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10 outdoor adventures you have to try

Guests enjoy spectacular views from the hair-raising ropes course at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

After being cooped up much of the past 15 months because of pandemic restrictions, people are raring to get out and go. A dose of soft adventure might be just what the doctor ordered to get your blood pumping and your mind racing.

Zip through a treetop canopy, delve into a cave, plop into an inner tube, and whoosh through a swamp on an airboat. We’ve rounded up a collection of exciting activities that are appropriate for a range of ages and abilities. Tap into your adventurous spirit this summer with these 10 out-of-the-ordinary experiences.

Best Midwest outdoor adventures

1. Nature's water park

 Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park

At Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, visitors splash, swim, and slide through a maze of chutes and rapids formed by a jumble of boulders and rock formations. | Photo courtesy VisitMo.com

There’s no need to pay admission to a fancy man-made water park if you’re in southeast Missouri. Just head to one crafted by Mother Nature at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Middle Brook, Missouri. Jumbled boulders make up the “shut-ins” area where the East Fork of the Black River is constricted into a maze of chutes, rivulets, rapids, and waterfalls. The cool, clear waters invite visitors to wade, splash, and slide, but take care when navigating the rocky area. For great views of the canyon-like gorge, follow a walkway that leads to an observation deck overlooking the shut-ins. Don’t miss the Black River Center with its interactive exhibits, and overnight guests can choose from a campground and six camper cabins.

2. Thrilling zip lines

Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour

The Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour consists of eight zip lines that zigzag through the treetops in southern Illinois. | Photo courtesy Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau

The sprawling Shawnee National Forest in southernmost Illinois offers many activities within its 289,000 acres, including hiking, swimming, fishing, and sightseeing—especially the breathtaking rock formations at the aptly named Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. But for adventure seekers, the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour in Makanda, Illinois, is hard to beat. The longer of two tour options consists of eight zip lines—the longest of which stretches 1,100 feet—that zigzag across 83 wooded acres. Including 11 platforms high in the trees, three aerial suspension bridges, and three short hikes on the ground, the tour takes about three hours and delivers a high dose of adrenaline.

3. Horseback trail rides

Horseback Trail Rides at RS Ranch

Saddle up at RS Ranch for trail rides through the 500-acre property’s scenic forests, fields, creeks, and ridges. | Photo courtesy RS Ranch Rides LLC Tanya Schoenbeck

Whether you’re a complete novice or an accomplished rider, there’s a horse for you at RS Ranch in Bourbon, Missouri, about 75 miles southwest of St. Louis. Co-owner Tanya Schoenbeck has an uncanny ability to pair riders with horses appropriate for their skill levels. The 500-acre ranch is home to around 40 horses, mostly Missouri Fox Trotters that have a smooth gait for a gentle ride through the property’s fields, woods, creeks, and ridges. Guests can choose from a variety of trail rides, and a bunkhouse is available for overnight stays. Tanya’s husband, Roy, is a farrier who shoes the ranch’s horses, and together they help visitors become cowboys for a day.

4. Underground adventures

marengo cave

Marengo Cave, one of the four caverns on the Indiana Cave Trail, showcases fascinating formations on several different tours. | Photo courtesy Visit Indiana

During summer’s heat, cool off with an underground adventure. And if one cave is good, four must be better. The Indiana Cave Trail in Southern Indiana provides a fun way to explore four diverse caverns. Pick up a free passport at any of the caves, get a stamp at each, and then turn in the completed passport at your fourth cave for a free T-shirt. Each cave has its own appeal. A National Natural Landmark, Marengo Cave in Marengo offers several types of guided tours, plus an overnight adventure. The cave tour at Indiana Caverns in Corydon combines walking and an underground boat ride, while the four-hour Deep Darkness adventure involves climbing, crawling, and splashing through an underground stream before a concluding kayak ride. Squire Boone Caverns in Mauckport focuses on history: Its cave tours are complemented by a visit to a pioneer village with a restored early 1800s mill. Finally, explore a subterranean river on boat tours and kayak adventures at Bluespring Caverns in Bedford.

5. Disc golf paradise

disc golf

Emporia, Kansas, has become a mecca for the rapidly growing sport of disc golf with a variety of 9-hole and 18-hole courses. | Photo courtesy Dynamic Discs

With 15 disc golf courses in and around the city, Emporia, Kansas, has been called Disc Golf Disneyland. Located about midway between Topeka and Wichita, Emporia has made a name for itself in this rapidly growing sport. Indeed, thousands of people from around the globe descend on Emporia every year to play in a week-long tournament. In historic downtown Emporia, gear up at Dynamic Discs, one of the world’s largest disc golf retailers. For a behind-the-scenes look, book a Dynamic Discs Warehouse tour when COVID-19 conditions allow. In addition to seeing hundreds of thousands of discs, you’ll discover how the hot stamp process works to create the various types of discs designed for different speeds and flight patterns.

