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The bucket list of ultimate adventures

Rafting the Grand Canyon? Climbing the Himalayas? Which 15 spine-tingling experiences should you have before you die?
There's nothing as galvanizing, humbling, and deeply spine-tingling as bucking and bobbing down the tourmaline-green Colorado River, the water whooshing a few inches from your backside and the Grand Canyon's 5,000-foot-high walls towering over your head. Courtesy of O.A.R.S.
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We fully understand that many types of adventures have a sell-by date: If you're older than 18, anything that involves wheelies, jumping off of ramps, or a special slot in the X Games is probably a bad idea. A shot of adrenaline to a 9-to-5 life, though, will not only take you out of your comfort zone—it'll get you out of your zone altogether. Everyone should walk the Appalachian Trail once in their lives (pictured), dive the Great Barrier Reef, and at least aspire to set foot on Antarctica. We've assembled a list of 15 adventures—some easy, some not so—that will guarantee a life worth living. Aim for achieving seven of them, or maybe ten. Or if you're truly an adventurous spirit, start from the top and just keep on going. Just don't break a leg.

For a complete slideshow of Ultimate Adventures, click here.

1. Float the Grand Canyon

The trip: There's nothing as galvanizing, humbling, and deeply spine-tingling as bucking and bobbing down the tourmaline-green Colorado River, the water whooshing a few inches from your backside and 5,000-foot-high walls towering over your head. (Goodbye, outside world.) The journey, punctuated by hikes through the Grand Canyon and dips in fern grottoes, is like life itself: full of unexpected twists and turns and scary moments that alternate with serene, magical stretches. Boaters can bounce along the rapids in a hard-hulled dory (à la Winslow Homer) for a true roller-coaster ride, or cruise along in a more flexible rubber-bottomed raft. The average length of a trip is eight days, but why be average? Opt for the full 19-day experience. It did take 300 million years to carve this place, after all.

Why go? More than any other waterway, the 1,450-mile Colorado River (277 miles of which run through the Grand Canyon) represents the lifeblood of the United States—and dams are starting to temper its wildness.

What to pack: Watercolors, for sketching the psychedelic colors of the canyon walls from your riverside campsite.

Difficulty: 4 out of 10. Novices are welcome, and guides will not only help paddle through the Class V rapids but also prepare food and provide sleeping bags with sheets, pillows, and inflatable mattresses. But be ready to hike nine miles into the canyon and nine miles out, and to paddle hard day after day.

Your guides: O.A.R.S., whose founder, George Wendt, was granted one of the first Colorado rafting licenses, in 1969. Guests hosted include Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Christine Todd Whitman.

Tel: 800 346 6277
Rafting and dory trips, from $1,690 per person; 19-day trip from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead on a dory (including 47 major rapids, three to five hours per day on the boat, guided hikes, and all meals), $5,296 per person

2. Hike the Appalachian Trail

The trip: It's a late-summer morning, the air still crisp and redolent of campfire, your belly full of breakfast, and all your belongings (at least the ones that matter) on your back. Time is measured in the metronomic crunch-crunch of your Timberlands; distance, by the tracing of a single line on a crumpled topographic map. You're a few days' walk away from your next shower, cupcake, or click of a keyboard. Welcome to life on the Appalachian Trail, America's most storied footpath. If you can't through-hike all 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine, which usually takes five to seven months, spend a week or two in the most northerly stretch, where you'll find the most rugged terrain and, in summer, the most tolerable weather.

Why go? Nearly 100 years after Benton MacKaye envisioned a path linking towns and wilderness, the A.T. remains an escape from urban life—and a community unto itself.

Image: Hiker on the Appalachian Trail
** FILE ** In this Aug. 7, 2006 file photo, Greg Morath of Cincinnati, Ohio, pauses on Chairback Mountain overlooking Long Pond on the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail north of Monson, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Difficulty: 9.7 out of 10 for a through-hike. Only a quarter of the folks who start out in Georgia make it to Maine, mostly because of the mental challenge. But for a one-week hike from New Hampshire to Maine, it's only a 6. This section requires agility to squeeze through tight spots and scramble up rocks, plus cardio conditioning to make it up and down 5,267-foot Katahdin.

