Thrill-seekers abound, but what constitutes adventure varies person to person. While some seek the biggest rush -- activities such as skydiving, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting -- others may feel that any activity that allows them to step outside their comfort zone (think flying, traveling solo, or mountain climbing) is a great adventure. It’s all relative.
Heide Brandes, a friend I travel with sometimes, is, at least compared to my personal gauge of adventure, fearless. In Mobile, Alabama, when we were offered a chance to kayak with alligators and told that we would see them sliding off the banks and lurking just below the surface, she was first in line to sign up. No matter what adventure is offered, she excitedly jumps without thinking and says yes! I’ve seen pictures of her paragliding over Cape Town in South Africa, riding a camel to the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, ice climbing, and more.
Given her unbridled enthusiasm for any adventure, I was surprised to learn that Brandes’s bravery didn’t come naturally. She told me that she used to think she was afraid of heights but realized she’s really afraid of falling. So as long as she feels like whatever is holding her is secure -- like when zip-lining or inside a small engine airplane -- she feels safe. It helped her to overcome this fear and move beyond it.
Adventure travel is booming, especially for older demographics. In its Industry Snapshot Report, the Adventure Travel Trade Association said that the largest group of adventure tour operator clients (41 percent) are between the ages of 50 and 70. The average age of the adventure traveler is 49 years old.
Since everyone’s idea of adventure will vary, I decided to go big in choosing these thrilling outdoor adventures in the U.S.
1. Sport Fishing On Noyes Island, Alaska
One of my greatest adventures was sport fishing in remote Alaska at the Steamboat Bay Fishing Club. Since my fear used to be of flying (after taking so many flights the past few years I now love it) I was still a little hesitant about the seaplane ride we would take to get to the island. Instead, it was an absolute thrill to watch the beautiful terrain below as we took the 40-minute flight. And surprisingly, the water takeoff and landing were much smoother than in a large aircraft.
Three days fishing with a group of four women was a dream vacation that I’ll never forget. There was a sense of accomplishment that came from the physicality of catching (and later eating) my food source.
Pro Tips: Book well in advance as the lodge is limited to four groups of four. Also, read up on my top eight reasons to book a women’s sport fishing trip for detailed advice and inspiration.
2. Swimming With Manatees In Citrus County, Florida
While manatees are no longer considered endangered, they are still listed as threatened. Currently, there is only one place in the Southeast of the United States where you can legally swim with these amazing creatures. That place is Citrus County, Florida.
Rose Braggs knew she wanted to have this incredible opportunity. She said while the act itself wasn’t extremely dangerous or difficult, it “was amazing to be so close with an often-aloof animal.”
“I was able to come at the start of ‘Manatee Season’ in November, and these quiet swimmers all but surrounded me, often without my knowledge. This experience was so vividly otherworldly and impactful that I've rewatched my own footage of it many times. Watch the video of Bragg swimming with the manatees to see these gentle giants up close.
Bragg said all you need to experience it for yourself are a paddle craft (she rented hers from Crystal River Kayak Company), a snorkel, a wetsuit, and a life jacket. When the springs are open you can swim at your leisure and be captivated by the manatees that glide below you.
Pro Tip: Bragg recommends following the Three Sisters Springs Facebook page to know when the springs are open to visitors.
3. Deep Dive The Wreck Diving Capital Of The South In Panama City Beach, Florida
Known for some of the best shipwreck diving on the Gulf Coast, Panama City Beach is a premier diving destination for both beginner and advanced divers. Guests can become scuba certified with Dive Locker and discover hidden, underwater treasures, including the destination’s newest artificial reef, the El Dorado cruise liner.
This 157-foot former luxury cruise liner was destroyed in Hurricane Michael and was later sunk (in May 2019) to improve the marine life conditions and provide an exciting new destination for area anglers and divers. Whatever a person’s level of diving experience, the ideal underwater adventure awaits as divers will get up close and personal with octopus, grouper, and other colorful wildlife that frequent these waters.
4. River Rafting In Lansing, West Virginia
In Southern West Virginia, you’ll find Adventures on the Gorge, a multi-faceted adventure resort.
Mona Mesereau said she will never forget rafting Gauley River during “Gauley Season” with the tour company. She said that most of the year, the Gauley River -- one of two raft-able rivers in Southern West Virginia -- is a thrilling adventure, with 24 miles of dynamic and unpredictable challenging rapids. In the fall, though, the famous river turns into the “Beast of the East” with nine Class V rapids and 97 total rapids Class III and above. (Class V rapids are the largest navigable rapids.) The rapids are created when water is released on a set schedule from the Summersville Dam on 22 days (weekends and select Mondays and Thursdays).
