Airbnblaunched Experiences—a variety of activities led by locals—in November 2016. While the thousands of offerings range from full-on guided and catered tours to more folksy and informal encounters, they all provide a local’s unique perspective on wherever you happen to be traveling. But the sheer number of experiences available can be overwhelming, so we curated a list of our five favorites.
Paddle a Light-Up SUP in Austin, Texas
While Austin is known for its rowdy nightlife, give your liver a break and head to Lady Bird Lake at 8 p.m. for a truly unique SUP experience. The three Adamson brothers, proprietors of Paddle SMTX and Glow Paddle Austin, host a 90-minute guided paddle around the lake on boards with special LED systems on the bottom that allow you to create your own surreal light show. The lights also give you a chance to watch largemouthbass swimming below.
Kayak to Sea Caves in La Jolla, California
Host Michael Samer will take you on a 90-minute guided sea kayaking tour of La Jolla’s protected ecological reserve and sea caves. Meet at Samer’s ocean adventure tour shop, Everyday California, and walk three blocks to explore some of the most diverse marine habitat in Southern California. Ultimately, the weather will decide how adventurous the tour can get and how many sea caves you can see, but San Diego County’s 263 days of sunshine certainly put the odds in your favor for a safe and sunny kayaking journey.
Climb Trees at Deception Pass in Oak Harbor, Washington
The best way to see Deception Pass State Park’s old-growth forest? In the trees. Your host will get you climbing coastal fir trees ranging from 150 to 300 feet tall for a mind-blowing perspective that would be impossible without specialized gear and a trained climbing guide. (The host runs local outfitter Adventure Terra.) No experience is necessary—the host sets up ropes and provides harnesses and ascenders to assist your climb.
Take a Private Slot Canyon Tour in Orderville, Utah
Zion is chock-full of beautiful slot canyons, but the park covers 229 square miles and can be overwhelming—not to mention dangerous—to navigate as a beginner. Micah and Jules have been hosting folks in their tiny house in southern Utah for years. They also run a canyoneering company, East Zion Experiences, and will drive you to the canyon and ensure safe travels through dreamlike East Zion.
Run Rapids in Hood River, Oregon
You would be hard-pressed to find a better deal than $75 for a full day of professionally guided rafting that includes a barbecue dinner. This experience takes placeon the pristine White Salmon River, just outside the town of Hood River. The ample Class III and IV rapids run through beautiful canyons and end in a climactic, 12-foot drop at Husum Falls. Ride out your adrenaline with food provided by the host after the run.
We get it: who wouldn’t want a government job with security, benefits, room to grow, and the possibility of calling the Grand Canyon your office? Like any dream job, though, there are considerably more National Park ranger applicants than positions, so you have to spiff up your resume if you want to make the cut. We asked NPS Public Affairs Specialist, Kathy Kupper, and NPS Chief of Youth Programs, George McDonald, for suggestions to help you get a foot in the door.
Join the YCC
If you're in high school, a great way to get started is by working with a land conservation group such as the Youth Conservation Corps, which hires high school age students to work in National Parks. “A lot of that is doing trail construction and other work outside,” says Kupper. On top of showing NPS that you care about natural resources, the YCC specifically builds job skills that translate in to the ones you’d use as a ranger.
Volunteer in Your Community
“The National Park Service is an entity within the Federal government which was designed for people who want to give back to their country,” says McDonald. “You have to have the mentality that you want to devote your life to service to your fellow man or woman and to your country.” To demonstrate that you are service-oriented, volunteer for either historical or environmentally focused non-profits.
Volunteer at a Park
Over 300,000 volunteers donated over seven million hours of their time to the NPS in 2018. “You can really volunteer in almost any field possible,” Kupper says. “From working in interpretation or social media to helping with photography, tracking wildlife, trail construction, or bicycle patrol. It’s a great way to pull back the curtain and see if the Park Service is a good fit for you.” You'll also gain experience that will impress the folks doing the hiring. Volunteer.gov lists opportunities across the government, but if you’re interested in a specific park, go to its website and see what’s available.
Get on the Phone
“My recommendation is to contact a park near you or a park you are interested in where you’d like to volunteer,” says Kupper. “There is always someone designated to oversee the park’s volunteer program. Often they’ll have specific volunteers they are looking for.” Once you have that volunteer coordinator on the phone, let them know your skills and interests and it’s more likely you’ll land in the right spot.
Join the SCA
The Student Conservation Association has been providing opportunities for people to work in National Parks in a variety of programs for 60 years and it’s estimated that about 12 percent of park rangers are SCA alumni. Feel like you are too old for an association with the name “student” in the title? Don’t stress. Some positions have an age limit of 25, but not all of them. A few programs have had septuagenarian interns.
Study Whatever You Want
“For every job that opens up we look for knowledge, skills, and abilities. Prior job experience or memberships in clubs or civic organizations can really help you compete,” Kupper says. “Especially if you are competing with people just entering the workforce. If you are an Eagle Scout who majored in accounting you might compete just as well as someone who majored in Parks and Rec because you will be able to answer the questions and demonstrate your ability to do the job.”
Don't Stress About Your Resumé
“This really is one of those jobs where you look at the temperament of the person and their ability to react to changing situations both outside and while interacting with the public,” Kupper says.
“Usually seasonal jobs are ‘all sources,’ which means anyone can apply,” says Kupper, “but if ‘career status’ is required, that means you already need to be working in the government.” Most permanent, full-time jobs in the Park Service require that you already have career status. Which is a bummer, but sometimes it's possible to get status through another agency. “For example, if you're a seasonal employee in the Park Service you might then go to the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management or a museum run by the government to get status,” says Kupper. “Then, when the Park Service has an opening, you’re good to go.”