Your guides: Yourself, and a copy of the "Step by Step" planning guide by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which will point you to requisite maps and gear for following some of the 165,000 white blazes along the A.T.

Tel: 304 535 6331

3. Cycle through Provence

The trip: Provence is a promise of sunflowers, olive groves, wineries, and bouillabaisse. It's also the world's most rewarding region to bike through, thanks to rolling, riverside rides followed by languorous meals and sumptuous hotels. Bikers on a weeklong excursion with Butterfield & Robinson might depart from Avignon and ride 20–60 miles per day through vineyards and orchards toward the lavender-flecked village of Sault-en-Vaucluse. (Or, one could just do it on one's own, of course.) A generous serving of downtime allows for strolling medieval cobblestone streets, lounging by countryside pools, and exploring the landscape that you've seen on a dozen Van Gogh canvases. Leave the PowerBars and Gatorade behind: You'll be refueling at Michelin-starred bistros and sipping Côtes du Rhône.

Why go? It's an ideal way to soak up the area's gorgeous terrain. And if you're going to eat your way through southern France, you may as well burn a few calories while you're at it.

What to pack: In addition to those cushy-tushed bike shorts and bike shoes, be sure to bring a pair of flip flops in which to play boules at the end of the day. Happily, lightweight aluminum-frame bikes are provided.

Difficulty: 6 out of 10. B & R rates the trip "moderate." It's even easier if you're a triathlete, well trained in the arts of cycling, dining, and wining. Or, find "easygoing" trips with B & R in the Loire Valley.

Your guides: Francophile, oenophile, and foodie George Butterfield has been leading bike trips in Europe since 1966, and his guides know exactly how to balance riding and relaxing.

Tel: 866 551 9090
Seven-day trip, including a Cannondale bike, six nights in hotels, and most meals, $6,195 per person

4. Trek through Bhutan

The trip: Sure, you could aspire to bag all Seven Summits, but why not look for a trek that's more spiritual and less goal-oriented? Bhutan is hidden among 22,000-foot peaks of the Great Himalaya Range, and the Buddhist kingdom bewitches hikers for its mix of hard-core terrain, beautiful scenery, and cultural gifts. (Researchers at the University of Leicester crunched the numbers to deem Bhutan one of the happiest countries in the world.) Trekkers who enter the valleys and villages around the sacred, 24,000-foot mountain of Chomo Lhari encounter gracious monks perched in nest-like monasteries, whimsical blue-colored sheep, and ravishing views around every corner. Expect up to 14 miles of hiking per day, with ascents of up to 13,382 feet. Afterward, were it not for the worn boot soles and phenomenal photographs, you might wonder if it were all but a dream.

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What to pack: Warm, windproof clothes. It's chilly up there, and in a a typical ten-day trip, you'll ascend some half-dozen 12,000-foot mountains.

Difficulty: 9.4 out of 10. You should be ready to handle high altitudes and extreme wilderness with no vehicle support.

Your guides: Mountain Travel Sobek, one of the earliest outfitters to receive permission to lead trips in Bhutan.

Tel: 510 594 6000
16-day, 15-night trip, including ten days of trekking, nine nights of camping, six nights in hotels, and all meals, around $5,780 per person

5. Surf in Panama

The trip: Panama has the waves of Hawaii and the cultural allure of Bali—but without the lineups of the Aloha State or the long haul to Indonesia. And the Central American coast is very friendly to the wallet (think $20 massages and $1 ice-cold cervezas). Experts and novices alike can find waves to their liking during a weeklong trip to Morro Negrito, a surf camp on the far-flung island of La Ensenada. Hard-core types should book between April and October, when they'll have the best shot at 12-foot-tall waves; panga boats will take surfers out to the area's finest breaks, including the world-class Point Barrel and the long, rolling Sand Bar. Greenhorns can take hour-long semiprivate lessons for $15 and can find much gentler waves between November and March. In between sessions, cast for sailfish in the Pacific or practice your shavasana on the camp's yoga deck. Try not to strain yourself, as you're here to surf, after all.

