Planning your next Western vacation? Consider these ideas for thrill-a-minute adrenaline boosts by land, air, and water.

MULE PACKING
Take a mettle-testing pack trip in the Sierra Nevada.

Imagine strolling through high mountain passes blanketed in pine. Imagine seeing wilderness vistas of cragged peaks and drowsy glaciers while trotting through blooming meadows. Imagine quiet canyons and towers of basalt spotlighted by the midday sun. And there isn’t a road for 200 miles. That’s what pack-mule ride company Rock Creek Pack Station in Bishop, California, offers guests. The oldest operation of its kind on the eastern side of California’s Sierra Nevada, Rock Creek has been leading visitors on pack trail ride vacations since 1947, when Herbert London purchased the outfit from the original owner. But its history goes back to the early 1900s, when newly built roads out of Los Angeles allowed people access to California’s wilderness. Longtime promotion of the region by the Sierra Club has also attracted visitors to the region. And in the case of Rock Creek, a Sierra Club partner, it has helped establish a repeat customer base.

“We have guests in their 60s who took a trip when they were about 10 years old and now want to take their grandkids,” says son of Herbert and second-generation owner Craig London. What do these visitors come back for? They return to experience traveling through portions of the John Muir Trail, climbing Mount Whitney, a 100-mile trek into Yosemite National Park. Nevertheless, the John Muir Trail is likely the most popular, London explains, in both private and open trips.

On those excursions, wranglers and packers get up at dawn and gather the horses and mules. Guests are up and ready to eat breakfast at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. They break down their tents and are ready to ride at 8 a.m. for four to six and a half hours to a camp that can be at up to 11,500 feet of elevation.

Horseback isn’t the only way guests can experience the Sierra Nevada. “Ultimately, our job is to help people set up the trips they want,” London says. Approximately 50 percent of those folks passing through Rock Creek Pack Station are hiking enthusiasts. “They hike, and we carry the food and gear on mules that haul 150 to 350 pounds per animal. That way they’re enjoying the mountains when hiking.”

The common thread, though, is a love for camping and being in the wilderness. “The people who really enjoy it are the people who enjoy helping set up the camp. They enjoy helping with the livestock. They enjoy fishing. They enjoy walking around. It’s the whole experience they’re looking for. It’s a passion people have.” — José R. Ralat

Photography: Ryan Bonneau/Courtesy Visit Telluride

ROCK CLIMBING
The via ferrata in Telluride, Colorado, presents worthy challenges for expert rock climbers and novices alike.

It started out as a mildly criminal enterprise, and only in recent years has this Colorado pastime been legal. It gradually sprouted as a furtive outdoor project, work done at night by headlamp on the mountainside. But despite its outlaw status, it still beckoned users, so eventually the temptation was legalized, whereupon it became a popular tourist attraction.

We are talking about—what else?—the via ferrata traversing the mountain cliffs in a gorgeous box canyon overlooking Telluride. First created during the struggles for control of the Dolomite Mountains in World War I, a via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) employs steel safety cables and iron foot- and handholds that enable novice climbers to take a route that would otherwise be possible only for those with much more experience and technical skills. After the war, climbing enthusiasts built similar routes across the Italian Alps. The popularity of via ferratas spread in Europe, and today hundreds of them cross the continent’s mountain ranges. The via ferrata in Telluride, built in 2006 and ’07 by legendary climber and adventurer Chuck Kroger and some friends, is one of a few available in the United States, as permanent rock anchors are not allowed on U.S. public lands. Eventually following Kroger’s death from pancreatic cancer on Christmas Day in 2007, though, the National Forest Service began permitting guides to take visitors on the previously unsanctioned route.

Now the first recognized via ferrata in the state, the “Krogerata,” as it’s often called, is no longer a locals-only secret. It has lured me to Colorado on a beautiful summer day courtesy of The Hotel Telluride, which invited me to stay in one of its luxurious European chalet-style rooms and try out its Adventure High in Telluride package that includes a climb headed by a San Juan Outdoor Adventures guide. “No climbing experience necessary, but fear of heights is not recommended,” the PR invitation asserted in what proved to be a hilarious understatement.

I recall that line from the email after completing “The Main Event,” a hair-raising section where the U-shaped holds are the only way across a cliff face overhanging a chasm hundreds of feet below. My hands are shaking from an intense adrenaline rush.

The person behind me, an experienced rock climber and outdoors writer, seems to be having a breakdown, frozen in place and weeping. I know the terror but have just barely managed to swallow it and scrabble across the bluff without too much hesitation. It was not an act of courage. My dread of embarrassment was just a tad stronger than the fear of my body being shattered and torn by a long, rocky fall.