Look Beyond Yellowstone
“A kid might grow up wanting to be a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, but you might not have the knowledge, skills, or ability to get picked up there right away,” says Kupper. “Look to the other parks that are not iconic destinations. You can use them as stepping stones to your dream park. It’s the same thing as putting in college applications: put in an application to your dream college but also look for your safe one.”
Summer. It’s one of the best times to travel. Which is why many of our best places are horribly overcrowded during the warmer months. Fear not, we’ve scoured the atlas to find replacements that are at least as spectacular as their more popular cousins.
Skip: Grand Canyon
Go Here Instead: Canyon de Chelly
Four hours east of Grand Canyon (and its 6,254,238 annual visitors) lies the considerably quieter (just 825,660 visitors) Canyon de Chelly. Park access is free, and so are the ranger-led tours that introduce you to the canyon’s remarkable history and the indigenous tribes that have called it home for centuries. You cannot hike to its base or inside the canyon without a park ranger or a licensed Navajo guide, but even if you come without a plan, the North and South Rim drives offer ample turnouts at views that are arguably more dramatic than what you can see of the Grand. Spider Rock, an 800-foot spire on the South Rim road, is one of the most popular in the park, but there’s still plenty of parking and minimal selfie sticks.
Go Here Instead: Kings Canyon
Perhaps John Muir summed up Yosemite best when he said, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” While it is undeniably awe inspiring, Muir’s opinion may have changed had he visited the area 149 years later and shared the temple with 4,336,890 other visitors. If you want to avoid getting hit by an RV hammering through the Valley floor, head about 110 miles south to Kings Canyon National Park. For those who don’t want to leave the car, take the Generals Highway between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for both a deep-woods feel and wide-open vistas. Looking to amble? Check out the mind-bogglingly large trees in the Sequoia Groves. For a moderate day hike, head out 4.2 miles to Monarch Lakes at the base of 12,343-foot Sawtooth Peak.
Go Here Instead: Beartooth Wilderness
Don’t worry, Old Faithful isn’t going anywhere. This summer, you can skip Yellowstone and just head east on the Beartooth Highway to the 9,440-acre Beartooth Wilderness. Frankly, the road itself, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, is worth a cross-country trip all on its own. It has expansive vistas of enormous granite walls and high-alpine plateaus and is one of the prettiest drives in the country. There’s also ample access to world-class hikes if you want them. If you’re interested in camping, stop at East Rosebud Campground, which is like a baby Yosemite Valley with its glacially carved monoliths.
Go Here Instead: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
You only have to travel 45 miles east to dodge Zion’s crowds. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is by no means deserted, but the numbers of visitors are measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and entrance is totally free. While the current administration unfortunately cut the monument in half last December, you can still wander in and wonder at the last place in continental United States to be mapped. Check out Devil’s Staircase and its myriad hoodoos and rock formations that’ll make you feel like you’re in a Dr. Seuss book.
Skip: Grand Teton
Go Here Instead: Wind River Range
While you should be a tourist and grab a drink at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, drive right through Grand Teton National Park and out to the Wind River Range. The range itself is so huge that you’ll need to buy two maps to cover the whole thing. Mountain lakes butt right up against massive granite faces. If you’re comfortable carrying all your gear on your back, access to every type of superlative mountain view you can conjure up is easily accessed from the Big Sandy Trailhead, 54 miles out of Pinedale, Wyoming. A 12-mile round-trip day hike will take you to Big Sandy Lake, but we suggest really going for it and taking three days to hike in, hang out, and explore the Cirque of the Towers, where you can spend time on a lake surrounded by sharp glacier-carved peaks that rival any mountain view in the world.
Perfection is, of course, subjective. An ultramarathoner’s perfect summer would look like hell to someone who places a high value on downtime. We interviewed six athletes and artists who are living it up year-round for tips on how you can create your perfect summer.
Lexi duPont, Skier
The lack of snow does not slow down skier Lexi duPont, a native of Sun Valley, Idaho. On the contrary, she takes advantage of the longer days to pack in more activity. “In the summertime, I always like to challenge myself to do dual-sport days,” duPont says. While she specifically likes hiking, climbing, cliff jumping, and fly-fishing during the summer, duPont says you shouldn’t sweat the type of sport—just make sure you’re doing something active and remain consistent every day. “Try something new. I promise, no matter what you’re doing, playing in the outdoors will get you into the best shape of your life,” duPont says.
Max King, Endurance Athlete
Racing, teaching running clinics, and training has Max King on the road for much of the warm months. “Some of the best summers I’ve had have involved a really long road trip where I am just living out of my car for a while, but with a good balance between being home and away,” King says. “If I’m gone for a week, I make sure I’m home for at least the next week to help take care of the family.” That balance benefits both his home life and his enjoyment of races.
Mike Libecki, Mountaineer
“The key to making sure your summer is ultra-badass is to plan ahead,” Mike Libecki says. “Make sure you organize amazing adventures at your own level that take you out of your comfort zone and into magic and power and beauty.” Libecki really packed it in this summer with a visit to India with his daughter, a river trip in Westwater Canyon, a beach excursion with family to the central coast of California, and a personal climbing expedition to China and Kyrgyzstan. “I make sure my winter is spent planning a major summer of adventures and joy. I get the trips on the calendar, arrange the logistics, plane tickets, everything, and that way, I do it.” The secret is to make sure you have committed mentally and financially months before your planned exit date, after which the rest will fall into place.
Include the Whole Family
Jennifer Pharr Davis, Multiple FKT Holder
“Being a professional with young kids, it’s hard to have the full adventure summer that you used to have when you were younger and had fewer responsibilities,” Jennifer Pharr Davis says. She makes plans that are appropriate for her family’s entire age range, which currently starts at one and goes up to 40. Just because the adventure is geared for the one-year-old doesn’t mean it should’t feel like an adventure for the 40-year-old: “Try something that’s new,” she says. “Either a new place or a new activity.”
