Well, we blinked back in January and now it’s the holidays. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, which means the lot of you will be roasting turkeys, mashing potatoes, or roasting a pizza in your portable, wood-fired pizza oven. (Hipsters.) The holidays are alternatively tense, trying, or lonely, unless you’re one of the lucky few who posed for Norman Rockwell in 1942.
Enter the outdoors. Be it a theory of psychoevolution, attention restoration, or the microscopic Mycobacterium vaccae, nature is scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve mood and cognitive performance, so you can read back your times tables at the same time you finally sucker your brother into admitting that he burned your clothes after that one big argument you had when you were teenagers.
But that isn’t important. It’s an interesting time to choose an outdoor adventure, and it’s never too late to heal a wound or hug a stranger. For much of the country, the winter is but a distant memory. Rain turns into snow, but there isn’t quite enough to be ski season. The salmon have run, the elk have bugled, and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. Giant firs and spruces are assembling in city squares nationwide for the coronation to come, but no one has strung any lights. Thus begins the season of purposeless appreciation for your fellow human being.
The most unique adventures make it easy to reunite. So go on. Everything is going to be ok.
It ain’t necessarily what we think of as the great outdoors, but Coronado Beach in San Diego is one of the few places where you’ll see the land reformed as a work of art. (Another, Double Negative, is a notch on Mormon Mesa about two hours from Las Vegas without cell service, water, or restrooms.) Still, Bill Pavlacka, also known as the Sandcastle Man, has been building artisanal sandcastles at Coronado Beach for decades.
You’d think in a town known for bright lights and big personalities—and phenomenal outdoor opportunities—we’d opt for something born for the spotlight, like caves coopted for Batman or a “rest stop for hikers” in Griffith Park. Those are great alternatives, but LA is a town of opulence, and little speaks to the sprawling megalopolis more than failed, auto-centric infrastructure. Guess what? True to form, there’s a giant abandoned bridge in the middle of the San Gabriel Mountains with a swimming hole to visit. The Bridge to Nowhere is no secret, but it’s one among LA’s unique outdoor destinations.
The birthplace of the conservation movement offers an enormity of outdoor excursions—those in Point Reyes and Muir Woods and others you’ve undoubtedly heard of. The lesser-known Napa River Bay Trail is just two years old, but the rehabilitating landfill is a conservation success. Old commercial salt ponds now teem with wildlife, and the river has deposited layers of sand-washed and multicolored glass at Glass Beach.
Waterfalls, basalt, and Douglas fir forest: that’s what Portland does. The area is an embarrassment of hiking riches, and the newest Portland residents are also largely unfamiliar with its offerings. Good; go on and explore Multnomah Falls and the Oneonta Gorge when the trails reopen. In the meantime, it’s time to redirect our attention to parts unknown—like paddling Portland’s waters. The Columbia River is one of the world’s most voluminous rivers, but many of us see it only from I-84 on the way to the Gorge. Many islands in the Government Island complex, like Lemon Island, are accessible only by boat, and they are open for overnight camping year round and so close to the city you can bike to the put-in.
Western Washington is known for the largest peak in the Pacific Northwest, the wettest spot in the contiguous United States, and ideal ocean kayaking in the San Juans. Unfortunately, they’re all out of reach for the practical adventurer who wants to stay close to home. An on-water experience only found in Seattle, the locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canals are open to kayakers. Plus, it starts at the Washington Park Arboretum, with scenery all its own and available boat rentals.
Most adventures beneath the Sawatch Front head east for obvious reasons, and the canyons make Salt Lake an outdoor haven for skiers and hikers alike. But it’s the Great Salt Lake that truly sets the region apart, unless you’re south into canyon country (which is another story indeed). It isn’t that Antelope Island is underappreciated so much as its unknown, but the buttes showcase the scale of the interior west’s salty oasis, and you might catch a glimpse of the buffalo herd along the way.
Take your pick of Colorado’s riches: Eldorado Canyon, Roxborough State Park, and Red Rocks all feature the stunning geology of the vertebral granite atop the spine of the North America. They are all popular and well tread, and very little, it seems, is unknown about one of the nation’s most potent adventure regions. But perhaps what’s most unique about Denver isn’t the mountains, it’s the plains and the urban centers that they provide. Denver expands ever wider on an endlessly broadening horizon, where the land unfurls as though tossed over a terrene mattress. Go to the Castle Trail in Mount Falcon Park and you will see the human impact, old and new, on this once-wild landscape.
In the 1860s, New York was one of the first American cities to build an elevated railway, and now those decommissioned lines have been converted for a different use. There isn’t much green in the City that Never Sleeps, but a rails-to-trails project returned a smattering to the former West Side Elevated Line, now known as the High Line, where the rails are slowly being overgrown in a scene out of Oregon’s Salmonberry corridor.
Alternative: Sandy Hook
The West is young; less so, the East Coast. Boston is our case study in environmental history, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond is just a half-hour outside of town. Never mind that his mom did his laundry, you can visit his homestead and imagine the romantic illusion of the outdoors that tantalized readers.
Alternative: Fort Sewall