I’m an adventure-seeker. I relax by looking at my atlas for the green blocks that signify parks and public land. I live in the Bronx, but I’m more likely to spend an hour driving to the mountains than an hour on the train to Manhattan.
Wild and untamed, nature inspires and thrills me. It started with my dad and sisters. In grade school, my three older sisters and I had a half day each first Friday of the month. My dad would pick us up, we’d get lunch, and head to Lone Elk, a large park in St. Louis County. Bison, elk, and recovering raptors at call the park home. The massive bison shredding bark off trees to scratch their heads enthralled me. Soaring eagles piqued my imagination. Preferring Shenandoah to amusement parks, our summer vacation usually involved some sort of camping.
Thus my tendency to wander off to where the wild things are. In college, I frequently went to nearby state parks and wildlife refuges for quiet, prayer, adventure, and the excitement of following a river. Indian Cave State Park on the bluffs of the Missouri River became a favorite spot. I decided to enter the Jesuits standing on those bluffs. As such a wanderer, my parents actually worried I was entering the Jesuits just to find more adventure. (I was.) But I was not seeking mere adventure.
Adventures are much more than fleeting thrills – they hold the stories that tell of wonderment, awe, sadness, trauma, and joy. They have helped me learn, grow, develop, play, discern, and believe. I joined the Jesuits to explore and learn these stories, pushed into it like wind carving mountainsides. The very nature of stories demands they be shared, and stories keep the people, places, things they related alive in our memories.
With summer vacation fast approaching, I thought I would share some my favorite adventure locations–even though some of their finest activities are fit for winter and fall. I’ve tried to spread them out around the country for equal-opportunity exploring.
#10 Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Petrified Forest sits about halfway between Flagstaff, AZ and Albuquerque, NM. It bears the name of its extraordinary rocks–which used to be wood. Trees were buried in sediment millions of years ago. Water pushed the sediment into the cells, eventually replaced it and creating a fossil of the tree. The park is home to many other fossils, stunning vistas and petroglyphs. Optimal for hikers, photographers, geologists, and botanists. Nearby places include Grand Canyon National Park, Tonto National Forest, and El Malpais National Monument. Its cool air in June is optimal, but it is absolutely gorgeous in winter.
The Jacks Forks and Current Rivers make up this stunning scenic area, home to lush forests, mysterious caves and an abundance of outdoor activities (think: floating, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, and camping). The lush flora and diverse fauna include some rare species. Plenty of caves line the river and nearby areas for exploration. Check out nearby Mark Twain National Forest, numerous state parks, and cross down into Arkansas to visit Buffalo National River. Crowds can get heavy on summer weekends, but this wide open area offers plenty of space and beauty.
You might be thinking me crazy for picking this over the numerous national parks and forests, but this state park provides stellar views, great hiking and climbing, and fewer car-bound tourists. Not to mention it is just forty minutes from Denver. The Aspen trees and panoramic views provide spectacular sights in any season. With over 30 miles of hiking trails, 19 of horseback and plenty of cross country skiing, getting those views is a treat in itself. The park abuts the massive Arapaho National Forest and is an easy drive to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Known for its fall foliage, this forest also has excellent hiking and mountain biking in the summer. A mix of open fields, wildflowers, deciduous and evergreen trees create an abundance of nature not far from small New England towns or major cities like Boston and NYC. Brooks, rivers, and lakes offer great scenes and water activities. Motor boats are prohibited, keeping it tranquil and quiet. Keep your eyes out for black bears, moose, coyotes, and white tailed deer. Green Mountain proves an excellent launching point for daytrips to the Adirondacks, White Mountains, Lake George and Lake Champlain, not to mention sections of the Appalachian Trail.
#6 Itasca State Park, MN
Visit the lakes carved out by the feet of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, the lands of the Ojibwe nation, and the headwaters of the Mississippi River. This land abounds with stories, from the rich history of Native Americans to American legends. These awesome stories complete the stunning landscape of lakes, rivers, old growth forests, and night skies. Hiking, camping, and cabins abound, making the stay comfortable and well worthwhile. Check out Voyageurs National Park on the US-Canadian border and Superior National Forest for extra hiking. Overnight canoeing and camping trips present amazing opportunities in the area.
Natural arches, a beautiful river, waterfalls, deciduous forests and awesome rapids cover this section of the Cumberland Plateau. On clear nights, over 2,000 stars illuminate the sky, making for spectacular evenings. Daytime holds equally stunning sights, with awesome geological formations throughout the area. You can take them in via horseback, foot, or paddling down the river. The more agile will enjoy jumping between the river boulders and panoramic views from the middle of the river. Daniel Boone National Forest sits just to the north, with Great Smoky Mountains National Park only two hours east.
#4 Grand Teton National Park, WY
Just to the south of Yellowstone National Park, this phenomenal range offers incredible mountains and lakes. Somewhat saturated with tourists, the park offers fantastic escapes. The hike around Jenny Lake, for example, hosts spectacular sites but few other hikers. Fish for excellent trout, scale mountains or take relaxing strolls along the river. One could easily spend an entire summer in the park, or nearby Yellowstone, Rockefeller Parkway, or numerous national forests, which have fewer visitors and amazing opportunities.
Situated in the Deschutes National Forest, this monument spans a number of microclimates and geologies. The lower volcano near Bend, OR, has caves, casts of petrified forests and the main visitor center. The caldera sits a few thousand feet higher with two gorgeous fishing lakes, massive obsidian flows and incredible views of south and central Oregon. Northern Paiutes called the area home, using the abundant obsidian for tool making and trading. Check out nearby Ochoco National Forest and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Or drive a bit further to Newberry’s sister, Crater Lake.
#2 Shenandoah National Park, VA
Only a short ride from Washington, DC, Shenandoah has the perfect balance for easy-going and hardcore adventurers alike. Sizable lodges offer relaxation and relative comfort. The more daring can seek out backcountry camping amid abundant black bears. Streams, waterfalls, and ample hiking trails throughout the area offer peaceful quiet. On the Skyline Drive, massive vistas offer stunning views, especially in the fall. Visit Big Meadow to see the human effects on the park. The Civilian Conservation Corps has a rich history here — try out the Ranger Programs to learn more. Further west, Washington and Jefferson National Forests add to the Appalachian beauty.
#1 Wind Cave National Park, SD
Enjoy two parks in one! The cave and the surface tell incredible stories. Named for the wind that rushes in and out of the cave’s only known natural entrance, this park houses 96% of the world’s known boxwork, a superb bison herd, excellent hiking and beautiful prairie. Cave tours range from handicap accessible to a four-hour crawling tour (NOT for the claustrophobic). Lakota consider the area greatly important, largely due to the creation stories associated with the cave entrance. Though cave exploration is limited, feel free to wander anywhere within the park. Camp here, or stay in lodges and cabins in Custer State Park just to the north. Use the park as a launch-point for Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower National Monument.
All photos except Wind Cave National Park were taken by the author. All rights reserved.