The United States of adventure
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.
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.