Cities are great places for adventures. Sure, most urban visitors like to shop and eat, but there are other, more pulse-quickening types of fun to be had as well. In North American metropolises big and small, some of these alternate activities include hiking, sightseeing from the top of a tower, “flightseeing” from the sky, hang gliding and kiteboarding. Here’s a rundown of some of the very best.
The most challenging urban adventure in the U.S. is in the Big Apple, where an annual event dubbed the Great Saunter always draws a crowd. The hike, sponsored by Shore Walkers, is a circumambulation of Manhattan—over the course of one long day, participants walk the entire 32-mile perimeter of the entire island. The group meets at sunrise at South Street Seaport and heads up the Hudson River, following the Harlem River before passing Yankee Stadium, then tromping south again along the island’s eastern shore. Not surprisingly, most of the trail is paved; interestingly, however, Fort Tryon Park near Inwood can be as quiet as Montana. Price: $20.
Much of the Great Saunter is flat; for a more vertical urban hiking experience, try Vancouver’s Grouse Grind. Often referred to as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster,” this free, 1.8-mile quad-burning hike takes adventuresome amblers straight up the face of Grouse Mountain, an elevation gain of nearly 2,800 feet. The hard-dirt trail is so challenging that many Canadian Olympiads and professional hockey players train here. At the 3,700-foot summit, after nearly two hours of climbing, exhausted hikers can stumble into the ski lodge and refuel at Altitudes Bistro, a new, uber-chic eatery with breathtaking views of Vancouver. Trail conditions vary, so be sure to check conditions before heading out.
Why go sight-seeing on the ground when you can do it by air? This is the thinking behind the popular (and expensive) “flightseeing” helicopter tours from Briles Los Angeles. Each hour-long flight departs Van Nuys Airport and takes visitors on a bird’s eye tour of Hollywood, the Santa Monica Mountains, Pacific Palisades, Malibu Canyon and Venice Beach. In the spring and fall, passengers frequently spot dolphins and whales over the Pacific. All tours afford guests the option of adding a three-course, candlelight dinner at the popular 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant and private limousine to and from the helicopter pad. Prices start at $1,250 for up to five passengers.
Near Chicago, where architecture is king, a different kind of whirlybird operation offers visitors up-close-and-personal looks at some of the city’s best attractions. This outfitter, Magic Carpet Helicopters, starts from an airfield in Kenosha, Wis., about 50 miles north, and flies passengers all over the wonderful Windy City. The average “flightseeing” excursion includes aerial tours of downtown, Soldier Field, Wrigley Field and Cellular One Park (when games are not being played, of course), Grant and Lincoln parks near the shores of Lake Michigan and wherever else passengers choose. Lower Wisconsin destinations, such as Lake Geneva resort, also are available. Price: $435 per hour for up to three passengers.
To the top
Las Vegas adds new attractions every month, but a true classic remains the circa-1996, 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower, which offers commanding views of the Las Vegas Valley. The tower is the tallest free-standing structure in Nevada, and the second-tallest free-standing structure west of the Mississippi (behind the Kennecott Smokestack in Utah). Visitors ride an elevator to the top of the tower and explore a mall and multiple observation decks. For the truly brave, the tower also boasts an outdoor roller coaster and three other rides. Be sure to check out the hotel and casino building next door. Tower tickets: $11.95 for adults, $8 for kids; rides cost $10 apiece.
A shorter but perhaps more iconic tower is Seattle’s Space Needle, which offers similarly panoramic views of all of Puget Sound. This tower was built as part of the Seattle Center complex for the 1962 World’s Fair, and the entire area has become part of the fabric of the city. Today the Needle boasts a restaurant about 50 feet off the ground, and an observation deck at 520 feet (a lightning rod extends even higher, bringing the total height to 605 feet). Visitors reach the top in elevators; on a clear day, guests can see snow-capped mountains in every direction. Price: $16 for adults; $8 for kids.
Soar to new heights
One of the most exciting aerial sports is hang gliding, an activity during which participants strap themselves to a wind-powered flying contraption, jump off a hill and marvel as they soar back to Earth. Outside San Francisco, in Marin County, the San Francisco Hang Gliding Center offers tandem hang gliding trials from Mt. Tamalpais, one of the region’s tallest peaks. Guides strap into the devices next to each customer, enabling visitors to enjoy the ride. Granted, the experience only lasts 10 minutes, but in that time guests soar two miles and drop 1,800 feet to the quiet town of Stinson Beach. Price: $325 on weekends, $295 on weekdays.
For a different kind of warm-weather air sport, try kiteboarding, a sport that combines the fun of surfing with the vertical derrings-do previously limited to video game characters. In the vicinity of Madison, Wis., azure inland waterways such as Lake Mendota and Lake Menona provide the perfect environment to kiteboard. Experts from a local outfitter named Kite Riders offer lessons for beginners over 18. After a minimum of three hours of training on land, adventurers can rent or buy equipment from the outfitter to put their knowledge into action. On the water, beware of other boarders and rogue waves. Price: Lessons are $50 per hour; equipment prices vary.
— Matt Villano
Photo credits: (1)© Marco Repola; (2) © Jessica Merz.