When it comes time to plan a vacation, there are many types to choose from. But if you want something active that will get your heart rate up, head to Colorado or Utah. Both states offer a variety of destinations for adventure vacations any time of the year. Whether you are interested in snow sports like backcountry skiing and snowboarding, strenuous hikes, rock climbing or even taking your off-road vehicle into the desert, both states deliver. With our tips, you can have a family, couple or solo adventure vacation to remember!
This activity is a great one for fishing enthusiasts who want an adventure off the beaten path. Head to the tiny mountain town of Minturn, just up the road from Vail a couple of hours west of Denver where you can get in a helicopter and get fantastic views of the Vail Valley before landing on a private ranch to fish for trout. This is just one of several heli-fly fishing options in Colorado.
Whether you’re a beginner or a professional, there are opportunities to go canyoning in Colorado. The sport can involve hiking, climbing, swimming and/or abseiling (kind of like rappeling) using technical equipment. Tours are available for those who want an introduction to the sport, and perhaps the most popular spot to do this is in Ouray in the southwest part of the state. Even kids over the age of 10 can do some of the guided tours. If you want to see some of the state’s great canyons, gorges, waterfalls and streams, perhaps canyoning is something to try on your next adventure vacation!
Is regular camping not extreme enough for you? If so, you can try out cliff camping in Estes Park, roughly a 1.5-hour drive northwest of Denver into Rocky Mountain National Park. You will sleep in a tent-like portaledge hanging from a sheer rock face, but don’t worry, it will already be set up for you and all you have to do is rappel down to it and enjoy some meals and sleep. If you want an extra-special cliff camping experience, you can book a package at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, made famous by the movie “The Shining”.
Hiking the Continental Divide Trail
In case you didn’t know, there is a trail that runs 3,100 miles from Chihuahua in Mexico to Alberta, Canada. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs north-to-south through Colorado, where it also has its highest point at Grays Peak. In fact, this is the highest, most-remote and most-challenging of the 11 national scenic trails in the US. The 800-mile portion of the trail that runs through Colorado is perhaps the most challenging stretch as it is mostly through mountainous terrain. In fact, you’ll be at or above 11,000 feet for about 70 miles. As a reward, you will see stunning landscapes, mining ghost towns, and can visit Leadville, the highest-elevation city in the US.
There are many options for backcountry skiing in Colorado – many of which are less than a 2-hour drive from Denver. If you are looking for fresh, pristine powder, take advantage of the backcountry options offered by some ski resorts, accessible by snowcat or from the existing runs. In some cases, you can get a ride in a heated snowcat that will drop you off for some skiing, but usually only during limited hours. Many times these services at resorts like Copper Mountain and Monarch Mountain are only available during ideal conditions. There are also independent operators offering backcountry skiing access if you want to avoid the resorts.
Be aware that backcountry snow sports can be dangerous, as there’s a real risk of avalanches. Learn about safety best practices before you go, and make sure you have the right gear.
Explore Slot Canyons
Utah is said to have the highest number of slot canyons in the world, according to the Utah Office of Tourism. And luckily, many of them don’t require technical know-how or special equipment. Here are just a few.
The Narrows, Zion National Park
This is perhaps one of the best know hikes through slot canyons not only in Utah but in the USA. As the name suggests, this is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon and is in fact a gorge where the Virgin River flows. You can explore The Narrows either from the paved, one-mile-long Riverside Walk or come prepared to walk or wade in the Virgin River. The most popular point of access is from the Temple of Sinawava and you can hike via the river upstream to Big Spring (a 10-mile route) without a permit. If you want to do the 16-mile hike downstream, starting from Chamberlain’s Ranch, you will need a permit. Be sure to research what the water level will be before attempting your hike. There is also a danger of flash floods at certain times.