Adventures on the Gorge offers a two-day Gauley River Deluxe River Overnight trip that includes two days of river rafting, one night of riverside camping, and a gourmet meal. After a day on the river, the guides and staff prepare a gourmet meal, pour adult beverages, and build campfires. Mesereau said that after an invigorating day of rafting, “It is pure luxury to sit in a chair and watch the river while the staff sees to your comfort.”
Then after getting off of the river, there are two zip lines, a challenging aerial adventure park, and a thrilling bridgewalk on a 24-inch catwalk high above the New River.
“As a 50+ adventurer who is generally a nervous rafter, Gauley Season river rafting taught me lessons about facing my fears head-on. Although I’ve done many adventurous things over the years, rafting the Gauley River remains the most intense and thrilling adventure I’ve ever had. And even now a few years later, I recall the adventure with a sense of accomplishment and pride,” Mesereau said.
5. Trek With Llamas From Vail To Aspen, Colorado
Vail has long been an adventurer’s getaway brimming with hundreds of miles of outdoor trails and rivers for hiking, biking, fishing, and more. One way to explore the wilderness on foot is with a llama assisted backcountry hike. Paragon Guides, a local outfitter and guide company, offers day and overnight backcountry hikes that can be tailored to hikers of any level. Adventurous spirits can embark on a multi-day hut hike, hiking to some of the areas backcountry huts that are part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association.
On a five-day llama trek, you’ll travel by day with a small pack of llamas who carry personal gear and the group’s food. At night, enjoy a meal together with fellow hikers, play a game of cribbage, or read a book by the fire. The trip includes two guides, hut and lodge accommodations, all meals, a sleeping bag, and the llamas.
Editor’s Note: Paragon Guides’ llama experience also made our list of the best things to do near Vail in the fall, along with Turtle Tubing and whitewater rafting.
6. Helicopter To Santa Catalina Island, California
Hop aboard an exclusive helicopter flight with IEX Helicopters, arrive on Catalina Island, then check in to coastal casual Hotel Atwater, just a block from the beach and located walking distance from everything you need. Explore the backcountry of Catalina on a biofuel Hummer expedition for a chance to spot a bison. Or, for more adventure, take to the trees on the exhilarating Zip Line Eco Tour. (Their oldest participant was over 90, so this adventure isn’t just for kids!)
Kristin Leigh Metcalfe said, “One of my personal favorite things to do is cruise along the coast on the Cyclone powerboat to the rustic town of Two Harbors and enjoy paddleboarding, kayaking, miles of hiking trails, and more! Two Harbors is a true outdoor adventurer’s paradise.”
7. Skydiving Over Niagara Falls, New York
Skydive the Falls in Niagara Falls U.S.A. offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- a tandem skydive jump over majestic, roaring Niagara Falls. Beginners are more than welcome with their first-time skydiving package, which includes a short class upon arrival and an expert-led harness and gear fitting. Then, you climb up to an altitude of 12,000 feet. The freefall lasts about 45 seconds, followed by a scenic, five- to eight-minute parachute ride down, during which you’ll have views of rainbows and Class-5 water rapids, the Buffalo and Toronto skylines, Old Fort Niagara, the Great Lakes, and, of course, the incredible falls themselves.
8. Cliff Camping In The Rocky Mountains
Spend the most memorable night of your life with a big wall experience cliff camping in the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park, Colorado. Sleeping on a portaledge used to be reserved for “big-wall” climbers with years of experience. Over many years, Kent Mountain Adventure Center guides, many of whom are elite big-wall climbers themselves, have helped create an experience that makes cliff camping far more accessible. Not only will you spend a night like a big wall climber, but you’ll have niceties mountain climbers could only dream of: steak dinner with wine and omelets and lattes for breakfast, all served from your room in the sky.
9. Helicopter Flight Training In Westchester, New York
Helicopter flight training with Wings Air is a great adventure for women (and men).
No prior flying experience is required, and there is no upper age limit. The ability to fly depends on the individual's physical and mental ability. This once-in-a-life-time adventure combines stunning aerial views with the thrill and challenge of learning to fly a helicopter.
The lesson begins with a ground briefing covering helicopter flight controls, flying techniques, and safety procedures. During the 30- or 60-minute flight with a professional flight instructor, you’ll take the controls of one of the Robinson helicopters while taking in the stunning view of Westchester County, New York, the Connecticut coastline, and the Hudson River.
10. Parahawking In San Diego, California
Fly above the coast with a raptor. La Jolla’s coastal cliffs offer the best and most consistent flying conditions on earth -- this is why they are a popular paragliding spot for thrill-seekers who dare to jump off the bluffs and soar high above the Pacific waters. But what makes this experience unique in San Diego is doing so alongside a falcon. Parahawking is a once-in-a-lifetime experience offered at the Torrey Pines Glideport by Fly With a Bird. A trained raptor freely leads the way alongside a tandem glider, whenever both the weather and bird agree the time is right.