Wilderness Excursions for Nature Lovers
Because many great outdoor adventures are so far off the beaten path, they may seem unattainable in a long weekend. However, given some advance planning, even the wilderness will offer itself up in convenient bite-sized chucks.
Paddling With Pods
There's nothing quite like seeing a bald eagle snatch a fish from just off the bow of your boat, or happening upon a harbor seal pup cavorting with its mother. Unless, of course, it's paddling among a pod of orcas -- also known as killer whales.
Sea kayaking tours off the San Juan Islands in Washington state, like those offered by Sea Quest Expeditions, are designed to visit the favorite feeding, traveling and play areas of resident pods of orcas -- easily among the most awe-inspiring creatures you'll ever likely encounter close up and personal in the wild. The company's half-, full-, 2- and 3-day outdoor adventure tours promise to reward weekend warriors with convenient and relatively predictable gratification.
Sea kayaks are swift, sturdy and comfortable crafts, perfect for paddling around the twisting shorelines of several hundred islands, rocks and reefs that comprise the rural archipelago of the San Juans. The best part: You can pack a lot of stuff into the hulls before battening down the hatches; more than enough to see you comfortably through a long-weekend excursion.
Best time to go: Killer-whale watching is most reliable from late April through early October, with activity peaking mid-May to mid-August.
To increase your chances of witnessing the abundant marine wildlife here, choose a guide who not only is experienced in sea kayaking but also has a handle on environmental science.
One Slick Weekend
Moab, Utah, bills itself non-too subtly as "the home of the greatest mountain biking on the planet."
The reason, in a word: slickrock.
The highly technical 9.6-mile Slickrock Bike Trail is considered by many to be the ultimate mountain-biking experience. However appealing Moab is to the seasoned rider, it also offers a wide assortment of easy to moderate biking trails that expose casual riders to classic high-desert scenery along cacti-lined single-track, primitive jeep roads and patches of slickrock.
Even with just a long weekend to spare, a rider can sample an array of scenic trails in the natural playgrounds in and adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks: the Bar-M Loop Trail, for example, which provides a great introduction to the varied terrain through canyons and across mesas; the White Rim Trail along the Green and Colorado rivers; and the immortal Kokopelli Trail. Eco-friendly cycling trips through the canyonlands can be arranged through outfitters like Escape Adventures.
Here's to getting green in the desert: This outfitter's White Rim Trail support vehicle will be fueled exclusively by vegetable oil.
Getting Inn Step
If you want to walk away from it all -- and travel lightly, to boot -- try inn-to-inn hiking. Because you'll be eating and sleeping at hospitable country establishments situated conveniently along trails, there's no need to pack and schlep ungainly gear such as sleeping bags, tents and camp stoves. With nothing more than a daypack for snacks and camera gear, you're good to go.
Go where, you ask?
The Moosalamoo region of Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest is a New England destination reputed for outstanding local heritage, nature conservation and tourism stewardship. Whether on your own self-guided tour, or through an operator like R.E.I. Adventures, you can wander through more than 20,000 acres of forest, cliffs, vistas, lakes and streams.
Another option is lodge-to-lodge hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail, which, aptly named, really happens to be one of the continent's finest hiking trails. It winds for 200 miles, from Two Harbors, Minn., to the Canadian border along the ridgeline of the ancient Sawtooth Mountain Range, high above Lake Superior.
Long on Rapids
Think rafting and what comes to mind? The Colorado, no doubt, as well as the Green and the Snake; all legendary Western rivers.
However second-class it may seem, the East is not without Class III, IV and V whitewater.
The Cheat River Watershed is the largest free-flowing watershed in the Eastern United States. As one of few rivers that flow northward -- its origins are in West Virginia's highest mountains -- the Cheat is a boulder-strewn river big on beauty and personality, ranging from nice and easy riffles to raucous and raging rapids. Rafting the mighty Cheat is one wet and wild way to spend a day.
To cap off a long weekend in the wet wilderness of the East, you might want to try the Upper Yough. Pronounced "Yock," it refers to the Youghiogheny River, which springs from the highest ridges of the Allegheny Plateau in western Maryland. For 7 miles, this pristine river is virtually one long rapid cascading through a lush hemlock forest. Not that you're likely to have time to notice the wildflowers and wildlife as you navigate blind chutes and ledges, dropping an average of 116 feet per mile. Boasting Class V whitewater, the Upper Yough is rated among the top 10 commercially run whitewater rivers. Even on guided trips, everyone on the Upper Yough needs to be an active and skillful participant in good physical condition.
There are countless crags for climbing in the gorgeous Red River Gorge Geologic Area of eastern Kentucky, but perhaps none is as easy to get to and varied in difficulty as those at Torrent Falls Resort. With more than 42 acres of majestic cliffs and 3 waterfalls (the highest is 165 feet), this wilderness resort maintains more than 50 different routes, ranging from 5.2 to 5.13. An expert staff caters to both novice and experienced climbers.
The resort's Torrent Falls Climbing Adventure is an outdoor climbing experience based on the European sport 'via ferrata.' A via ferrata is an engineered iron vertical pathway, the negotiation of which calls on the combined skills of rock climbing, rung climbing and hiking. Despite how rigorous its offerings sound, Torrent Falls welcomes all wanna-be climbers.