“Whoa, look at that!” I called out to my 9-year-old son, Harper, as we floated beneath the Ferris wheel and the Tower of Doom. The attractions of downtown Denver’s Elitch Gardens looked especially frightening from this angle.
Frankly, I was a bit scared myself, as we were not in the amusement park — we had created one of our own. We were floating on stand-up paddle-boards, navigating the South Platte River, which courses through the Mile-High City.
Sure, I’ve been an avid SUP fan for years, but that was out in the country, on the placid lakes and ponds of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains in the Northeast. Now we were city mice, suddenly feeling very small amid the skyscrapers.
But we also felt brave as we let the current pull us along the Platte, taking in the scintillating sights and laughing with my 11-year-old daughter, Dillon, and my husband, who were also paddling nearby.
After gorging on Little Anita’s renowned green-chili breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros, we’d rented the boards from a shop right on the river, next to Denver’s Downtown Aquarium. In the afternoon, arms and abs aching, we swapped our life jackets for helmets and flight suits as we dared to try indoor skydiving at Denver’s iFLY.
Like many families with preteens, we’d recently lost a fair amount of family time to screen time. I’d also been traveling quite a bit for work (in pre-pandemic times) and was admittedly feeling a bit of midlife malaise.
But that day, embarking on novel, thrilling experiences in a city we already knew so well, we staked out some space for family bonding while also pushing our bodies — and our newly adventurous minds — out of our comfort zones.
It was a memorable day, and definitely not distinct to Denver. From coast to coast, almost every metropolis teems with imaginative outdoor adventures that do double duty.
Partly an adrenaline-fueled way to explore a city, and partly a fitness-forward outing for the family, an urban adventure can do a lot to reawaken your love of your hometown. From scuba diving in Chicago to wakesurfing in Austin, these city-mice excursions pay off twice.
“It’s really nice to find an escape when you live in a busy city,” says -Jessica Young, a cellar and quality manager for a brewing company in Nashville. “With so much sensory overload, it’s great to kick back, experience nature, and take a breath, relax, and re-center yourself. And then you can enjoy all that the city has to offer — treating yourself to a really nice dinner after a long day outdoors. It’s the best of both worlds.”
High Stakes in Las Vegas
When Bill and Kathy Sympson were looking for a spot to test their limits, they looked no further than Sin City. And no, they weren’t testing their gambling skills — they were going on a guided tour at one of the top rock-climbing spots in America with Joel Enrico of the Mountain Guides.
“Our guide was able to push us to do things we thought we could never do,” Bill recalls. “And it wasn’t just the climbing, but Las Vegas itself. If you need a break from pushing yourself, you can go into the city and see a show or people watch.”
Some 25 miles from the Mirage and the Bellagio, the climbing mecca of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area offers a dynamic destination for every discipline, from bouldering in Calico Basin and Black Velvet Canyon to tackling 5.11 patina faces.
“It is just awesome to climb to the top of a cliff and look around from Red Rock,” says Kathy. “It offers something for everyone, from the beginner to the super-experienced. You can climb as hard or as easy as you want out there.” (Half-day trips from $140; www.themountainguides.com.)
Climb On: Not far from New York City, you’ll find world-class climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains, rife with routes for every ability. Or make your base camp in Tucson; Boulder, Colo.; or North Conway, N.H.
A New Revolution in Boston
Paul Revere may have ridden a horse to warn of the Redcoats coming, but Beantown’s preferred steed these days is a mountain bike. “You can hop on a bike, ride through the city, and end up at Middlesex Fells Reservation,” says Alex Doig of Boston’s Urban AdvenTours. Here, the Mountain Bike Loop is a beginner- to intermediate-friendly trail, thanks to the fire roads that make up 85 percent of the circuit.
For a more challenging ride, hit the Reservoir Trail, which features 70 percent singletrack and 30 percent fire roads. A bit farther afield, you’ll find popular trails at Wompatuck, Great Brook Farm, and the Blue Hills Reservation — all a tea bag’s toss from historic Boston.
You can also explore the Emerald Necklace on a 15-mile route that links many of the stunning parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Snake through the city’s most charming neighborhoods while catching a view of the Boston Common and Public Garden, Charles River Esplanade, and the newest public park of the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
It’s especially colorful in October, when New England’s famous foliage adds an extra shot of awe and adrenaline to the adventure. (Mountain-bike rentals from $100; www.urbanadventours.com.)
The Wheel World: Mountain-biking options also abound in Phoenix, Vancouver, and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Surf’s Up in Austin
Water-sport aficionados abound in the Lone Star State. Lake Austin, located near downtown Austin, is the new hotspot for wakesurfing.
“It’s amazing,” says Dave West, a longtime surfer who now teaches the sport, in which surfers (with or without a rope) ride a wave generated by a specialized powerboat.
Enthusiasts say there’s just something about the freedom and joy of skimming and carving along the surface of the water. “You can manipulate the wave in many ways,” explains West. “You can make it taller, longer, steeper, smoother. Think of it as a portable skate park on water.”
Ocean surfers, he adds, typically have to wait for waves and zap extra energy by paddling out for just the right one. This, combined with the difficulty of taking hydration and fuel out to sea on a single board, means sessions can be limited.
“But with the right boat, friends, and plenty of gas, you can surf all day.” At night, you can dry off while enjoying some of the country’s best barbecue (from the Famous Franklin), live music, and line dancing (at the Broken Spoke).
Hang 10: Some other city spots to try wakesurfing include Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Seattle.
Big Cities, Bright Sights
Horseback Riding in New Orleans
Who knew that you could ease into the saddle in the Big Easy? The city of beignets and Creole cuisine also offers lessons and guided trail rides on 50 acres of private woods and open fields from Saddle Up & Ride, one of several companies that equate “equine” with a good time in NOLA. From $40 for a one-hour trail ride; www.saddleupandride.com.
Hiking in Los Angeles
Hello, Hollywood! Get up close and personal with the iconic sign by hiking through Griffith Park. At more than 4,000 acres, it’s five times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, and L.A.’s weather makes it accessible for year-round adventures.
“When you think of L.A., you likely first think of the Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive, and the beaches — plus cars, traffic, and lots of people,” says guide Trevor Morrow. “This makes it even more surprising when you discover that L.A. also has fantastic hiking trails that offer moments of reprieve from the busy city.”
Once you’ve taken the perfect Instagram shot of the Hollywood sign, head out to the city’s west side for the Paseo Miramar Trail and the Temescal Canyon Loop. Both offer great workouts and views of the Pacific. The longer hike to Eagle Rock in Topanga State Park involves a slightly more rugged experience in the Santa Monica Mountains, and incredible mountain and ocean vistas. Tours start at $45; www.hikingtourslosangeles.com.
Scuba Diving in Chicago
After gazing up at the 1,450-foot Willis Tower, look down underwater — with an air tank — to discover Lake Michigan’s shipwrecks. The Great Lakes are home to an estimated 6,000 sunken maritime disasters, making Chicago a surprising destination for a sport typically associated with the seashore.
Newbies can learn how to scuba dive when they’re not enjoying Navy Pier or shopping along the Magnificent Mile. Where else but the Windy City could you experience sky-high architecture, authentic deep-dish pizza, and deep-water adventures dating back hundreds of years? Pricing available at www.learnscubachicago.org.