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Time Travel Across America

National Parks in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico

There’s no better way to witness the mythic grandeur of the Wild West than on a scenic train voyage. GrandLuxe Rail Tours takes you to iconic spots like Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, “the American Serengeti”; the slickrock canyons of southern Utah, home to the Anasazi culture’s ruins; or the Grand Canyon’s variegated spires and plunging ravines, symbols of an epochal geology. The tour captures the romance of a bygone era with  relaxing, luxurious rides that bridge the vast distances between these legendary landscapes. Fly into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and roam around Grand Teton National Park for a day, then head for Yellowstone. Watch Old Faithful blow, board the train for dinner and drinks, and wake up in Utah, on your way to the beautiful cliffs and rock formations of either Bryce Canyon (at left) or Zion national parks. The next day, visit the Valley of Fire State Park outside Las Vegas before heading to the Grand Canyon. Additional stops in Sedona, Arizona; Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Salt Lake City round out the ten-day itinerary. The train’s 21 cars include two diners, where gourmet meals are served nightly, two bars, and two observation areas. Pullman and other modified cars provide comfortable sleeping to the rocking of the rails. There’s a feel-good factor in this sit-back-and-relax option, too: Compared to flying, train travel emits about one-tenth the greenhouse gases.  


Swim With the Sharks

Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia

Seven of the Tuamotus’ 78 mid-ocean atolls comprise a newly created UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, featuring one of the most fascinating and accessible marine ecosystems on the earth. These thin rings of land—formed on top of extinct volcanic cones that have long since subsided into the sea—surround warm, shallow basins of water in the vast South Pacific Ocean. Some of the best snorkeling in the world waits just beneath the calm surface of the lagoons, where sharks—mainly blacktip reef—cruise around by the dozens, providing long close-ups of  the ocean’s most fluid swimmers.

Ancient Polynesians believed sharks were agents of the gods, sometimes benevolent and sometimes vengeful. You’d be excused for fearing the latter. But here both ancient and popular myth melt away: Surrounded by a banquet of natural prey, Tuamotu sharks show precious little interest in snorkelers. After exploring the vivid coral beds, you can retire to the laid back Hôtel Maitai Fakarava for fresh mahimahi in vanilla sauce. Though not advertised as an eco lodge, the Maitai treads gently on its surroundings by virtue of its location inside reserve boundaries. 

Engage in a 30,000-year-old Hunting Tradition

Central Kalahari, Botswana

Hunting and killing prey for survival became fodder for our earliest sojourns into ritual and myth. For 30,000 years, the Kalahari’s Bushmen have hunted kudu, gemsbok, wildebeest, and eland, understanding their prey in a way only possible when a people live in true symbiosis with their environment. They remain in vital contact with this evolutionary imperative. Tour operator Uncharted Africa offers an amazing opportunity: the chance to accompany Bushmen on their initiation hunts and to briefly immerse yourself in the hunter-gatherer culture of the oldest tribe in southern Africa.

Botswana’s Joan/Huansi Bushmen inhabit a remote land roamed by lions, leopards, giraffes, and meerkats. When you visit, you’ll be handed a digging stick and sent afield with women searching for grub—even an adolescent Bushmen girl will recognize more than 200 kinds of usable plants. You’ll sample bush foods like ostrich eggs, wild spinach, and roasted beetles (more conventional fare is prepared by your guide, too). But the highlight is a hunt: A young bushman tries to track a large antelope and down it with a poisoned arrow. In so doing, he passes from adolescence to manhood. You follow the hunters as they read the landscape’s subtle signs and imitate the animal’s stride, imagining themselves as their prey. Afterward, pieces of the catch are burned and ground into ash, then rubbed into cuts sliced in the initiates’ bodies—a symbolic transference of the animal’s survival skills to the hunters. To ensure that the presence of visitors is neither intrusive nor exploitative, each guide works with Bushmen elders to maintain the dignity of the community. This is the only trip of its kind in the world and the only chance to observe  nature’s predator-prey relationship in a manner so little changed from its evolution since the dawn of humankind.


