15 epic summer adventures
Get out and explore
Embracing summer isn't just about missing work; it's about not missing the opportunity to get out and explore. There is nothing wrong with a week at the lake house, but if you're looking for more, you'll have to look a bit further afield. Here are the destinations to check out this year and the adventures you'll spend fall talking about.
Hike Canada's Iron Road
It's easy to forget that you're protected all the time — harnessed, double-tethered, securely clipped in. Your head knows that you cannot fall, but your shaky knees have their doubts, as you carefully make your way across a swaying steel cable above a raging glacial river whose spray is close enough to spritz your feet.
The 40-foot traverse is just one part of a daylong hike up Conrad Creek toward Conrad Glacier in British Columbia's Purcell Range and one of only a few via ferratas in North America. Italian for "iron road," the via ferrata has its origins in World War I, when the Italian army drilled rungs into big granite walls of the Dolomite range and strung rickety bridges across chasms to move soldiers and arms through the mountains. Today, dozens of newer via ferratas lace the Dolomites and Alps, where they provide a facsimile of big-wall climbing for recreational hikers, with most of the exposure but little of the risk. Canadian Mountain Holidays, a tour company that offers summer heli-adventures from its base in Banff, brought the idea to Canada. It now operates two via ferratas — one to the glacier, the other to the 9,000-foot summit of Mount Nimbus — moving adventurers through spectacular terrain otherwise impassible by all but the most experienced climbers.
RELATED: Mountaineering Made Easy
More Information: Fly to Calgary and drive 80 miles to Banff. CMH will shuttle you to a helipad for the 15-minute flight to Bobbie Burns Lodge in the heart of the Purcell Range. A three-day package offering any combination of the Mount Nimbus Via Ferrata, the Conrad Glacier Adventure Hike, and heli-hiking in the Purcell Range costs $2,780, meals and lodging included. June 29–September 13.
Camp in the Negev Desert
The Negev covers southern Israel in much the same way that the Chihuahuan desert blankets western Texas, but the long-robed shepherds, dusty tent camps, and Hebrew signs here would not be mistaken for a revival camp in the Lone Star State. In this corner of the Middle East, the ancient doesn't need reviving because modernity never arrived.
Hiking and camping in the dramatic landscape is almost impossible without a knowledgeable guide — "Abraham slept here!" — to point the way through the wadis (dry riverbeds), white cliffs, and sharply folded hills. The Adam Sela Challenging Experience, which offers trips starting in the Zin Valley, less than two hours south of Tel Aviv, transports travelers in mud-caked Land Rovers that face off with impressively horned ibex and keep the wolves, leopards, and hyenas at bay on the way to spring-fed pools.
In nearby Ein Avdat National Park, a trail winds through a canyon hiding a 50-foot waterfall and caves occupied by monks in the Byzantine era. The canyon edge bears marks where travelers used ropes to haul water when this oasis served as a way station for ancient travelers, including Nabatean traders plying the Perfume Road.
Farther south, Maktesh Ramon, the largest of the five geologic craters, or makhtesh, unique to the Negev sprawls across 100 squares miles of arid soil. The trail along the rim, offers stunning views of the surreal landscape leading south toward Timna Park, where rocks split the soil, and Scenic Heaven, where white sands and canyons ebb and flow between fossilized 140 million-year-old trees.
There is little to do during the day but walk and look and bathe. At night, there is only the star-salted sky and the occasional social Bedouin. The natives are both friendly and restless. The desert, after all, is for wandering.
More information: Stores throughout the region sell delicious grapefruit sodas and the water is safe to drink. The Negev stretches about 200 miles from south of Tel Aviv to the Red Sea (both of which have fabulous beaches) and can be explored in a few days with Adam Sela.
Road trip the Wild Atlantic Way
The Wild Atlantic Way is Ireland's answer to California Rt. 1, South Africa's Garden Route, and Australia's Great Ocean Road. The seaside track — actually a collection of hundreds of throughways united by new signage over the last year — winds a remarkable 1,500 miles on the Way south from County Donegal to County Cork, roughly 260-miles away as the crow flies.
The first questions is where to start. There are eight counties, several dialects, countless pubs, roughly a dozen world-class surfing breaks, and exactly 159 scenic "discover points" (Ireland Tourism helpfully labeled them) on the way. The coast of County Clare is thick with stand-up paddleboarders and the beaches of County Sligo now attract European surfers looking for "prowlers," the local term for tube waves. At Kenmare Bay in Kerry, birders watch White-tailed Sea Eagles chase their prey over the lake lands and in the Irish-speaking region of Connemara there are more céilidhs than you can shake a shillelagh at. Fortunately, travelers stressed out by all this action can join the Hibernian hipster brigade at Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Retreat, where meditation and beer drinking make strange bedfellows.