Best Southern outdoor adventures

6. Rock climbing routes

horseshoe canyon rock climbing

Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced climber, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch offers a range of rock-climbing routes. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

What started as a dude ranch featuring horseback riding also became one of the region’s top rock-climbing centers when the folks at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas, realized the site’s sandstone bluffs were ideal for climbing. They developed more than 500 routes for climbing enthusiasts, from novice to expert, and they’ve added zip lines. One of the highlights is a via ferrata, Italian for Iron Road, a course equipped with fixed ladders, rungs, cables, and bridges that allow guests to experience the thrill of rock climbing without the requisite training. For those who book all-inclusive stays, there are still plenty of horses to ride, and guests enjoy log cabin–style accommodations and great meals. Other activities include trap shooting, archery, and canoeing on the nearby Buffalo National River.

7. Oyster schooner sailing excursions

oyster schooner

Set sail on a two-masted oyster schooner on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and learn about oyster harvesting in the late 1800s and early 1900s. | Photo courtesy Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, Biloxi

If sailing on a historic fishing vessel appeals to your inner adventurer, adjust your sea legs and step aboard an authentic replica of a traditional two-masted oyster schooner in Biloxi, Mississippi. The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum offers day sailing or charter trips on its two 65-foot “White Winged Queens” from the nearby Schooner Pier Complex. These types of majestic boats sailed the Mississippi Gulf Coast from the late 1800s to the early 1900s until changes in oyster harvesting laws and the use of marine engines led to their demise. Be sure to allow time to tour the museum and learn more about Biloxi’s storied maritime history.

8. Tubing on the Bogue Chitto River

tubing lousiana river

Cool off during the summer with a leisurely tubing adventure down Louisiana’s Bogue Chitto River, which features a number of sandy beaches. | Photo courtesy Kevin Garrett for LouisianaNorthshore.com

Adventure doesn’t have to be high adrenaline. Tubing down the Bogue Chitto River in the Louisiana Northshore area provides a relaxing experience that is just plain fun. A long, curving river with a steady current, the Bogue Chitto features sandy beaches that are perfect for picnicking. Among the outfitters, Louisiana River Adventures in Franklinton, Louisiana, offers two- and four-hour excursions. Wear water shoes, sunscreen, and sunglasses or hats, and bring plenty of water and snacks. If tubing isn’t your cup of tea, rent a canoe or kayak. Several other area outfitters also rent tubes and provide shuttles.

9. Mountain biking mecca

Lake Leatherwood City Park

Mountain bikers charge through the rocky, forest terrain at Lake Leatherwood City Park in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

With the Ozarks’ rugged terrain and more than 250 miles of top-tier trails, Northwest Arkansas has become a mountain biker’s mecca. In the mix of cycling hot spots is Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which has been a tourist destination since the 1800s when people flocked to the area to partake of its many springs believed to have healing qualities. People still gather there to enjoy the scenic beauty, the quaint town’s Victorian architecture, and, more recently, its treasure trove of mountain biking trails. For instance, more than 25 miles of trails at 1,600-acre Lake Leatherwood City Park range from easy to advanced. Rocky ledges, creek crossings, and varied terrain will interest both cyclists and hikers. The trails at Black Bass Lake City Park add another 2 miles of challenges.

10. Swamp and airboat tours

McGee’s Swamp and Airboat Tours

Passengers on McGee’s Swamp and Airboat Tours speed through Louisiana’s beautiful and mysterious Atchafalaya Basin. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

An iconic experience high on the list of many Louisiana visitors is an airboat ride in the pristine Atchafalaya Basin, the nation’s largest river swamp. Between periods of speeding through the swamp with McGee’s Swamp and Airboat Tours in Henderson, Louisiana, guests hear entertaining Cajun tour guides explain what it’s like to live and work in the Atchafalaya Basin. While not guaranteed, the chances are good you will see some alligators. If a thrilling airboat ride seems too adventurous, consider a more relaxing traditional swamp tour or rent a canoe to experience the same mysterious beauty in a more peaceful manner.

A contributor from Gerald, Missouri, Barbara Gibbs Ostmann has personally tried—and survived—most of the activities on this list.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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