Finding the right walking tour for your trip
Monday, April 22, 2019
Imagine yourself trekking through the geothermal wonders of Yellowstone National Park or hiking into the cliff-rimmed depths of the Grand Canyon. For adventure-seeking vacationers, there isn’t a more inspiring or exhilarating way to experience a destination than to simply walk around it. It’s the best way to connect with a place — observing details and enjoying spontaneous encounters that typical tourists miss.
Walking/hiking vacations have become so popular that an entire industry has developed to organize guided tours in parks, recreation areas and other off-grid locations across the country.
Signing on to a commercial walking or hiking tour is definitely the way to go for all but the most experienced trekkers. With a veteran guide handling the logistics and leading the way, you’ll be free to immerse yourself in the destination — and to cultivate some new friends as well.
We’ve selected five of the most experienced and reputable tour companies offering walking and hiking programs in the U.S. — and we’ve chosen one of each company’s tours to describe in some detail — enough to give you a sense of the company’s offerings. You can take it from there.
Backroads, www.backroads.com, 800-462-2848.
This Berkeley, California-based operation has grown over 40 years to become a powerhouse in the active travel category. The company offers nearly two dozen walking/hiking tours in the U.S. (and many more abroad). You’ll find Backroads tours available in the following states (listed alphabetically): Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Vermont.
The Great Smoky Mountains
A tour typical of Backroads’ offerings is its Blue Ridge & Great Smoky Mountains National Park Walking & Hiking Tour. This five-day/four-night guided tour begins and ends in Asheville, North Carolina. Leading along well-established trails (including the Appalachian) through the mountains, valleys and forests of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, this moderately challenging (3-8 miles per day) trek is suitable for most active individuals and families.
There’s plenty to serve the interests of naturalists on this trek. The Smokies are home to more than 1,500 varieties of flowering plants, 130 species of trees, 200 types of birds — and an occasional black bear. History abounds as well through the pioneer heritage preserved in the remnants of log farmhouses, mills and barns built in the 18th and 19th centuries by European settlers.
Shuttles are employed to transport hikers to nightly accommodations in rustic cabins along the route. Meals are derived from old Appalachian recipes and feature locally grown ingredients. Backroads tours are virtually all-inclusive and this one is priced at $2,899-$3,049 pp dbl.
Wildland Trekking, www.wildlandtrekking.com, 800-715-4453.
Here’s a gung-ho outdoor adventure tour specialist who can help you put your boots in motion on any one of 28 domestic walking/hiking tours in nine states, ranging from Arizona to Vermont. Our favorite trek (we’ve actually done it) among Wildland’s many enticing trips is the Slot Canyon Traverse, an unbelievably scenic five-day, four-night backpacking trek from Utah’s upper Paria Canyon to its confluence with the Colorado River, just east of the Grand Canyon.
Without a doubt, this is one of the best hikes in the Southwest, taking in the entire 30-mile length of Paria Canyon — the world’s longest and deepest slot canyon. Carved over the centuries by torrential floods that periodically wash through the region’s maze of sandstone canyons, these slot canyons wind beneath and between colorful water-polished canyon walls that rise to heights of a thousand feet. It’s a setting that drives photographers absolutely crazy.
All necessary gear (tents, sleeping bags and pads) is provided and Wildland’s guides prepare all meals, serving up fresh, delicious (never dehydrated) backcountry cuisine. This all-inclusive trip is very reasonably priced at $1,395 per person. If you’re pressed for time, there’s also a quickie, three-day Paria Canyon trip, priced at $990.
Country Walkers, www.countrywalkers.com, 800-234-6900.
Based in Waterbury, Vermont, this popular outfitter has specialized in walking tours for nearly 40 years and offers a lengthy roster of them around the world, including a well-crafted selection of nine tours in the U.S. Although it features treks in some rugged settings, such as Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and Bryce and Zion Canyons, the typical Country Walker tour moves at a more moderate pace (2-6 miles per day) and over less challenging terrain than what you’d generally encounter on a Wildland or Backroads trek.