Why go? Fierce waves and few distractions make Panama the top spot to channel your inner Kelly Slater.

What to pack: A good paperback to read while swinging on a beach hammock, and a bottle of Mount Gay Rum (the remote camp stocks only water, soda, and beer).

Difficulty: 8 out of 10. The waves can be gnarly, but guides on boats are there to coax you through them, or ferry you back to land.

Your guides: The surf bums and expats at Morro Negrito, where the bunks are basic but have ocean views; the camp operates on solar and wind power.

Five nights at the camp and two nights in Panama City, including all meals, transfers, and two daily boat trips, $650 per person

6. Ride horseback through Mongolia

The trip: You're thundering under cerulean skies across the Darhad Valley, reins loosely flapping in your hands and a Mongolian wind tugging at your hat as the small, strong horse surges beneath you. Untouched mountainsides spill down to steppes and pastures; the only signs of civilization are a few yurts in the distance. On a horse trek through Mongolia, adventurers don't even have to close their eyes to pretend they're Genghis Khan—or Alec in The Black Stallion. After exploring the capital, Ulaanbaatar, and boating the 100-mile Lake Khovsgol at the Siberian border, travelers meet their horses for ten days of riding through the Darhad, the sun-baked valley of Mongolian herdsmen, wild lakes, and jagged peaks. They'll also meet the nomadic "Reindeer people," whose ranks are disappearing as modernization encroaches, and will sleep in tents and at ger (yurt) camps. The trek coincides with the Naadam Festival, a mini-Olympics and big party for Mongolian horse racers, wrestlers, and archers. Sorry, only kids can race the horses.

Why go? When it comes to true horse country, Kentucky and Montana have nothing on Mongolia, where infants are taught to ride before they can walk.

What to pack: Advil. You'll be riding up to 20 miles per day on a traditional Russian cavalry saddle with precious little padding.

Difficulty: 5 out of 10. Riding experience is a must, as the horses are often less broken than you'd like. And be prepared to handle the cold, hunger, and discomfort that sometimes comes with camping in the wilderness with little privacy.

Your guides: Boojum Expeditions, which has been trekking in Inner Mongolia by horseback since 1984. The company is also one of the few outside entities to maintain close ties with the remote Reindeer people.

Tel: 406 587 0125
19-day Khovsgol Horse Trek with Nadaam Festival (including three nights in hotels and the rest camping or in a ger), plus all meals, $3,415 per person

7. Ski the Andes

The trip: Harrumph to the Hamptons, Nantucket, even the coast of Maine. The coolest way to cool off in August is by kicking off a cornice into South American powder, skis attached to feet and a Pisco Sour lined up for après. In Portillo, Chile, nearly 300 inches of snow blankets the 1,300 acres of bowls, steeps, and chutes from late June to early October. With only the distinctive yellow Hotel Portillo at the base and a handful of guests each day (including members of the U.S. Ski Team, which trains here each summer), the skiing is as pure as the surrounding Andes and Lake of the Incas. To maximize the off-piste opportunities while sharpening your extreme-skiing skills, enroll in a ten-day free-skiing course with the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC), which teaches experienced sliders how to master the toughest terrain. Full days on the slopes are followed by video review sessions, late steak-and-wine dinners, and a few turns on the dance floor.

Why go? To ensure crowd-free conditions, Portillo allows only 450 guests per week—a small fraction of the 65,000 skiers and riders that swarm Vail weekly. Plus, August snow.

What to pack: Your own Ping-Pong paddle, if you want an edge in the annual après-ski tourney that NASTC hosts here every summer.

Difficulty: 6.5 out of 10. You should at least be able to ski groomed blue and some black trails.

Your guides: Chris and Jenny Fellows of Lake Tahoe–based NASTC, who've been running Portillo ski camps since 1994.

