The Wild List: A Guide To The Best Outdoor Spots

A definitive guide to the hottest, sweetest, looniest, and most colorful spots in the great outdoors.
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A definitive guide to the hottest, sweetest, looniest, and most colorful spots in the great outdoors.

Best Beach Hike

Lost Coast, CA

There are two kinds of Lost Coast hikers: those who get rain and those who don't. If you're one of the former, we feel your pain, having snorkel-hiked the trail ourselves. But take heart and try again--after all, an hour of sunshine here is worth a month of blue sky anywhere else. Head to the southern section (22 miles) for a roller-coaster hike that features secluded, wave-dashed coves, fields of secret springtime wildflowers, foggy redwood groves, and dazzling ocean views as regular as the tide. The northern section (24 miles) is for beach lovers, with only seals for company; it's a remote break for surf-packers that offers a chance to see bear prints in the sand. Too good to be true? Nope, just thank the quad-burning terrain that thwarted early road builders and protects you from the hordes who would be here if it weren't, well, the Lost Coast.

Toughest Dayhike

Devil's Path, Catskills, NY

That's right, the Catskills. But before you scoff, do the math: 26 miles, 7 peaks, and 18,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. To conquer the Devil in a day, you'll need a light pack, strong legs, and a predawn start. That and an insatiable hunger for all the killer vistas you'll see along the way.

Top Spot To Do The Wild Thing

Denali National Park, AK

Screw Virginia. Alaska is the place for lovers. We especially like Denali, where the tundra is soft and your nearest neighbors are days (and decibels) away. Bears, wolves, and caribou, not to mention 6 million acres of untracked wilderness, will help you get in touch with your primal side. Plus, the visual Viagra kicks in with any view of the Big One (that's Mt. McKinley) rising in the soft pink light of dawn.

Coolest Rope Swing

Bass Lake, CA

There's no better way to recapture your childhood than to hurl your body into a crystal clear swimming hole. Our favorite place to launch into such nostalgia is Bass Lake, a cool gem in Point Reyes National Seashore near Bolinas. (Camp at nearby Wildcat Beach.) On some days, swimsuits are optional equipment, but be sure to bring an extra layer in case the fog rolls in. Geronimo!

Best Stargazing

Davis Mountains State Park, TX

When you're in the mood to go to a really dark place, spend a stunningly starry night in this west Texas park. In fact, light pollution research from the International Dark Sky Association identifies this empty country as one of the darkest places in North America. Throw in the park's mile-high elevation, southern latitude (think big sky), low humidity, and wide-open landscape, and you have yourself a Texas-size star-watching party.

Wildest Spot For July 4 Fireworks

First Flatiron, near Boulder, CO

It's the ultimate skybox for the big show: the summit of the First Flatiron, a 1,000-foot-high slab of red-rock leaning up against the Colorado Front Range. Where else can you watch the rockets' red glare from above? Just be sure to pick a route that matches your climbing ability and keep an eye out for afternoon thunderstorms; there are some July fireworks worth missing.

Best Spot To Lose Your Therm-a-Rest

Glacier Bay National Park, AK

Sure, the banks of Glacier Bay are relentlessly rocky, the weather consistently dank, the summertime night notoriously short. All the more reason to rejoice when you find a thick bed of dried sphagnum moss to call home for the evening. When the sunrise wakes you at 3 a.m., sit up, take in the stunning view of Mt. Fairweather, and then head back to dreamy paradise on the world's cushiest mattress.

Perfect Place To Donate Blood

Everglades National Park, FL

More than 60 mosquito species call Florida home. If you want a chance to meet and greet them all, slather on the deet and head to the Everglades. Better still, come after a June rainstorm and paddle a canoe into the mangrove swamps and sawgrass marshes in the park's southwest corner.

Best Skinny-Dipping

Grapevine Creek, AZ

To hike the Grand Canyon at midday in late summer is to step into the world's largest food dehydrator. A few more hours, and you'd feel like fruit leather. But not on this day. You've found cool comfort pouring through perfect sandstone bathtubs. This is refreshment you can taste and feel. There'll be no more hiking today.

Most Idyllic Waterfall

Havasu Falls, AZ

They say there's no going back to Eden, but we beg to differ. Just park at Hualapai Hilltop in the western Grand Canyon, hike 10 miles through gaudy red-rock terrain, pitch a tent in the spray zone of Havasu Falls, and strip down to your fig leaf for a dip in the perfectly turquoise water. Between sessions lounging in the surreal bath and snapping 12,000 photos of the star cascade, there are more falls to explore (with a hair-raising downclimb to Mooney), a 4-mile trek to the Colorado River, and a trip to the village of Supai, where members of the Havasupai tribe have been living for about 700 years. In this paradise, avoid the temptation of a summertime visit (great for swimming, bad for hiking, worse for crowds). Go in spring or fall, and dress better than Adam and Eve.

