How to choose a reputable adventure travel company or guide

adventure travel companiesAdventure travel” is a nebulous term these days. But whether your idea of a thrill is a Class-III rapid or climbing Everest, there’s one thing that’s ubiquitous when choosing an outfitter: safety. There are hundreds of adventure travel companies worldwide; not all are created equal. There are key things you should look for when choosing a company or independent guide, whether you’re booking a three-week luxury trip, or a one-day backpacker’s special.

I’m not implying adventure travel in general is risky, or that most operators and guides don’t know what they’re doing. There are numerous certifications in place (they vary according to country) to ensure companies adhere to national and industry safety standards.

The following are tips on what to look for or avoid when choosing a company or guide, based on personal experience and what I’ve gleaned from the owners of several highly regarded adventure companies. I’ve done trips with each company, but I have no personal gain in endorsing them: I’ve just found them to be, among the dozens of outfitters I’ve used, the best of the best.

My sources include Mark Gunlogson, president/guide of Seattle’s Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school; Marc Goddard, co-owner/guide of Bio Bio Expeditions, a whitewater/adventure travel company in Truckee, California, and Britt Lewis, co-owner/guide of Austral Adventures, a custom travel company on the island of Chiloe, in Chile.

I’m also including a few horror stories based on guide negligence. That’s why, the first thing you should do when planning any kind of adventure activity or trip is…

Do your research
Even a brief online search will bring to light any serious breaches in safety or conduct. Safety doesn’t just apply to those who plan to scale the Andes or kayak the Zambezi. Even the tamest “adventures” require guides who are knowledgeable about the area and activity, and are currently certified in emergency first aid and rescue procedures.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Luis Fabres]

adventure travel companiesLest you think I exaggerate the importance of guide knowledge and research, the idea for this article germinated in 2003, when I was visiting Australia’s Kakadu National Park during the “Wet,” or monsoon, season. That time of year brings potential problems such as floods, but it was a widely publicized trial that made an indelible impression.

A negligent guide was charged in the accidental death of a 24-year-old German tourist who’d been killed by a croc, after the guide assured her group a swimming hole was safe. My own guide informed me that just weeks earlier, another company had tried to gun their small tour bus over a flooded waterway, only to have it overtaken and swept downstream. The passengers were eventually airlifted to safety (don’t let these things scare you off of Kakadu in the Wet; it’s absolutely spectacular, and free of crowds).

Australia of course, isn’t the problem. It’s just that crocs and corpses make compelling headlines. Sometimes accidents aren’t publicized, lest they impact tourism (In New Zealand, an operator confessed to me a rival company’s fatal bungee-jumping miscalculation a month prior, which put them out of business), and of course there have been dozens of mountaineering and whitewater-related tragedies on commercial trips on various continents over the years. Again, participating in these activities doesn’t make you likely to suffer a mishap. Are they inherently dangerous? Yes, but so is crossing the street, driving a car, or hiking solo.
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What certifications to look for
This depends upon type of activity and country. Says Lewis, “If there aren’t national qualifications or certs, a combination of information is required for form an opinion about an outfitter. How clear and accurate is their literature or website, their answers to your questions, etc.?” I would also add, how long does it take them to respond to your emails or phone calls? A few days is standard, but if you find yourself having to follow-up repeatedly, move on.

Marc Goddard: Ask about the qualifications of each guide. If you’re doing a river trip, find out how many years the guides have been guiding rafts, and on which rivers. Don’t be shy about asking some serious questions: you will, after all, be entrusting them with your life!

Mark Gunlogson: The adventure travel industry has matured, and most activities now have some sort of industry standard. In the case of mountain guiding, there’s the American Mountain Guides Association certification for guide services. Level of first-aid training for guides is also essential to look for, and industry standards apply here, as well.

Signs you’re dealing with a good company or guide
Whether you’re planning a high-end holiday or making a walk-in query in a backpacker ghetto, there are questions to ask and things to look for that signify a solid company. Be aware that hostels and other backpacker-oriented locales are magnets for sketchy outfits. If it sounds too cheap or good to be true, it probably is. If the activity involves something potentially dangerous, don’t bite.