See the Arctic Through a Researcher’s Eyes

Hudson Bay, Canada

Each Arctic October or November, polar bears congregate around Cape Churchill, Manitoba. They wait there until ice shelves consolidate, allowing them to wander onto the sea. Several tour operators lead trips to Cape Churchill, but none come with the encyclopedic knowledge of researcher Charles Jonkel. His Great Bear Foundation is dedicated to the global conservation of bears and their habitats, and he has been researching the majestic animals for nearly 50 years. Instead of packing you into a buggy and driving you around all day, Jonkel’s expeditions let you put boots on the ground and wander around the tundra; you can actually feel the wind, pluck snow-covered berries, cut chunks of frozen ice to build igloos, and read animal tracks on the landscape. Nowhere on Earth is global warming changing conditions faster than in the Arctic, and Jonkel has witnessed those changes firsthand. Seeing polar bears through his eyes provides a rare opportunity to understand the demands of a world in which bears—for now, anyway—reign supreme.


Enter the Heart of the Jungle­—by Day and by Night

Rio Napo, Ecuador

Napo Wildlife Center is built on a lagoon swimming with caimans, electric eels, and piranha. The center invites guides to use its waterways to transport you to its 120-foot canopy tower, from which you get a bird’s-eye view of toucans, barbets, tanagers, harpy eagles, and hundreds of other varieties flitting about the treetops. Tours also take you to mineral licks, where parrots and parakeets congregate in a festival of color; or to local villages, where you can meet the indigenous Añangu people, who operate the lodge as an economic alternative to destructive resource extraction.

In the evening, you head out onto the Amazon in a dugout canoe. As the lush floras disappear into blackness, new marvels appear. Tiny lightning bug–like insects float around the lily pads at the water’s surface, like thousands of Chinese lanterns; bats skim past in search of fish; caimans, ocelots, and other critters that spend daylight hours lurking in the foliage begin their hunt for food. When you see the caimans’ eyes shining in the beam of your flashlight, you’ll know just how close you are to that long snap-trap full of teeth. Day trips to this part of the Amazon reveal its colorful wonders, but it’s the nighttime outings that keep you tingling in your skin.


NEXT: The final five adventures >

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Orangutans in the Mist

Borneo, Indonesia

As the last living remnant of a rainforest that once covered most of Southeast Asia, Borneo is a lost, remote world. Much of this island, which is split between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, still exists as it has for ages, home to species found nowhere else on the earth, including rare Borneo pygmy elephants, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and a significant number of tree species. At the Camp Leakey rehab center, Biruté Galdikas studies orangutans and rehabilitates captured ones for reintroduction into the wild. (Galdikas is one of the “Leakey Ladies,” the trio—Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were the other two—of renowned primatologists led to the field by archaeologist Louis Leakey.) It’s hard to get closer to orangutans in their natural habitat than at Leakey, which runs its own trips to the jungle.

Borneo’s rainforest is so dense and bewildering that traveling on foot is nearly impossible. So a visit to Camp Leakey means you’ll be transported via kelotok boats—think the African Queen, only longer and narrower. The kelotok allows you to float under low-hanging trees where proboscis monkeys frolic overhead and to approach other wildlife you’d never get close to while crashing through the jungle. The boats ply the rivers by day and provide a comfortable place to sleep at night, but the real highlight is waking to the layers of sound pealing through the trees.

Reach Camp Leakey via the Orangutan International Foundation.

Check in on Darwin’s Theory

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Most cultures can point to places where their creation myths were born. In the Galapagos, myths come undone. It was during a visit to these islands in 1835 that Charles Darwin pondered how similar ecological niches were filled by different species on islands separated by just a few miles. Darwin’s ultimate solution, the theory of natural selection, methodically explains how life on Earth came to look as it does today—which, in the Galapagos, is almost exactly the way it looked when Darwin was there.