Cody Townsend, Skier
Cody Townsend is headed down to San Jose del Cabo, on the southern tip of Baja California, to surf and fly-fish, because it allows him to chill out on multiple levels. “It is a really good unwind, the food is amazing and super cheap, and the water is warm,” he says. “In the summer, I just want to relax. In Baja, I don’t have to think about anything.” Townsend says it’s important to have trips that are low impact in terms of mental and physical stress. Winter sports like skiing put you in harsher climates and are higher-impact on your body. Townsend suggests a warm, low-impact sport like surfing during summer to help mitigate those stressors. “I need stuff to refresh the knees and refresh the back and keep moving,” Townsend says.
Take a Sabbatical
Forest Woodward, Photographer
“I carve out anywhere from a week to a month that I have named my sabbatical,” Forest Woodward says. “I say it kind of tongue in cheek and chuckle about it. I check out from work and check in with summer and enjoy it because it always seems to fly past.” Even if you only have a few days, Woodward suggests completely unplugging for some period of time. “I have to take myself somewhere that I don’t get cell service. I don’t have strong enough willpower to be out there and not look at a notification or be tempted to answer an email.”
Summer means long, hot days followed by cold post-adventure cocktails. In other words, you cannot have the perfect summer without the perfectly refreshing summer drink. We spoke with pros from a variety of sports to find out their preferred method of toasting a good day out.
Ultrarunner Jenn Shelton: Glacier-Rita
Jenn Shelton, a legendary mountain athlete and legendary drinker, has a go-to summer cocktail that requires a little bit of leftover snowpack and an Emergen-C packet. “Lime would be ideal, but I am not going to be like, ‘This one is not lime. I am not drinking it,’” Shelton says. “I am not that classy.” While Shelton usually drinks Hornitos Tequila, she doesn’t think you need to get hung up on the brand. “It isn’t the classiest drink in the first place,” she says. “You are drinking from a Ziploc, after all.”
Yes, this is arguably the most cliché summer drink, but Eric Porter had to give it the nod as the ultimate refresher after a recent five-day mountain bike race across Cuba. “I figure that with the heat and humidity, [Cubans] know something about summer drinks,” he says. “And mojitos are about as light and refreshing as it gets. After a long, hot ride in summer, they’re even better than a beer.”
In a highball glass, mix together two teaspoons of white sugar with half an ounce of lime juice.
Santiago Guzman’s family owns the Fresco Bar in the climbing mecca of El Chaltén, Argentina. The bar is famous for its home-brewed IPA, epic parties while climbers wait for conditions to change, and a game in which patrons sprint from the joint to a multipitch route, which they climb and rappel, then sprint back to the bar. While the most popular drinks are the Fernet con Coca (Fernet and Coke) and Campari Naranja (Campari and orange juice), Guzman is a beer guy. His favorite summer cocktail is the refreshing, spicy, beer-based Michelada.
Salt the rim of a pint glass.
Add a handful of ice.
Add a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, the juice of one lime, and a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce.
Fill with lager. (Guzman suggests “your favorite.” I am currently partial to Caldera’s Lawnmower Lager.)
Ultrarunner Max King: Smoky Gin and Tonic
Max King lives in the craft-beer paradise of Bend, Oregon, but his summer cocktail of choice is a slight spin on the gin and tonic. He loves the classic drink because of how bright and thirst-quenching it is in a low-hassle package. King likes to add a little smoky depth with a splash of Sombra Mezcal.
Fill a highball glass with ice.
Add 1.5 ounces Crater Lake Gin.
Add a splash of Sombra Mezcal. (Be careful not to overdo it; the smokiness can overwhelm the whole drink.)
Fill with tonic.
Garnish with lime.
Skier Cody Townsend: Dark and Stormy
While Cody Townsend is famous for his skiing, he grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and makes it a point to maximize summers with a two-week surf trip, usually to Baja. His summer cocktail of choice is the Dark and Stormy, which he says strikes a perfect balance between tasty and not embarrassing to order at a bar. “You aren’t putting umbrellas in it, and it isn’t a frilly drink,” Townsend says. “But it’s also really refreshing.” Skip the cheap ginger soda in favor of spicy ginger beer like Bundaberg, and make sure to use a dark rum like The Kraken Black Spiced Rum.
Matt McDonald, an early adopter of the #vanlife lifestyle and Instagram handle, had been living out of his 1986 Volkswagon Westfalia for two years in February 2015 when I interviewed him for a story about how to get the most out of a road trip. While he was full of excellent suggestions—like using GPS to find free camping on BLM land—I ultimately took him up on just one of his tips: Plan a road trip around hot springs.
“If I was going to be in a single place for an extended period of time,” McDonald said, “I would try to be near a hot spring. It completely changes the dynamic. Camping for days on end is really fun and freeing, but if you can find a way to get clean and warm and have that refreshing feeling like you have in your own shower? That is amazing.”
Seven months later, my wife and I planned a road trip through a few national parks and made sure to budget a down day in specific hot springs along our route every three to five days. They were the highlight of the trip.
Hot springs are proof that Mama Nature wants us to be happy. They are a luxury, even though you’re just sitting right there in the ground. If you’re taking a day off from an adventure, the combination of heat and sulfur in the water is amazing for aching bones. After a 20-mile ski tour, I hopped into the Travertine Hot Springs in Bridgeport, California, while sipping a cold La Croix, and I’m pretty sure that was the most pampered I have ever felt in my life.