Drivers on the Way can't get up a head of steam due to a lack of straightaways, but this is far from a lazy country drive. Cavernous tunnels, hairpin turns, and humpback hills follow each other in every conceivable combination. And postcard-perfect hazards crowd the roads: dairy cattle ring their way across farms, red deer charge past in rutting season, and flocks of mountain sheep commute together. Ten days should be enough to get from one end of the road to the other, but sticking to that schedule is shockingly difficult.
After drivers navigate the southwestern leg of the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, the lonely mountain road of the Healy Pass winds down to the rugged fringes of County Cork and Dursey Island. Reached by Europe's only trans-sea cable car, Dursey is the end of Ireland and the end of the Wild Atlantic Way. Fortunately, the road back to pubs of Cork City is straight and fast.
More information:Aer Lingus fly from the U.S. to Ireland from $699 round trip while new spin-off Aer Lingus Cars offer two-week rentals from just $165. Hiring a GPS (a necessity for navigating Ireland’s labyrinthine byroads) can bump up a rental rate in Ireland, so BYO-Sat-Nav.
Train on a flight simulator
A dizzying array of buttons, levers, and dials surround the seat I've buckled myself to and SFO's long runway stretches just outside the window, reaching out into the dark hills rising in the distance. Next to me, pilot Seb Stouffs punches some keys on a panel, engages the flaps, and instructs me to begin rolling. At the touch of a button, the engines respond and we start moving. I push on the rudder pedals with my feet to steer down the middle of the runway. Then, at Stouff's command, I pull back on the stick and we lift off and climb, a loose pen sliding to the back of the tilting cockpit. A few seconds later, I move levers to retract the landing gear and flaps. I watch the altitude, clearing those hills and banking to the right at 3,000 feet. The Golden Gate Bridge comes into view.
No pilot and no airline is foolish enough to let me mess around in a 747. I'm safely ensconced in a flight simulator in the heart of British Airways' London training facility. This is where actual BA pilots and aviators from 40 other airlines come to complete 11 four-hour sessions when they need to get rated in larger aircraft, which is why the set dressing is immaculate. Everything is so realistic — right down to the bolts — it is easy to forget that I'm actually in a hanger on the Heathrow grounds.
Letting me back here isn't just a marketing stunt, another nostalgic attempt to capitalize on the appeal of flight. Anyone can book one, two, or three hours on a 737, 747, 757, 767, or 777. The key is to watch the schedule and make your reservation a month in advance.
Flying is multi-tasking on steroids — you have to pay close attention to airspeed, altitude, and heading, to name a few, and in just a few seconds of inattention, any of those can change dramatically. Unlike a car on the road, a plane operates in three dimensions; roll, which is whether the plane is level or one wing is higher than the other; pitch, or nose-up and -down movement; and yaw, or whether the nose points straight ahead or to the right or left, similar to a car turning. In the simulator, the pilot trainers can introduce any number of challenges, from engine failure to storms and near-zero visibility, in any combination that amuses them (engine failure during a storm while the wings ice over being a favorite). That's for the actual pilots, of course; paying customers generally find regular take-off and landing plenty of a challenge, although Stouffs did throw in heavy fog to show me what landing on autopilot is like.
You don't have to put on a helmet, but the experience is effectively in virtual reality thanks to the incredibly sophisticated boxes that hold the cockpits and respond to pilots' actions in real time. Pull back on the stick and the cockpit tilts upward at the actual angle of climb, turn and the simulator tilts in that direction.
My session included take-offs and landing at San Francisco, JFK, and Heathrow — the simulators offer dozens of worldwide options — setting up and switching to autopilot once in the air, then taking control again to land. JFK proved particularly challenging, requiring that I skirt Manhattan's sacrosanct airspace and come in low with a sharp 90-degree turn to line up with the runway. Thanks to the expert guidance and occasional correction from my experienced co-pilot, things went smoothly. Despite the complexity of the cockpit, the vast majority of its buttons and dials aren't necessary for normal take-off and landing. It was also a big help that my simulated sky was empty. Simulated crashes are frowned upon for the obvious reasons and because they initiate actual evacuations and cause a lot of very un-British fuss.