The Galapagos’ highly regulated visitation program creates a certain sameness in tour options, but it also minimizes visitors’ disturbance of the wildlife. (Some Galapagos tortoises have been plodding around the islands since shortly after Darwin published his theory, almost 150 years ago.) Limiting the number of tourists has also fostered a lack of fear in the animals, practically guaranteeing intimate encounters. Be sure to book a small boat, like the sixteen-passenger catamaran Cormorant II, that lets you jump in the coves and reefs, and snorkel. The pageantry underwater is every bit as dazzling as it is on land. In his diary, Darwin described this chain of small islands as “a little world within itself.” And through him, they came to elegantly explain something about the rest of the world. If you want to connect with the fundamental elements of nature, the Galapagos Islands are a must see.

Book the Cormorant II through tribes.co.uk, a fair trade travel agency.

Ride a Horse into the Mountains

Rocky Mountains, Montana

Galloping through a remote area on horseback, you connect intimately with both your animal and the landscape. In Montana’s million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Area (also called the Bob), horse hooves and hiking boots are the only way to get around. And what a wilderness it is: All of the region’s native creatures (with the exception of bison) still move through the Bob, a beautiful rarity. And if you’re riding a horse, the abundant elk and moose are more likely to stop and stare at you than to flee.

The Bob’s magnificent Chinese Wall, a 1,000-foot-high escarpment stretching for miles, and its glacier-scraped, U-shaped valleys are awesome monuments to the pure power of geology. Trout-stuffed, crystal-clear streams; broad meadows; and the pine-clad shoulders of countless mountains stand as testament to how this part of the world once was. Nothing is more quintessential to the American outdoors experience than the crackle of a campfire, the silhouette of a mountain in the moonlight, the howl of a coyote and—if you’re in the middle of the Bob—the gentle snort of horses.

To sign up for a ride, try jjjranch.com or wildernessranch.com

Stare Down a Jaguar

The Pantanal, Brazil

Mayans and other Mesoamerican cultures believed that the jaguar moved between the earthly and spiritual realms, which may explain why the elusive cat is one of the most difficult-to-spot large mammals in the Western Hemisphere. The single place you might actually see a jaguar is at the Jaguar Research Center. A working research facility, the center offers tours and accommodations for visitors; and it’s located in the Pantanal, an area about the size of West Virginia that comprises the world’s largest inland wetland system, complete with seasonally flooded savanna and forests full of tropical hardwood. (A no-hunting policy, abundant prey populations, and waterways with surrounding open spaces allow for more jaguar glimpses than does the jungle, where the cats usually lurk.) Located where Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina meet, the Pantanal is truly where wild things roam.

Eighty-two species of large birds—a world record—inhabit the region’s waterways, fields, and forests; giant otters and tapirs populate the swamps; piranha lurk in the waters. The research center sits in the heart of it all. In 2007, visitors saw 125 jaguars in 81 days of touring. No other operator comes close to that figure. Biofuel and rice agriculture projects threaten the Pantanal’s future, but attention from eco-tour operators like the Jaguar Research Center may help convince South American governments to preserve this ecological haven.

Live in Myth

Grindavík, Iceland

Early Icelanders thought the Valkyries—female deities of Norse mythology—took the form of swans to visit hot springs like Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, seeking restorative powers they could find nowhere else. Iceland is, in fact, a wonderful place to restore your own sense of wonder, where myth sits very close to reality across a landscape of boiling mud pools, craters, and lava fields gouged by volcanoes and glaciers.

