Top Adventure Travel Destinations for 2019

You’re ready to get out of Iowa – to travel and do something adventurous this year – but how do you choose? There are thousands of adventure travel destinations waiting to be explored, and you want to do something active and exciting, but still approachable. The good news is that there are amazing adventure travel destinations that don’t even require a passport or a full day of travel (although if you’re looking for that, check out number 4 on our list).

We spoke with Kelsey Gerhold, vacation and adventure travel specialist with Destinations Unlimited in Cedar Rapids, as well as several local travel enthusiasts, to get the lowdown on where you should go for adventure in 2019, whether you’re into hiking, kayaking, dog sledding, biking, or sand boarding. Read on for our recommendations.

1. Alaska

There’s a reason Alaska is often called “The Last Frontier.” It’s the truest wilderness in the United States, with millions of acres of untouched forests, clear rivers filled with salmon, massive glaciers, and expansive bays with picturesque mountain peaks beyond. There is a wild, rugged beauty that beckons visitors, and endless options for adventure when you visit. And if you’re not laying over in Canada, you don’t even need a passport.

Kelsey rattled off a long list of adventurous options that her clients partake in, including fishing, whale watching, hiking, guided ATV rides through the woods, dog sledding, and helicopter tours. This is just the tip of the iceberg (sorry, couldn’t resist).

If you’re looking for solitude and true wilderness adventure, there are abundant lodges situated near glaciers and in national parks, like Camp Denali in the heart of Denali National Park. Hiking, wildlife viewing, skiing, kayaking, and biking are abundant options at national park and private lodges, many offering the equipment you need since you’ll often travel by bush or float plane. Because Alaska is still so wild, airplane is a necessary and common way to get around and explore.

Cruise ship is another popular way to explore Alaska, allowing you to explore glaciers among the stunning, secluded straits and sounds of Southwest Alaska. If cruising doesn’t sound adventurous to you, it’s time to reconsider: Small-ship operators offer custom experiences and excursions and close access to wildlife viewing that you can’t get anywhere else. UnCruise Adventures, a tour operator that Kelsey has booked for local travelers, offers a Glacier Bay trip aboard a small ship with approximately 35 passengers who you will get to know as you dine and explore together. Expert guides, kayak excursions, hiking in national forests, and viewing miles of dramatic coastline and wildlife like puffins, whales, sea lions, harbor seals, and bear are among the highlights in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about UnCruise and Alaska’s top adventure travel destinations here.

2. Hawaii

Hawaii isn’t just about drinking mai tais on the beach and taking afternoon naps. The islands are home to soaring volcanic mountains, stunning waterfalls, secluded coastlines and more to actively explore. “Sales to both Alaska and Hawaii have been on the rise the last few years,” Kelsey said. Kauai, called the Garden Island, and the Big Island are the top adventure destinations among the islands.

In Kauai, board a sailboat or catamaran heading up the Na Pali Coast on the western shore of the island. The cliffs, valleys, sea caves, and beaches of this region are famous for their awe-inspiring beauty, and they’re protected as part of the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park and can only be accessed by foot or boat. Tour companies offer snorkeling, scuba diving, rafting, and viewing dolphins and sea turtles.

You’ll never run out of unique hiking opportunities on Kauai: head inland to Kokee State Park and Waimea Canyon State Park for challenging rainforest treks, simple strolls to beautiful lookouts, and routes through swamps and along streams. Go paddleboarding or kayaking in Wailua River State Park and stop to explore waterfalls along the river.

And that’s all on Kauai. Hawaii, the Big Island, offers even more adventurous activities. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park you can actually view an active volcano: visitors to Kilauea Volcano may see lava sputtering from the crater or lava flows along the beach, depending on the day. Break away from the tourists and explore the fascinating landscape by biking the 36-mile Summit to Sea route or hiking a portion of the 7-mile one-way Crater Rim Trail. You can even get a backcountry camping permit or camp at one of the designated campgrounds.

The western coast of Hawaii features the calm, clear waters that the island is known for, making it one of the most amazing places on earth for snorkeling and scuba diving. If you’ve never been but want to learn, you can take a diving course at one of many dive shops. You may have seen photos of colorful fish amongst coral, but there is nothing like experiencing it in person.

3. Peru (Cusco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu)

South America is an underappreciated destination for adventure travel: It’s closer than southeast Asia, it’s more affordable than Europe, and it has an amazing diversity of cultures, landscapes and wildlife. Ecuador, for example, contains coastal beaches, the Andes Mountains, massive volcanoes, lush rainforests and the Galapagos Islands, all in a country about half the size of Texas. You may also appreciate the lack of jet lag, since you’re flying due south and changing only a time zone or two.

