Yes, summiting fourteeners and rafting the Grand Canyon are unforgettable experiences you should totally have. But in a moment when we’re rethinking how to make the most of our time outside, why limit yourself to the expected? We came up with 23 surprising ways to get you inspired for 2021 and beyond.
1. Ski and Surf on the Same Day
Hawaii-based alpine ski racer Julia Mancuso, who surfed the Black Sea after competing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, has a piece of advice for anyone who plans to attempt this iconic same-day duo: “Ski first, then surf.” You’ll be more motivated to take off ski boots than to put them on, she says. Here are three tried-and-true beach and mountain combos. Our pro tip? Pack a thick wetsuit. —Taylor Gee
Alaska: From Alyeska Resort, the state’s biggest ski hill, it’s ten miles west to a peninsula called Bird Point. From there, paddle out southward to the Turnagain Arm bore tide, an up to ten-foot wave that usually occurs twice daily, when the incoming ocean tide meets the outgoing water from the inlet.
Southern California: Get a few runs in at Big Bear Mountain Resort before heading 120 miles southwest to catch the point break of Lower Trestles at San Onofre State Park. Grab an O.G. taco from Sancho’s on the way.
Maine: The break at Higgins Beach is just 50 miles from Shawnee Peak, where you can night-ski after spending the morning on the water.
2. Catch a Fallen Star
Meenakshi Wadhwa, a planetary scientist and director for Arizona State University’s Center of Meteorite Studies, says her favorite place to hunt for meteorite fragments is in Antarctica. With a little patience, you can find them closer to home. —T.G.
Where to go: “Head somewhere that isn’t highly vegetated and sees little precipitation,” says Wadhwa. Examples: an arid desert, a dry lake bed, or an open field where fragments have been found in the past.
What to bring: Meteorites have high concentrations of nickel and iron. Use a metal detector to narrow your search.
What to look for: Once you have a specimen, examine it against the identification quiz here. Prominent indicators include a regmaglypt (a small depression caused by travel through the atmosphere) and an ash-like coating called a fusion crust. If it checks out, send it to a commercial laboratory, like Actlabs, to confirm that your find is a visitor from space.
3. Go on an American Safari
Until more international wildlife meccas reopen, why not safari in the U.S.? It’s by no means second-best. I recently went to Vermejo, a stunning 558,000-acre reserve in northeastern New Mexico owned by Ted Turner. It’s packed with pristine lakes, rivers, and views of the southern Rocky Mountains. You can ride horses, have a stream to yourself to fly-fish for trout, and hike 10,000-plus-foot peaks. And the ranch’s expert guides will take you on wildlife tours to see bison, elk, mule deer, bears, coyotes, and, if you’re lucky, bighorn sheep and mountain lions. Vermejo also offers a tracking program for kids to learn which animal left behind that huge footprint in the mud. From $1,400 for two people, meals and two daily activities included —Mary Turner
4. Watch a Desert Bloom in Spring
There’s always life where you least expect it.
5. Hike a Trail Reached by Gondola
Mammoth, California: The five-mile Mammoth Mountain Trail, reached via the Panorama Gondola, offers views of the San Joaquin River Valley in the Sierra Nevada.
Lutsen, Minnesota: The Summit Express drops visitors off at 1,690-foot Moose Mountain. From there, take a 4.2-mile stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail down to the base, enjoying views of Lake Superior.
West Virginia: The short aerial trams of Pipestem and Hawks Nest State Parks take visitors into a river gorge. Hike out via the 4.5-mile River Trail and two-mile Hawks Nest Rail Trail, respectively. —T.G.
6. Rappel Down a Waterfall
Sometimes enjoying a waterfall from afar just doesn’t cut it. If you’re an experienced climber and comfortable with ropes, belays, and setting anchors, consider falls where you can legally climb and rappel. You want the water flow to be low enough that your feet always touch the rock face. If you’re a novice, book a guided trip with an outfitter, like Northeast Mountaineering in New Hampshire (from $100) or Da Life Outdoors in Kauai (from $185). —T.G.
