Story by Peter Koch | Hemispheres, June 2017
America has no shortage of natural wonders— or thrill-seekers coming up with the creative ways to conquer them. From waves that ought to come with living wills to trails that hikers literally hang off of, Hemispheres takes a look at 10 of the most extreme adventures the U.S. has to offer.
Most Terrifying Hiking Trail
Zion National Park, Utah
Towering 1,488 feet above the Virgin River in the heart of Utah's Zion Canyon, Angels Landing, a sheer rock formation so named because “only angels might land upon it," is one of the National Park Service's most popular hikes—and also one of its deadliest. Starting at the river, the 2.5-mile trail winds its way up through Walter's Wiggles—a series of 21 pinball switchbacks—enters the cool confines of Refrigerator Canyon, and then ascends to Scout Outlook, a stunning overlook and the last turnaround point before things get, well, airy. The last half mile climbs more than 400 feet on a narrow, vertigo-inducing spine of (aptly named) slickrock. At points, the trail is only a few feet wide—just enough for one person to tiptoe along at a time—with cliffs dropping nearly 1,000 feet on either side. Those who are brave enough to take hold of the support chains that are bolted to the rock and pull themselves to the top are treated to panoramic, top-of-the-world views of Zion's Martian landscape of soaring red-rock cliffs and sculpted sandstone.
Wildest Sea Kayaking
Channel Islands National Park
Despite lying just 14 miles off the Central California coast, the five wind-scoured islands that make up Channel Islands National Park have a wild, end-of-the-world feeling that's hard to find anywhere short of the Galápagos. Surrounded as they are by a National Marine Sanctuary, the islands provide a rich habitat for a huge variety of species, including at least seven types of whale, dolphins, sharks, and tens of thousands of seals and sea lions that breed and pup on San Miguel Island each year. Several outfitters offer multiday kayak-camping trips to 96-square-mile Santa Cruz, the largest and most accessible island. There, you can explore kelp forests, paddle into some of the world's largest sea caves, scour pristine tide pools, inspect 10,000-year-old shell mounds left by the ancient Chumash, or hike up to 316-foot-high Cavern Point to spot whales before bedding down for the night to the sound of crashing waves.
Most Sadistic Obstacle Course
World's Toughest Mudder
This is the biggest and baddest of the Tough Mudder endurance races. Runners strive to complete as many circuits of the five-mile loop course as possible in 24 hours, with each lap containing 20-plus exhausting obstacles—everything from monkey bars to a challenge that's similar to the board game Operation, complete with electric zaps—plus more than 800 feet of climb-ing and a jump from a 35-foot cliff into hypothermia-inducing Lake Las Vegas (hint: wear a wetsuit), all with night temps that drop below 40 degrees. Just finishing takes grit, but win-ning the $100,000 prize and claiming the title of World's Toughest Mudder requires a commitment bordering on masochism. Each of the top three male finishers last year completed more than 100 miles, and the top female put in 85. Maybe their mudders were mudders…
Most Suicidal Ski Run
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Wyoming
Set at the top of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain and named after famed local ski instructor and mountaineer Barry Corbet, this vertiginous double-black-diamond run is the most challenging of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's legendarily tough trails. Corbet's Couloir is a bucket-list run for countless skiers who, upon peering over its edge and considering their own mortality, very carefully back away. (Hello, performance anxiety!) The crux of the line is the dizzying entrance, which drops anywhere between 10 and 30 feet off a cornice into a tight chute, only to land on a 53-degree slope between steep rock walls. If you manage to stick the landing—and pray that you do, or you're in for a long, embarrassing “yard sale" of a fall—you'll need to execute multiple powerful, technical turns at high speed to make it out safely. Once you're free, though, you can arc big, graceful turns onto the apron of Tensleep Bowl below and add your name to the list of legends.