One of Country Walkers standout guided tours takes place in the company’s backyard, so you can be certain they know their way through the woods — and on to Grandma’s house. Or better yet, they head out to rustic lodges such as Norwich Inn and Green Mountain Inn that greet guests taking part in a Vermont: Fall Foliage tour. This six-day, five-night ramble through the forests, farms and picture-perfect villages of Vermont (think Woodstock) is perfectly timed for leaf-peeping. This is the very epicenter of New England’s grand fall spectacle.
Tour highlights include a chance to savor the beauty of Quechee Gorge, a 165-foot-deep glacially-carved chasm popularly known as Vermont’s “Little Grand Canyon,” and to walk the ridgeline of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, to reach an amazing view spanning three states and part of Canada.
The route also reveals a lost pioneer settlement and passes through Smuggler’s Notch, a mountain pass with a notorious bootlegging history. Fall foliage tours include accommodations, meals and guides. Prices start at $3,140 pp dbl.
REI, www.rei.com/adventures, 800-622-2236.
Seattle-based Recreation Equipment, Inc., best known as REI, is long famous (like 80 years) as an outdoor gear retailer with more than 150 outlets around the country. It also has gained a huge online presence through Backcountry.com, the nation’s largest online outdoor gear store.
It didn’t take long for this marketing juggernaut to begin offering packaged outdoor adventures, including dozens of guided domestic hiking tours, most of them based in Western national parks. One of them is a highly rated Texas trek tagged Big Bend National Park & Beyond.
Big Bend National Park and the Rio Grande
Located in the remote southwestern corner of Texas and separated from Mexico by the Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park lures adventurous hikers with its iconic trails, diverse geology and ecology as well as its peaceful, all-encompassing isolation from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Daily hikes (rated moderate) range between 3-10 miles on a variety of trails in the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert.
A morning spent kayaking on a flat section of the Rio Grande adds to the fun and the trip also takes in some of the region’s most colorful towns — Marfa, Fort Davis, Alpine and Terlingua. Nights are spent in distinctly Texan accommodations, ranging from historic hotels to a restored ghost town mansion to a park lodge nestled high in the Chisos Mountains.
The seven-day/six-night trip kicks off in El Paso and ends in Austin. REI is a membership cooperative ($20 for a lifetime membership), so members pay $3,599 for the Big Bend trip, while nonmembers shell out $3,999.
Classic Journeys, www.classicjourneys.com, 800-200-3887.
If it’s cultural immersion you seek, rather than strenuous hiking and climbing, you should check out the easy-going walking tours offered by La Jolla, California-based Classic Journeys. Named to the World’s Best Tour Operator list for 12 years running by readers of Travel+Leisure magazine, it offers a slew of culture/walking trips worldwide, including four in the U.S. Among them are sojourns in Glacier National Park, Bryce & Zion National Parks, Charleston and Savannah, and our choice as most representative of the company’s tours, Santa Fe & Taos.
Santa Fe and northern neighbor Taos are at the center of one of the most historic and culturally rich regions of America. Centuries of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures have weathered well — as have the old adobe walls and chapels.
Famous artists and photographers such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams have been drawn here by the clear air and dramatic light and color so typical of northern New Mexico. Classic Journey’s six-day/five-night tour borders on luxurious with stays at five-star boutique inns and meals at world-class Southwestern-style restaurants. Relatively easy 2-3 mile walks explore the adobe heart of old Santa Fe, stroll 900-year-old Anasazi cliff dwellings in Bandelier National Monument, and take on a rim-side excursion along Rio Grande Gorge.
Other highlights include a private tour at the former home and studio of Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu, and a tour, led by a native guide of Taos Pueblo, a U.N. World Heritage Site. Departures are offered in May and September, with prices from $3,595 pp dbl.
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