If you’ve never been to South America, Peru is a thrilling country in which to begin your adventures. You’ll explore ancient ruins, hike in cloud forests, go ziplining and mountain biking, and experience culture and cuisine unlike anywhere else. And thanks to world famous Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan ruins dating to the 1400s and the second UNESCO World Heritage site on this list, there are abundant accommodations and itineraries to fit every traveler’s fancy (and budget).

Most international flights arrive in Lima, the capital city, and from there you’ll take an hour flight to Cusco, a town nestled at 11,152 feet in the Andes Mountains. Explore Incan temples and ruins in the city, and make your way through the Sacred Valley, a 40-mile stretch of fertile farmland. Spanish colonial villages here like Pisac and Ollantaytambo are worth a visit, especially Pisac’s Sunday handicraft market.

The real adventure starts when you hit the Inca Trail, perhaps the world’s best multi-day hike. The entire hike takes about four days, but if you’re short on time, you can take a bus from Ollantaytambo near Cusco to Agua Calientes. From there, it’s a stunning one-day hike through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu. You’ll get your first view of the ruins from the Sun Gate, which is the approach used by the Incans. You can choose to spend a morning or afternoon in the ruins, but if you’d like to spend the whole day, you have to get a ticket for both. (You’ll want to spend a whole day: there is a magic here that escapes explanation.) You’ll take a bus back down, but know that the line gets long early.

Whether you do the full or one-day hike of the Inca Trail, you’ll hire a guide, which a travel agency like Destinations Unlimited can help you with. And if it’s a bit too touristy for you at Machu Picchu, there are plenty of excursions off the beaten path, from biking through Sacred Valley to ziplining in the cloud forest. If you’re especially adventurous (and good at adapting to altitude), you might even consider hiking Huayna Picchu, the peak that forms the backdrop for all pictures of Machu Picchu. Make sure to book it as an excursion with your tour operator (or on your own – at least six months in advance).

4. Atacama Desert, Chile

“[It was] one of the most beautiful trips of my life. I’ve seen such amazing panoramas that sometimes I couldn’t believe I was on earth. I recommend to spend at least one week and to take as much trips as possible,” says one Local Guide.

We’ve included the Atacama Desert on this list for those of you looking for something new and particularly adventurous. The Atacama Desert is a rising star destination thanks to its otherworldly beauty; unique landscape including salt flats, sand dunes, volcanoes and lagoons; and the best stargazing on the planet.

Located on a plateau in Chile (the long, narrow country directly south of Peru along South America’s Pacific coast), the Atacama Desert covers a 600-mile strip of land west of the Andes Mountains. It is the driest desert in the world. It’s this dryness, along with high altitude and a lack of light pollution, that make the stargazing so unbelievable. Erin Althoff, a native Cedar Rapidian who recently wrote about the Atacama Desert for a travel guide, explains it like this:

Watch the heavens unfold as you observe the Milky Way, galaxies, nebulas, planets (and sometimes the moons orbiting them), and even shooting stars. For the best experience, visit during a waning moon, new moon, or eclipse, which provide the darker nights with more visible celestial bodies.

The feeling of being in space is intensified because of the terrain: in the Valley of the Moon, the dramatic, ancient landscape makes it feel as if you are, in fact, on the moon, glowing red and pink at sunset. And in Death Valley, the soil of the desert is somewhat like that of Mars, making it a popular place for filming Martian scenes. In Death Valley, you can try out sandboarding. You’ll hike to the top of a dune, which is not for the faint of heart, enjoy the view from the top, and board down. Sandboards are available for rent in San Pedro de Atacama, your jumping off point for exploring the desert.

In addition to stargazing and sandboarding, top adventures include visiting Los Flamencos National Reserve, where you can visit seven unique landscapes including shallow salt lakes that are nesting grounds for native flamingos (the park is named for the flamingos you will see), clear blue lagoons, and the Tambillo section with tamarugo trees that grow only in this region of Chile and seemingly grow without water.

You can also visit stunning, multi-colored peaks in Rainbow Valley, explore the desert by horse, and hike at Tebinquinche Lake, which provides a crystal clear reflection of the sky and the setting sun.

And that’s a wrap! For all destinations, we recommend researching the best time of the year to visit so you’re prepared for the weather, and booking at least six months in advance. Kelsey at Destinations Unlimited would be happy to help you plan your trip, as well.

Want to cut down on your carbon footprint and stay a bit closer to home? Kelsey recommends Salida, Colorado as a less-touristy Colorado destination for mountain biking, hiking, and skiing in a quaint little mountain town, population 5,000. Additionally, Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada is still a beloved destination among Cedar Rapids travelers for gorgeous mountaintop treks.

And if you enjoy small group trips, join one of Soko Outfitters private adventure trips! The Grand Canyon hiking trip sold out quickly; watch our website and Facebook page for the next trip announcement, happening soon.

Happy traveling in 2019! Let us know where you’re headed in the comments.

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