Unless you’re one of the brave souls who dive into a new adventure headfirst, you probably prefer to test the water a bit by taking the toe-dip approach.
For toe-dipping travelers who have their sights set on the most epic experiences, “gateway trips” are a great place to start. The right gateway trip, which depends on the destination and corresponding activities, is designed to deliver the intangible high necessary for you to feel before you commit to taking your travel to the next level.
For most people who (strategically) choose these getaways, it doesn’t take long at all to get hooked. Here are four unforgettable gateway trips that may actually be as amazing as the destinations they lead up to.
Today Trip: Yellowstone National Park
Tomorrow Trip: African Safari
One day you dream of donning your binoculars and zooming in on a black rhino in the Okavango Delta, but for now, you’re not even sure you can find your passport. There’s nothing wrong with that. Thanks to places like Yellowstone National Park, you don’t have to leave American soil to say you’ve gone on a safari. The definition of safari is “an expedition to observe animals in their natural habitat” and you can easily do that in Yellowstone (no whipping out your passport, exchanging currencies or struggling with Swahili). Perhaps the biggest inconvenience that you’ll encounter in this 2.2 million-acre park is a herd of bison in the middle of the road. Almost 5,000 bison roam Yellowstone’s valleys and plateaus, and an encounter with these North American members of the Bovidae family isn’t that dissimilar to an encounter with their African brethren, the buffalo.
You can also bank on seeing elk in Yellowstone, especially if you’re staying in Mammoth Hot Springs where these deer-on-steroids are famous for roaming around like they own the place. Because of their size, they’re much more impressive than red deer, the largest species of deer you’ll see in Africa. Another extraordinary animal you may spot on a Yellowstone safari is the pronghorn antelope: North America’s fastest land animal. Seeing one sprint at more than 60 mph should tide you over until you can see its African antelope counterparts, the kudu and wildebeest.
While you have zero chance of hearing a hyena giggle in Yellowstone, the park does boast a few famous (or infamous) wolf packs. These reclusive residents are more active during the winter months whereas the summer months provide a great opportunity to spot black and grizzly bears. Yellowstone is home to mountain lions, but reported sightings are rare, so if catching a big cat on camera is your goal, you’ll have to save that for your African safari.
Today Trip: Canadian Rockies
Tomorrow Trip: Alps
The Canadian Rockies are perfect if you’re pining for snow-capped mountains in a foreign country, but you don’t want to deal with a lousy exchange rate. The Canadian dollar is currently trading at $.81 on the $1.00 whereas the euro is at $1.15. Sure, the Canadian Rockies aren’t as high as the Alps, but you also won’t have to worry about running into suspender-clad yodelers if that’s not your thing. Hike 10,000+ ft. peaks by day and at night, relax in chalets that will have you fooled into thinking you can sip your morning coffee while drinking in views of the Matterhorn. Trek up to Moraine Lake to see turquoise-blue waters not unlike those you’ll see in the Dolomites, and then take advantage of that awesome exchange rate by spending some time shopping in the mountain town of Banff.
The beauty of exploring in the Canadian Rockies is that you don’t have to travel too far from home in order to climb in high elevations and earn that precious passport stamp. Your dollar goes much further, and if your vacation days are limited, you really only need 4 to 5 days to do the region justice. On the other hand, the Alps require more substantial investments of money and time. But after you realize how rewarding a trip to the Canadian Rockies is, you’ll be reading to start saving up. If the Rockies’ Athabasca Glacier is like an appetizer, then Mont Blanc is the main course.
Today Trip: South Dakota
Tomorrow Trip: The Netherlands
If taking a cycling tour is on your bucket list, but you haven’t been able to convince your travel companion to hop the next flight to Holland, pitch them South Dakota instead. It’s stateside, plus it’s home to the historic George S. Mickelson Trail that runs 109 miles through the Black Hills between the mining towns of Deadwood and Edgemont. This scenic path of packed gravel is used by cyclists, hikers, horseback riders, skiers, and in restricted areas, snowmobilers. The Mickelson Trail can’t compete with Amsterdam when it comes to canal crossings, but it does feature more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four rock tunnels.
Although the Black Hills are home to the highest point east of the Rockies (Harney Peak is 7,244 feet. above sea level) and the terrain ranges from mountainous to flat, the Mickelson Trail is relatively level with climbs averaging only a four percent grade. Cyclists can begin their day by pedaling through spruce pine forests and end it by meandering through windswept prairies and cattle pastures. Windmills and fields of tulips aren’t waiting around every corner, but wildlife usually is and the trail does run by the mind-boggling Crazy Horse Memorial which may one day be the world’s largest mountain carving.
Mountains, or even hills, aren’t a reason for visiting the Netherlands, but cycling certainly is. After logging a few miles on the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills, your partner will feel prepared to take their pedaling skills across the pond.
Today Trip: Alaska
Tomorrow Trip: Peru
Looming ominously at 20,320 feet above sea level, Mount McKinley makes Alaska home to the highest point in the United States. In fact, the Last Frontier lays claim to the seven tallest mountains in the country. This is what makes it the perfect stateside adventure to try before attempting to tackle a trek in the Peruvian Andes. (Salkantay, the eleventh highest peak in Peru is a few hundred feet taller than McKinley.) Even if you’re not planning on summiting these sky-high peaks, if your goal is to log some hikes at impressive altitudes, Alaska is a great place to start.
Of course, no trip to Alaska or Peru is complete without running into wildlife. In terms of hoofed-animals, the moose (one of Alaska’s state symbols), can be seven times larger than Peru’s llama-like guanaco. A sighting of an Alaskan bear, whether it’s a polar bear, Kodiak, or grizzly, will definitely mitigate any fears you’d have of running into Peru’s spectacled bear. Also known as Andean bears, South America’s largest land carnivores weigh up to 400 lbs. whereas Alaska’s bears can weigh upwards of 1500 lbs. While a trip to Alaska probably won’t prepare you for what you’ll find in Peru’s Amazon jungle, it’s an excellent place to practice your photography skills. Capturing a herd of caribou on camera is much easier than capturing a shot of the elusive, lone jaguar.
A lesson or two in Alaskan native history will also give you a good foundation for learning about the natives of Peru. Like the Incas, Alaska’s Inuits practiced animism – the belief that all things, living and non-living, had a spirit. They credited major calamities as well as unfavorable daily occurrences such as storms and death to angry spirits. Both cultures made offerings in attempts to appease nature which was important given the often unforgiving environments they lived in. As harsh as they are beautiful, both Alaska and Peru fall under the “extreme” category when it comes to destinations. By using Alaska as a precursor, you’ll be better positioned to understand and respect the elements you’ll encounter on the other side of the Equator in Peru.
Note: A version of this post was also published in The Active Times.