And the price is right. Hot springs are usually free in both spirit and actual cost (unless the spring has been co-opted by a fancy resort). They are also usually clothing optional. I understand this can be a bummer if you’re traveling with your kiddos or are uncomfortable with nudity—I’ve had bad experiences with people creeping on me and my wife in the past—but if you’re alone or with a partner, nude is really the only way to swim in nature.
It isn’t easy to stay clean when you’re on the road based out of a vehicle. This is particularly true when hotels aren’t in your budget. Jumping into a glacier-fed creek is an awesome way to shock your system, boost your adrenals, and get rid of some grime—but it’s also damned uncomfortable. There’s no such problem with the hot spring.
So chill out on the six fourteeners you scheduled into your seven-day road trip this summer. Maybe scale it down to two or three, pack a few more beers, and replace some of those big summits with hot-spring objectives. Sometimes mountains are better watched than climbed.
Here are my three favorite western hot springs, just to get you started:
I have placed Travertine Hot Springs somewhere on my list every time I have an adventure in the eastern Sierra. The tubs are amazing, there’s ample free camping just down the road, and the views of Sawtooth Ridge—the gateway to Yosemite—are unparalleled. These pools are well-known, so don’t expect solitude during the busy summer and fall months. The good news is that the crowd is usually a diverse one, ranging from European tourist families to core Yosemite climbers. Someone in the crowd is always good for some interesting conversation.
Nevada: Bog Hot Springs
The arid desert landscape, open space, and solitude of Bog Hot Springs is a direct contrast to the busy feel of Travertine. You’ll know you’re close when you start wondering if the person who gave you directions into the middle of the high desert was planning to strand you. The springs are huge—the size of a large swimming pool—and temperatures vary through the creek that makes up the swimming area, which is ideal if you have a group with different heat preferences.
Oregon: Umpqua Hot Springs
The tiered pools that make up Umpqua Hot Springs are surrounded by vegetation that is so damned lush, the place is as relaxing to the eyes as the hot water is to your sore muscles. While Bog and Travertine are both essentially car-side hot springs, Umpqua requires a relatively strenuous quarter-mile hike, so bring decent footwear. The view of the Umpqua River below is as serene as the abundance of green trees and moss that surround you as you soak in the pools.
Nashville, Tennessee–based Derek Wolf will quickly tell you that he is neither a professional chef nor a trained photographer. Still, in the past two years, he’s turned documenting mouthwatering fire-based cooking (mainly involving massive, sizzling hunks of meat) into a full-time career via his more than 470,000 Instagram followers. Here are seven of Wolf’s tips to help you nail the best meals of summer.
Choose Your Fuel Wisely
This is perhaps the most heavily debated decision in the fire-cooking community. While your access to different types of wood may dramatically change your choice (there isn’t much mesquite back East, for example), Wolf looks for two general criteria when choosing fuel. “I tend to only use hardwoods, and specifically fruitwoods,” Wolf says. “They break down into coals really well. You want a wood that gives off a good flavor but isn’t so overpowering that it’s impossible to taste your food.” You also don’t necessarily have to go with wood. “If you don’t have anything else, lump charcoal is fine. Five-pound bags are really easy to carry,” Wolf says.
Mind Your Temps
“Cooking with fire is all about putting your food on at the right time,” Wolf says. Put a steak on when the flames are hot and licking everything, and you will burn it to a crisp. Put it on too late, when the fire isn’t hot enough, and you’ll be eating raw meat. How do you know that sweet spot? “The prime time to put it on is right as the coals and the wood are starting to transition from a black to a gray and right as things are starting to break into coals. You will hear it. You will get that sizzle—the amazing sound of the steak hitting the grill,” Wolf says. In addition to sight, Wolf uses touch to gauge if his fire is ready. “Some woods burn really hot, and some don’t burn as hot. Carefully put your hand about four inches from the fire. If you can hold it there for longer than four seconds, it’s not hot enough. If you can leave it there for only one second, it’s too hot. It has to be in that two-to-four-second range,” Wolf says.
This isn’t your propane barbecue or Traeger grill that will hit the temperature you want with a turn of a knob and the touch of a button. The fire will dictate the best time to put your food on and take it off. Wolf suggests respecting that fact. “You want to make sure you give ample time for your fire to be ready, as well as know that once it is ready, it is go-time. That doesn’t mean, ‘Lemme go grab another beer.’ That means, ‘Good luck, you have to cook now.’”
Make Sure It Looks Good
“You eat with your eyes first,” Wolf says. “With any classically grilled meats, people usually associate grill marks as something that is attractive, but I like an amazing crust throughout the whole meat.” Wolf puts olive oil on the meat, and then marinates it with salt to help that crust form. He suggests being extra careful when cooking with oil over a flame, because once it lights up, you might have to wait as long as 30 minutes for a grease fire to die down. He also suggests trying a cast-iron skillet. “It really gives that crust you’re looking for. The key is letting your all-metal skillet sit over the fire for two to three minutes before you put the steak on,” Wolf says.
Keep the Seasoning Simple
“If you’re camping or RVing, all you need is high-quality salt,” Wolf says. “Jacobsen Salt from Oregon is fantastic. That’s pretty much all I use.” He prefers sea salt for its strong flavor. “You need less of it than kosher salt, so you get a lot more bang for your buck on sea salt,” Wolf says.
Pack a Plan B
Yes, you will wow your friends if you perfectly cook a whole lamb filled with wild foraged herbs over a spit. You can just as easily wreak havoc on a camping trip if you mess up that elaborate recipe and your whole group goes hungry. Wolf’s suggestion is to be ambitious in the scope of your meal for the group, but hedge your bets with something you know you won’t mess up. “Don’t be afraid to fail—just bring a second thing to cook,” he says. “If you want to cook it, have fun, but bring something you know how to do.” Burgers are an excellent backup.
With a little planning and insider information, you can dodge the millions of visitors and enjoy some peace, quiet, and remarkable views by foot.