Gunlogson suggests asking the company what’s included and what’s not, so all services are clearly spelled out, including guide qualifications. But, he says, “In the end, sometimes it just comes down to how comfortable a person feels with the company and their interactions with them.”
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Adds Lewis, “Ask a few simple questions about first-aid and emergency procedures. Do they appear to have a plan for unforeseen events? If you’re a walk-in, does their office have a fire extinguisher? Are their vehicles legal for tourist transport? Are the guides certified for the activities for which they’re assigned?”

I learned just how deadly budget guides can be while climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a Mountain Madness guide. We were forced to turn back at 17,000 feet due to extreme avalanche danger. My guide was fully accredited, and his experience includes some of the toughest technical climbs in the world (For my part, I’d been conditioning for this trip for months, at high altitude, upon the advice of Mountain Madness).

We had returned to the refugio, an overnight acclimatization hut located at 15,000 feet. We saw a young, rowdy group of backpackers being shepherded out the door by their equally youthful guides; it was obvious from their attire they were attempting a summit. My guide, concerned, went and had a word with the other guides: They totally blew him off. I didn’t hear about a group of backpackers getting creamed in an avalanche that day, but that experience really clarified for me the potential for disaster posed by cheapie trips targeted at inexperienced backpackers. It’s not worth it.

On a related note:
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Look for red flags
“If they’re farming you out to a local outfitter, it could be a red flag,” says Goddard. “But the big warning is if they don’t know who their guides are, or what their qualifications are.” Some companies do “outsource” to local guides or outfitters, It’s not always a bad thing, and in fact can be positive, because you get someone with insider knowledge and you support the local economy. It comes down to their qualifications and relationship with the parent company.

Gunlogson adds, “Ask about guide qualifications, number of years in business, and hidden costs regarding services.” A reputable company willingly discloses information.

Ask for referrals
Lewis suggests asking for past client’s emails, and contacting them about their experience. You can also look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com, or search travel blogs.

Listen to your gut
If you have a bad feeling about a guide, it’s best to pay heed. On my same Australia trip, a certain American guide led us on an overnight bushwalk in Litchfield National Park. Amongst his many other transgressions, he endangered our lives by having us pitch camp on a narrow sandbar at the base of a waterfall-fed swimming hole (I actually voiced my concern, only to receive a withering look from him). Sure enough, a monsoonal downpour made the water level swiftly rise, leaving us backed into a rock wall. Fortunately, we were able to rescue our tents and gear, and the water receded before we had to swim for it. That’s when I learned to listen to my instincts regarding guides. My sensor went off immediately after meeting this guy due to his arrogance, but I felt obligated to do the trip.

Whether it’s a negative reaction to a guide, concern over the poor/worn quality of the gear, or the activity itself, always listen to your gut.

What to do if you have a bad experience
You have several courses of action. You can go to sites like TripAdvisor.com and travel blogs and write the company up (letting them know about it before taking any action). Says Lewis, “It depends on the country in terms of informing authorities. However, the power of the Internet is a huge reward to a good company and an effective way to punish an unsafe one.”

Adds Gunlogson, “Unless there’s injury and an obvious case of negligence, there’s not too much you can do unless you really want to spend the time and money to pursue it. In the end, word-of-mouth has a cathartic effect for clients if their complaints are ignored. Those companies that understand the power of a former client taking to the Internet do their best to mitigate any potential bad-mouthing, whether justified or not. It lets the client know that their dissatisfaction was acknowledged.”

I say: Playing devil’s advocate, I’ve found there’s usually one client on every trip who seems determined to have a bad time and find fault, even where none exists. DON’T BE THAT PERSON. No one likes a whiner or a complainer, and guides work long hours, under considerable stress. Don’t just sit on your butt: ask what you can do to help, be it chopping vegetables, loading gear, or finding firewood. If you have a legitimate complaint, by all means follow the advice provided above, but don’t go trolling for a refund or discount just to be an a-hole.