Tel: 530 582 4772
Six days of instruction, an eight-day lift ticket, hotels in Portillo and Santiago, and four meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the Chilean afternoon tea called onces) per day, $3,995 per person

8. Bike and hike in the Canadian Rockies

The trip: A whir of the chopper blades, a helicopter's shadow forming and fading as it lifts and banks away, and then—nothing. Just the remote silence of the Bugaboo Mountains, with sawtooth peaks, glacial lakes, and wildflower fields that would otherwise be next to impossible to reach. Unless, of course, you've arranged a heli-hiking trip, one of the best (and only) ways to see these particular far-flung splendors of the Canadian Rockies. It's just one part of a six-day trip arranged by the outfitter Backroads. The other half is spent biking through Banff National Park, with only the pine-scented air between you and the twisting rivers and yawning canyons. A Bell helicopter transports guests between the Bugaboos and Banff, Lake Louise, and Yoho National Park, where you'll see the peaks, lakes, and waterfalls from a bike saddle. And if the high-class helicopter service doesn't bring out the trust funder in you, the cuisine and accommodations will. Think mountain lodges with exposed beams, stone bars, and saunas, along with blueberry port-glazed buffalo tenderloin.

Why go? You want your mind to be blown away by scenery but your body to remain intact.

What to pack: The kitchen sink. Since the helicopter carries the gear you'll need up in the mountains, you can stuff your backpack with almost anything you'd like (provided you don't weigh down the chopper, of course).

Difficulty: 4 out of 10. Guests can hike up to 14 miles in one day and bike up to 42 miles the next. But those who are lagging behind can choose shorter routes or ride in the sag wagon.

Your guides: The California-based Backroads, which has been around since 1979. For this multisport-palooza, Backroads partners with heli-skiing and heli-hiking experts Canadian Mountain Holidays for dream-team service.

Tel: 510 527 1444
Helicopter service, bike rental, five nights in hotels, and all meals, $3,898 per person

9. Safari in Tanzania

The trip: Yes, there is something a little unsettling about coming thisclose to a lion or cheetah in the bush, especially when you're actually sharing those same bushes with them—on the ground rather than inside a Land Rover. But a few hours from now, the butterflies in your stomach will be settled by a gin and tonic timed to the Tanzanian sunset. Any stay in an exclusive wilderness camp in the Tarangire National Park is pretty extraordinary, but what makes this safari so special is that forays into the Serengeti are conducted both on foot and by vehicle. You'll meet some of Tanzania's 120 tribes. And you'll see lumbering bull elephants, graceful giraffes, and, if you're there between January and March, some 2 million wildebeest migrating across the plains. (You might want to move out of the way for this last phenomenon.)

Why go? There's nothing new or gimmicky about this classic safari, which is precisely the point: It's about witnessing nature at its most feral, untouched by time or civilization.

What to pack: The beefiest memory card your camera will take.

Your guides: Mark Thornton, who personally takes only 100 guests on safari each year and who has exclusive access to some of Tanzania's most wildlife-rich areas.

Difficulty: 2 out of 10. If you can walk—with the knowledge that you might need to run—and press a shutter, you can do this trip.

Tel: 011 256 78 754 1686
12-day safari, including lodging, meals, and guide service, around $7,000 per person

10. Dive the Great Barrier Reef

The trip: Let's face it, few of us will actually get to explore outer space, despite the best efforts of Sir Richard Branson. But we can come pretty darn close by donning a mask, an oxygen tank, and a pair of flippers to float through some of the 2,800 coral reefs that make up Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Drifting through the water really is akin to spacewalking, and the creatures—you'll be lucky to identify even a third of them—are decidedly otherworldly. Choose a private, low-impact area such as Wilson Island as your base camp. A coral cay that's actually part of the reef, it contains a mere six tents housing only 12 guests at a time. Since you're the only guests, beaches are deserted, and you can snorkel first thing in the morning. It's also located in-between the two prime dive sites of Lizard and Heron islands, with 1,500 species of fish and loggerhead turtles. After toweling off, you'll sip an Australian chardonnay, dine on local ingredients, and slumber in king-size beds. Which is a lot more appealing than strapping yourself into a spaceship.