Soak Up the South Rim’s Views
Ninety percent of the Grand Canyon’s more than 6 million visitors last year went to the South Rim—but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a little solitude and take in the views in peace. One way to separate from the mass of humanity is to rent a bike at Bright Angel Bicycles ($45 per day) and ride the seven-mile stretch of Hermit Road, which is closed to all vehicles except shuttle busses from March through December. Before you take off, fuel up with a veggie breakfast burrito and a latte at the café attached to the bike shop. While the entire ride affords views of the canyon, make sure to allot some time to stop and take in the views at Hopi Point, Pima Point, and Hermit’s Rest.
Don’t want to ride a bike? You can still find some solitude at Shoshone Point if there isn’t a wedding or special event. The hike is only about a mile on a dirt service road through ponderosa pines—and you might just be the only one out there.
Stay at the North Rim Lodge
The North Rim has an undeniably slower pace than the South Rim. Even if you want to stay within 50 feet of your car, embrace that slower pace and allot a few hours at some of the countless viewpoints to see how the movement of the sun changes the look of the entire canyon. Better yet, drive out to Point Imperial in the morning while it’s still dark, make some coffee on your tailgate, and watch the sun rise on the canyon below before the other tourists show up. If you want to get a hike in, try the 1.5-mile Transept Trail. Remember to stay hydrated and take it slow—you are at 8,000 feet, after all.
To really take your time, plan a year in advance and book one of the Western Rim View Cabins at the North Rim Lodge (from $227, open May 15 to October 15). If you can’t plan that far ahead, you can still plop down on one of the Adirondack chairs on the lodge’s veranda and grab a Bright Angel IPA, brewed in Flagstaff, and the North Rim wings, which feature a spicy prickly pear cactus sauce.
Visit the Legendary Phantom Ranch
Whether you hike down to Phantom Ranch via the 7.4-mile South Kaibab Trail or the 9.9-mile Bright Angel Trail, the very first thing you should do is grab a frozen lemonade from the Phantom Ranch Canteen. The existence of something that cold that far down in the canyon is pure magic. Soak your aching feet in Bright Angel Creek, then head down to Boat Beach and watch the rafters go by before finishing your day with a guided ranger tour of canyon geology—after spending much of your day hiking through millions of years’ worth of visible geology, you’ll certainly have questions about it.
Like any lodging in Grand Canyon, plan a year out and make sure you reserve at least a two-night stay. The Canteen’s family-style steak dinner isn’t gourmet, but it’s plenty hearty to replenish the calories spent after the must-do 12-mile round-trip day hike to Ribbon Falls.
Hike to the Bottom
Unless you’re a trained endurance athlete, a nearly 20-mile round-trip hike from the rim to the Colorado River and back along Bright Angel Trail is too ambitious for a single day. Instead, plan to overnight at Bright Angel Campground ($8 per person per night), which sits right alongside Bright Angel Creek. There are only 33 sites, and you need a backcountry permit ($10) to stay there, so plan at least four months in advance.
Don’t have that kind of lead time? Indian Garden, halfway between the South Rim and Phantom Ranch, is an excellent nine-mile round-trip. Cottonwood trees offer shade—a rarity on this hike—and there are plenty of spigots to fill up a water bottle during peak season. (Check in with the rangers to make sure the spigots are turned on.)
If you are feeling ambitious, the three-mile round-trip Plateau Point spur trail pays dividends: It ends a little more than 1,000 feet above the Colorado and has views to both the North and South Rims. After climbing out from the big day, reward yourself with ice cream the Bright Angel Fountain on the Rim. Sure, it’s busy and only sells Dreyer’s, but the simple joy of a sweet, cold scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream after a long day in the sun will make the busloads of tourists around you disappear.
Getting my buddy Matt Thomas into the driver’s seat of his Sprinter van is a 12-step process.
Mostly it involves a finicky hydraulic lift that transports Matt, seated in a wheelchair, a total of two feet, from the street to the edge of the van’s rubber floor. Then somebody has to bear-hug him and swing his inert 180-pound body from the wheelchair into the swiveling driver’s seat. The final step is to tighten the Velcro on a wide neoprene band that cinches his torso to the seat.
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One morning in September 2016, Matt slowly talks me through the transfer. I’m scared and he knows it: I nearly dropped him the last time I tried to help. He shrugs and laughs as I accidentally catch his right foot on the center console, wrenching his knee at an angle that would hurt if he could feel it. I’ve repeated this routine dozens of times, but I keep forgetting the moves, their order, and the subtleties that make the process go faster. Matt’s corrections come softly. “Pull up on the parking brake before putting it down. Nope, not that hard. Yep, there you go,” he says. The ordeal takes 20 minutes.
Matt can’t feel his body below the nipples. Sensation exists only in his index fingers, thumbs, shoulders, neck, head, and tops of his arms. For the past eight years, someone has had to help him get out of bed every morning. But he’s still able to drive his van, thanks to specialized controls that allow him to turn the wheel with his right hand and to accelerate or brake by pushing or pulling on a handle with his left.
Driving is the most freedom he has experienced since his accident, so he patiently waits for me to load him in. We’re heading from Matt’s home in Medford, Oregon, to Draper, Utah, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, to meet a man named Chris Santacroce, a 45-year-old pilot formerly with the Red Bull Air Force who operates an adaptive-paragliding nonprofit called Project Airtime. Santacroce told us he might be able to help Matt paraglide by himself, and Matt wants to drive all 13.5 hours to get there.
The road trip fills me with dread. Rain and snow hammer our two-wheel-drive van. We wind through the Great Basin into Nevada on State Route 140 as heavy winds push the vehicle over the yellow and white lines of a two-lane road. The Sprinter has an alert feature that emits a pair of high-pitched beeps every time the driver crosses a line. Over the course of the 774-mile trip, there are thousands of beeps.
