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You Can Be Indiana Jones on a Budget

By Stephen Jermanok
updated February 21, 2017
By going to the source--a local adventure tour operator--you can enjoy spectacular travel thrills for wonderfully low prices

Buy your adventure tour directly from a local outfitter, a person on the spot who actually organizes and supervises the activity, and you can save big bucks, sometimes a thousand or more. That was the message I advanced in a recent issue of Budget Travel, citing examples that ranged from diving in Fiji to mountain biking in Thailand.

But it isn't only overseas that small outfitters actually operate the tour and yet receive only a small fraction of the fee charged for it. Here at home, the overwhelming majority of domestic adventure tours are also operated by modest, local outfitters charging reasonable rates. But far too often, their prices are marked up by big national tour companies whose strength is in marketing, advertising, and sales. Innocent adventure travelers buy their tours from national companies when they could have gotten them straight from the local source, and hence pay far more than necessary.

Here are 12 outstanding American adventures that you can buy directly from distinguished local outfitters for a fraction of the cost charged by nationwide concerns. Each is available in 2002 (and most will also be available in 2003), and all but one are priced below $150 per day, sometimes for considerably less, but only when purchased directly from the outfitters mentioned in the text.

Fishing and canoeing in the boundary waters of Minnesota 

Maybe it's the one-million-plus acres of seemingly endless wilderness--a whopping 1,300 miles of canoeable waters through countless lakes, rivers, and ponds--that gets paddlers all dreamy-eyed over Minnesota's northern frontier, the Boundary Waters. You can go days without seeing another person, intent instead on moose, whitetail deer, black bears, beavers, otters, and those laughing loons. Wilderness Outfitters in the border town of Ely has been taking people away from civilization since 1921 (800/777-8572, wildernessoutfitters.com). In 2002, they're offering five 6-to-10-day guided trips through the Boundary Waters and neighboring Quetico Park in Canada.

This area is truly an angler's paradise, to name just one of its attractions. Crystal-clear waters hold trout, walleye, bass, and northern pike in abundance. Since there is almost no motor access to the Boundary Waters and Quetico, fish are plentiful. The cost of most six-day trips is $895 per person, including canoes, guides, food, and tents. Of course, Wilderness Outfitters also offers food, canoes, and maps for alternative self-guided trips, which reduce the price for the latter to $55 per person, per day.

Backpacking Yosemite National Park

It began more than a century ago in the rugged wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Deep among the towering sequoias and cascading waterfalls, John Muir and other leading conservationists founded an enduring group dedicated to preserving this awesome mountain range. Today, the Sierra Club has more than half a million members and offers guided trips throughout northern California and around the world (415/977-5522, sierraclub.org/). One of the best of the bunch is a seven-day backpacking trip through Yosemite.

Called "Majestic Yosemite," this 65-mile, on-trail trip leads you to unforgettable vistas at heights of well over 10,000 feet and past deep-in-the-woods waterfalls that few people besides Muir have seen. The trip begins and ends in Tuolumne Meadows, where the wildflowers are at their peak during the dates of the trek, July 9-16. Cost of the backpack adventure is $485, including all food.

Biking Vermont

There are many reasons for bikers to cherish Vermont. The numerous back-country roads connect picturesque hamlets, all with very little traffic. The rolling hills challenge the novice, but also allow the experts to feel a sense of accomplishment. Yet it's the scenery that makes a bike trip in Vermont so appealing. Around every bend there's another meadow greener than the last, another freshly painted white steeple piercing the clouds overhead, and another Green Mountain standing tall in the distance. Strict environmental statutes prohibit roadside billboards and other eyesores. In their place stand small signs advertising pure maple syrup or identifying the types of cows found on a farm-Holstein, Hereford, or Jersey. This state was meant to be seen at a slow pace.

Depending on your ability, budget, and length of stay, Vermont Outdoor Guide Association (800/425-8747, voga.org/) will develop a detailed itinerary that includes accommodations (B&Bs, youth hostels, or campgrounds), bike routes (including a map and a description of the terrain), even a bike. This is a self-guided tour of the state, so luggage will be transported by the lodging properties and each night's accommodation will keep track of your route in case of an emergency. Take a weeklong tour in the affordable and majestic northeast kingdom of Vermont, and your total cost, including bike rental, inns, and food, will be $500-$600. If you prefer to camp and want to bring your own bike, the weekly price plummets to about $150, not including meals.

