Photograph by Ethan Welty, Aurora Photos

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Hikers approach Tunnel Falls on the Eagle Creek Trail, in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge, part of a tour offered by Timberline Tours.

Photograph by Ethan Welty, Aurora Photos

Best Tours in North America 2013

From Traveler Magazine's 2013 Tours of a Lifetime

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Oregon: Westward Ho

Millennia before Sacagawea and crew arrived in the Columbia River Gorge, its course was being altered by lava flows from hundreds of volcano eruptions, eventually orienting it east-west (unlike most of the world’s canyons) and setting the stage for the Lewis and Clark party’s epic odyssey to the Pacific and the country’s western expansion. The region’s geological and historical significance is palpable on this series of hikes in and around the gorge’s summits, past dozens of towering waterfalls, awesome alpine vistas, and come spring, riotous wildflower displays. With stays at the Columbia River Inn and historic Timberline Lodge. Timberline Tours: “Columbia River Gorge,” 6 days; $2,300;

California: In Muir’s Eyes

Despite pleas by John Muir, the Hetch Hetchy, a glacial valley in northwest Yosemite National Park, was clear-cut and flooded to be used as a reservoir in the 1920s. One hundred years later, environmentalists continue to champion Muir’s cause. This annual guided backpacking trip is a chance to chime in—participants must raise at least $1,900—while experiencing parts of Yosemite unseen by most. Restore Hetch Hetchy: “Muir’s March, Yosemite National Park,” 7 days, $1,900 fundraising minimum;

Alaska: Into the Wild

Inspired by the life and work of naturalist Dick Proenneke, who lived alone in a cabin he built in Alaska’s Twin Lakes region some 40 years ago, this hiking/kayaking/fly-fishing expedition in Lake Clark National Park shows off an Alaska few experience. A tour of Proenneke’s homestead resonated with traveler Butch Roebuck: “The ranger allowed us to pick up and examine everything in Dick’s cabin. It is more real when you can touch and feel.” But the high point was an evening spent with a herd of Dall sheep. “They were all around us. We just ate our dinner, watched these magnificent animals feed all around us, and dozed off to sleep in our bags.” Arctic Odysseys/Alaskan Ventures: “Alaska’s Twin Lakes: In the Footsteps of Dick Proenneke,” 8 days; $4,695;

Alaska: In Harriman’s Wake

The 100-passenger ship Caledonian Sky retraces part of railroad magnate Edward Harriman’s landmark scientific expedition in 1899, including landings on the Pribilof and Aleutian Islands. Watch for walruses and arctic foxes on St. Matthew Island, and explore Little Diomede—its Russian sister, Big Diomede, is only three nautical miles away—whose Aleutian inhabitants still rely on subsistence hunting and gathering. Zegrahm Expeditions: “Wild Alaska and the Bering Sea,” 15 days; $11,980;

Canada: Active Challenge

With an eight-hour hike up Gros Morne Mountain and a one-day, 180-mile bike ride worthy of the Tour de France (your consolation is that prevailing winds are in your favor and a support van is never far behind), this bike/hike adventure along the so-called Viking Trail through Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park isn’t for the meek. Grit and sweat pay off in fjords reminiscent of Norway, warm Newfie hospitality, and a visit to L’Anse aux Meadows, where the Vikings landed at least five centuries before Columbus. Freewheeling Adventures: “Viking Bike and Hike,” 7 days; $2,695;

Michigan: Great Lakes Cycle

Largely unknown except for the regional visitors who have vacationed here for generations, northwest Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are stellar biking country, with gently rolling hills, historic waterside villages, and sweeping Great Lakes vistas. You’ll have to carry your own gear on this circuit, but cozy inns await each evening. Beginners welcome. Adventure Cycling Association: “Great Lakes, Inn-to-Inn,” 11 days; $2,149;

Mexico: Butterflies and Whales

During a few weeks in the winter, the migrations of monarch butterflies and eastern gray whales overlap in Mexico. Experience them both on this family-friendly field trip to the Michoacán highlands and Baja California. “I will never forget riding horseback up the steep trails with my kids into the mountains. At 10,000 feet elevation we were surrounded by fluttering wings,” said client Carolyn Holtzen. Journey Mexico: “Magical Mexican Migrations—Pacific Whales and Highland Butterflies,” 10 days; $2,549;

British Virgin Islands: Treasure Trove

Most visitors experience the Virgin Islands from the deck of a cruise ship or yacht, and from this vantage point, the isles’ nuances can be easily overlooked. But the Caribbean’s calm seas here cry out for kayaking. This five-day paddle explores Norman Island—allegedly the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island—the uninhabited Sandy Cay and Sandy Spit, and Peter Island, where you’ll camp under the stars. Arawak Expeditions: “Sea Kayaking in the Virgin Islands,” 5 days; $1,295;

U.S., Canada (plus Malaysia, China, South Korea, Japan): Call of the Sea

Hopping a freighter to circumnavigate the globe may sound romantic, but consider that typical cruise amenities are few (no casino or evening shows), digs are no-frills, and Internet service is limited. Still on board? Have two months to kill? This is the adventure for you. Leave New York aboard the freighters Figaro, La Scala, or Tosca, and cruise eastbound via the Suez Canal, finally arriving in Vancouver. Maris Freighter Cruises: “Short Around-the-World Cruise,” 62 days; $6,475;

Contributing editor Margaret Loftus has reported and written “Tours of a Lifetime” for the past eight years.