I try not to stare at the handle that Matt uses to turn the steering wheel and steady the van when it gets blasted off course. It looks like a trailer hitch, but the people who know these vehicles call it a suicide knob. I force out images of the next gust rolling us end over end through sagebrush. I’m worried about how much control Matt has, since he lacks the ability to use his triceps and move his fingers individually. But I don’t say anything. I don’t want him to think that I believe he’s weak or can’t handle the situation.
Matt’s nervous, too, though not about the drive. He’s concerned about driving all the way to Utah only to find out that he can add paragliding to the very long list of things he can no longer do.
As darkness settles in, my nerves relax. We talk—like we always do—about backcountry skiing, kayaking, and mountain biking. Matt speaks, in present tense, about the “fun-to-danger ratio” he assessed back in the old days, when he was thinking about which whitewater drops to run and which to walk around. He’ll probably never kayak again, but for a while I forget that.
When I first met Matt, in 2007, he was already a legend. I was 24 and he was 33. We were both guiding at Adventure Whitewater, a rafting company located 20 miles downriver from Happy Camp, California. He was short, just five foot six, and well-built. His body seemed like it was too small to package all his energy.
On the first trip we guided together, down the Klamath River, Matt ran circles around the rest of the staff, despite the fact that most of us were ten years younger than him. His black hair was already graying at the temples and receding from his forehead, making him look older than he was. His brown eyes were marked with smile lines.
At the beginning of the trip, he heckled me into leaping off Ukonom Falls, a 70-foot cliff with a landing the size of a kiddie pool. I had wanted to jump it for a decade but never found the courage. Later, after a full day of work, we went kayaking in a severe thunderstorm. The weather rattled me so much that I got out halfway down the run and huddled with two friends under an oak tree while Matt paddled to the truck. He drove back to us with his shirt off, arm slung out the window, laughing. “Do you suppose those helmets are lightning-proof?” he said.
Over the next two years, he did some of the toughest whitewater runs in the country while juggling a full-time civil-engineering job. Often he teamed up with Ben Stookesberry, one of the best expedition kayakers in the world. “Matt was the ultimate weekend warrior,” Stookesberry says. “He was a formidable, expert-level kayaker.”
Matt joined Stookesberry and two others on a four-day first descent of the south fork of the San Joaquin River, a Class V+ section of water in the Sierra Nevada considered one of kayaking’s last great prizes. On day two, Matt got pinned between house-size boulders. While scratching at the wet granite, he was sucked feetfirst into a 30-foot-long crack between the rocks. Matt’s body jammed in the sieve—every boater’s worst nightmare. He remained stuck long enough to contemplate death. Then the water pressure built up enough to shoot him out the other side. But before long, the sketchy situation became a joke. For the rest of the trip, he referred to the sieve as the “love tunnel.”
While Matt was logging first descents, I was following his blog posts from behind a desk at a paddling magazine in Seattle. Kayaking was the most important thing in my life; I regularly lost sleep over failing to make the leap from pretty good to the elite level Matt had achieved. In May of 2009, while Matt and I had breakfast at a restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, he discussed the runs he would take me down and the specific skills he’d help me develop to take the next step. I couldn’t stop thanking him. “I’ve been looking for someone to mentor,” he said.
Two months later, on July 9, Matt met his buddy Anthony Smith and Smith’s uncle near the Chuck’s Chips trailhead in Talent, Oregon, for a bike ride. Matt pounded coffee from an insulated cup that showed more stickers than metal while he fired off all the good things that had transpired in the past few days. Matt’s on-again, off-again romantic relationship was looking up. A big deal was going to go through at work. The three men clipped in and started riding.
In about ten minutes they came to a four-foot double, a jump and a landing placed so closely together that they looked like humps on a camel. There was a bank of dirt just beyond the landing. Matt knew that this was the type of jump you really don’t want to fuck up; he’d chosen to steer around it ever since trail builders had modified it some months earlier into a steep, imposing obstacle. Eight years later, he still doesn’t know why he chose to go for it on that hot summer morning. Or why he hit the jump with so much speed.
Matt overshot the landing by more than five feet and hurtled over the handlebars, thumping headfirst into the bank. When Anthony rode up, Matt’s body was crumpled in the fetal position. He wasn’t moving. Thirty seconds went by before Matt sucked in a desperate breath and groaned, “I can’t feel my legs.”
It took nine minutes in a helicopter to get to Providence Medical Center in Medford. A nun asked Matt if there were any family or friends she should call. A doctor showed him a CT scan of his neck, with one vertebra completely out of place, and told him he needed surgery immediately. If untreated, some spinal fractures can compromise the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
“What about my legs?” he asked.
“If we don’t do surgery now, they will be the least of your worries,” the doctor said. Matt consented to the operation. Before going under anesthesia, he decided he didn’t want to survive the procedure if he couldn’t use his legs. Then everything went black.
A year and a half after Matt’s accident, over a cup of coffee at our favorite spot in Ashland, he told me he needed someone broke and directionless to help him move to San Diego. Was I available?
Since leaving the hospital, he’d spent his time in Medford with his parents, in what he called “pure survival mode.” The surgery had realigned Matt’s spine, but he was left with C5 complete quadriplegia, meaning he needed help with almost every aspect of life. With effort he could do small things like feed himself and read on his Kindle. Paper books were too heavy to hold.
The previous summer he won a scholarship and spent two months at Project Walk, a physical-therapy center in San Diego County. Matt loved exercising hard and not being treated like he was made of glass. The hope and positivity from the other clients were infectious, and he wanted to return. “If there was a chance to gain anything back, that was the place,” he said.
