The best gift for an adventurer is a great plan in a brand new place and a way to get there (gas $$, plane tickets, whatever). Problem is, dialing in a destination typically takes trial and error, which is why so many vacations end up scratching the surface, doing the same old trips which might look good on the map but don’t show the area particularly well (been there Mark, Murphy is a good dayhike but Island in the Sky is best by mountain bike). With that in mind, what follows are some states in the US, and what is in my experience the best way to experience them during one single trip. This is emphatically not a “best trip in ____ ” deal. The best trips don’t necessarily make the best vacations if you’ve never been to a given place.
With that in mind, and in no particular order:
Yosemite in the heart of the Sierra, and thus the heart of California. It also has all the evil clusterfuckitude of both the most populous state and national parks in high summer rolled into one. How to enjoy Muir’s cathedral snow-free and without the crowds? Our patented Tenaya Canyon loop.
Befitting California’s status as the cultural psycho-ward of the nation, this trip is a bit spicy. It should not be undertaken lightly, and demands fitness, solid route finding, and intermediate rope work. If you’re acrophobic, don’t even bother. First, pick a date. You only need two days. Reserve lodgings in Curry Village. The tent cabins are quite nice. Drive up to Tuolumne, park, put your food in a bear bin. Get an early start, for reasons which will discussed below. Your research should have provided you with a decent map and an aggragate of online beta. The route isn’t forgiving, but in good hands isn’t particularly obscure. If memory serves we only did two raps, and the massive manzanita thickets below the big slab descent was the hardest part of the whole day.
Ideally you’ll reach the final bit of boulder hopping and game trailing with enough energy to get it done in style, and thus roll into Curry Village before the insane dinner hordes. Pizza and beer on the deck sounds good, but when we did it four years ago M didn’t eat, bonked, barfed, and slowed to a crawl in the forest (with lots of vomiting breaks) and we didn’t get into the civilized valley until six or so. The line for pizza was 90 minutes at that point, so I ate microwave burritos from the store and M freaked people out by barfing in public. Again, ideally you’ll have a leisurely evening and go to bed early.
The second day is hiking back to the car, which has a lot of up but more than enough ridiculous views to distract. Get breakfast from the convenience store and get a jump on the crowds, but even if you eat at the lodge and have a lazy start you’ll hardly see anyone past the Half Dome cut off. Tagging Half Dome would be stylish, but you must take the extra trail up to the summit of Clouds Rest. The views of what you did the day before are tremendous, I’m aware of no better display of the slow majesty of glaciers. The rest of the way back to the car is a cruise.
Bonus for the well healed: stay and eat at the Ahwahnee.
Go backpacking in the Grand Canyon. So cliche, right? Just remember that cliches become embedded for good reasons. Also remember to backpack, not dayhike! You need to sleep down in the ditch to even begin to understand.
You’ll be backpacking the Royal Arch route. Hardest trailed route in the canyon? Mandatory rappel? Yep. Enlightenment does not come cheap. Haul lots of water, go light, bring 50 feet of rope. A body rappel works (feet are on good holds the whole time) if you’re confident. If not, one harness for the group. Go light, the rough terrain does not go easy on superfluous burdens. The rim may be cold, but you’ll sleep low.
Pick your season wisely here. The dirt roads out from Tusayan get ugly when the snow is melting. I made it in March, but only with the assistance of four-low. Autumn is the best bet. Summer is too hot. Get your permit and make the slow drive out. Camp at the rim, the views are tremendous. Bring fine food and wine for both pre and post-trip.
Get started early, you’ll want to camp in Royal Arch creek and there’s no sense in rushing. The ledge crawl section going down to the creek is overhyped, and can be avoided by going down-canyon right instead. The talus field right below would be a good place to break a leg. Recall, this route gave us yuppie 911. Royal Arch creek itself is awesome. You’ll probably get your feet wet. The trip down to the arch is absolutely worth it, and would be a fine camp site.
The next morning might feel tense, but the trail down to the rap is obvious and the rap itself features a massive natural anchor. The going along the river might be slow, but the massive amount of mica in the boulders is pretty cool. Pop back up to the Tonto, and you’re back on developed trail and just have many miles and vertical left to complete one of the best loops on the planet. There’s no good food in Tusayan, so grab Wendy’s to tide you over and run for Tacos Los Altos in east Flagstaff. It may look humble, but is not to be trifled with. The Fish Tacos and Chile Rellenos are both outstanding.
This one is easy. Go to Crested Butte. In late July. Bring your mountain bike. Ride the Alpe d’Slate to 403 to 401 loop. Get a beer out on the deck of the Brick Oven. Then ride it again the next day.
Utah, on the other hand, is tough. It’s hard to argue against skiing and mountain biking, but the one thing Utah has truly in a way like no other place on earth is slot canyons. There’s a very good case to be made for a thru-hike of the Narrows as the best experience for a serious first timer, in one day for the fit, two for the contemplative, but Zion is too much of an anomoly in the Colorado Plateau. Too big, too lush, too much water. The Swell has appropriate remoteness, the Escalante is suitably labyrithine, but since this this is rapidly trending towards some rather technically demanding recommendations, I’ll go with my gut and say that the Not-Mindbender Fork of Robbers Roost is the best overall canyoneering experience in Southern Utah. Remote, obscure navigation, high-stakes anchor building, no bolts, a delicately exquisite main canyon and hard fourth class exit: it’s all here (don’t mind Tom’s upgrading, it’s a soft 4A, and should probably be a 3B). Maybe Mindbender and Mindbender are good too, and the campsite at the end of the dead-end road out on the point is unrivaled.
Get a big steak at Ray’s in Green River on the way out.
Go in early August. Bring the fly rod.
Yes, Yellowstone is technically part of Wyoming. Backpack the grand southern arc: along the east shore of Yellowstone Lake, across and over to Heart Lake, over the road and through the woods to the Bechler up and back over the Continental Divide, mandatory diversion to Shoshone Geyser Basin, then out at Old Faithful. Eat dinner at the Snow Lodge, and breakfast at the Inn. Not vice versa! Stay in the Inn, and call yourself to request a room in the old part. A room in the 150’s is recommended.
A day hike in the ‘Dacks: start in Keene Valley and shoot the ridge south of John’s Brook all the way to Marcy, hitting every summit. Hike back along the creek, and hitch a ride back to town. Get some pie at the cafe.
The time and space for argumentation, addenda, and your input on states I screwed up or didn’t list is below. Have at it!