More information: Simulator flights start at 399 pounds. Find open dates and book at ebaft.com/fly/fse.htm While you're at the facility, stop at BA's Heritage Center, which tells the entire 90-year history of this venerable airline with models, photos and displays of uniforms, china, log books, engraved records of royal flights and even a pitot tube from the Concorde.
Motorcycle the Ho Chi Minh Trail
The National Security Agency's official history of the Vietnam War describes the Ho Chi Minh trail as "one of the 20th century's great achievements of military engineering." The 18-foot-wide supply line — built to circumvent a U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf of Tonkin —was started in 1959 and ultimately stretched 1,800 miles through triple-canopy jungle to fronts in South Vietnam. By the late sixties the network was moving supplies for hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese troops, essentially turning the tide of the war. Today, segments of the infamous route can still be pieced together in what amounts to one of the greatest motorcycle tours in the world. Winding paved roads, river crossings, and tight mountain passes lead through the Truong Son Mountains, across the Red River Delta, and down the Ashau Valley in central Vietnam.
A Belorussian 125cc Minsk — with its bomber suspension and steering for bad roads — is the classic ride on the old communist thoroughfare, and after landing in Hanoi you can pick up a used one for less than $400. Selling your steed in the south can be difficult so renting a Honda from Hanoi Motorcycle Rental might be a better choice if you don't have a background in hustling or engineering.
Swarms of mopeds vanish in the rearview as you flog it along two-lane Route 32 into the tea plantations and old-growth forests of the Truong Son Mountains. Ease back on the throttle over the switchbacks near Bau Pass, then drop down into Phu Yen for fried rau muong (spinach). Pass through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park — a UNESCO Heritage Site, in which Vietcong hid from U.S. bombers in 40 miles of spectacular caves and underground rivers — and then into primitive rain forests once stripped by Agent Orange, and Khe Sanh, and the labyrinthine Vinh Moc tunnels.
The final leg is a 90-mile stretch in the seaside hamlet of Hoi An, where world-class tailors on Tran Hung Dao Road will stitch you a suit for $50. Stop in and dust off before you catch a flight home.
More information: What look like footpaths along the trail are actually multi-use highways that reach hundreds of miles into some of Vietnam’s most pristine country. Keep a compass and a map in your pack, and don't be afraid to venture deep into Viet culture. For guided travel, Offroad Vietnam offers nine-day trips for $1,260.
Explore the Canary Islands
The Canary Islands are to Europeans what Puerto Rico (and Vieques and Culebra) is to Americans, but the Spanish Archipelago is more than a German conga line thanks to the reinvención that is turning Lanzarote, the easternmost island, into an adventure destination. The 326-square-mile volcanic jewel, which bursts out of the Atlantic just 78 miles shy of Morocco and three hours from London, is suddenly attracting surf-chasing roadtrippers and road-racing surf swimmers.
Beyond the resorts surrounding the capital city of Arrecife, Lanzarote's mododevida stick-shifts from package holiday to exotic retreat as the island's barren hills and bounteous farmland (think: aloe vera plantations) fold out. Winding upwards along the LZ-10 route, postcard white-washed hamlets like Teguise and Tabayesco are reached by dizzying drives winding up mountains and around hairpin turns. On the other side of the Ajache range, lies the island's lesser-known northern coast, where surfers tip-toe over jagged lava fields to catch the impressive reef breaks off Orzola and Famara beaches.
Timanfaya National Park is the island's main attraction volcano wise and its craters are filled with both native gallotia lizards and tour buses. Give it a miss and head to the Las Vegas de Tegoyo, a white-walled waystation in the middle of fields of flowers. A shortcut to the charming, church-centric town of Mancha Blanca on the blink-and-you'll-miss-it LZ-56 runs past several extinct volcanoes, all hemmed with spiralling balcony tracks, that absolutely beg to be hiked.
Surfing and hiking aside, tiny Lanzarote is also serious triathlon territory. Europe's most infamous ironman takes place on the island in May, so motorists can expect to mingle with pelotons thick with would-be contenders during the several-week build up. Join them if you can and then recover with some Canarian cuisine. The island’s bodegas and tapas bars proudly dish out papas arrugadas. These "wrinkly potatoes" are boiled in local sea salt and are best demolished with dollops of the traditional and picante mojo sauce. ¿Cómo se dice "carbo-loading?"