Matt needed a caregiver to move down with him, a house that fit his needs, and finances to stay there as long as it would take for him to learn to walk again.
What was in it for me? At 28, I had decided to go back to raft guiding after giving up on being a journalist. I was penniless and starting to accept the fact that I would never become a Class V+ kayaker when I heard from Matt. I was living in my truck, paddling every day, and drinking every night. I agreed to help. I assumed it would be like the times we’d spent with one another in the summers since his accident—getting coffee, eating together, going on long drives. I hoped that being his caregiver would give me a sense of purpose, and I liked the way people looked at me when they saw me helping him with everyday tasks. I would be the good guy, the selfless attendant. I didn’t understand the depth of responsibility and intimacy I was signing up for.
In late December of 2010, Matt’s parents and I packed up a U-Haul, and we all moved him down to San Diego. I committed to working for Matt seven days a week for roughly four months.
Nothing highlights Matt’s injury like the transfer. Since Matt has minimal use of his arms and almost no trunk strength, he can’t get in and out of his wheelchair by himself. This fact structures his life. “I really want to be transferred, but I really don’t want to be transferred,” he told me. “If I could stand up for just ten seconds, I could have a cheaper vehicle, I would have the freedom of going to the bathroom by myself, I could go to bed when I wanted to. If I could transfer myself, world domination would be the next step.”
Transferring Matt gave me the sense of purpose I was looking for. I was his hands and feet. Within weeks of starting work for him, one of my oldest and dearest rafting buddies overdosed on pills and my girlfriend told me she wanted to see other people. Assisting Matt with the minutiae of his life—grabbing a napkin, taking off a sweatshirt—became a distraction from my own grief and anger. Performing these simple tasks for someone else, hyper-focusing on Matt’s needs, forced me out of my own body and head.
But it could be maddening. Before moving in with Matt, I had chosen to live simply, so that no one could control my time. In San Diego, Matt’s needs dictated everything. Each morning, I would unfold and lay out various T-shirts, until Matt decided which he wanted to wear. I got impatient if he didn’t choose after the first couple of shirts. This was always followed by profound self-loathing. Matt doesn’t get a break from his life, I’d remind myself. What kind of piece of shit are you to begrudge him this small measure of agency?
Matt was largely gracious as I worked with him—to this day he can’t or won’t name a single thing I did that bothered him. But I could tell that my constant presence was taxing. When we had bad days, we couldn’t get away from each other even if we wanted to.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Matt trained for three hours at Project Walk. On days off, we hung out at the beach. Every night I’d help get him into bed. He needed to be rolled over every three hours so he wouldn’t develop bedsores. His mother, Jeanie, and I took turns with the task.
Every other day, Matt had to take a shower and defecate. Because he can’t do these things on its own, it’s a three-hour ordeal. Any awkwardness I felt about the intimacy of helping Matt do them disappeared during the first week. They became nearly as routine as doing them myself. Except for the time I dropped him.
Like any other morning, that one began with a series of stretches designed to keep Matt’s legs from atrophying. Then I rolled him onto his side and administered a rectal laxative called Enemeez. Once that was done, I had about two minutes to get him into a seated position, squeeze his knees between mine, hug him below his armpits, swing him 90 degrees onto an aluminum chair outfitted with a foam toilet seat and wheels, and roll him into position over the toilet.
But on that January day I was hungover, still fuming about the “other men” my ex-girlfriend wanted to see. I wasn’t focused, and I let Matt slip through my legs. He fell slowly. My face was pressed up against his right cheek while I tried to keep a grip on his sides as he slid to the floor. “I’ve got you,” I kept saying as we collapsed onto the rug.
With seconds to go before a shit explosion, I had to deadlift him back onto the chair. I was successful, but after wheeling him over the toilet, I went to my room and cried in the dark. I wasn’t strong enough to be Matt’s hands and feet. I was a bad caregiver, a bad friend. After 15 minutes, I composed myself and went to check on him.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s really OK,” he replied.
As April came to a close, the Shasta River basin snowpack was nearly 200 percent higher than average, which meant it was going to be a banner spring for kayaking back in southern Oregon. I used the money from Matt to pay off my credit card debt and buy a new drysuit. On May 1, I strapped Matt’s old Jackson Rocker kayak to the roof of my truck and headed north. He and his family still needed my help; they hadn’t found a long term replacement, and they asked me to stay longer. I turned them down. I knew there was not going to be an end to Matt’s needs. I wasn’t an angel or a professional caregiver. I had the chance to walk away, and I did.
“Pull down my shirt?” Matt asks. I do and he studies himself carefully in the reflection of the van’s sliding door. Then we head into Chris Santacroce’s Super Fly Paragliding headquarters, a small office fronting a cavernous warehouse.
I haven’t worked for Matt in years, but I still try to be as nonchalant as possible when opening a door for him. I know he prefers to ask for assistance rather than have it forced on him, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I fight the urge to push him through the entryway as we shuffle into the nondescript brick building that sits on the outskirts of Salt Lake City’s endless sprawl.
For Matt, there’s a big difference between doing a sport and having a sport done for him. The year before the crash, he devoted hundreds of hours to finding new surf spots on the Northern California coast. After the accident, he took an adaptive surf lesson in San Diego but wasn’t able to keep himself in a prone position on the board for more than a few seconds. “I know what it’s like to surf,” he says. “And that wasn’t it.”
The prevailing motivation in Matt’s life has been perseverance. For the past eight years, he has published a blog called Matt Never Gives Up, and his Instagram handle is—what else?—@mattnevergivesup. What specifically he’s not giving up has shifted considerably, though.
