They don’t call it the Wild West for nothing. America’s West runs from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, with the Great Basin—200,000 square miles covered in sagebrush and dotted with salty lakes and pools—in between. (The U.S. Census Bureau technically considers all 13 of the westernmost states to be the “West,” but the Pacific Coast deserves its own attention.) From its 14,000-plus-foot snowy mountain peaks to arid, orange deserts, this region runs the gamut in terms of landscapes, making it a veritable playground for adrenaline junkies and adventurers.
Yet, despite its appeal, America’s West remains one of the emptier parts of the continental U.S. Huge swaths of land are protected as national or state parks (in fact, the only place you can be more than 20 miles from a road is tucked far into the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming), while the sheer difficulty of navigating the empty deserts or steep mountain roads keeps other areas even more isolated. But those who are intrepid enough to venture off the beaten path will find adventure opportunities aplenty—and where you least expect them, with stunning views that will rival any tourist photo opp. Here are five of our favorite adventures if you live in the great American West.
Disclaimer: Before planning a trip, be sure to review the CDC Travelers’ Health page for alerts and updates, as well as any travel advisories for the specific location you hope to visit. Wear a mask, socially distance, and bring food, drinks, and supplies if you can.
The Best Socially Distanced Adventures to Experience in America’s West
1. Wakeboard at Imondi Wake Zone – Fruita, CO
Landlocked Colorado probably isn’t the first place you think of for water adventure sports, and the mesas of the state’s Western Slope look especially dry compared to the snowy east. But out in Fruita, a small town about a four-hour drive from Denver, you’ll find the Imondi Wake Zone, the only cable wakeboarding park between Sacramento and Kansas City. The cables allow you to wakeboard without a boat tow, eliminating the most inaccessible part of the sport. There’s even an Aqua Park, with inflatable runways, jumps, ladders, a trampoline, and slides, where you can kill time waiting for your turn.
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Think about Harriet Tubman. She was every bit a wilderness leader: how else could she have brought hundreds of people to freedom under cover of night? She knew how to read the landscape and navigate by the stars. –Rue Mapp Read more from Rue Mapp, founder of @OutdoorAfro, a national network that connects African American outdoor lovers to nature: https://www.tpl.org/blog/rue-mapp-outdoor-afro 📸 Palisade Mesa Wilderness Study Area by Nevada Outside #ourpubliclands #heroes #nightsky
2. Camp in the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area – Washoe County, NV
There are no hotels or electricity and barely any cell service in northwest Nevada near the California and Oregon borders. You’ll have to BYO everything you’ll need to camp in the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area (and you’ll be sharing the land with rattlesnakes, scorpions, mountain lions, and coyotes). But that’s part of the draw. This isolated area of the state—150 miles north of Reno and 30 miles east of Cedarville, CA—was designated the seventh Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world in 2019 due to its “exceptional quality of starry nights.” Make sure to pack your camera, a tripod, and a pair of binoculars.
3. Hike the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument – Kane County, UT
People tend to overlook National Monuments in favor of national parks, which means these landscapes see way less foot traffic. The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is especially wild (it was the last part of the “lower 48” to be officially mapped), yet it’s an easy four-hour drive from Salt Lake City or a three-hour drive from Flagstaff, AZ. The picturesque Reflection Canyon is even more isolated; the 18- to 20-mile round-trip backpacking trek doesn’t follow a well-established trail, but it will take you to a remote corner of the massive Lake Powell.
4. Climb in Sinks Canyon State Park – Lander, WY
In one of the lesser-populated regions of the U.S. (south of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and a three-hour drive from Jackson) sits Sinks Canyon State Park, just outside of Lander. The park is known not just for its unique vanishing river, but its hundreds of climbing routes. Everyone from beginners to experts can find a line up the sandstone, limestone, and granite cliffs and boulders. The Main Wall is just a 10-minute drive from town, but Fairfield Hill and Fossil Hill—both of which are at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation—are less trafficked and even more scenic.
5. Raft the Selway River – Missoula, MT
The Selway River—which originates high in the Bitterroot Mountains near the Idaho-Montana border, and boasts a number of Class IV rapids—is one of the top white water rafting destinations in the U.S. It’s also one of the hardest rivers to get a permit to raft. You can attempt to score one of the few permits (and wrangling all your own gear), or you can book guided, multi-day rafting trips from Montana into Idaho with companies like ARTA River Trips or Hughes River Expeditions. Only four outfitters are permitted on the river; groups are capped at 16 people; and Selway River Management allows just one launch per day, so it’ll still feel plenty solitary.
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