7. Eat at a Restaurant You Can’t Drive To
The Famous River Hot Dog Man, New Jersey: Floating the Delaware River is hungry work. That’s why tubers, kayakers, and canoeists stop at this river barge, just north of Trenton, that serves hot dogs and burgers to those drifting by.
The Deck @ Piste, Wyoming: In the summer and fall, the gondola at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is free after 5 P.M. and ferries guests to this outdoor restaurant 2,700 feet above the valley. Come winter, it closes to skiing at four o’clock before reopening for dinner service at 5:30. For the ride down, order the $5 to-go cocktail, bartender’s choice.
Minam River Lodge, Oregon: Located in Eagle Cap Wilderness, in the northeastern part of the state, this historic hunting lodge turned hotel can only be reached by an 8.5-mile hiking or horseback ride. Backpack in for a ranch-style meal, stay at one of the canvas tents on-site (from $195), or pitch a tent in the surrounding wilderness.
Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, Colorado: Want to treat yourself to a fancy meal and earn it, too? Ski, snowshoe, or hike a mile from the Nordic Center near Leadville to this restaurant at 10,800 feet. Order the bison burger for lunch or the stuffed pheasant for dinner. —T.G.
8. Chase a Storm
Step one: Study up. To spot a tornado and live to tell the tale, you must understand how they behave. Take online classes with Skywarn, a National Weather Service program, and pick up the Storm Chasing Handbook, by Tim Vasquez.
Step two: Gear up. What you’ll need: a car, a copilot, and a whole lotta electronics. Everybody’s setup is different, but a laptop and a hot spot, road maps or dedicated GPS, and a roadside emergency kit are a good place to start.
Step three: Saddle up. Check the forecasts and head to Middle America’s Tornado Alley, which spans South Dakota south to Texas, preferably in May or June. Stormchasing includes long hours of driving with no guarantee you’ll see a twister. Have a backup itinerary for bust days.
Step four: But really, just hire a guide. Play it safe and book a reputable service like Extreme Chase Tours in Oklahoma. —T.G.
9. Build Your Own Bar
Bars are good places for bad times, but with the majority of them closed these days, I decided to build my own. I spent more than a week constructing my backyard dream bar from piles of scrap wood, and the finished product has a rustic Southwest vibe. I dubbed it the Cholla Bar, after a type of cactus that’s common around my New Mexico home. I needed a project to keep from going stir-crazy during lockdown, but mostly hoped to lure friends I hadn’t seen in months over for a socially distant drink. It worked! On a sunny afternoon, I made margaritas while we feasted on smoked-chicken sliders. We all felt like we’d got out of town, and for a few beautiful hours life seemed close to normal—the old normal. —Nick Heil
10. Take Your Parents on Their Dream Vacation
Isn’t it about time you paid them back?
11. Forage for an Ocean Feast
Do a grunion run in Southern California: In spring and summer, receding waves reveal hundreds of small, tasty grunion fish flopping on shore at night as they lay their eggs in the sand. Buy a fishing license and check the spawning schedule online at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Then head to the beach, scoop them up by the dozens, and fry them in a skillet.
Go clam digging in Washington: Grab a shovel, download a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife website, and make your way to Long Beach Peninsula, in the southern part of the state, arriving right before low tide. During the fall and winter, you’ll find locals digging for razor clams, a delectable bivalve that’s as fun to catch as it is to eat.
Dive for lobster in the Florida Keys: Florida’s famous mini-season for spiny lobster is just two days long, on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of July. With a saltwater fishing license, a lobster permit, your scuba gear, a measuring gauge, a pair of gloves, and something called a tickle stick (a rod used to rouse the crustaceans from their holes), you can bag up to six a day. —T.G
12. Watch the Ocean Glow in the Dark
Kayak on a moonless night across Puerto Rico’s Mosquito Bay on any day of the year to see one of the brightest bioluminescence displays in the world. —T.G.