Whether in the saddle or the driver's seat, visitors to Lanzarote can't help but notice the abundance of curious sculpture installations by the side of the road. These are tribute to César Manrique, a local artist-cum-activist who also championed Lanzarote's strict development limits. He's the reason volcanos still outnumber high rises and the locals will never stop thanking him for saving their island. You won't either.
More information: There are lengthy and expensive ferry services to the Canaries from mainland Spain, but Lanzarote is perhaps best reached from mainland Europe via Arrecife airport. Low-fares airline Ryanair flies from London, Paris, and Madrid to the island from $70 return.
Cross the Mexican border
I emerged from the shade onto the sun-blasted shore of the Rio Grande. Across the narrow river, a dozen or so men in cowboy hats hunkered beneath a crude shelter surrounded by dusty pickup trucks and a young man cast off into the slow moving current, paddling his metal boat my way. Less than a minute later, I was standing on the other bank — the southern bank — in Mexican sand.
The Boquillas Crossing from Big Bend National Park, USA, to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico is — on the far side anyway — little more than a man at a shaded foldout table. He takes the $5 boat tickets sold at the Rio Grand Village store back in America and offers visitors who stumble ashore in his country the choice of the pickups or a donkey. It's a short ride into town.
For decades, the 118 miles of river between Big Bend National Park and neighboring Mexico was a porous border without passport checks. A free flow of tourists went one way and crowds of workers and school kids went the other. That all changed after 9/11, as the federal government cracked down on unofficial back-and-forth. Anyone who wanted to cross into Mexico suddenly had to travel 100 miles west to the official border crossing in Presidio, Texas, then longer distances through remote areas on the Mexican side to reach the string of villages yards from the original river crossing. Park staff and scientists working the multiple nearby protected areas in both countries were spending a lot of extra time and money trying to coordinate their efforts.
Finally, in April, 2013, an official crossing (operated remotely from a Customs and Border Protection office in Marfa, Texas) opened and the young man with the metal boat was back in business.
Our pickup driver dropped us next to a temporary building occupying a paved, fenced lot. Inside, a Mexican immigration official handed us tourist visas to fill out, stamped our passports, and instructed us to return the visas when we left. Duly processed, I left the building and was promptly met by Lupe, my guide for the day. He wore jeans, a starched long-sleeved shirt, battered cowboy hat, and boots. His English, learned working with tourists, was excellent. Figuring there wasn't much else in the way of employment in this tiny little town, I was happy to have his company for a few bucks.
I followed Lupe up the road into Boquillas, past small houses fronted with makeshift tables displaying hand-made souvenirs: cloth bags embroidered with donkeys and birds, wire animals, thread bracelets. We stopped to admire the handiwork of some young men making new adobe bricks and applying them to a crumbling old building. The opening of the crossing has meant a mini economic boom for the small town, which sorely needed it. The area's riches are mostly of the environmental variety. The imposing Maderas del Carmen mountain range rises behind the village like a vast fortress. It and two other protected areas on the Mexican side, Ocampo, and Cañon de Santa Elena, added to Big Bend National Park, the Wild and Scenic River section of the Rio Grande, and state lands on the US side, represent millions of acres of protected wilderness.
Brightly painted houses scattered down the side of a hill, a few of them with saddled horses waiting outside. Heading back down the other side of the street, we stopped in at Park Bar, a spacious room with a concrete floor, three pool tables across the back, and a few stools in front of a large wooden bar backed by shelves containing unlabeled bottles of sotol. Similar to tequila, it is made from the sotol plant rather than the agave plant. We had a couple of $2 shots, which turned out to be smoother than tequila, then played a 75-cent round of pool on one of the tables. In the next block, a weathered old man with an even more weathered guitar sang love songs in Spanish on the patio of a restaurant, which was called Jose Falcon's.
From there, we wandered down to the river and the mouth of Boquillas Canyon, a narrow slot defined by walls rising hundreds of feet on either side. We looked down it, but didn't have the time to hike in. The day was getting on and I had a boat to catch.
The same boy ferried me back across the Rio Grande and I swiped my passport at kiosk next to the river bank, picking up the phone handset to inform the border patrol agent watching on camera from Marfa that I had nothing to declare. He was fine with it and I was home.
More information:Big Bend National Park entrance fee $20 per vehicle, good for all occupants for seven days. The Boquillas crossing is open Wednesday through Sunday 9 AM to 6 PM. Passports are required to return from Boquillas.
