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Extreme, All-American Adventure Tours

These trips take strength, determination and a little bit of courage

spinner image Rafters roll through the infamous Pillow Rock rapid on the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia.
Rafters roll through the infamous Pillow Rock rapid on the Upper Gauley River.
Harrison Shull/Aurora Photos/Cavan/Alamy

Everyone likes the idea of an adventure. And everyone wants to like the idea of an extreme adventure. But what, precisely, does that mean?

There is no single or simple definition. Some adventures are bound by physical ability or inherent danger. Others are defined by the financial means necessary for such a trip. Others are simply a bucket list of challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone.

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But all extreme adventures are set by individual willingness and determination. If you’re thinking about an “extreme” adventure for a vacation, here are a few across the United States that might fit the bill.

spinner image Several tourists carefully observe a polar bear from their boat hosted by Akook Arctic Adventures.
Tourists carefully observe a polar bear from their boat hosted by Akook Arctic Adventures.
Steven Kazlowski/Akook Arctic Adventures

Polar bears

The world’s largest land carnivore has no fear of you. None. If this sparks a primal human fear, that’s good. It should. Seeing a polar bear in the wild has few equals in the natural world. To do so, of course, means traveling north, the far north. Polar bears live only in the Arctic and can be found in remote Arctic regions of Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway and, of course, in the far northern regions of Alaska. One prime U.S. polar bear spot is Barter Island, off Alaska’s North Slope, near the community of Kaktoviuk (2015 population 262).

​Viewing a polar bear in the wild is a seasonal pursuit. During the winter, the bears retreat to the polar ice. The area is remote and accessible only by air. Only a few polar bear tour outfitters operate in this area, including Akook Arctic Adventures.

spinner image Whitewater rafters crash through the Pillow Rock rapid on the Upper Gauley river near Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Whitewater rafters crash through Pillow Rock rapid on the Upper Gauley River near Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Harrison Shull/Aurora Photos/Cavan/Alamy

Whitewater rafting

Whitewater scours ribbons of the United States from Maine to Oregon, Wyoming to North Carolina and beyond. A run of Class III, IV or V whitewater can define extreme conditions.

One of the country's most scenic and thrilling whitewater runs can be experienced on West Virginia’s New and Gauley Rivers. The New River, which is one of the oldest rivers on the planet, includes a stretch that is now part of the New River Gorge National Park. The Gauley is a more technical and challenging river with dam-controlled whitewater runs that peak in September and October. Being an experienced outfitter is a must.

spinner image A Rainbow Trout caught on the Yellowstone River.
A rainbow trout caught on the Yellowstone River.
David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Steelhead fishing

Steelhead fishing is not for the faint-hearted, particularly on the Niagara River in January, where the average daytime high temperature hovers around freezing.

The 36-mile-long Niagara River connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. About halfway along its south-to-north flowing route, the river drops over one of the world’s most famous waterfalls. Niagara Falls gets most visitors’ attention, but a day or two on the lower Niagara will add a jolt of bone-chilling excitement to any wintertime adventure. Steelhead trout are a cold weather pursuit, and some of the biggest steelheads in the Great Lakes system retreat into the Niagara from early winter through early spring. ​

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spinner image A group of tourists enjoy a sightseeing cruise with Whirlpool jet boat tours.
A group of tourists enjoy a sightseeing cruise with Whirlpool Jet boat tours.
Wirestock Creator/Shutterstock

Jet boating

Spring, summer and fall Niagara visitors opting for a dose of adventure on the extreme side should consider a jet boat ride up the Niagara. The trip includes a run of Class IV-V rapids through the Niagara Gorge after negotiating the river's infamous Devil’s Hole section.

Jet boats tear through the gorge to Niagara whirlpool, an intriguing spot about one mile below the falls. Class VI whitewater (as rough as it gets) halts upstream boat traffic. It’s also been deemed so dangerous that state law prohibits boats from venturing above the whirlpool. Various outfitters offer trips, including Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. A few age and weight limits apply, but the company advises that tour participants of any age “be of good health, free of heart, neck and back issues and not pregnant.”

spinner image The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
The Everglades are the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
Getty Images

​Everglades

The Everglades swallow approximately 2,350 square miles of southern Florida and easily comprise the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Teeming with wildlife, the Everglades can be experienced by airboat, jet boat, canoe or kayak. There is enough adventure here for any level of expertise, interest or physical ability. Numerous tour services are available but err on the side of caution. Inexperienced travelers should go with others. ​

spinner image A couple paddles down the Eerie Canal in Saratoga, New York.
A couple paddles down the Eerie Canal in Saratoga, New York.
courtesy Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

​Paddle the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal, completed in 1825 and enlarged a couple of times since, was America’s first large-scale public works project. It’s still in use and worth a look and is best experienced by canoe or kayak.

If you can’t paddle the entire 362.9 miles don’t miss the Flight of Five Locks in Lockport, New York, an engineering marvel that lifts the canal across the Niagara Escarpment. And don’t forget a fishing rod, according to Bill Hilts, Jr., of Lockport, a boater and angler on the canal.

“Fishing the Erie Canal can be as easy or as challenging as you want it to be,” he said. “This is an underutilized resource that possesses outstanding potential.” ​​

Other ideas

  • Storm chasers: Yes, that's a real thing. You can ride along with tornado chasers. There's no better place to chase storms than in Kansas.
  • Herd cattle: A taste of the cowboy life is accessible to tenderfoots. Start here.
  • Climb Mt. Rushmore: Climbing the famed monument is prohibited, but you can trek the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail. Part of the trail is handicapped accessible, but the final 0.4 miles include more than 400 steps. Rock climbing is allowed in some areas of the memorial. You can learn more from the National Park Service.

Share your experience: What's the most extreme adventure you've ever taken? Let us know in the comments below.

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