Looniest Place in America

Boundary Waters, MN

The Boundary Waters are the Ur of loondom, summer home to more than 12,000 diving divas. For proof, rent a canoe from an outfitter in the northern Minnesota town of Ely. Schlepp through five portages to Knife Lake. Paddle well past Dorothy's Island, pitch your tent, and, as evening falls, attend the aria of the Northwoods. Sit through the whole repertoire--the wail, the tremolo, the soft and intimate hoot. Skip dinner: This is the original soul food.

Best Place to See a UFO

White Sands National Monument, NM

Maybe it's the moonscape of shifting white dunes that glow in the starlight. Or the proximity to the alleged 1947 Roswell Incident UFO crash site. Or all the secret "missile testing" exercises going on at Holloman Air Force Base right next door. Whatever it is, when camped in this remote stretch of New Mexico desert, you'll get a distinct, otherworldly feeling that you could be visited at any moment by cosmic travelers. And we're not talking about tourists from California.

Highest Campsite

Mauna Loa, HI

Beaches, snorkeling, tropical drinks. All good, but don't leave the Aloha State without climbing to the lip of Mauna Loa's vast, still steaming, sometimes snowy crater. Lay your bag amid the Seusslike lava surrounding the 13,250-foot summit cabin; it's a catbird seat for the next eruption, the rare chance to fall asleep atop a living, breathing volcano.

Lowest Campsite

Death Valley, CA

Furnace Creek may well be a vision of Hell--mind-blowing heat, sunburned beer bellies, and a sea of clattering Winnebagos--but it's your only opportunity to camp so far below sea level (196 feet, to be precise). And look on the bright side: If your tarp melts, you can always chill out at the local ice cream parlor.

Tastiest Post-Hike Eats

Sweet Sue's, Phoenicia, NY

The day Sweet Sue's burned down is the day we lost interest in the Catskills. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement--we still love the range's historic overlooks and hidden campsite--but our hikes just aren't the same if we can't punctuate them with the best brunch we've ever tasted. See for yourself when Sue's reopens this spring. Fashion a loop that leaves you in Phoenicia on Sunday morning, then order up a heaping dish of pecan-encrusted challah French toast with a small stack of raspberry and chocolate chip flapjacks. It's a meal worth returning to...again and again.

Best Place To Hear Wolves Howl

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone, MT

Here in Yellowstone's northeast corner, you might even see wolves from the roadside--chasing bothersome coyotes or spurring elk herds into thunderous flight. But to appreciate the wild cry of the continent's biggest canine, hit the trail. Our first time, it came floating on a soft winter breeze: the howl of a single gray wolf. Then, a chorus from his pack mates. We spied them on a treeless, snow-white ridge a quarter-mile

distant, eight heads thrown back against a stark blue sky.

Greatest Glissading

Mt. Shasta, CA

There are plenty of routes up Shasta that are less crowded, more scenic, and more challenging than Avalanche Gulch, but none offer a more thrilling descent. If the snow isn't too sun-cupped and your pants are up to the challenge, grab an E ticket ride from Red Banks to Helen Lake--a drop of 2,500 feet in just 15 minutes.

Best Place To Watch Bald Eagles

Resurrection Bay, AK

You've come for the same reason the eagles flock to this mountain-lined inlet: to fish the prolific salmon runs south of Seward. Dock your kayak on a lonely beach (try Caines Head State Park), and let the feast begin--berries and pan-fried fish for your stomach, majestic birds carving parabolas in the cerulean sky for your eyes.

Wildest Wildflower Display

Antelope Valley, CA

Holy crap. That's what you'll say if you're lucky enough to glimpse miles of rolling hills painted orange with California's state flower. The wildflower displays in the desert 15 miles west of Lancaster are so remarkable that the state designated a 1,745-acre area as the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. Visit during peak bloom (typically mid-April) and, please, bring extra film.

Best Place To Grab A Beer

Northern Lights Saloon, Polebridge, MT

It's an age-old tradition: Hustle from trailhead to bar and hoist a cold one before the sweat dries. We did just that after a glorious trek through Glacier National Park, collapsing on the grass outside this weathered saloon, which sits so close to the northwest edge of the park it feels like the wilderness itself is on tap. Before we could quaff our first pint, a grizzly emerged from the woods and loped within yards of our table. The log cabin is as wild inside as out, and the North Fork of the Flathead is close enough for a pre-dinner dip (did we mention gourmet food?). Our conclusion: In a barroom brawl, we'll take this pub against all comers. Bears or no bears.

Most Remote Wilderness In The Lower 48

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, ID

Silence like this doesn't hit you over the head; it caresses you until you notice it. But if you visit the Frank's 2.3 million acres of mountains and deep canyons, we promise you'll take notice. Its trailheads are hours away from any city, meaning few people and no urban lights to diffuse the heart-rending proliferation of stars. Out on the trail, we've gone days in absolute solitude, so certainly alone that every step seems momentous.

