In the Chugach Mountains, first descents are still routine, and nameless peaks promise more skiable terrain than even the biggest resorts in the Lower 48. Valdez serves as base for five of the seven heli-ski outfits that work the Chugach, but only Points North takes off from Cordova. Its clients gain nearly exclusive access to a 2,000-square-mile (5,180-square-kilometer) chunk of mountains, then retreat to the Points North Orca Adventure Lodge, a converted cannery. Points North Heli-Adventures, Inc. (www.alaskaheliski.com)
It’s humbling and invaluable to hone your wilderness skills where they count most—in America’s wildest state. On a NOLS Semester in Alaska, you backpack the Talkeetna Mountains, traverse huge crevasse-riddled glaciers, and paddle the open ocean of Prince William Sound, learning, as they say at NOLS, to thrive, not just survive. National Outdoor Leadership School (www.nols.edu)
Kauai’s Na Pali Coast, 17 miles (27 kilometers) of cliffs, caves, and beaches, is the most stunning paddling trip in the country, if not the world. While doable in a (very) long day, it’s best to split it in two, with an overnight in the shadow of 3,000-foot cliffs. Go guided on day one, camp on Kalalau Beach, then paddle on your own to the beach at Milili’i and, finally, the takeout at Polihale Beach. Na Pali Kayak (www.napalikayak.com)
When 7,000 cross-country skiers convene at the start of the Birrkie, the largest, most vaunted ski race in the country, it’s a maelstrom of adrenaline, camaraderie, knit caps, and Northwoods spectacle. Rank amateurs go toe-to-toe with the world’s elite to gun for a personal best or a piece of the $20,000 purse. The 50K course is gorgeous anytime, but the race is worth planning your life around. American Birkebeiner (www.birkie.com)
It’s a toss-up whether the Narrows in Zion National Park of Buckskin Gulch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the best nontechnical, multiday slot canyon hike in the world. Beyond debate is the fact that the Buckskin Gulch-Paria Canyon route is nearly thrice as long—meaning more time immersed in a swirling red-rock chasm at points no more than six feet (two meters) wide and 500 feet (152 meters) high. Bureau of Land Management (www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html)
Connect the dots (six spare but well-outfitted huts spaced approximately 35 miles/56 kilometers apart) on a weeklong mountain bike expedition that starts in the jagged San Juan Mountains and ends in Moab. Harder and more isolated than its twin, the venerable Telluride-Moab ride, the 215-mile (346-kilometer) Durango-Moab route presents navigational and bike-handling challenges and a sense of unfettered freedom. San Juan Hut Systems (www.sanjuanhuts.com)
“An abundance of grit and manly vim” was requisite for a spot on the first transect of the Olympic Peninsula, the Press Expedition of 1889. The group’s vim got tested; they did it in the dead of winter. Trace their route in a saner season (we recommend summer) and you’ll cross the interior of Olympic National Park in a week on trails that thread the lush territory between Mount Olympus and Hurricane Ridge.
Thanks to the strategic placement of a few hundred showerheads in the San Juan Mountains, the Ouray Ice Park is the most condensed collection of ice routes in the world (nearly 200). Head to Schoolroom for a feast of easy-access, top-roped hundred-footers, or to South Park for dozens more—all within 15 minutes’ walk of a warm meal and a warm bed in Ouray. Ouray Ice Park (www.ourayicepark.com)
Fewer than ten skiers a year attempt Scar Face at Silverton Mountain, the nastiest run at America’s highest, steepest, and funkiest ski resort. This is a good thing. With its blind entry, impossibly narrow chutes, deadly cliff bands to sidestep, and a pitch that pushes 60 degrees over 2,200 vertical feet (671 vertical meters), “Scar Face” is more a prediction than a description. Silverton Mountain (www.silvertonmountain.com)
The country’s ultimate day hike: a 17.2-mile (27.7-kilometer) round-trip to the top of the Yosemite icon, gaining 4,800 feet (1,463 meters) and delivering a ferocious thigh burn. Start on the Mist Trail (a portion of the JMT), pass by Vernal and Nevada Falls en route to alpine country, and inch your way up to the dome’s high-friction granite for a glorious view of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra. Yosemite National Park (www.nps.gov/yose)
Few climbs anywhere match the heady sensation of topping out on Castleton Tower in Castle Valley. You stand alone on a sheer parapet of red Wingate sandstone, 450 feet (137 meters) tall, but as it crowns on a talus slope, you’re nearly a thousand feet (305 meters) above the desert floor and the Colorado River, your 360-degree view dominated by the LaSalle Mountains on the southwestern horizon. Moab Desert Adventures (www.moabdesertadventures.com)
