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El Capitan in Yosemite
Photograph: Courtesy Yosemite National Park

The best adventure vacations in the USA for sights and thrills

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

Written by
Sarah Medina
Scott Snowden
Clara Hogan

To some people, vacation is all about rest and relaxation. But others would rather experience pulse-pounding thrills than chill out on a beach. This crop of extreme adventure travelers will go out of their way to feel a rush of adrenaline. If this sounds like you, we have a perfect list of adventure vacation ideas you won’t want to miss. 

You have countless chances to get your heart racing across the country, from ziplining across the Catskills to heli-sking in Alaska to skydiving in Idaho. We have rounded up the absolute best extreme adventures in the U.S. you can take. Want stunning scenery? Bike down a rugged mountain in Lake Tahoe or climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Want to feel a rush? Paraglide in Maui or bungee jump off the Stratosphere in Vegas. There are many more ideas where those come from—read on to find your next adventure.  

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 | Catskills, New York
Photograph: Courtesy New York Zipline Adventure Tours

2. Ziplining | Catskills, New York

Whizz 60 feet above a verdant Catskills valley just under the highway speed limit along a 3,200-foot 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.

Whitewater rafting | Grand Canyon, AZ
Photograph: Courtesy National Park Service

4. Whitewater rafting | Grand Canyon, AZ

Want to see America’s natural crown jewel, the Grand Canyon, from a different vantage point? Try from the Colorado River. As one of the most iconic whitewater rafting destinations in the world, travelers can choose from rafting trips with guides such as Wilderness River Adventures and Arizona Raft Adventures, which range from a few days to up to two weeks. Rapids can range from calm to intense, but no matter what, the scenery will be breathtaking. 

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

5. 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 500 feet 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

6. Canyoneering | Moab, UT

Known for its world-class mountain biking, Moab offers 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 these routes 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

7. Waterfall rappelling | White Mountains, NH

Few things are 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 100 feet 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

8. 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.

Bungee jump off the Stratosphere | Las Vegas, AZ
Photograph: Courtesy StratJump

9. Bungee jump off the Stratosphere | Las Vegas, AZ

If it's an adrenaline rush you're after, look no further than this iconic Vegas attraction: bungee jumping off of the Stratosphere, the tallest observation tower in the US. In fact, the Strat SkyJump is the highest commercial decelerator descent facility out there—you'll leap from 829 feet up in the air with views of the Vegas Strip, descending at speeds over 40mph. Not for the faint of heart!

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

10. 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 3,000-foot Dawn Wall of El Capitan, to tackle its peaks. In addition to the popular 8,839-foot-tall Half Dome, easier summits include Washington Column, which has a 1,000-foot route. Need a guided trip, climbing lessons, or equipment rental? Yosemite Mountaineering School has you covered. 

Dive with sharks | Jupiter, FL
Photograph: Courtesy Florida Shark Diving

11. Dive with sharks | Jupiter, FL

If you're not one to be particularly afraid of "Jaws," head to Florida for a once-in-lifetime experience diving with sharks. The state has the highest concentration of large sharks on the East Coast, and shark diving trips with operators like Florida Shark Diving let experienced divers and novices alike get in the water with a variety of kinds of sharks, including tiger, great hammerhead, and reef sharks. Depending on your risk tolerance, choose to dive in a cage—or freedive. 

Paragliding | Maui, HI
Photograph: Spencer Spellman

12. 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, the highest peak on Maui at 10,000 feet. Beginners can test their mettle with the shorter 1,000-foot descent, but for the true adventurer, the 3,000-foot option features up to 15 minutes of airtime over the island’s lush tropical landscape and lavender farms. 

Hiking a 14er | Colorado
Photograph: Shutterstock

13. 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

14. 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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