Trail run across Montana
Reebok has sold trail runners for almost a decade. Now, the global shoe brand is getting into the business of selling trails. Starting this summer, Reebok will offer "Fitness Vacations" in partnership with Austin Adventures, a Billings-based, high-end outfitter that specializes in wilderness camping. The project will kick off in June as a group of guides leads a pack of Reebok execs and trainers through the wilds of southwest Montana then open to the public in early July, when civilians will begin following the same itinerary.
"We knew we wanted to offer trips and we knew we had the fitness expertise," explains Linne Kimball, Reebok's head of Licensing. "We just had to find a company to work with. A bunch of our employees had gone on Austin Adventures trips and come back say it was something special."
The Montana trip, designed to allow travelers to hike, run, bike, and climb among the Spanish Peaks, is one of four trips that will launch this year. The others will see active travelers grinding their way through Zion National Park and Costa Rica. Kimball says Reebok plans to launch another four in 2015.
Rather than sending trainers on the trips, Reebok is flying Austin Adventure's guides, who are deeply knowledgeable about the areas they cover, to the company's compound in Massachusetts and educating them about fitness. "We make sure the guides are Crossfit certified and have spent time in the gym with Reebok coaches," says Kimball. "It will be a handful to start with and more after that." Specifically, these guides will be trained to instruct travelers in Reebok's version of yoga ("Fitness Yoga") and running ("Fitness Running").
"Ultimately, our goal is to allow people to get active in the most scenic places on Earth," says Kimball. "Our partner has the ability to scale up around the globe."
More information: The first Reebok Fitness Vacation, a six-day, five-night trip to Montana, begins on July 13 and costs $2,748 per person.
Packraft Utah's canyonlands
The outdoors world has long been divided into two camps, mountain men and watermen, and rarely do the two mingle on a single trip. That's changing thanks to the packraft. Small, stowable, and surprisingly tough, a packraft is a rubber boat that fits into a corner of your backpack and transforms obstacles like lakes and rivers into highways.
To see for myself, I head to southern Utah's red rock country with Forrest McCarthy, a river guide with more than 20 years' packrafting experience. The plan: Backpack to the Green River, paddle through Labyrinth Canyon, then hike to a trailhead inside Canyonlands National Park — a three-day, 55-mile trip that would not be possible with backpacks alone.
We drive about 35 miles south of the town of Green River and park on a dirt road. We hoist our backpacks and begin walking past sagebrush and yucca, making our way down a creek bed, as blood red walls hundreds of feet high open and shut around us. After eight miles, we hit the wide, shallow Green River. "Just when you're tired of hiking, it's time to paddle," McCarthy says.
It takes five minutes to unroll and inflate our rafts. We grab our paddles — featherweight fiberglass oars that break down for easy storage — load our packs, and shove off. Suddenly, we're river men, paddling past impenetrable scrub and rock ramparts impassable for backpackers. It feels great to kick up my trail-weary legs and let my arms do the work.
We make camp that night on a wide sandbar and the next morning set off for a full day on the river, drifting in silence through cathedrals of red stone. After about three hours, we pull to shore and scramble up a steep trail to a saddle between two red buttes to take in the stunning views of Bowknot Bend, where the river makes a 7.5-mile loop before folding back on itself. A few hours later, we stop at a spot called Oak Bottom, build a driftwood fire, and watch the evening pull shadows up to the canyon's chin and tuck it into bed.
After a short morning paddle, we beach at Horseshoe Canyon. "Ready to hike?" McCarthy asks. I deflate the raft and shove it into my pack, and begin the 20-mile trek through lower Horseshoe Canyon.
As we ascend the dry bed of Barrier Creek, the red walls grow taller and even more dramatic. We set up camp on the highest ground we can find, to avoid the flash floods that constantly threaten, and awake at dawn to the call of a canyon wren. Soon we're hiking again. By lunchtime we are in the national park. A trail leads to the canyon rim and the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead, where we have left a second car.
As we drive, it occurs to me that on most trips, I'm plagued by "what ifs": What if we took that fork; what would we see if we could get 10 miles downstream? With a packraft, that's no longer a problem.
More Information: If you have packrafting experience, drive 34 miles south of Green River on County Road 1010 (Lower San Rafael Road). Take a left on Road 1025 (dirt, and unmarked), park, and walk into the sagebrush and yucca. In about two miles, angle toward Keg Spring Canyon on your right; find a ramp and descend. Walk and bushwhack to the river. If you're not experienced, head to Moab's Desert Highlights, which offers one-day outings. For trips in other areas, check out the website of the American Packrafting Association.