The right to fight on the front lines of the country’s most dangerous blazes with a hotshot crew doesn’t come easy. Bust your hump in guard school, then spend a couple of bone-wearying summers proving your mettle. If a hotshot supe thinks you can cut it, you might tuck away 30 grand in a season and save some trees in the process. USDA Fire & Aviation Management (www.fs.fed.us/fire/people/employment)
Surprise: The finest mountain scenery is to be found on the southern half of the Appalachian Trail isn’t Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s north along the Tennessee-North Carolina border in the Roan Highlands. On the 48-mile (77-kilometer) section between the Nolichucky River and U.S. 19E, the AT rarely dips below tree line. Appalachian Trail Conservancy (www.appalachiantrail.org)
The TransRockies six-day stage race from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek is the most spectacular and difficult trail run in the country. For pros, there’s a purse ($20K). For the rest of us, there’s a boast-worthy vacation: 113 miles (182 kilometers) and 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) of elevation gain, all above 7,500 feet (2,286 meters) amid grandiose ruggedness. Fore-Tex TransRockies Run; August 23-28 (www.transrockies.com)
The high-flying transect of the Presidential Range should be on every hiker’s short list. Much of the 24-mile (39-kilometer) route cruises above timberline in the tundra zone, tagging 11 peaks along the way, including Mount Washington. On clear days, expect views that can stretch from the Atlantic Ocean into Canada. Three conveniently spaced huts ease the way. Appalachian Mountain Club (www.outdoors.org/lodging/huts)
If trekking 485 miles (781 kilometers) is not an option, focus on the trail’s best 68 miles (109 kilometers) between San Luis Pass and Molas Pass. (www.coloradotrailhiking.com)
The hundred square miles (259 square kilometers) of peaks and valleys near Soldier Mountain Ranch may be the country’s best terrain park.
For Wyoming’s highest mountains and best climbing, hike five days and 42 miles (68 kilometers) from the Big Sandy Trailhead into Wind River solitude.
The country’s most demanding road race: 129 miles (208 kilometers) and 15,000 feet (24,140 meters) of elevation gain. No wonder it’s called the “Death Ride.” (www.deathride.com)
The Pac Northwest’s wilderness gem: a four-day backpacking loop around Glacier Peak, 10,541 feet (3,213 meters) of rock ribs and glaciers.
Ascend 250-foot (76-meter) tall spruces smack in the middle of the world’s highest concentration of bald eagles. (www.alaskamountainguides.com)
Nail the 55-degree headwall at “Tucks” for bragging rights and a cheer from carnage-hungry spectators (March to June).
The country’s best caving is offshore. Ride the wild Tanamá River through Puerto Rico’s limestone core.
Rivaled only by Denali, Hood, and Rainier for challenge, 12,799-foot (3,901-meter) Granite Peak is the contiguous U.S.’s premier wilderness summit.
“Flats” surrounding low mangrove-rimmed islands near Key West make for the country’s best kiting conditions. (www.thekitehouse.com)
One of the most dramatic shot runs in the U.S. Four days of Class III through Dinosaur National Monument’s Gates of Lodore.
Sport climbing’s motherlode, the gorge, has 1,892 routes and 145 distinct sandstone crags.
A 26-mile (42-kilometer) torrent of a hundred rapids. Raft the expert-only upper on day one, then take on the lower. (www.class-vi.com)
Ninety-six (soon to be 176) miles (154, soon to be 283 kilometers) of singletrack in the same Badlands that toughened Teddy Roosevelt. (www.dakotacyclery.com)
Trek the Swan Range inside Flathead National Forest for the best of Montana: bear grass blooms, pothole lakes, and giant vistas.
Kayak directly into the world’s largest sea-caves—more than a hundred pierce the 300-foot (91-meter) cliffs. (www.islandpackers.com)
The state’s toughest hike is also its most rewarding: 18 miles (29 kilometers) linking valleys and a lonely black-sand beach on the Big Island. (www.hawaiitrails.org)
Learn to drive a team over five days in the biggest wilderness east of the Rockies—i.e., Will Steger’s backyard. (www.dogsledding.com)
The Southwest’s most iconic journey: a week on horseback through Navajo Nation’s sacred sights. (www.ridingtours.com)
When low water sends 10,000 river rats home, hike the 70-mile (113-kilometer) Middle Fork Trail through the largest wilderness in the Lower 48. (www.mtsobek.com)
The East’s top kayaking destination: 4,600 islands, 375 miles (604 kilometers) of trail. Spend two open-water days between Stonington and Merchant Row.
Our rarest ecosystem is also the most threatened. See it in short order. Guides will drop you halfway down the 99-mile (159-kilometer) Wilderness Waterway.
There’s a magical stretch of the Pecos along Route 63. Don’t fish there. Hike away from the hip waders into Pecos Canyon.
For the first-time captains, sailing out of Traverse City is straightforward, though the scenery—Caribbean-hued waters, deserted islands—can be disorienting. (www.bbyc.com)
The 4x4 Steens Mountain Backcountry Byway traverses an encyclopedia of geographies: marshes, alpine highlands, and salt pans.