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What are the refund policies?
Because shit happens.

Consider climate and seasonal factors
If you want to avoid a monsoon, snow, or inhumanly hot, humid weather, be sure to voice those concerns and do some research on your destination. It also pays to ask about or check on things like growing, spawning, or breeding season of pesky or harmful flora or fauna. Someone I know (her name is Laurel) paid through the nose for a snorkeling trip off a remote island in Southern Thailand. Imagine her surprise when she hit the water and discovered it was peak jellyfish spawn. She spent the remainder of the trip covered in painful, head-to-toe welts that made her the object of much mockery. Far more painful was the knowledge that the scam artists/snorkeling guides knew full well swimming was inadvisable.

Are they a green company?
It matters, and this philosophy also includes hiring locals whenever possible. Don’t let yourself get “greenwashed.”

Honestly assess your own capabilities
You don’t just put yourself at risk (of a bad trip, potential injury, illness, or worse); you jepordize the safety and well-being of other clients. If nothing else, you make your guide’s life hell. Please don’t if you can help it.

Do you trust your guide’s capabilities and judgement?
When you literally trust a guide with your life (and I can only say this about three of them), it’s a sign that that company is doing something right. Never have I been more impressed with guides than the two trips I’ve taken with Bio Bio; Mountain Madness follows a close second.


Consider travel insuranceadventure travel companies
If you’re doing some really hard-core stuff, will be in very remote areas, or have some existing health or physical conditions, it may be worth the extra expense.

Don’t forget to tip
Says Goddard, “I don’t feel tipping is mandatory; it’s done if you feel the guides did a good job. An average tip is 10% of the trip price, a great tip is 20%.” Adds Lewis, “The amount may also depend upon what country you’re in, but it’s always appreciated. Few, if any, guides do their job solely for the money [FYI, it’s not a high-paying job]–there’s a love of people, nature, or the activity that comes with it. But tips are welcome, as they’re a tangible “thank you,” and acknowledge a job well done.”

If you made it this far, consider yourself schooled. Here’s to safe adventures!

[Photo credits: crocodile, Flickr user jean-louis zimmerman; first aid kit, Flickr user 8lettersuk; warning, Flickr user psd; cash, Flickr user Todd Kravos; caving, Laurel Miller]

Kids travel free on Utah summer rafting trip

Dvorak has free rafting trips for kids age 5 to 12 this summerYesterday we told you that 2011 is shaping up to be an epic year for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the U.S., thanks in large part to the record amounts of snow that hit the western states this past winter. Now that the warm spring weather has started melting all of that snow, rafting companies are gearing up for what should be a very busy season, and some are offering great deals in an effort to lure adventurous travelers their way.

Take for example Dvorak Expeditions, which is offering a fantastic promotion for families who want to take a rafting trip this year. The company is running a “Kids Go Free” option that allows one child (ages 5-12), per paying adult, to travel for free on one of their week-long rafting trips this summer. That means a family of four only have to pay for mom and dad, and the two kids get to come along at no extra cost.

The six day, five night, trip runs the legendary Green River, located in Utah. It is one of the most spectacular and scenic paddles in the entire U.S., and a top draw for paddlers the wold over. River guides will lead the family through miles of unspoiled wilderness that passes by two Native American Indian reservations and through the deepest canyon in the entire state. The trip offers excellent meals along the way, plenty of off the water entertainment, and a number of day hikes that reveal ancient petroglyphs, hidden rock grottos, and outlaw hideouts from a bygone era when Butch and Sundance led their “Wild Bunch” through this very region.

But the real highlight of the trip is the Green River itself. Stretching 84 miles in length, the waterway is typically considered one of the best beginner and intermediate rafting spots in the U.S. This year however, it should exceed all of those expectations, as the extra snow will likely add an unexpected punch to what is already a great river experience.

If you’re wondering what to do with the kids on your summer vacation, consider taking them on a Dvorak rafting adventure. 2011 will be the prefect year for just such an excursion, and it is likely to generate memories for a lifetime.