Top Spot To Muss Your Hair

Mt. Washington, NH

No place on Earth can match the usual bluster atop Washington. If a world record wind speed (231 miles per hour) doesn't convince you, consider that the summit sees hurricane-force gusts more than 100 days a year. Visit in winter for the ultimate bouffant.

Ultimate Raingear Testing

Hoh River Valley, WA

"Hoh" means "fast-moving water"--a tribute to the frothy river that tears down Washington's Mt. Olympus and sends spray up this sopping coastal valley. The moniker also fits the storm season, October through March, when more than 100 inches of horizontal rain and snow blast the towering Douglas firs and hemlocks and inundate the giant slugs, Hoh's fat, pale denizens of the moist. If your gear can make it there, it can make it anywhere.

Sweetest Sunset

Grand Canyon, AZ

Honestly, you can't go wrong anywhere in this grand theater when the sun dips low. But our favorite seat in the house is Yuma Point: a mezzanine-level peninsula where you can perch on a slickrock tip and get a front-row seat for one of the great backcountry shows on Earth. Bring a comfy camp chair and a mug of good wine, and be prepared for the price of admission: a 5-mile hike down the south rim's Hermit and Boucher Trails.

Easiest Place To Find Rattlers

Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

Jeez, just ask any decent herpetologist, and he'll point you to these mountain islands in southwestern Arizona. It's the only place you'll ever spot very rare species like the banded rock, ridgenose, or twin-spotted rattler. Just keep one eye out for blacktails and the other on the soaring, rocky scenery.

Where To Hear Yourself Think

Olympic National Park, WA

There's no quieter spot in the Lower 48. So says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has exhaustively measured sound levels in many of our national parks. Why is Olympic so silent? Our sound man says it's a combination of no bisecting roads, few chattering tourists, even fewer commercial overflights, and dense, wet forest.

Best Place To View Wild Sex

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, FL

From hundreds of yards you hear a clacking cacophony, like the collision of a million plastic bowls. Move closer and it gets weirder. A bizarre orgy takes place each spring on this barrier island refuge, during the high tides of the new and full moons. The beach is pocked with writhing mounds--the climactic mating of thousands of horseshoe crabs, ancient kin of the spider, the scorpion, and the tick.

Sweetest Backcountry Aroma

Kalalau Trail, HI

There are hundreds of miles of prime hiking on Kauai, but we're drawn to the serpentine 11-mile Kalalau Trail. And not for the stunning views of deeply fluted valleys and cloud-shrouded cliffs, but because the Na Pali Coast Trail--as it is more commonly known--is, quite simply, the best-smelling walk we've ever taken.

Any tropical hike presents a riot of olfactory delight, especially to someone who lives in suburbia. But the Kalalau is a true symphony of smell. As you traverse the beaches and valleys along the trail, occasional oboe-like highlights reach out: Is that curry? (You bet, in the form of buffalo grass.) Come on, eucalyptus and pine, down here? (Certainly, if the wind blows through the forests of nearby Kokee State Park.) What smells like fruit punch? (That would be the thousands of crushed guava that turn the trail into a sticky, aromatic mess, and the mangoes that grow wild in the valleys.) It's sweet enough to keep keep us haoles coming back time after time.

Best Place To Work On Your Tan

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ

Slather on your sunscreen and drive 40 clicks north of Yuma to this uncrowded desert park. The payoff: more than 325 days of sunshine a year, 7 inches of annual rainfall, and an average high temperature of 84°F. Avoid summer and the conditions will likely be perfect.

Steepest Trail

Huntington Ravine Trail, NH

Mt. Washington is a perfect laboratory to battle test your legs and lungs--especially if you take this straight shot to the summit. In one nasty stretch, the hands-on scrambler climbs 650 feet in .3 mile. Just follow the yellow blazes and keep your cursing to a minimum.

Best Bouldering

Joshua Tree National Park, CA

Our requirements for perfect bouldering: great rocks, great weather, great camping. Happily, the three converge at J-Tree. Go in spring or fall, bring plenty of bandages for the maze of cheese-grater granite strewn across the Wonderland of Rocks, and pitch your tent under the soul-satisfying silhouette of a Joshua Tree.

Grandest 360-Degree View

Humphreys Peak, AZ

The snow-capped San Francisco Peaks rise like a lighthouse in an ocean of desert, and from the top, it's as close as you'll get to feeling like you're looking out an airplane window with your feet still planted on the ground. From the 12,643-foot-high Humphreys summit, you'll get an unobscured view for hundreds of miles in every direction--the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the red-rock buttes of Sedona, the pastel cliffs of the Painted Desert--simply by turning your head.

World's Biggest Berry Patch

Sorry friends: There's not a chance in hell we're going to tell you where it is. (We love you, but not that much.)