15 Adventures on Earth That Will Change Your Life
By Michael Lanza
Can travel “change your life?” How many experiences have such an enormous impact? I can name several that shifted my perspective, or expanded how I view the world and other people. Exploring the surreal landscapes of Iceland and Patagonia. Walking among Earth’s highest mountains in Nepal, through remote villages where people live much as their ancestors did for centuries. Immersing myself in the mountain culture on hut treks in the Alps like the Tour du Mont Blanc (photo above). And seeing unforgettable places like Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park, Italy’s Dolomites, and Alaska’s Glacier Bay through the unclouded eyes of my kids.
Our earliest and sometimes most inspirational experiences usually happen within our own national borders, and often close to where we grew up or live. (That was the case for me on a bicycle tour with two buddies in our home state when we were 19.) And without question, several U.S. national parks deserve a spot on any list of the world’s must-see destinations, among them the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier, Zion, and the Everglades—not to mention several parks in Alaska, where you can see the breadth of wildlife that once existed all over the planet.
But there’s something about traveling abroad that puts everything you see, hear, and touch under a magnifying glass. Everything is exotic. People talk and think differently. Culture is alien, history a refreshingly new collection of stories.
Blend those elements into a hike through mountains you’ve never seen before, or paddling pristine waters, and you have the formula for an experience that does alter our perception of the world and our place in it. Take a child on a trip like that and you may actually reroute the trajectory of a young person’s life—very much for the better.
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This article describes 15 international adventures I’ve taken from Europe to Asia and New Zealand, plus a couple of “bonus” trips in the U.S. and Canada: sea kayaking Alaska’s Glacier Bay and backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, in the Canadian Rockies—a total of 17 trips to add to your list. These short descriptions provide links to feature-length stories about each trip at The Big Outside that include many images and information for planning those trips yourself.
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Look at any list of the world’s greatest hiking trails, and the Tour du Mont Blanc almost invariably occupies a spot at or near the top of it. The first reason is the sheer majesty of this roughly 105-mile (170k) walking path around the “Monarch of the Alps:” Crossing several mountain passes reaching nearly 9,000 feet, it delivers views of glaciers, pointy peaks and “aiguilles,” and the snowy dome of Mont Blanc. But there’s also the rich cultural experience of passing through three nations—France, Italy, and Switzerland—as well as some of the best food I’ve eaten on any international trip. Plus, the abundance of scenic mountain towns and villages and availability of public transportation allows hikers to customize their trek, choosing which sections to hike depending on difficulty, weather, and how they feel.
See my story “Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc at an 80-Year-Old Snail’s Pace.”
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Undoubtedly one of the most prized trekking destinations in the world, Torres del Paine National Park is Chile’s Yosemite. In the vast region known as Patagonia, it is a place of severely vertical stone monoliths thousands of feet tall; imagine looking at Yosemite Valley stacked atop one of the deep valleys of Glacier National Park. Cracked glaciers stretch many miles long and wide, calving into emerald lakes, and the wind will knock you off your feet. Hiking hut-to-hut or camping on the roughly 31-mile (50k) “W” trek, on the south side of the mountains—where the weather is often better than the north side—takes in some of the park’s finest scenery.
See my story “Patagonian Classic: Trekking Torres del Paine.”
On a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through one of the world’s most spectacular and storied mountain ranges, Italy’s Dolomites, my family hiked a 39-mile (62k) section of the roughly 112-mile (180k) Alta Via 2 (AV 2), or “The Way of the Legends.” An alpine footpath famous for scenery that puts it in legitimate contention for the title of the most beautiful trail in the world, the AV 2 is also known for comfortable mountain huts with excellent food—and a reputation for being the most remote and difficult of the several multi-day alte vie, or “high paths,” that crisscross the Dolomites. On one of my family’s biggest adventures, we discovered that it was all of those things and more.
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Steam from hot springs and other geothermal features issues from scores of points stretching to a distant horizon. Mud pots bubble and burp, and the landscape is a kaleidoscope of color—paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, brown, rust, and honey against a backdrop of purple pumice and electric-lime moss. An old, hardened lava flow pours down one mountainside in a jumbled train wreck of razor-sharp black rhyolite. Chattering streams carry the runoff from July snowfields smeared across the highlands. And that’s just the first day on the Laugavegur Trail. A 33.5-mile (54k), hut-to-hut trek in the remote Fjallabak Nature Reserve of Iceland’s Central Highlands, it belongs on any list of the world’s most beautiful paths.
