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10 outdoor adventures to try this year

Exploring the Atchafalaya Swamp on an airboat is one thrilling experience to add to your list of adventures for the new year. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

With a new year comes a chance to check out new things, and a dose of soft adventure provides the opportunity to get your blood pumping and your mind racing. Zip through a treetop canopy, descend into a cave, plop onto an inner tube, and whoosh through a swamp on an airboat.

These 10 exciting activities are appropriate for a range of ages and abilities. Tap into your adventurous spirit this year and try some of these out-of-the-ordinary experiences.

1. Nature's water park

Crowds of swimmers at 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

In southeast Missouri, there’s no need to pay admission to a fancy man-made water park. Just head to one crafted by Mother Nature at Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park in 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 do 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 and its interactive exhibits. Overnight guests can choose between a campground and 6 camper cabins. Rates range from $15 to $80.

You may also like: 10 refreshing swimming holes in the Midwest and South

2. Thrilling zip lines

Woman zip lining in Shawnee National Forest.

The Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour consists of 8 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. There’s hiking, swimming, fishing, and sightseeing—especially the breathtaking rock formations at the aptly named Garden of the Gods Recreation Area.

For adventure seekers, the Shawnee Bluffs Canopy Tour near Makanda is hard to beat. The longer of 2 tour options consists of 8 zip lines—the longest of which stretches 1,100 feet—that zigzag across 83 wooded acres. Including 10 platforms high in the trees, 3 aerial suspension bridges, and 3 short hikes on the ground, the tour takes about 3 hours and delivers a high dose of adrenaline. Participants must be 8 or older; $98 per rider.

You may also like: 10 cozy cabins for a getaway to the Shawnee National Forest and more

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 equestrian, there’s a horse for you at RS Ranch in Bourbon, Missouri. 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 more than 30 horses, mostly Missouri Fox Trotters. Their smooth gait makes for a gentle ride through the property’s fields, woods, creeks, and ridges.

Guests can choose from a variety of trail rides, and a cabin is available for overnight stays. Tanya’s husband, Roy, is a farrier who shoes the ranch’s horses. Together, they help visitors become cowboys for a day. Trail rides start at $45; cabin rate is $250 per night for up to 4 guests.

4. Exploring caves

Visitors looking up at the formations inside Marengo Cave.

Marengo Cave showcases fascinating formations on several different tours. Photo courtesy Visit Indiana.

Not all adventures are found in the daylight. Go underground to discover hidden ancient worlds filled with natural wonders. Southern Indiana is home to a number of caves, including these 4 that showcase unique formations and experiences:

  • A National Natural Landmark, Marengo Cave in Marengo offers guided tours through 2 different areas of the cave. Adult rates start at $21.95.
  • The cave tour at Indiana Caverns near Corydon combines walking and an underground boat ride (adults, $25). Other activities, like gemstone mining, an escape room, and a 50-foot quick-drop experience, cost extra.
  • Squire Boone Caverns in Mauckport focuses on history: Its cave tours (adults, $24) are complemented by a visit to a pioneer village, complete with a restored early 1800s mill, that’s open only during the summer. A zip line on-site costs extra.
  • Finally, explore a subterranean river on a boat tour (adults, $22) or a kayak adventure ($80 per person for groups of 6 to 8) at Bluespring Caverns near Bedford.

You may also like: Check these Midwest adventures off your bucket list

5. Disc golf paradise

Boy playing disc golf throwing a disc toward a basket.

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 17 disc golf courses in the city, Emporia, Kansas, has been called Disc Golf Disneyland. Located about midway between Topeka and Wichita, Emporia has made a name for itself among fans of this rapidly growing sport. Indeed, thousands of people from around the globe descend on Emporia every June to play in a weeklong 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 Headquarters Tour. In addition to seeing hundreds of thousands of discs, you’ll learn how the hot-stamp process creates the various discs designed for different speeds and flight patterns. Weekday tours are free; weekend tours are $35.

6. Rock climbing routes

Person rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.

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 that the site’s sandstone bluffs were ideal for climbing. They developed more than 500 routes for climbing enthusiasts, from novice to expert, and they added zip lines.

A highlight is the via ferrata, Italian for “iron road.” Fixed ladders, rungs, cables, and bridges throughout the course allow guests to experience the thrill of rock climbing without the requisite training.

For those who book all-inclusive stays, there are still horses to ride, and guests enjoy log cabin–style accommodations and great meals. Other activities include trapshooting, archery, and canoeing on the nearby Buffalo National River. Cabin rates start at $259 per adult.

You may also like: 10 ways to experience the Buffalo National River

7. Oyster schooner sailing excursions

People aboard an 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

Want to sail on a historic fishing vessel? Adjust your sea legs and step aboard a faithful replica of a traditional 2-masted oyster schooner in Biloxi, Mississippi. The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum offers day sails or charter trips on its pair of 65-footers from the nearby Schooner Pier Complex.

These types of majestic boats sailed the Mississippi Gulf Coast from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. 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. Adults, $30.

You may also like: A road trip to see lighthouses spotlights Coastal Mississippi’s maritime heritage

8. Tubing on the Bogue Chitto River

People and a dog tubing on the Bogue Chitto 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

Adventure doesn’t have to involve an adrenaline rush. Tubing down the Bogue Chitto River in the Louisiana Northshore area is a relaxing experience that’s just plain fun. A long, curving river with a steady current, the Bogue Chitto has sandy beaches that are perfect for picnicking.

One of the outfitters, Louisiana River Adventures in Franklinton, Louisiana, offers 2- and 4-hour excursions. Wear water shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat, 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. Rates range from $5 to $25.

9. Mountain biking mecca

Mountain bikers maneuvering a trail in 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

The Ozarks’ rugged terrain and more than 250 miles of top-tier trails make northwest Arkansas a mountain biker’s dream. In the mix of cycling hot spots is Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which has been a tourist destination since the 1800s, when people flocked there to partake of its 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 trove of mountain biking trails.

For instance, the 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.

You may also like: Tank Trip: What to do in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

10. Swamp and airboat tours

People on an airboat tour.

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 riverine swamp. Between periods of speeding through the swamp with McGee’s Swamp and Airboat Tours in Henderson, Louisiana, entertaining Cajun tour guides explain what it’s like to live and work in the Atchafalaya Basin.

While not guaranteed, the chances are good that you’ll see some alligators. Adults, $52.50. For a more relaxing way to experience the same mysterious beauty, consider a traditional swamp tour (adults, $35) or sunset tour (adults, $40) on a comfortable excursion boat. Canoe rentals (adults, $25) are also available.

You may also like: Savor the cuisine, music, and history of Louisiana’s Cajun Country

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

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