Chris Murray, our guide, is fastidious about safety. We are to use two clamps, with at least one attached to the cable at all times. Unclipping them one at a time at each bolt or handle may feel slow, but failure to follow this protocol could result in sudden downward acceleration, and Murray keeps us from getting complacent about our safeguards. He offers helpful advice for each maneuver across the body-contorting Main Event, which is full of upward reaches and downward steps that seem impossible. Up until now, he’s been friendly and talkative but hadn’t balked at halting a conversation to point out a suspect patch of loose stone, a cracked rock that would make a bad choice of handhold, or a mistake in our safety procedures.

The petrified writer’s friend, Murray, and I offer encouragement until the climber overcomes the fear and inchworms across the terrifying portion of the climb. “So, that’s why they call it The Main Event,” Murray says as we catch our breath.

The hike isn’t all cliff-clinging terror, though. Far more common than gasps of vertiginous shock are exclamations of awe at the breathtaking scenery. Craggy red and gray bands of vertical rock face cut through the boulder-studded green slope under a postcard-blue sky. In the distance, the quaint resort town lays neat and peaceful like so many dollhouses. Telluride is beautiful from any angle, but the view from above is exquisite. As we near the end of the trail, the white mist from the magnificent Bridal Veil Falls envelopes us like a cool reward.

Tired but excited after our conquest, we head back to the hotel eager to ease our weary muscles in the hotel’s hot tub and recharge with a few fine local craft beers. That evening, we follow them with an excellent dinner of lamb and fresh vegetables. More adventures await us the next day, including a stand-up paddleboarding trip that’s exactly as much fun as one would expect the combination of standing up and paddling to be, but nothing comes close to the thrill of our acrophobia-inducing hike. — Jesse Hughey

Photography: Courtesy La Jolla Zip Zoom

ZIP-LINING
Move from tree to tree with abandon on California’s longest line.

Besides amazing scenery and some of the state’s most exciting cities, Southern California boasts 19 federally recognized tribes and a really long zip-line, a Native-run adrenaline-spiker called the La Jolla Zip Zoom.

You’ll find SoCal’s longest zip-line on the reservation of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, who have lived in San Diego County for thousands of years. Nestled in the foothills of the Palomar Mountains in the Pauma Valley, the reservation has been a vacation destination since the 1930s, when the tribe opened La Jolla Indian Campground. Tubing down the tree-canopied San Luis Rey River has long been a popular campground activity; these days, another big thrill is soaring on the new zip-line at more than 300 feet above the ground and 50-plus mph.

The scenic ride above the treetops and SoCal mountain ridges is one of the best joyrides around, but while it’s definitely fast, it’s also safe. Which might be why exhilarated parents (and grandparents!) comment on TripAdvisor that the Zip Zoom was a blast for the whole family. Expect three lines, great equipment, super-zippy rides, and guides from the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, whose friendly and informative introduction to their history, culture, and land is a memorable part of the fun. — Dana Joseph

WAGON RACING
Head to Arkansas for the biggest chuck wagon showdown in the world.

How did Clinton, Arkansas, become the home of the world’s premier chuck wagon racing championship? It started more than three decades ago at a late-summer shindig thrown by townsfolk Dan and Peggy Eoff. To add an element of excitement to their gathering, they invited friends to bring chuck wagons and horses for a friendly race. What began as an informal eight-team contest has gradually evolved into an annual Labor Day week event that sees Clinton’s population temporarily increase tenfold. About 20,000 visitors and hundreds of competitors show up at the National Championship Chuckwagon Races to compete for silver buckles and prizes or just to camp out for the daily races, live performances, and festival fun. There are now five championship divisions, ranging from small pony- or mule-led riders to classic wooden-wheeled, full-size wagons bearing a driver and a navigating “cook.” The championship week serves as the culmination of a “summer series” dotted with other chuck wagon racing events around the country, from Texas to Missouri. Click here to find out more about the blossoming sport and the annual Arkansas event— Hunter Hauk

Photography: Chad Case/Idaho Stock Images

RIDING THE RIVER
Idaho’s Salmon River is ripe for all types of thrill rides.

When Lewis and Clark first encountered Idaho’s Salmon River in 1805, they observed waters wild enough to “render the passage of anything impossible.” Although portions of the Salmon—often dubbed the “River of No Return”—are indeed as treacherous as they claimed, overall it has turned into a dream destination for all kinds of outdoor adventures. Early summer is peak time for high levels, making possible journeys both brief and epic for adrenaline-junkie white-water rafters and kayakers. As water levels go down around July and August, more families embark on multiple-day rides. Risk-averse travelers and extreme beginners can also enjoy guided floating or fishing expeditions, try their hand at easier-to-handle inflatable kayaks, or pitch tents for riverside campouts. The easiest airport entry points to Salmon, Idaho, are Boise, Idaho (five hours southwest), and Missoula, Montana (two and a half hours north), but there’s no reason not to make this river adventure the destination for a RV or Airstream vacation, especially if you live for the thrill of the foamy rapids. Click here to find all sorts of information and travel options for the Salmon River. — Hunter Hauk


Pick up the April 2017 edition of Cowboys & Indians to find options for the perfect gear to go with these outdoor adventures. 

From the April 2017 issue.

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