13. Help a Thru-Hiker
Step 1: Find out where a long-distance trail like the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, or Continental Divide crosses a remote road. Use an online trail map to determine the mile marker. You can find average start dates and mileage per day on websites like The Trek and Halfway Anywhere. Use those to calculate when hikers are coming through, or ask the trail’s Facebook group.
Step 2: Buy food. Anything a thru-hiker isn’t likely to carry themselves, from fruit and soda to cheeseburgers, will be a godsend. No need to get fancy.
Step 3: Set up shop. Find a good spot for a few camp chairs and a cooler, and wait. You’re now a trail angel, and you’ll make the day of any hikers who come through. —T.G
14. Go on a Bikepacking Surf Trip
Hit these breaks by bike and you won’t have to do battle for a parking spot. Plus, spending the night at nearby campsites will give you a head start before the crowds descend. Just attach a surfboard rack to your bike, get a seat pack for your other gear, and start pedaling.
North Carolina: With 200-plus miles of coastline and a 200-day swell window, Cape Hatteras National Seashore makes for an ideal bikepacking trip. Beach camping isn’t allowed, but four campgrounds dot the shoreline, including Oregon Inlet and Frisco. The best breaks are S-Turns and Old Lighthouse Jetties, but stop anywhere the waves look good.
Southern California: Start by camping at El Capitán State Beach, 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, where there’s a hollow point break. The next day, pedal 32 miles south along Highway 101 to Carpinteria State Beach, the closest place to pitch a tent near the infamous Rincon Point. Then ride 48 miles farther south to Malibu, spend the night at Leo Carrillo State Beach, and paddle out early in the morning.
Florida: Kick off your trip on Palm Beach’s Reef Road, near one of the state’s best surfing spots. Pitch your tent at nearby Peanut Island Park. From there, the sandbar breaks at Boynton Beach Inlet are just 20 miles south. Then bike eight hours north on Highways A1A and 1 to Sebastian Inlet State Park. You can stay overnight and catch waves just north of First Peak, Kelly Slater’s original stomping ground. —Erin Riley
15. Take an Urban Hike That Feels Far Away
The Inman 300, Los Angeles County: The first urban thru-hike route was pieced together by Bob Inman in 2012. It now covers 225 miles and 360 steep stairways. Find the guidebook here and start knocking off portions.
Randall’s Island Park, New York City: From Manhattan, cross over the Harlem River via the Wards Island footbridge at 103rd Street and FDR Drive to access 480-acre Randall’s, where you’ll find nine miles of car-free, waterfront walking trails.
Seattle Stairway Foot Tour: This route covers 65 miles, 11,000 feet of up-and-down elevation, and 15,000 stairs. Find the map here. —M.T.
16. Cross a Mountain Range on a Bike
There’s something so satisfying about a point-to-point mountain-bike ride, especially when it takes you over a massive range. We recommend the 36-mile ride from Rollinsville, Colorado (about 22 miles west of Boulder), across the Continental Divide and into the ski town of Winter Park. You’ll ascend a pleasantly steady 3,200 feet up an old railroad grade, peaking out around 11,700 feet and taking in classic high-alpine views. Traverse a dramatic set of trestles near the top, then descend a dirt road (with the option to jump onto singletrack) into Winter Park on the other side. You can ride back the next day, but here’s a better idea: get a friend to meet you for lift-assisted downhill laps at Trestle Bike Park on day two. Now you’ve got a ride home. —Gloria Liu
17. Head Overseas for a Year
If you’re itching to get off the continent, consider doing it as an expat. As more companies have embraced working remotely during the pandemic, it might be time to finally spend that year abroad. You have plenty of choices: Georgia, Barbados, Estonia, and Bermuda are among the adventure destinations that have introduced extended visa incentives to attract digital nomads. Just be sure to check application requirements, which often stipulate minimum salary. —E.R.