Since the time we lived together, Matt’s idea of recovery has expanded beyond regaining what he lost physically. In February of 2014, he married Melissa Schenck. She makes transfers look effortless and fills their lives with laughter. That November, they moved back to southern Oregon, where Matt bought his van and saved money to start a family. In 2015, he earned his master’s in civil engineering and got a job that he loves. Walking has taken a back seat, and Matt has lost all interest in revisiting the sports that defined his life before his accident. “They are never going to be what they were,” he says. Still, paragliding has always been on his mind.
After he was injured, Matt spent 35 days in the hospital. He passed hours staring at his big toe, trying to will it to move. Anytime he wasn’t doing physical therapy, he was online, obsessively researching experimental cures for quadriplegia. During that search, he came across paragliding.
Generally, paragliders launch their parachutes by foot, suspended by a simple harness. But with the help of specialized equipment, the sport is a near perfect match for Matt’s limited mobility. He would need help inflating the glider with wind and taking off, but once airborne the glider needs only slight corrections, achieved through the use of a pair of toggles that Matt can firmly grasp. Tandem flying would be easy; going solo was the big question mark.
“I can see you have plenty of grip,” Santacroce says as Matt swings in a three-wheeled paragliding chair suspended from a flight simulator in the warehouse. “Kayakers usually take to this sport quickly. The way good boaters hold a paddle mimics the subtle touch necessary to be good at controlling a glider.”
Santacroce looks like Maverick from Top Gun and talks like a bro version of Ram Dass. He’s a fixture of the thriving paragliding community in Draper. The home he shares with his wife, two children, and an obese cat named Mumu is located next to the busiest launch in the state.
Santacroce used to be one of the best paragliders in the world, flying for 13 years with the Red Bull Air Force, a group of elite glider pilots, BASE jumpers, and wingsuiters who perform stunts at events around the world. Then, in June of 2008, during a flight, he caught the tip of his glider while landing and slammed into the ground. He injured his L2 vertebra, which confined him to a wheelchair for a while. After making a full recovery, he started Project Airtime.
If paragliding is a perfect sport for Matt’s level of mobility, Santa, as he’s known, seems to be the ideal teacher. His method involves fostering calm, deliberate decision-making. He delivers little in the way of absolutes, which is appropriate in a sport where conditions can change dramatically midflight. During our time in Draper, he never gives us a concrete answer to anything, replacing yes and no with “we are going to be in the moment” or “we are going to show up and be positive.”
Eventually, we begin to understand the purpose of his ambiguity. He isn’t going to tell us what’s about to happen, but we are expected to be ready for it. Once a student is in the air, there’s nothing Santa can do to help. He can only make suggestions over a radio. Students have to be prepared to take control.
Very early on our seventh day in town, Santa sits upright in his bed at home, wondering if Matt should fly by himself. Matt had taken the controls for a portion of all five of the tandem flights he’d shared with Santa, landing the glider twice on his own. He has proven that he has that intangible quality paragliding instructors refer to as “airmanship.” The previous day, Santa told Matt he was ready to solo. Now he isn’t so sure.
In bed, Santa asks himself if everything is right in the world. He decides it is and goes back to sleep. When the sun comes up, he’s affirmed by his children’s positivity, the number of green lights he hits while taking them to school, and a perfect window of 10-to-15-mile-per-hour winds. Matt, he decides, can do it.
That day, as Matt and I drive to the takeoff point—a hill of dirt and grass about the size of two football fields—I fill the silence with small talk. “Man, why do these Utah drivers drive so fast?” I ask. Matt just sits there. “The whole state is in a hurry,” I continue. “I think we’re going to be early today. What do you think the wind is doing? Have you gotten a text from Santa this morning?” Nothing.
When we arrive, Matt greets Santa and says he’s ready to fly on his own.
“Do I have time to set up GoPros?” I ask.
“When it is time to go, it is time to go,” Santa says, not really answering my question.
We transfer Matt to the glider’s flight chair, secure a buckle at his chest, and Velcro his feet to the front of the chair.
Paragliding is graceful once you’re in the air, but getting the massive nylon canopy inflated and under control with your feet on the ground can be hectic. Paragliders stand with their backs to the takeoff zone and let the wind fill the chambers of the canopy before pulling it from the ground, turning around, and launching. Santa stands at the back of the chair doing the pulling, spinning, and pushing while Matt handles the controls. On their first attempt at inflation, the bottoms of Santa’s shoes drag along the gravelly takeoff for 15 feet before Matt drops the glider to the ground. Another attempt takes them in a 40-foot zigzag.
Finally, at 8:58 a.m., with eight steps and a solid push from Santa, Matt is airborne. Santa gives five simple commands over the radio, and Matt glides and lands as well as any beginner on the mountain. He tells us he didn’t really think about the chair or his body for the two minutes he was in the air. “I didn’t have to ask anyone for anything,” he says. “No ‘move me here, hand me that.’ None of that. It was just me.”
He solos two more times that day. The last flight is at dusk. There’s barely any wind, and the sky is empty. Santa watches Matt initiate a turn before he suggests it, so he backs off from giving orders over the radio. For the first time in a week, I relax.
As the sun drops below the Oquirrh Mountains, Santa drives his truck down to pick up Matt at the landing zone. Santa gets out and, with the help of two other paragliders, wheels the flight chair facefirst into the truck bed. Matt watches the alpenglow illuminate Lone Peak’s face while he shares the high with the other two paragliders in the bed. The bumpy ride back to his van feels familiar to Matt, almost exactly like kayaking shuttles used to feel.
“When was the last time you rode in the bed of a truck?” Santa asks as we back the chair out of the tailgate at the end of the drive.
“It’s been a while,” says Matt.
Joe Jackson (@josiewhaler) is a freelance writer based in Ashland, Oregon. This is his first feature for Outside. Michael Hanson is a photographer and storyteller based in Hood River, Oregon
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