[Photo credit: Jerry Magnum Porsbjer via WikiMedia]

2011 reportedly a banner year for whitewater rafting

2011 could be the best year ever for whitewater raftingExperts say that 2011 is shaping up to be a fantastic year for whitewater rafting and kayaking in the western United States, thanks to some of the heaviest snowfall totals in decades. As the warmer weather spreads out across the region, all of that snow is starting to runoff, creating high rivers, raging rapids, and some of the best paddling opportunities in years.

Rafting companies in states like Colorado, Idaho, and California are gearing up to take advantage of this bountiful season for water on their rivers. A number of major waterways out west are already 150% above their 30-year average and some are even approaching a 200% increases. But even at this late stage in the year, snow continues to fall at higher altitudes, which means the great whitewater is now expected to last well into July – a time when the adrenaline pumping waters have usually dissipated for the year.

Of course, all this high water brings other concerns as well. Inexperienced paddlers can quickly find themselves overwhelmed in rushing waters, which means there could potentially be more rescues and accidents throughout the 2011 rafting season. The expected high waters have also brought about closures to some sections of notoriously difficult rivers as well. For instance, there are already plans to close some portions of the Arkansas River in June, as they’ll likely be just too high to run.

But the upside to all of this spring and summer snow melt is that whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities should abound throughout the summer months. So whether you’re an expert paddler or you’ve simply always wanted to try, it seems that this will be a great year to hit the water.

[Photo credit: Redmarkviolinist via WikiMedia]

Dreaming of Bali – In search of paradise

What is paradise? Is it a place we can visit? Somewhere with palm tree-lined beaches, frosty cocktails and simmering volcanoes? Or is it an idea? A vision in dreams that never quite materializes when we wake up? Bali, an intriguingly exotic island tucked into the Indonesian Archipelago in Southeast Asia, is just such a paradise. This elusive island is everything you’ve ever dreamed – a land of otherworldly temples, postcard-worthy sand and exotic colorful wildlife. But just when you start easing into the charms of this idyll, Bali shocks you back to life with its increasing modernity and ever-evolving culture. Dreams take unexpected turns, don’t they?

Everyone in Bali, it seems, is looking for their slice of paradise. The island last year welcomed a record 2.3 Million visitors and it shows. In Bali’s tourist capital of Kuta the signs are everywhere, manifesting themselves as gaudy Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurants and mushrooming surf shops on every corner. But that doesn’t mean this paradise is lost. Simply drift your way towards the island’s serene interior, a place dotted with terraced rice paddies and gently humming frogs. Or find yourself lost inside a labyrinth of street food vendors in the city of Denpasar, your nose perfumed with scents of spice, and smoke, and kerosene heat.

Paradise isn’t just a place. It’s a way of seeing the world, particularly when you’re dreaming of Bali. Keep reading below to learn how to begin your Bali exploration.Getting There
Getting to paradise isn’t supposed to be easy, is it? This is particularly true for Bali, an island that’s hidden itself way down “in the corner” of Southeast Asia. While there are no direct flights from the United States, airlines like Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong), Korean Air (via Seoul), China Airlines (via Taipei) and Singapore Air all fly via connections to Denpasar (DPS), Bali’s main airport. Typical prices as of February 2011 start at about $1300 from the East Coast. It might be a long journey to get to Bali, but trust us, it’s well worth it!

Orientation
The vast majority of Bali’s tourism (and visitors) end up in the island’s South, centered around the coastal city of Kuta. While not all of Kuta is bad, most of the city is a mass of schlocky souvenir stands, gaudy restaurants and package tourists. Avoid it if you can. North of Kuta is its swanky cousin Seminyak, home to many of the island’s expats, upscale eateries and shopping.

Beyond Kuta and Seminyak is Ubud, a loose collection of villages, rice paddies and greenery centered on the oddly named Monkey Forest Road. Even further north the island is dominated by the massive Gunung Agung volcano, the geographical and spiritual heart of Balinese life. Beyond that is Bali’s largely undiscovered interior, full of interesting spots like Munduk and of course, Bali’s infinite stretches of coastline, populated by towns like Lovina. In the far Northwest is the wilderness of West Bali National Park.