18. Visit the Chillest Place on Earth
According to Quiet Parks International, a nonprofit that researches the world’s least noise-polluted locales, it’s Maui’s Haleakala Crater.
19. Overnight Somewhere Unusual
Beckham Creek Cave Lodge, Arkansas: A winding road ascending through the Ozarks brings you to this four-room vacation rental built into a natural cavern. Don’t be fooled by its mysterious exterior—this cave dwelling feels like a luxury resort. There’s an indoor waterfall, a gourmet kitchen, and the option for a guided tour of the connected, wildlife-filled cave, which extends more than a mile into the earth. The surrounding region offers hiking, kayaking, and fishing. From $1,200
Thorny Mountain Fire Tower, West Virginia: The only bookable fire tower east of the Mississippi, this four-person cabin, available from May to October, has become so popular you’ll need to reserve your spot months in advance. Once you make it up the 65-foot tower, there are breathtaking views of the surrounding ridges. It’s located in Seneca State Forest, so you can tack on a few nights of camping, kayak the Greenbrier River, or hike up to 23 miles of trails. From $85
East Brother Lighthouse, California: For a remote getaway in a major city, plan a few nights at this five-room bed-and-breakfast. An active lighthouse since 1873, the inn sits on an island in San Francisco Bay, a ten-minute ferry ride from Richmond. It’s one of more than a dozen lighthouse turned hotel properties in the country, and bookings help fund maintenance and restoration of the island. From $345
Forest Gully Farms, Tennessee: Built into the hills of this 15-acre farm are three hobbit huts that feel more like something out of New Zealand than the American South. The eight-person rental includes two sleeping huts, a kitchen hut, and a bathhouse. You can pick vegetables and gather eggs from the property’s farm, and also hike to a nearby waterfall. From $295 —E.R.
20. Explore an Alien Landscape
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, New Mexico: You won’t find water, facilities, or practically any trails at this 45,000-acre wilderness area in the northwest corner of the state. Just an expanse of strangely beautiful rock formations and badlands, the legacy of a prehistoric swamp.
Mono Lake, California: This million-year-old saline lake, 240 miles east of San Francisco, is twice as salty as the ocean. Calcium-carbonate tufa spires shoot up from the placid waters, resulting in an eerie display of the lake’s peculiar chemistry.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada: Visit this Martian landscape 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas for its swirling, impossibly red Aztec sandstone, the remnant of a Jurassic-era inland sea. —T.G.
21. Think “Oh S––t, That’s a Long Fall” on a Hike
Kalalau Trail, Kauai: This 22-mile trek along the island’s Na Pali Coast combines narrow ledges, frequent rainstorms, and a raging ocean waiting below should you lose your footing. But make it to the beach at the end and you’ll never want to leave.
Longs Peak, Colorado: The Keyhole Route to 14,259-foot Longs Peak is “not a hike!” warns Rocky Mountain National Park’s website. Sheer vertical rock faces mean that an unroped fall would likely be fatal. Combined with unpredictable weather, it’s why more than 50 percent of those attempting this 15-mile-round-trip undertaking never reach the summit.
Beehive Trail, Maine: This 1.4-mile classic route in Acadia National Park should not be overlooked. Hikers ascend iron rungs and ladders along steep cliffs to reach the summit, which has views of the Gulf of Maine. —T.G.
22. Set Up a Hammock on an Empty Beach
Even if it means a 5 A.M. wake-up call.
23. Get to a National Park by Amtrak
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona: Hop on the Southwest Chief route, which runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, and stop at the Flagstaff station. From there you can take a shuttle 80 miles north to Grand Canyon Village.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: Ride the Crescent line—it connects 12 states from New York to New Orleans—and get off at Charlottesville Station, just 24 miles east of the park’s Rockfish Gap entrance.
Glacier National Park, Montana: Take the Empire Builder, which travels between Chicago and Portland, to the East Glacier Station for access to the park’s Two Medicine Entrance, eight miles north. —E.R.
Lead Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty