1. Paddle the Grand Canyon
Tackle 300 miles of some of the most powerful white water on the planet the old-school way, in a wooden boat.Why: Spending 13 to 18 days navigating the Colorado River through the mile-deep canyon, gazing up at 2 1/2 billion years’ worth of the earth’s crust on a nimble dory that launches you off the lips of roiling rapids turns you into a geologist, a waterman, and a more humble human being.
2. Track a Tusker
The Chyulu Hills of Kenya—the inspiration for Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa—are where three national parks converge to protect lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalo, and leopards—the big five—and Masai warriors have become its conservationists and guides. Campi ya Kanzi, a Masai-owned lodge here, combines luxury and wilderness. Game runs in open-top jeeps ensure that you see as much wildlife as possible, while daily hikes let you feel the pulse of the land.
Why: A safari is a once-in-a-lifetime primal experience that connects you with an era that predates civilization.
3. Kayak with Blue Whales
The world’s largest mammal can reach lengths of 100 feet (think three school buses) and weigh in at 200 tons—more than an entire herd of elephants. Hundreds of these leviathans winter in the Sea of Cortez, at a preserve off Baja Mexico called Loreto Islands Bay Marine Park. It’s the only place in the world where you’re likely to be able to paddle with them.
Why: Sidling up to a submarine-size blue in your 17-foot Sea Quest Expeditions kayak will remind you of your place in the pecking order.
4. Camp on a Volcano
The mountain might rumble, hiss, and spew fiery boulders at any time, your shoes will probably melt, and you can roast a marshmallow at the 8,373-foot summit of Guatemala’s Volcán Pacaya. Most hikers do this trip in a day, but if you camp overnight on the volcano, you’ll hear the lava roll through the forest crunching vegetation, and see it light up the night sky without another traveler in sight.
Why: Where else can you walk up to globs of 2,000˚ F–plus liquid and see inside the earth’s core?
5. Kayak the Galápagos
Going face-to-face with penguins, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, and sea lions trumps peering through binoculars from the deck of a cruise ship, which is how most travelers experience the Galápagos.
Why: It’s a time warp: Limits on development mean the islands look much as they have for eons, and the animals are every bit as innocent, inquisitive, and bizarre as they were when Darwin encountered them on his Beagle voyage 175 years ago. It’s impossible not to morph into an amateur naturalist and ponder your own ancestry.
6. Survive Alone in the Wild
You’ll be stripped of your watch and cellphone. You’ll carry no pack, sleeping bag, headlamp, or tent. And, after instructors at Boulder Outdoor Survival School teach you which plants are edible, how to find drinkable water, and other survival skills, you’ll be guided into the red canyons of southern Utah. Toward the end of your course, you’ll go on a solo expedition.
Why: You’ll live in the moment. In fact, you’ll never feel more alive or empowered than when you conquer nature using nothing but your wits, a poncho, and a big knife.
7. Save the Amazon, in Person
There’s a better way to protect the Amazon rain forest than sending a check to some green charity: Go there yourself. Hook up with a scientific expedition for a week to assist research efforts in the world’s most biodiverse jungle. Earthwatch Institute organizes trips aboard a century-old, 100-foot riverboat in northern Peru that biologists use to survey populations of pink river dolphins, spider monkeys, marmosets, macaws, Froot Loops–worthy toucans, and other exotic fauna. You’ll spend your days working with staff on the water and in local villages, and unwind in the evenings on the boat’s top-deck bar.
Why: You’ll see things you never imagined, and make a hands-on difference in protecting the planet.
8. Canoe the Maine Woods
A weeklong canoe trip on the Allagash River has been a classic wilderness expedition since Thoreau did it in 1846, 1853, and 1857 for his book The Maine Woods. A roughly 100-mile stretch in the state’s northern tip is still untamed and now protected. It starts at Chamberlain Lake, meanders through thick pine forests skirting desolate ponds, rushes down a 9-mile stretch of Class II rapids, and emerges at Allagash Village.
Why: The rhythm of the river and the sounds of the forest will reboot your priorities.
9. Fly Across the Waves
Reliable 15 to 25 mph winds riffle the shallows of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which stretches for more than 70 miles on North Carolina’s narrow Outer Banks, making it the ideal beach to learn to kitesurf. The sport, which is a hybrid of surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding, and kiting, has a steep learning curve, but beginners typically start skimming across the water in 3 days. And on the off chance of a windless day, you can always learn to paddleboard. Why: This is the closest feeling to soaring like an eagle.
10. Find Nemo (and His Supporting Cast)
The world’s second-largest barrier reef, off the coast of Belize, brims with so much marine life that scientists have identified only a fraction of the species living there. It’s home to the world’s largest West Indian manatee population, 500-plus species of fish, 65 kinds of coral, and a jamboree of sharks, turtles, and birds. It’s such a diverse ecosystem that it was named a World Heritage Site—and you don’t even need scuba gear to appreciate its splendor. Just bring a mask and snorkel. Why: The 185-mile-long reef, considered one of the world’s seven underwater wonders, could soon go the way of Hanging Gardens of Babylon because it’s under threat from warming temperatures and ocean acidification, among other factors.
11. Trek the Himalayas
Hike the 150-mile trail around the 26,545-foot shark tooth that is Annapurna, and do it the way a local would, by eating and staying at teahouses in Nepalese villages. Going without a guide lets you set your own schedule, so you can spend an extra day or two in favorite spots. Why: Two reasons. First, large segments of the circuit are expected to be turned into roads in the next couple of years, adding unwanted company to the climbs up 17,000-foot passes and polluting the pristine Himalayan views. Second, every time you look in the mirror afterward, you’ll see the guy who trekked Annapurna without a guide.
12. Pedal into Copper Canyon
Moab meets the Grand Canyon 200 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, in the state of Chihuahua. The Copper Canyon is 20 red-rock canyons plunging nearly 10,000 feet to a web of rivers. The network of singletrack trails are courtesy of the Tarahumara Indians, long-distance runners who have been pounding the dirt here for centuries. Why: Riding to the bottom of the canyon and all the way back up tests your mettle and your quads, and instills a sense of awe for geological phenomena.
By: Claire Martin and Greg Melville