Iceland’s plunging fjords, thundering waterfalls, and austere glacial interior make powerful impressions on a visitor, but the Blue Lagoon and other hot springs are easily the most comfortable—and visceral—way to let the country’s sense of lore inhabit you. As you soak, consider that Icelanders can still read their founding myths, the Sagas, in the original texts—the equivalent of our trying to read Beowulf in Middle English. Not coincidentally, a significant proportion of Icelanders believe that elves still inhabit features on the landscape; what could be perfectly straight highways were built with sudden jogs to avoid known abodes of little people. The country is also home to the Great Geysir (from which the word geyser originated), and instances of powerful geothermal energy shooting skyward can be a part of everyday life, providing frequent reminders of the fantastic forces that shaped the earth.

If you happen to visit the Blue Lagoon and elsewhere during the long nights between September and March, it’s likely the dark sky will ripple with blue-green sheets of aurora borealis. According to legend, that electric shimmer would be the Valkyries again—specifically, the reflections of their armor as they carry slain warriors to a final resting place in Valhalla.

NEXT: Eleven budget-friendly adventures >

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Wary of burning jet fuel? Scared by the dollar’s shrinking value? In search of kid-friendly options? These eleven outings reconnect you to the planet with ease.

Witness Abundance

Great congregations of wild animals give thrilling glimpses into those natural forces that operate beyond human interference: the Chesapeake Bay’s horseshoe crab spawn; sandhill cranes collecting in Nebraska; songbirds migrating through Lake Erie’s Point Pelee; and salmon runs through Seattle. State fish and game departments can point you in the right direction.

Employ the Scientific Method

Pitch in on a field research project and spend time absorbing the rich contents of a scientific mind. Researchers employ volunteers for days, weeks, or months at a time. Approach a nearby university or, to wander farther afield, contact Earthwatch. For a small fee, you can participate in world­wide studies of Mongolian wild sheep, Zambezi crocodiles, and more.  

Enter Rehab

Participating in the recovery of an animal injured by heedless human activity connects you to the wild heart. Check The Wildlife Rehabilitation Directory or your state wildlife agency for options near you.

Document the Rhythms

Photograph a natural place through its cycle of seasons or its various weather phenomena. Try to shoot

the exact same frame at regular periods for a year. In addition to revealing the subtle changes of time, returning to the same landscape will enrich your relationship to it. 

Return to Gathering

Mushrooms, asparagus, strawberries, mint, rice, huckleberries, herbs—all of these foods and more grow wild in various areas of the country.  Find out what’s ripening near you, and then take a day trip to tromp around in the fields and gather enough to make a meal—or several.

Track Down Your Dinner

Did you know that, worldwide, beef production creates more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry? Research where your food comes from, how it’s grown, what was displaced to produce it, and how far it travels to you—à la Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Swap Sweat for Grub

Sign up for a local Community Supported Agriculture or community garden and spend time working in the dirt in exchange for food. Be reminded firsthand of how rich and fecund the earth is—and reap great, local

and usually organic foods to munch on after your weeks of tilling. 

Count Birds, Not Sheep

Anybody can lend a hand and contribute to the National Audubon Society’s annual Great Backyard Bird Count—even without a field guide and binoculars. Last year, more than 80,000 people submitted checklists for the ornithologists’ snap­shot of bird distribution in North America.

Clean Water

Trout Unlimited and American Rivers are two groups that organize stream rehabilitation or river cleanup projects nationwide. And, of course, there’s Plenty favorite Chad Pregracke; his Living Lands and Waters team sweeps through the Mississippi and other

major rivers.

Read the Eco classics 

Don’t have time to explore the Arctic? Experience for yourself the words that informed and inspired the movement to save it and the rest of the natural world. A short list to get you started: Walden, A Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring, Song for the Blue Ocean, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Arctic Dreams, and The Lorax.

Camp in the Backyard

The old childhood favorite helps to regain that awe-inspired perspective on all things natural. It never grows, well, old.   

Story by Jeff Hull. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Adventures of a lifetime
From the ancient hunting rituals of the Kalahari Bushmen to the migration trails of polar bears, these trips are sure to awe and inspire.