Rafting the Yampa River, Colorado

Roaring for 72 miles through northwestern Colorado, the Yampa River is the last major free-flowing tributary in the entire Colorado River system. This Class III river, ideal for families, is in its prime in early June, when the snowmelt fills the channel. Large, playful waves run from start to finish through Yampa, Whirlpool, and Split Mountain Canyons in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument. (Butch Cassidy found these slickrock walls and layers of cavernous rock to be the perfect hideaway.) Two-thousand-foot-deep sandstone gorges create a colorful canyon maze that effectively blocks out the world. You'll find golden eagles, bighorn sheep, and one of the largest concentrations of the threatened peregrine falcons in the States. Adrift Adventures (800/824-0150, adrift.com/) features a five-day run on the Yampa. Cost is $769 adults and $679 children.

Surfing Oregon

Much of Oregon's northern coast is undeveloped and protected as state parks or public beaches. It's an ideal place to camp and wake up in the morning to look for shells on miles-long crescents of sand. If you register for Adventure Surf Unlimited's (781/648-2880, adventuresurf.com/) weeklong camps on the Oregon coast, you roll out of your sleeping bag at sunrise and look out over the bluff at the waters of the Pacific. Minutes later, you're donning a wetsuit and hitting the surf. Far away from the crowded conditions of California beaches, Oregon is a far gentler place to try this sport.

In the ocean, guides ride directly alongside novices, even giving them a little push, if necessary, to catch the wave. Although Adventure Surf Unlimited primarily attracts beginners, seasoned riders come to fine-tune skills such as walking the board or setting up for bigger waves. Throughout the session, guides shout instructions like, "This is a good wave, you can catch it," or "Paddle right." Out of the water, instructors discuss tidal conditions, tell you how to read waves, and critique how you did that day. Take it in stride, dude. The seven-day course, including all instruction, food, and camping equipment, costs $799.

Mountain biking in Moab, Utah 

Moab and the Canyonlands are to mountain biking what Hawaii is to surfing. It's home to the legendary Slickrock Trail, a 12-mile pedal through a stunning labyrinth of deep narrow canyons that twist and turn sharply, without reason, like the scribbling of a three-year-old. Adventurebus (888/737-5263, adventurebus.com/) will take you and your favorite mountain bike on a weeklong biking-and-hiking tour of Utah on the Slickrock Express.

Starting from Southern California, you drive through Las Vegas, arriving at the red and amber canyon walls of Zion National Park at dawn. Rise and shine on a hike in the Narrows, where you walk in the Virgin River through a 1,000-foot-deep chasm that's a mere 20 feet wide. The next day is spent hiking or biking in Bryce Canyon National Park. Then it's on to Canyonlands for four days of camping under the stars and biking through rolling juniper and burnt-red butte country. You'll try all the renowned routes-Slickrock, Gemini Bridges, and the Porcupine Rim Trail-spending hours slithering through chutes of sandstone. Cost of the trip is $800, including food.

Sailing the Keys, Florida 

There was a time, not long ago, when yachting was an outing only for the affluent. Thankfully, that's no longer true. The Moorings (800/535-7289, moorings.com/), a yacht charter company for the past 33 years, is offering a great deal out of Tortola, the British Virgin Islands. From July 29 through October 24, 2002, you can bareboat charter the Moorings 332, a 33-foot yacht, for a cost of $1,500 for six nights. Since the boat has two spacious staterooms, the yacht is well suited for two couples. The final tally for four people would be $53 per person per day, not including provisions.

Rock climbing, Joshua Tree National Park

Three hours east of Los Angeles, huge boulder outcroppings bake in the Mojave Desert sun. Joshua trees, yucca, creosote, and other desert shrubs cover the sandy ground, leaving only these mountains of rock uncovered. Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park, home to the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School (800/890-4745, joshuatreerockclimbing.com/). More than 100 million years ago, these jumbled piles of bedrock cooled, hardened, and then eroded into fantastic shapes. Today, there are over 4,000 rock climbs to choose from, appropriate for any level of expertise.

