Cities often get the lion’s share of our travel-dollar love. It’s easy to see why — there are Michelin starred restaurants, booming breweries, and food trucks to visit. Who can argue with spending your time riding a bike through a booming metropolis with a gelato in hand? Who can complain about booking trips to NYC or Chicago or Austin?
But cities aren’t the only gems this country has to offer. America — densely populated as it is — has huge swaths of open and wild spaces, otherwise known as the Great Outdoors.
Just how much open space are we talking? Take this as an anecdotal example — Montana and Germany are roughly the same size, but Montana has just over one million people compared to Germany’s 82 million people. Germany still has a crazy amount of wide open spaces. So, comparatively, Montana may as well be empty.
Those wide open spaces come in many forms across the country. We have alpine mountain highs, desert valley lows, dense forests, gator-filled swamps, giant lakes, and two coasts peppered with every kind of beach you can think of. There are lots of opportunities out there to unplug, turn off your smartphone, and take in a little of the nation’s nature.
So to help in your quest to explore America’s backcountry we’ve compiled a list of a few choice destinations. These are some cool trips where nature is front and center. These are places where you can find a little quiet amongst the stunning natural beauty of America’s backcountry.
REGIONAL NATIONAL PARKS
There are 59 national parks to choose from across these great states. Hitting all of them in one summer vacation is nigh on impossible. However, hitting all the national parks in a region of the United States is more doable than you may realize. In fact, the travel company Liligo.com figured out the times and costs of doing just that.
They found that the fastest and cheapest national parks route is the East Coast Route which includes, Acadia, Shenandoah, the Great Smoky Mountains, Congaree, Biscayne, the Everglades, and Dry Tortugas. The route takes you down the whole east coast of America. It’ll take about 27 hours of travel time between flights and driving and costs on average $406 for the transportation. Of course, you can spend more than that by buying first class tickets and that doesn’t include food or accommodations. But it’s a nice start to a summer vacation on a budget.
Other possible national park routes:
California Dreamin’ Route (all nine California national parks) — 46 hours travel time with an average cost of $535 for a car rental.
Traveling North to the Future (all eight Alaska national parks) — 57 hours travel time with an average cost of $1,693 for car rental and various flights between extremely remote parks.
Pacific Northwest Route (four parks in Oregon and Washington) — 26 hours travel time with an average cost of $613 for car rental and a short flight.
EXPLORE ALASKA’S INSIDE PASSAGE
Hitting the backcountry doesn’t always mean you have to spend a fortune gearing up and sourcing kodiaks and snow machines in preparation for an expedition. Sometimes you deserve everything taken care of for you on your vacation — even if you’re going to the backcountry. Maybe the cruise life is for you.
There are a couple options to see the incredible natural beauty of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Regents Seven Seas’ Alaska Cruise offers seven night trips from Vancouver to Seaward starting at $5,500 for an all-inclusive package. You don’t have to worry about anything. You just need to show up and be ready to explore.
If the intensity of a full-on massive cruise ship isn’t you thing, consider a small ship with National Geographic Expeditions. The National Geographic cruise boats generally have a capacity of 100 people (compared to the thousands on board a classic cruise ship). The small cruises also offer a closer glimpse with a focus on nature, photography, and indigenous culture. Prices start at $5,890.
TREK IDAHO’S SAWTOOTH MOUNTAINS
Idaho’s wilderness is vast. The Sawtooth National Forest is part of a massive network of public land that connects directly to the Salmon-Challis, Payette, Bitterroot, and Nez Perce–Clearwater national forests. That’s millions of unspoiled acres waiting for you.
Multiple guides are available for trekking, hiking, rock climbing, fishing, and hunting. If you’re a complete beginner at rock climbing, there’s a course for you. Expect to spend a few hundred a day for a guided class. If you’re a professional mountain climber, there are plenty of peaks for summiting. Expect to spend around $500 for a guided route up a mountain. In between is some of the most pristine wilderness in America with dense forests and an abundance of wildlife.
SAIL THE GREAT LAKES
The great inland seas of Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario offer thousands of islands, beaches, forests, and ports of call for any weary sea-faring traveler. There’s so much to offer on either side of the US-Canadian border that you could spend years exploring the area and only scratch the surface.
One of the best ways to explore the Great Lakes is by boat. If you don’t already know how to sail, don’t let that stop you. You can spend your summer vacation learning to sail or honing those skills. Companies like Great Lake Sailing offer two-day introductory crash courses ($475) to week-long expert courses around the lakes ($1,295).
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE NAVAJO NATION
Why not go to whole other country within the United States? The Navajo Nation is an immense (27,000 square miles) corner of the country encompassing Canyon de Chelley, Monument Valley, Bisti Badlands, Churchrock Pyramid, Rainbow Bridge, and Window Rock, just to name a few stops.
You can easily self-guide yourself around the wonders of the Navajo Nation. However, with over 40 percent of Navajo living in abject poverty, it’s important to inject your tourism dollars directly into the community by hiring local guides for hiking, camping, fishing, and cultural activities. And don’t forget to eat fry bread. Every day.
DRIVE HIGHWAY 550 THROUGH THE COLORADO ROCKIES
The stretch of Highway 550 between Durango and Ridgway is known as the Million Dollar Highway. The 107 mile trip along mountain roads will have you feeling like you’re re-staging the opening scene from The Shining. The road winds past peak after gorgeous peak with little mountain towns peppering the valleys.
This is a pretty straight-forward self-guided trip. It’s easiest to fly in and out of Denver while renting a car there. All told, a roundtrip including the Million Dollar Highway will take 14 hours driving time. The rest is up to you!
GET LOST IN THE MISSISSIPPI SWAMPLANDS
In the immortal words of Sterling Archer, “AIRBOAT!” They’re certainly the best way to check out the Mississippi backcountry swamps along the Gulf Coast. These backwaters or bayous are swampy forests teeming with wildlife — and gators.
Renting an airboat for a few hours with a local guide is only going to set you back $30. But it really is the best (and most fun) way to see the Mississippi Swamps. For a little more subtle exploration, hit the trails through the Cypress Swamps along the Natchez Trace Parkway. You’ll be transported to a world of hanging moss and inky black water supporting entire forests.
HIT UP THE BLACK HILLS
South Dakota’s Black Hills has a long list of monuments and attractions. You can stay in the old mining towns cum tourist meccas or you can head out on the thousands of miles of trails that crisscross the Black Hills National Forest. That’s 1.25 million acres of wilderness to explore, hike, fish, and trek.
If you can use a map and compass (and have you own camping gear), it’s definitely worth trekking the area on your own. If you’re not quite there yet, there are plenty of local guides and rentals to help you along your way to an adventure in America’s Great Outdoors.