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch
This duo of slot canyons is located near each other in the Dry Fork area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah near Kanab. If you do the full loop, starting at Peek-a-Boo and continuing on through Spooky Gulch, it will take about 3-4 hours. While this is not a technical hike, there is some rock scrambling, and be aware that Spooky Gulch is narrow – so much so that you will have to take off any large backpacks to get through. These slot canyons are accessible via an access road off of Highway 12 near Escalante, UT.
Little Wild Horse Canyon
This one is perfect for those looking for a low-key introduction to slot canyons, or those wanting to do a hike with kids. It is not technical at all and can be between 4.5 and about 8 miles long, depending on how much you want to do. The full loop takes 6 hours, while if you just do Little Wild Horse it is 2-3 hours. Getting here from Interstate 70 is easy. Just get on Highway 24 south toward Hanksville and look for Goblin Valley Road, and follow it until just before the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park where you will go west on a dirt road before seeing signs for the trailhead.
This is the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest, located in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument just north of the Utah-Arizona state line. This hike through smooth sandstone can be 20 miles long, and you can do the whole thing in a few days if you want a backpacking experience, or you can do a portion of it as a day hike on the Wire Pass Trail. Depending on when you do the hike, you will likely have to wade through water or deal with mud and rock obstacles. Also keep in mind that you need a permit for day hikes, available online or at the Bureau of Land Management in Kanab. Overnight permits are hard to come by but are available. There is an extreme risk for flash floods in the Buckskin Gulch canyon, especially in July and August. You can access the Wire Pass trailhead from Highway 89.
Hike to an Alpine Lake
Situated in the Wasatch Range less than a 2-hour drive southeast of Salt Lake City is the beautiful blue White Pine Lake. The hike to this small body of water nestled in the mountains is not a long one but can be strenuous. After hiking about 5 miles from the trailhead, which will take up to 2.5 hours, you can relax by the lake or even camp nearby. Just be aware that swimming and dogs are not allowed, and some have reported that the trail is poorly marked and hard to follow, especially if there is snow present. It’s best to do this hike from April to October.
Climb the Pfeifferhorn
Located in the Wasatch Mountains is the Pfeifferhorn, the third-tallest peak in the range east of Salt Lake City. This is an intermediate hike with some steep inclines, but if you make it to the top you will be rewarded with great views and perhaps some mountain goat sightings. There are several trails you can take, but one of the most popular goes up the East Ridge using the Red Pine Lake Trail. But the hike begins at the White Pine Lake Trailhead, where you can hike for 2-3 hours to get to Red Pine Lake, and from there to the top of the Pfeifferhorn takes several more hours. If you want to make it an overnight adventure, you can camp at Red Pine Lake. Be sure to do some research beforehand to see which trail to take depending on your ability level and how much time you have. And because this hike is difficult to do in snowy conditions, it’s best to attempt it between June and September.
Ski in Little Cottonwood Canyon
There are several resorts in Utah with backcountry ski access, some of which are in beautiful Little Cottonwood Canyon, only a 30-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City. The Alta Ski Area offers gates for backcountry skiing and allows uphill travel. Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort also has backcountry access but does not allow uphill travel.
If you are worried about backcountry skiing, there are several guided services, and some even offer heli-skiing and snowboarding. Be aware that avalanches are a real danger when backcountry skiing, and it’s important to check the risk level of the area you would like to ski or snowboard in before heading out.
4×4 in Moab
If you’re not into hiking or other adventure activities, maybe exploring the 4×4 trails near Moab is for you. You will need an off-road-ready vehicle like an ATV or Jeep in order to explore the trails. The trails are divided into those appropriate for 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicles, and difficulty level. There’s even a trail named Hell’s Revenge! Most of the trails take 2 hours or more to complete depending on the length and difficulty. No matter which trail you choose, be sure to stay on it in order to protect the landscape.
Be aware that attempting these trails in a traditional rental vehicle will violate the terms and conditions, and void the insurance coverage, so it’s best to go on this adventure with your own vehicle appropriate for the terrain. You can rent a Jeep at specialized companies in Moab, or there are tours available if you would rather someone else take the wheel.