The school offers four-day beginner and intermediate seminars year-round. A typical day starts at Turtle Rock in the north end of the park. During a quick 30-minute talk about the equipment, you'll be outfitted with a harness, helmet, and climbing shoes, whose bottoms are made of sticky rubber. Then you'll spend the rest of the morning "bouldering" (climbing, low to the ground, up a large boulder) before tackling a sheet of rock. After your guides delve further into the mechanics of the ropes and the belay (the thing that stops you from falling if you slip off the rock), you will spend the afternoon on the rockface, getting comfortable with hand- and footholds as you climb up and rappel down a 75-foot cliff. By the end of four days, you'll look like SpiderMan as you climb a 100-foot cliff. Cost of the program is $315. Most camping is free in the park, but it's first-come, first-served. You may reserve a site in Indian Cove or Black Rock Campgrounds for $10 a night (800/365-2267).

Scuba diving the Big Island, Hawaii 

Scuba divers who head to Hawaii's Kona Coast have more than 70 sites to choose from. After a 15-minute boat ride from the shores you arrive at Turtle Pinnacle. Here, in 35 to 40 feet of water, you'll be eyeball-to-eyeball with large green sea turtles. At Manta Ray Village, the mantas come out at night to feed on plankton. Another favorite location in the area is Long Lava Tube, where you swim in a 70-foot-long cavelike tunnel that was created by lava flowing into the sea. Inside this tunnel, hundreds of tropical fish delight you with their neon patterns.

Eco-Adventures (800/949-3483, molokai-hawan.com/), regarded by many as the number one outfitter in Hawaii, offers numerous diving packages. Six nights at the Royal Kona Resort in an oceanview room, plus rental car, full buffet breakfasts, two days of two-tank diving, and a one-night dive with the mantas is priced at $695. Skip the rental car and breakfasts, and they'll put you up at Kona Seaside Hotel for $498. You can probably get a discount if you book through the Internet.

Sea kayaking the Barrier Island, Georgia

While many islands off the Atlantic coast continue to build resorts and second homes, Georgia has left its barrier islands pretty much alone. Only four of its dozen islands have been developed. The others are still marsh wetlands and dunes, where giant sea turtles come to lay their eggs and the occasional alligator stumbles though brackish swamp. These countless miles of tidal rivers and coastal waters are a sea kayaker's dream.

Sea Kayak Georgia (888/529-2542, seakayakgeorgia.com/), based on Savannah's Tybee Island, takes kayakers on a three-day trip to Little Tybee and Wassaw Islands, of which the former is a green expanse of tidal marsh and maritime forests in various stages of succession, from hammocks of live and laurel oak to scrubby forests of palm and slash pine, as well as deserted beaches populated only by mink, sea otters, snowy egrets, blue herons, and ospreys. On the paddle over, you'll most likely be accompanied by bottlenose dolphins and diving pelicans. Wassaw Island is a national wildlife refuge open to the public during daylight hours only. The cost of the trip is $360, including all food and camping equipment.

Horseback packing, New Mexico

The half-million-acre Gila Wilderness sits in the southwestern part of New Mexico, near the Arizona border. This is desolate country, where 11,000-foot peaks tower over deeply eroded canyons and hundreds of miles of lonely river. Once infamous for Apache raids on early settlers by the likes of Geronimo, Gila is now known for its large herds of elk, bighorn sheep, black bears, and mountain lions.

The only way to pierce this vast interior is by foot or on horseback. Tom Klumker, owner of San Francisco River Outfitters (505/539-2517, gilanet.com/sfroutfitters), has been leading pack trips into this region for the past 25 years. In the saddle of a strong quarter horse that he supplies, you'll lope through large stretches of ponderosa pines and tall aspen, some as high as 100 feet. In the nighttime, you can soothe your sore bum in a cool river. Five-day trips cost $750. Horses, camping equipment, and hearty steak dinners that could satiate John Wayne are included in the price.

Boston-based writer Stephen Jermanok is a contributing editor at Outdoor Explorer, and author of Frommer's Great Outdoor Guide to New England.

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