The wilderness doesn't have a monopoly on adventure. In fact, savvy city dwellers know that epic biking, paddling, and camping trips needn't always involve joining Friday night's mad rush to get out of town. Locals love these close-to-home urban adventures—and outdoorsy visitors will find them a welcome break from the usual tourist traps.
Sea Kayaking in Vancouver
Few cities are so gloriously situated between mountain and sea as Vancouver, and the best way to take in the city's staggering vistas may be with a paddle in your hand.
Vancouverites, native and otherwise, love the water. Numerous city outfitters rent kayaks to explore the wide variety of waterfront parks, beaches, and neighborhoods that lie at the core of the city's geography and culture. False Creek gives flatwater access to downtown Vancouver's waterfront architecture, museums, parks, and the vibrant adjacent neighborhood of Yaletown. You can even spot dragon boats operating out of the sparkling new paddling center here.
To see an entirely different—and wilder—side of Vancouver, launch at Deep Cove and paddle the Indian Arm fjord. You'll leave the city behind to spot seals and bald eagles, explore the fjord’s scattered beaches and islands, and follow it's graceful curve for some 12 miles into the forests of the Coast Mountains.
Skiing in Salt Lake City
OK, so you won't really find big mountain skiing smack dab in the middle of any major city, but Salt Lake City comes ridiculously close. Four world-class resorts (Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, and Solitude) are within half an hour of the city and can be reached by public transit.
But locals find runs, and sometimes untracked paths, far closer to town. That famous Utah powder falls deep on the mountains and canyons surrounding the city and epic, if not well-publicized, routes can be had a within two or three miles from the city’s streets. Cranking laps on the skin track is a popular pre-work routine among many of the city's snow-minded citizens. Of course, if you're just visiting, there's nothing to stop you from spending the whole day exploring the Wasatch mountain range. Plenty of local guide services are happy to show out-of-towners the backcountry goods—at least, the ones they aren't keeping for themselves.
Camping in San Francisco
In a cosmopolitan city justly famed for luxury hotels and sweeping Bay views, the best accommodations of all might be a tent and a sleeping bag. It's not only possible to camp in San Francisco, but for a lucky few it's the ultimate way to experience the City by the Bay. It's a steep, one-mile descent through groves of cypress, pine, and eucalyptus trees to Kirby Cove, which offers a beach, five walk-in campsites operated by the National Park Service, and unbeatable panoramas of the Golden Gate Bridge. Reserve the sites far in advance, because they tend to fill up.
Another popular camping option is Angel Island, smack dab in the middle of San Francisco Bay and accessible by public ferry. The island, which is run by California State Parks and is now a National Historic Landmark, has been home to Native Americans and World War II POWs. Laying your own head there for a night is a seriously worthwhile urban adventure.
Surfing in San Diego
San Diego is famed for its laid-back, surf-culture vibe, which shows in everything from the city’s restaurants to its citizens wardrobe choices. It's not all for show. Instead, it's the happy result of the city's 70 miles of open ocean coastline serving up a huge variety of waves and conditions.
La Jolla Shores is a great first stop for water lovers. With a safe, gentle break, this spot is home to many of the city's surf schools and is a popular hangout for non-surfers as well. Just an hour north, the world famous Trestles point break is at the other end of the spectrum. World Surf League events are often held at the beach, and you’ll likely see pros riding the waves even when they aren’t competing.
In between, there's an enormous variety of surf spots to be experienced year-round, though the peak season is typically August-November. Where to start? Check the surf reports, choose less-famous spots for more waves, and show respect to the locals. Of course, San Diego is such an appealing surf town that many an out-of-towner has quickly decided to become a local themselves.
Mountain Biking in Phoenix
Some cities tout their relative proximity to wilderness areas. Phoenix's 17,000-acre South Mountain Park is a real Southwestern wilderness, complete with cacti, coyotes, and some 58 miles of trails to explore on two wheels.
South Mountain has a reputation for gnarly technical riding and gripping descents, and it definitely delivers, but there's plenty of trail for riders of all abilities and many ways to link different rides together. For a less technical but still outstanding ride, try ripping the relatively straightforward Desert Classic. It gets plenty of recreational traffic of all types, because it lives up to its name. You won't soon tire of South Mountain's terrain, but if you do, the other mountains surrounding the city offer far more riding. McDowell Mountain Park is home to high-speed singletrack that will make riders grin—just like the competitors who frequently cross-country race here.
Perhaps best of all, there's no real off-season in Phoenix, though searing summer heat drives some to ride at night. Locals probably feel a bit sorry for those whose bikes are garaged for the winter, but that doesn’t keep them from enjoying the area's seemingly endless string of sunny days in the saddle.
Kayaking in Washington, D.C.
The nation's capital is better known for Watergate than whitewater, and that's just fine with D.C.'s legions of devoted paddlers—it helps them keep a local secret for themselves. Just upstream the Potomac River in the nation’s capital, there’s an escape from the city’s gridlock and grind. Visitors will find a wide variety of conditions in the river that flows into the Chesapeake Bay, from flatwater cruising to a Class V+ proving grounds, Great Falls, that's off-limits to all but expert paddlers.
World-champion and Olympic kayakers live in the area to take advantage of Great Falls and whitewater slalom training courses. The rest of us can rent all manner of paddling crafts from canoes to playboats and have fun in the river's wide variety of class II-III rapids while tapping local instructors to build skills.
Flatwater fans will love a monument tour in the river's Tidal Basin. Watching the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial drift serenely past your bow is a serene experience that's as American as apple pie.
Nordic Skiing in Minneapolis
The winters can be long in the Upper Midwest, and that's a very good thing for cross-country skiers in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Nordic skiing is a workout for body and mind, but it doesn't require a trip to the mountains like downhill skiing. The metro area boasts more than a hundred miles of ski trails, with more than 26 miles in the city proper set up for both classic and skate skiing. Hyland Lake Park Reserve has even installed snowmaking machines, so skiers can travel tracks about a hundred days a year, regardless of whether Mother Nature cooperates.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The apex of each winter is a three-day celebration of urban cross-country skiing known as the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. Serious races share snow time with instructional clinics and fat tire bike races, since these snow-friendly bikes have become increasingly popular where people Nordic ski. The festival includes stunning snow sculptures and bustling beer gardens, and you won't want it, or the winter, to end.
Fly Fishing in Miami
Serious fishermen will travel far to find the game fish trifecta: bonefish, permit, and tarpon. It’s common for anglers to book expeditions in exotic Caribbean locales to experience the challenge of casting for these prize sportfish and, hopefully, the rush of having one take a fly. In Miami, this kind of world-class angling exists just a stone's throw from South Beach, where the city's fun-loving visitors sunbathe, unaware of the wild times to be had offshore.
Biscayne Bay's tropical waters are filled with islands and flats so enchanting that a day on the water wouldn't be wasted even if you're skunked. But the city is home to many expert charter guides who can help make sure you won't be.
Fishermen chase bonefish in southern Biscayne Bay, where sight fishing puts their casting skills to a serious test. The “silver king” also rules in the waters around Key Biscayne. Tarpon often feed after dark, so skip the clubs and hook up on the water for an entirely different kind of Miami nightlife. Permit might be the most difficult catch, and biggest accomplishment, of all fish on the fly.
Catching and releasing all three of these trophy a single day is known as a “grand slam,” and it's incredibly difficult. The good news is that chasing such an elusive goal will require many, many epic days on the water.
Brian Handwerk is a New Hampshire-based writer covering travel, adventure, and science. Follow him on Twitter @HandwerkBrian.