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Tongariro National Park looks like a place devastated by a very big bomb—which is sort of what happened. On a 12.1-mile dayhike over three of the main craters of Tongariro, you’ll summit one mountain that erupted 45 times in the 20th century and stand at the edge of another that last erupted little more than a century ago—an eye blink in geologic time. A third, just a few miles to the south, ranks among the world’s most active. But beyond its prolific volcanism, Tongariro is known for its strikingly stark, Technicolor moonscape painted in vivid shades of burnt red, orange, brilliant white, gray, deep black, yellow, and brown.
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Jotunheimen—which means “Home of the Giants”—contains the highest European mountains north of the Alps, starkly barren peaks rising to more than 8,000 feet. In this rugged, Arctic-looking landscape, vibrantly colorful with shrubs, mosses, and wildflowers, cliffs and mountains look like they were chopped from the earth with an axe, braided rivers meander down mostly treeless valleys, and reindeer roam wild. My family’s 60-mile (96.6k), hut-to-hut trek across Jotunheimen combined pristine wilderness with the most luxurious huts I’ve ever stayed in, a trail network that allows for flexibility in route options, and side hikes to summits with mind-blowing views of mountains buried in snow and ice, including the highest peak in Norway.
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The Milford Track in Fiordland National Park has earned a reputation as one of the great multi-day hikes on the planet in part for its views of Milford Sound. It’s also one of the hardest treks in the world to book hut reservations on. Instead—or in addition to trekking the Milford Track—spend a day paddling sea kayaks in Milford Sound, soaking up views of cliffs wearing a thick fur of rainforest rising to over 5,000 feet straight out of the sea, and waterfalls plunging hundreds of feet into the ocean. You may spot bottlenose dolphins and Fiordland crested penguins. Plan it for a day of clear weather—something of a rarity in Fiordland—and it will be a highlight of any New Zealand vacation.
Stay dry, warm, and happy. See my reviews of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
Billed as the southernmost trek in the world, the 22.7-mile (36.5k) Dientes Circuit around the jagged, rocky peaks of the Dientes de Navarino, or “Teeth of Navarino,” certainly qualifies as one of the most remote: At 55 degrees south latitude, the Dientes, which rise up from the edge of town and reach almost 4,000 feet in elevation, lie just 60 miles from the tip of South America and a short flight from the Antarctic Peninsula. While renowned treks in Patagonia, like those in Torres del Paine (see above), attract thousands of international trekkers every year, you may not see anyone else in four days on the Dientes Circuit—giving you a sense of what Patagonia was like before it became a darling of the international trekkers’ set. That’s not only because of its remoteness: This is a very strenuous, mostly off-trail hike that demands expert backcountry skills—all part of the challenge and reward of this unique backpacking trip.
See my story “Unknown Patagonia: Backpacking the Dientes Circuit.”
One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the three- to four-day, approximately 37-mile (60k) Kepler Track delivers a grand tour of Fiordland National Park’s diverse landscapes, from moss-blanketed beech forest to the tussock-carpeted high country. It ranks among the most scenic and varied hut treks in a country blessed with a crazy wealth of gorgeous trails. More than that, though, the Kepler presents a relatively mud-, flood-, and hassle-free, hut-to-hut hiking experience. Its hiker-friendly construction, and the relative ease of securing hut reservations compared with hugely popular tracks like the Milford and Routeburn, make it one of the most accessible hut treks in a land where everything from weather to logistics can mess with your adventure plans.
See my story “New Zealand’s Best, Uncomplicated Hut Trek: The Kepler Track.”
No time for a big trip this year? You need to read my “10 Tips For Getting Outside More.”
On a five-day, guided sea kayaking trip in Southeast Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, my family probed deep into one of the most pristine and largest wildernesses left on Earth. Surrounded by snowy peaks smothered in more than 50 glaciers, some of which explosively calve icebergs into the sea, Glacier Bay is a 65-mile-long fjord that opens a window onto what North America looked like when the last Ice Age drew to a close 10,000 years ago. A short list of the many critters you may see includes humpback whales, orcas, brown bears, Steller sea lions, and birds like black-legged kittiwake, pigeon guillemot, bald eagles, two kinds of puffin. Few trips in America are this wild.
See my story “Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking Glacier Bay.”
Although just spitting distance from the popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers. But that’s not due to an inferior experience. The 37.2-mile (60k) Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mount Aspiring National Park, goes from lush forest of twisted beech and ferns to treeless sub-alpine terrain carpeted with tussock grasses and the dagger-like fronds of speargrass. You’ll get sweeping views of glaciated mountains from 4,747-foot (1,447-meter) Rees Saddle and on the trail to 5,000-foot (1,524-meter) Cascade Saddle, including the striking pyramid of Mount Aspiring looming above the green Matukituki River Valley.
