceanfront dunes in the United States. Sandboarding is like snowboarding for the sun worshipper – the only ‘down’ you need worry about at the 40-acre Sand Master Park is not in your clothing, but the descents you make through this gritty version of powder.
9. Night dive with manta rays off Big Island, Hawaii
Night-dive operators shine powerful lights on the water, which attracts plankton, which in turn attracts manta rays. Divers have seen up to 10 mantas ‘performing’ their spectacular underwater show. Spanish dancers, sleeping parrotfish, sleeping goatfish and beautiful cowries can all also be found here.
10. Kayak Glacier Bay, Alaska
Ten tidewater glaciers that spill out of the mountains and fill the sea with icebergs of all shapes, sizes and shades of blue have made Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve an icy wilderness renowned worldwide. It’s also a kayakers’ paradise. Using the daily summer tour boat to drop you and your kayak off means your paddling options around Glacier Bay are extensive because you can be put ashore at one of several spots up bay. However you paddle, keep a watch for humpback whales, which are migratory residents here over the summer.
Try Lonely Planet’s USA Travel Guide.