Whether you're dreaming of a week-long expedition or an afternoon spent in the sun, the USA is ripe with possibilities for an outdoor adventure. From hiking to camping, we've picked 20 ways to explore America's backyard.
While only 2000 people attempt to hike the entire length of the 3518km Appalachian Trail each year (about a quarter actually finish), between two and three million people tackle a portion of it. The trail traverses the many peaks, ridges and woodland – not to mention five national parks – of the USA’s east coast between Maine and Georgia. This is proper wilderness, and there are venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders to watch out for.
Part of the Cascade Range stretching from British Columbia in Canada to northern California, Washington’s North Cascades boast more than more than 300 glaciers, alongside ancient forest with towering evergreens and incredible waterfalls. A staggering 140 back-country campsites are dotted across this mountain wilderness, some of them boat-in only. Hardy campers can travel cross-country, sleeping away from designated camps and trails on snow, rock or bare ground.
One of the only undeveloped barrier beaches on the North Atlantic Coast, the white sandy beaches and wild coastal dunes of New Jersey’s Island Beach State Park are pristine. The clear unpolluted water means there are abundant fish for the state’s largest osprey colony to hunt – and anglers arrive in droves to get in on the action too. Autumn is the best time to fish as the beach is less crowded and the waters are teeming with fish migrating south.
The spectacular bluffs of the USA’s first national lakeshore are best viewed from the water. From mid-May to mid-October, boat tours ferry passengers from Munising out onto Lake Superior, the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, to cruise the 42 miles of shoreline and its beautiful beaches, sand dunes, caves, arches and waterfalls. Geologically fascinating, over thousands of years minerals in the water have streaked the red and yellow sandstone cliffs a myriad of colours.
The Pacific Northwest’s Crater Lake was formed nearly 8000 years ago when the mountain that once stood here collapsed in on itself during a volcanic eruption. Over the centuries the caldera filled with snow and rain, and today the lake is one of the USA’s deepest. Take advantage of the warmer weather between mid-June and mid-September and brave the icy blue water. To reach the lake you have to hike the Cleetwood Trail, which zigzags down the steep wall of the caldera.
Northernmost coastal California is home to the tallest trees on earth, some of which were seedlings 2000 years ago. Between the 1920s and 1960s, in order to protect these mighty Redwoods from being felled by loggers, the state of California and a preservationist group – the Save the Redwoods League – bought up huge tracts of land, which later became part of the vast Redwood National Park. Now visitors can wander amongst these giants year-round, peering up to glimpse the treetops high above.
Thanks in large part to pioneering environmental activist John Muir, in 1890 the Sierra Nevada’s Yosemite became the third national park in the USA. Yosemite Valley is just a tiny part of the park’s 1200 square miles, but visitors converge here to get up close to the stupendous rock formations of Half Dome and El Capitan. Rent a bike and explore the dedicated bike paths or hike up to one of the breathtaking viewpoints.
Named after the spiky Joshua Trees native to the Mojave Desert, the monumental Joshua Tree National Park has an incredibly intricate ecosystem and a deceptive amount of wildlife. Lack of light pollution makes the park an amazing place to view the night skies in any season. Winter is great for stargazing as darkness falls as early as 4.30pm – but the elusive Milky Way is best viewed on a moonless summer night.
Glaciers have chiseled out the ridges and steep valleys of the central Alaska Range to create a stunning snow-topped mountain landscape. Climb Denali or Foraker, or ascend the vertical rock and ice walls that line the Ruth Gorge. In winter, when even the spruce forests and grassy tundra are buried in snow, the entire park is eerily quiet and the only way to get about is on skis or snowshoes.
Around 5000 humpback whales migrate south from Alaska to winter in the warm shallow waters off the main islands of Hawaii. Between December and April these magnificent creatures – which can weigh up to 40 tonnes – are often visible from the shore, although you can take a boat tour to guarantee a sighting. Snorkellers also have the chance to hear the beautiful and ethereal songs of the (male) humpback whale, which can be heard underwater from a distance of 19km.
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is implausibly vast (29km at its widest) and inconceivably old (rock at the bottom of the canyon has been dated to 1.8 billion years ago). Millions of people visit each year and take in the astounding views from the overlooks along the South Rim and more remote North Rim, but far less people make the steep descent into the chasm and down to the Colorado River on foot.
The incredibly scenic 145km stretch between Hearst Castle and the Monterey Peninsula takes in some of California’s most wild and rugged coastline. Driving north on the Pacific Coast Highway you’ll know you’ve reached it when the estuaries and beaches give way to jagged-edged coastline and redwood groves. Get out of the car to really explore the many parks that dot the region and look out for sea otters and grey whales offshore.
On the international border with Canada, Minnesota's only national park is a vast network of lakes and interconnected waterways scattered with more than 900 islands. Leave the car behind, rent a canoe and ply the lakes as the original voyageurs – French-Canadian trappers – did over 200 years ago. Out on the water it’s all peace and tranquility as kingfishers, osprey and eagles swoop overhead.
This 37-mile barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia is famous for sandy beaches, salt marshes, forests, costal bays and wild horses. These free roaming horses are the hardy descendants of domesticated animals brought to the island to graze more than 300 years ago, and can usually be seen in small herds beside the shoreline or inland waterways. Many species of birds also inhabit the island, including the American oystercatcher, great blue heron and snowy egret.
Surrounded by towering peaks and national forest, with Grand Teton National Park to the north, western Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley is pretty isolated. This is proper mountain country, with rugged trails and miles of open space where elk and deer can be spotted grazing. The region averages more than 32ft of snow each winter and the ski resort has been steadily gaining a stellar reputation for its challenging terrain.
Yellowstone is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and the park is a hotbed of geothermal activity, with spurting geysers, steaming fumaroles, gurgling mud pots and the famous Mammoth Hot Springs. Actually outside the caldera boundary, close to the north entrance of the park, Mammoth’s colourful step-like terraces have been formed by limestone deposited by cascades of rapidly cooling thermal water.
Off the coast of Maine, the gorgeous Acadia National Park explodes with blazing fall colour in September and October. Drive the 43km Park Loop Road, but don’t forget to get out of the car for a ramble, or to kayak and canoe offshore. If you're hike to the top of the park’s Cadillac Mountain – the tallest on the eastern coast – and be the first person in the USA to see the sun rise that day.
Glacier National Park was named after ancient rivers of ice that carved the peaks, lakes and valleys of this remote corner of northwest Montana, although devastatingly, the park’s 25 remaining glaciers are fast retreating. Home to one of the North America’s last remaining grizzly bear populations, the remoteness of this rugged tract of wilderness makes it ideal for whitewater rafting – the Middle Fork and North Fork of the beautiful Flathead River have a healthy dose of rapids.
Host to the Winter Olympics in both 1932 and 1980, this New York State resort is actually set on two lakes. In the winter months when Mirror Lake (just to the east of the larger Lake Placid) freezes over, you can skate out in the open air, surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, or try your hand at downhill skiing, bobsledding and ice climbing.
If you have even a passing interest in bird watching, you should visit Pennsylvania’s mountaintop preserve. More than 65 bird species regularly nest in the sanctuary, which is the world’s first refuge for birds of prey. This is the southeastern-most ridge of the Appalachian ridge, and the rock-strewn trails and remote woodlands can be pretty tricky to negotiate – though the sensational views from the North Lookout are worth the scramble.