Why go? The world's coral reefs are swiftly disappearing. But the eco-oriented Wilson Island allows you to both see the threatened treasures and help preserve them for your grandchildren.

What to pack: Wrinkle-free clothes. There are no irons on Wilson Island. No electricity either, for that matter.

Difficulty: 3 out of 10. No diving experience is necessary.

Your guides: Voyages Hotels & Resorts, the group that owns Wilson Island. They're best known for helping to protect, through sustainable tourism, another Australian treasure: Ayers Rock.

Tel: 011 61 2 8296-8010
Four-night package, including lodging in a luxury tent, meals, drinks, and snorkeling gear, $1,620 per person; $263 additional for four days of diving (three dives per day) from nearby Heron Island

11. Sail in Antarctica

The trip: For anyone who grouses that adventure travel has become too soft, meet the Seal. The 56-foot-long aluminum cutter has no plasma TVs, no marble tubs, no Bose surround-sound speaker system. Instead, the six-passenger Seal is specially fitted for the Antarctic, with a swing-up keel to handle groundings and with watertight, well, everything. During this month-long trip through Antarctica, guests can focus on peeping at penguin colonies, iceberg-clogged coves, and frozen islands. Imagine the constant groan and splash of glaciers and the feel of the southernmost earth beneath your feet as you disembark to explore dormant volcanoes. The sail starts and ends in Puerto Williams, Chile, with a good measure of true adventure, such as when passengers harness themselves to the deck to take on Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. Nearly 24-hour daylight can make sleeping a distant thought, but the wine-stocked galley, hot showers, and private cabins add just enough softness to really enjoy the adventure.

Why go? It's the most impressive—and most genuine—way to visit Antarctica.

What to pack: A permit for any research you'd like to conduct on the seventh continent: This is a real expedition, with fellow crew members likely to be taking notes on marine biology, geology, and more.

Difficulty: 6.8 out of 10. There may be vino on board, but this is no booze cruise. Sailors should be prepared to handle frigid, treacherous conditions and to help out with daily boat work.

Your guides: Kate and Hamish Laird, sailors as tough as their boat. They've been exploring Antarctica for more than 20 years and have logged 26,000 safe miles on the Seal.

Tel: 603 868 5850
28-day charter, including food, wine, and safety equipment, $52,500 for up to four people

12. Climb Half Dome

The trip: With apologies to Ansel Adams, even the sharpest of photographs fails to capture the American icon of Half Dome, the granite monolith rising nearly 4,800 feet from the valley floor in California's Yosemite National Park. To understand a bit more about geology and the United States—and yourself—stop gaping and start climbing. The good news: You don't need technical rock-climbing skills or gear like you would for, say, El Capitan. You do need to be prepared for encountering as many as 1,000 fellow hikers on a summer weekend. Go early in the morning and plan for about a ten-hour round-trip hike. The series of trails on the backside leading to the summit pass through woods and waterfalls before climbing up rocky switchbacks to the final, 45-degree section, whose steepness is made manageable by a series of cables. The sheer rock wall is just scary enough to leave you feeling even more euphoric as you stare down at Yosemite from the summit.

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What to pack: Gardening gloves, to wear while grabbing onto the cables for dear life.

Difficulty: 7 out of 10. Hikers should be ready to handle 17 miles and altitudes of 8,000-plus feet.

Your guides: Yourself, a hiking partner, and a map from the National Park Service.

Tel: 209 372 0200

13. Run to Machu Picchu

The trip: Now this is what we call getting off the treadmill. It took American historian Hiram Bingham years to discover the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu, but now runners can dash up to the sacred archaeological sight in just a couple of days. On a ten-day "running adventure" from Andes Adventures, Brooks-shod pilgrims warm up with runs of 4.5 to 6.5 miles around Cuzco, Peru, and a river-rafting trip on the Urubamba River. The run up the Inca Trail itself is 27 miles, split by a night camping in the cloud-strewn town of Phuyupatamarca. Aid stations help take runners' minds off the miles, as do the views of glaciated peaks and orchid-thick forests. After the final awestruck stumble into Machu Picchu, guests have two full days to explore the ruins with such comforts as thermal baths at Aguas Calientes and soft beds at the Machu Picchu Inn Hotel. But nothing beats the feeling of having smoked every other person aiming to reach the Lost City.