Deepest Canyon Descent
Hells Canyon isn't America's most famous gorge, but at 7,993 feet, it is the deepest (the Grand Canyon descends 6,093 feet at its lowest point), and a five-day rafting trip down the Snake River offers perhaps the country's best waterborne mix of adventure, natural beauty, and history. The Snake's clear, relatively warm waters yield some of the best whitewater rapids in the Northwest, and its calmer stretches teem with prize rainbow and steelhead trout. From the boat, you'll also get an intimate, ant's-eye view of an impossibly rugged landscape populated by bald eagles, bears, and mountain goats, and short hikes from the banks lead to abandoned century-old homesteader cabins, as well as dozens of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs. All of that merges into a classic Western adventure that's greater than the sum of its parts (and, yes, a river runs through it).
Most Bodacious Bodysurfing Wave
Newport Beach, California
At the Wedge, a powerful shore break off the east end of Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula, a long jetty relays south swells that form monstrous, wedge-shaped waves, often topping 30 feet during South Pacific storm cycles. They're too steep and unpredictable for surfers at these times—usually summer and fall—but just right for the grizzled local bodysurfers who venture into the frothing chaos in the hope of catching one of these freight-train waves and gliding torpedo-fast down its face. If you're feeling brave, don your fins and dive right into Mother Nature's spin cycle.
Highest Place to Hang Out
Telluride Via Ferrata
Seen from downtown Telluride, the soaring cliffs on the southwest face of 12,785-foot Ajax Peak appear impassable for anyone other than a stunt double from Cliffhanger. But the via ferrata, Italian for “iron road," a trail of cables and iron rungs that cuts across the sheer face, allows anyone the opportunity to traverse the mountain. Well, anyone who's brave enough to clip into a steel cable and shimmy out onto the rungs. To tackle the via ferrata—locals call this one “The Krogerata" after Chuck Kroger, the climber and ironworker who built it—hire a guide service to get you outfitted (with helmet, climbing harness, and clips) and show you the route, which follows old mining trails to a ledge that disappears where the iron starts. From there, it's just you, the iron, and jaw-dropping views of the box canyon below.
Most Crippling Cycling Race
Dirty Kanza 200
A 200-mile bike race that rattles over the unpaved roads of Kansas's rugged Flint Hills, the Dirty Kanza is as scenic as it is treacherous. The tallgrass-prairie views will take your breath away—if you have any left after pedaling through the heat and wind and over tire-shredding, frame-busting, fist-size chunks of gravel. And god help you if it rains and the roads are churned into a chunky peanut-butter mud that chokes up drivetrains and snaps derailleurs. The full Kanza (there's also a 100-mile “Half Pint" version) is a relentless race against mechanical failure, dehydration, the setting sun, and, in the end, yourself. Anyone who crosses the finish line—only 59 percent of participants did so last year—is a winner.
The unpaved roads of Kansas's rugged Flint Hills
Most Surprising Ski Slope
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado
Not all of Colorado's best runs are located among the snowy peaks of Vail and Aspen. In fact, the wide-open slopes of Great Sand Dunes National Park have untracked knee-deep powder that's ripe for the picking—that is, if you trade your snowboard for a sandboard. Yes, sandboarding is a real thing, and this park, with its 170 billion cubic feet of sand, is its unofficial capital. Rent a board—they have extra-slick bases and special wax—at Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, and hike 2.5 miles across a veritable moonscape to 750-foot-tall Star Dune, North America's tallest sandpile. Trudge up to the summit and strap in for a rip-roaring ride in a remote—and unforgettable—setting.
Hardest Day Hike
Cactus to Clouds Trail, San Jacinto Peak
Palm Springs, California
It's not simply the height of 10,834-foot San Jacinto Peak that makes it America's toughest day hike (Mount Whitney, after all, is almost 4,000 feet taller). What's really killer about the Cactus to Clouds Trail is that it climbs nearly all of its 10,300 feet from the floor of the Coachella Valley in just 14 miles. It doesn't help that the trail starts in the searing desert—with no water available for the first 10 hours or so—and ends at an elevation where it can snow year-round. Hikers often set out in the predawn darkness to beat the heat, which makes route-finding a challenge on the mountain's lower flanks. Is it worth the trouble? Just ask John Muir, who wrote, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!" Reach the top and you'll have earned that view—and a ride home on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.