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The tiny mountain kingdom of Nepal has long held an exalted status in the minds of international trekkers, and the Annapurna Circuit stands beside the trek to Everest base camp as Nepal’s most popular and accessible. Over roughly three weeks, you’ll walk about 150 miles from village to village, below some of the world’s tallest peaks, glaciated giants so unfathomably big that, at times, they can seem drift farther away even as you approach them. You eat and sleep in teahouses while following an ancient trade route over the Thorung La, a mountain pass at 17,769 feet. After three decades of adventures all over the world, this remains one of the most culturally fascinating and beautiful trips I’ve ever taken.
See my story “Himalayan Shangri-La: Trekking Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit.”
Doubtful Sound, a remote, roughly 30-mile-long fjord in Fiordland National Park, awes you with its scale. For two days, we paddled sea kayaks below cliffs up to 4,000 feet tall plunging straight into the sea, and so thick with rainforest that you rarely see the rock. The cliffs display lighter-green streaks of newer vegetation growing in the wake of a “tree avalanche,” which occurs when root systems can no longer bear the weight of the forest sprouting from a cliff. Native crested penguins nest on a small, densely forested island in the fjord. The often mirror-flat sea reflects soaring cliffs choked in jungle. And unlike Milford Sound, reaching Doubtful Sound entails complicated logistics or a long journey by boat—meaning relatively few people see it.
I’ve learned a few things from traveling all over the world. See my “10 Tips For Doing Adventure Travel Right.”
Within the first few hours of our four-day family backpacking trip on the 34-mile (55k) Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, we stared up at what looked like a pair of El Capitans standing shoulder to shoulder, then saw one of the tallest waterfalls in the Rocky Mountains, Helmet Falls, which drops 1,154 feet (352m). But that was a mere sampler of what was to follow. Backpackers on the Rockwall follow the base of a nearly unbroken, 18-mile-long (30k) limestone escarpment in Kootenay’s Vermilion Range, plastered with glaciers and towering as much as 3,000 feet (900m) above the trail. It’s no exaggeration to liken it to dozens of the tallest cliff in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, lined up in a row stretching for miles.
See my story “Best of the Canadian Rockies: Backpacking the Rockwall Trail.”
It’s not hard to imagine why the native Maori people of New Zealand believe that the Whanganui River possesses a mauri, or “life force.” Paddling a canoe on its gentle waters, you descend a gorge of 200-foot-tall sandstone and mudstone cliffs draped with jungle-like foliage and cut by ribbon waterfalls. Cicadas buzz almost deafeningly. The 54-mile-long stretch of the Whanganui from Whakahoro to Pipiriki, mostly within Whanganui National Park, hits a rare trifecta: unusual natural beauty, fascinating human history, and easy enough for people with basic paddling skills, including families. The Whanganui River Journey is the only water-based trip listed among New Zealand’s vaunted Great Walks. It’s considered so special that in 2012 it became the first river in the world granted the same rights as a citizen.
See my story “River of Many Stories: Canoeing New Zealand’s Stunning Whanganui.”
Protect your expensive gear when traveling. See my “Review: The Best Gear Duffles and Luggage.”
Rising above Spain’s central east coast in the province of Valencia, a chronically sunny mountain range of soaring limestone cliffs and razorback ridges sits within sight of tourist-flooded Mediterranean beaches—but remains so obscure that the peaks lack a unifying name, and are known only informally as the Aitana Mountains, for the area’s highest summit. Over the course of two weeks there, I took a 60-mile trek from village to village, mountain biked to a hidden castle, scaled a via ferrata up an 800-foot cliff, and scrambled along a wildly exposed, knife-edge ridge that Euro climbers compare to the headiest traverses in Scotland’s Highlands. And in good Old World style, I feasted every evening on Spanish delicacies, washing it all down with enough vino to float a Spanish galleon.
Taking on New Zealand’s Hardest Hut Trek: The Dusky Track
When a friend and I set out to hike a four-day, 23-mile section of Fiordland’s 53-mile Dusky Track, we were primarily motivated and intrigued by its reputation as the hardest hut-to-hut trek in New Zealand. But we saw beyond that superficial description to the promise implicit in it: the chance to see New Zealand’s biggest wilderness the way it must have looked centuries ago. Compared to popular tracks, the Dusky can feel all but deserted—which means having its glacier-carved valleys and mountain passes with panoramas of rainforest-shrouded mountains almost all to ourselves. It also turned into quite possibly the hardest hike, step for step, that either of us has ever done.
Watch for my upcoming feature story about backpacking New Zealand’s Dusky Track.
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