Why go? The ultimate runner's high: You'll run at altitudes from 8,000 to 13,779 feet. And what a way to arrive at this newly named Wonder of the World!

What to pack: An iPod Nano—not for the way up, but for the train ride back down. (Your knees will be happy about that train.)

Difficulty: 9 out of 10. Participants are expected to comfortably cover 10 to 15 miles at a time on rolling terrain at very high altitude.

Your guides: Andes Adventures, running since 1995. The company also has one of the now restricted and much-coveted permits to travel along the Inca Trail.

Tel: 310 395 5265
Ten-day trip, including hotels, two nights camping, and all meals, $2,250 per person

14. Mountain bike in the Rockies

The trip: Perhaps the only thing more exhilarating than wheeling among the 14,000-foot peaks of southern Colorado and the slickrock of southern Utah is doing both—and not having to carry an ounce of food or camping equipment. The San Juan Hut System spans 215 miles from Telluride, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, letting mountain bikers pedal all day on singletrack and secondary dirt roads, then crash in a fully stocked shelter at night. Spaced 15 to 40 miles apart, the system's six wooden huts are furnished with a kitchen and eight bunks and supplied with cold beer, bacon, and more. Only one has a hot shower—the Graham Ranch Hut, halfway through—but the swims in lakes and streams near the other huts are more invigorating anyway. Reservations are required. Have a group of eight? Reserve well in advance, as the spots go lickety-split, especially on weekends.

Why go? You could witness the spectacular San Juan scenery from a car window, but your quads and hamstrings will work for less than $5 a gallon.

What to pack: An extra set of duds for your arrival in Moab—a Colorado shipping service can send it ahead of you.

Difficulty: 7.5 out of 10. Bikers must be able to ride up to 40 miles in one day in order to make the next hut, often over challenging terrain.

Your guides: You and your fellow riders, plus the hut system staffers who stock the cabins.

Tel: 970 626 3033
Seven days, including hut facilities, sleeping bags, meals, and maps, $750 per person

15. Take a camel trek in Morocco

The trip: Forget the Land Cruiser. The only authentic way to cross the Sahara, T.E. Lawrence style, is on the back of a camel. Yes, it may be less cush than a leather car seat, and even a boxful of Altoids can't help that camel breath, but you'll be too spellbound by Morocco to care. The country's sensual bazaars, imposing Atlas Mountains, and undulating sands all have mystical powers over travelers, who feel more complete after experiencing the Moroccan mosaic of casbahs, souks, and Berber villages. As part of a two-week trip from Marrakesh to Fez from Mountain Travel Sobek, adventurers devote four days (and up to seven hours per day) camel-trekking across the desert, navigating pumpkin-colored dunes and black volcanic rock while rocking rhythmically atop a blanket. Nights are spent camping under the impossibly bright stars while the camels sleep nearby. After bidding goodbye to the animals, guests explore the dune mountains of Erfoud and the medieval architecture of Fez—including the 20-plus palaces of the sultan Moulay Ismail, who is said to have fathered 1,000 children. We're not sure how much time he spent on a camel.

Why go? Because you need to believe in magic again.

What to pack: An extra suitcase, to bring home the handcrafted rugs, lanterns, pillows, and leather bags you'll pick up along the way.

Difficulty: 4 out of 10. Expect a bit of discomfort on the camels and one seven-hour day of hiking.

Your guides: Mountain Travel Sobek. Morocco-savvy since 1975, the company has had more than 30 years to track down the most cooperative dromedaries.

Tel: 510-594-6000
14-day trip, including nine nights in hotels, four nights camping, and all meals, $4,295 per person