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Climbing up the famous cables to the top of Half Dome.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Extreme adventure vacations in the USA to try before you die

Calling all adrenaline junkies: you need to try these thrilling, extreme adventure vacations in the USA

Scott Snowden
Written by
Sarah Medina
Scott Snowden

Extreme adventurers come in all shapes and sizes. There are gems that take loads of planning, like scaling a mountainside in Yosemite National Park, and those you can do on a whim, like BASE jumping off a high bridge in Idaho, with loads in between. These adrenaline-fueled activities are sure to get your heart racing and are a great way to form a bond with a relative, friend or someone special. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to tackle one of these activities but never found the moxie, giving it a try at such famous locales will give you the jolt you need to overcome any hesitations.

While some of these are fine for first-timers and require no previous experience, a few are not meant for beginners, so you’ll need to build up your skills first. Looking for some more alfresco fun? Be sure to consult our guides to the best beaches, national parks and hiking trails in the US.

RECOMMENDED: The best outdoor adventure in every state

Best extreme vacation adventures in the USA

Fly an aerobatic plane | Las Vegas, NV
Photograph: Courtesy Sky Combat Ace

1. Fly an aerobatic plane | Las Vegas, NV

Getting an eagle’s-eye view of Vegas is thrilling in itself, but pulling Gs in an aerobatic plane takes a sightseeing flight to heart-racing new heights. For the full Top Gun experience, Sky Combat Ace lets you take over the controls. Your pilot demonstrates each maneuver, such as a barrel roll, loop and hammerhead, before letting you test your own skills. 

Ziplining | New York
Photograph: Courtesy New York Zipline Adventure Tours

2. Ziplining | New York

Whizz 60ft above a verdant Catskills valley at just under the highway speed limit along a 3,200ft cable. The Skyrider tour is the most daring of three options at Hunter Mountain’s Zipline Adventure Tours. The 650-foot-long midmountain tour, which also traverses rope bridges and a rappel, is a tamer option for beginners (and you can also tackle it at night). Accommodations abound, but none beat the Hunter Mountain Sanctuary with views of the very same slopes you were flying over only a short time ago. 

Heli-skiing | Anchorage, AK
Photograph: Shutterstock

3. Heli-skiing | Anchorage, AK

Taking the off-piste concept to the limit, heli-skiing transports you to slopes only accessible by chopper. The deep, ungroomed powder makes it the preserve of experienced skiers. Set within one of the largest state parks in America, just north of Anchorage, the Chugach Mountains offer thousands of miles of terrain, powder bowls and steep vertical descents, all of which means you’ll never ski the same line twice. Chugach Powder Guides is one of the best operators in the area.

BASE jumping | Twin Falls, ID
Photograph: Courtesy TandemBase/Luanne Horting

4. BASE jumping | Twin Falls, ID

Part skydiving and part cliff jumping, BASE jumping is one of the most extreme thrills you can pursue, largely because the relatively low-altitude launch points mean less time to deploy your parachute. Perched nearly 500ft above the Snake River, Perrine Bridge is known worldwide for its adrenaline-charged activity and, unlike many other destinations for the sport, doesn’t require a permit. The only prerequisite is courage, but TandemBASE guides newbies through the experience. 

Canyoneering | Moab, UT
Photograph: Nicole Morgenthau

5. Canyoneering | Moab, UT

Known for its world-class mountain biking, Moab also has great canyoneering routes that take you from carved sandstone slot canyons to ancient ruins and water-filled pools. Red River Adventures offers several guided canyoneering routes, including the relatively easy-to-moderate Ephedra’s Grotto and Chamisa Canyon, both of which include hiking, scrambling and a couple of rappels. The company also boasts day trips that combine canyoneering with rafting down the Colorado River.

Waterfall rappelling | White Mountains, NH
Photograph: Courtesy Northeast Mountaineering

6. Waterfall rappelling | White Mountains, NH

There are few things more exhilarating than lowering yourself down a rock face amid a deluge of foamy spray. While waterfall rappelling is often associated with exotic destinations like Costa Rica, you need only travel to the Northeast to experience it. Climbing outfitter Northeast Mountaineering welcomes adventurers of all skill levels. Take a short hike to the top of a 100ft fall before rappelling down it with the help of a guide. Just be prepared to get wet.

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride | Lake Tahoe, CA
Photograph: Ben Fish

7. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride | Lake Tahoe, CA

No, we’re not talking about the Disneyland attraction. This single-track mountain bike route heads primarily downhill from the Tahoe Rim Trail—the total descent is more than 2,000ft. With multiple steep drops, sections traversing nothing but rocks, as well as epic views of the lake, it sure lives up to its name. If you’re not bringing your own wheels, Wanna Ride Tahoe can provide bikes, helmets and shuttles to Mr. Toad’s and other local trails.

Climbing El Capitan | Yosemite, CA
Photograph: Courtesy DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite

8. Climbing El Capitan | Yosemite, CA

Yosemite National Park is one of the best rock-climbing destinations in the world, but you don’t have to be Tommy Caldwell or Kevin Jorgeson, the duo that made history by free-climbing the daunting 3,000ft Dawn Wall of El Capitan, to tackle its peaks. In addition to the popular 8,839ft-tall Half Dome, easier summits include Washington Column, which has a 1,000ft route. Need a guided trip, climbing lessons or equipment rental? Yosemite Mountaineering School has you covered. 

Paragliding | Maui, HI
Photograph: Spencer Spellman

9. Paragliding | Maui, HI

What better way to experience the world’s largest dormant volcano than by paragliding off its slopes? Daily flights with Proflyght Paragliding take off from the slopes of Haleakala, which at 10,000ft is the highest peak on Maui. Beginners can test their mettle with the shorter 1,000ft descent, but for the true adventurer, the 3,000ft option features up to 15 minutes of airtime over the island’s lush tropical landscape and lavender farms. 

Hiking a 14er | Colorado
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Hiking a 14er | Colorado

What’s a 14er, you ask? As the name suggests, it’s a mountain at least 14,000 feet tall, and there are more than 50 to choose from in Colorado—from the 14,007 feet Sunshine Peak in the San Juan Mountains to the 14,440 feet Mount Elbert, the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains. One of the most popular in the state is Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs, which is a lofty 14,115 feet tall. A number of trails ascend to the top, including the most popular, the 13-mile Barr Trail. 

Overnight caving | McMinnville, TN
Photograph: Courtesy Cumberland Caverns

11. Overnight caving | McMinnville, TN

Want to get in touch with your inner caveperson? Not only can you explore Cumberland Caverns, which has more than 32 miles of underground passageways complete with cool rock formations, waterfalls and pools, but you can sleep over, too. Guided excursions include the All Around the Mountain tour, featuring ladder climbs, cave crawling and camping out in an underground cave, followed by breakfast in the cavernous Volcano Room.

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