Where to Stay
Accommodations in Bali range from the insanely luxurious (picture that last Travel + Leisure photo shoot) to modest surf shacks. Most visitors find themselves staying in the island’s south, simply because it has the biggest selection of high-quality accommodations.

The best option for those not rolling in dough but still looking to enjoy some of Bali’s legendary retreats is one the fantastic, plentiful and reasonably priced private villa options on sites like VRBO or Homeaway. For less than you think, you’ll be living it up in your own beautifully manicured tropical estate (here’s where we stayed) or condo.

Beyond the villa scene, there’s a huge range of accomodations on offer in Bali. In Ubud in the island’s relaxed interior, try the Alam Indah. Travelers near Kuta swear by the All Seasons Legian. Jimbaran tends to be the island’s most luxurious (and expensive) area, hosting upscale properties like the Four Seasons and Puri Bali.

What to Do
Whether you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure or a nice beach where you can eat Lotus Blossoms, Bali has an activity for you. In addition to our tips below, check out these 10 suggestions for your Bali visit.

  • See the Kecak at Ulu WatuKecak, a form of Balinese musical theater retelling the myths of the Hindu religion, is re-enacted at sunset at the island’s Pura Luhur temple, perched dramatically on towering cliffs above the ocean. A truly awesome and interesting spectacle to see.
  • Learn to surf – Due to favorable ocean currents and a uniquely suitable coastline, Bali has emerged as one of the world’s great surfing meccas. Try a class at the surfing mecca of Kuta beach, or head to points further South for some legendary “breaks” at spots like Ulu Watu.
  • Head to the spa – tired and sore from that surfing lesson? Why not hit the spa? Bali is increasingly known as one of the world’s “spa capitals,” whether you’re looking for an insanely luxurious spa treatment or simple inexpensive massage on the beach, Bali has it all.
  • Inland adventures – Bali isn’t just about great beaches and spas. Travelers who venture into the island’s interior will find a wealth of challenging activities and beautiful views ranging from laid-back bike rides among the rice paddies in Ubud, to hikes up volcanoes at Gunung Agung to whitewater rafting.

Dreaming of your own visit to Bali? Read more about Gadling’s “visit to paradise” HERE.

West Virginia’s scenic Gauley River: class V rafting, fall colors

“Holy crap, what a sausage fest.” This was my first thought, as I glanced around the crowded parking lot. It was a cool, drizzly September morning at Adventures on the Gorge, but that wasn’t stopping 40 men–many of certain age and wafting last night’s whiskey fumes–from preparing to raft the Class V+ Upper Gauley River.

I was in Lansing, (southeastern) West Virginia, fulfilling a 20-year goal to run the notorious Gauley. Every weekend, from mid-September to mid-October, water from the Summersville Dam is released into the Upper portion, raising the river to epic proportions (a raging 2800 cfs is average Gauley flow this time of year). In layman’s terms, the rapids remain at a solid Class III to V+, making for one of the wildest whitewater experiences in the United States.

Since it first opened to commercial trips in 1974, this 26-mile stretch of river, which contains over 100 rapids, has drawn whitewater enthusiasts from all over the world. The dam was built in 1965 for flood control, and the release extends the “Gauley season” well past other American rivers. An added bonus are the fall colors that peak in October, making for a visually stunning trip.

The Upper Gauley in particular is known for its steep, drop/pool rapids. A gauntlet of five consecutive Class V+’s–Insignificant, Pillow Rock, Lost Paddle, Iron Ring, and Sweet’s Falls–form the most famous stretch. The Lower is more sedate, although it still has plenty of Class III, and a couple of Class IV/V’s.

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I’m not the only one with Gauley fever. Over 60,000 adventurers annually converge for the dam release, which is why the infamous Gauley Fest is held in September. The New River is also located in this region. Now believed to be the oldest in the world, after the Nile, the New ranges from Class I to V, depending upon season, but has long stretches ideal for sunset paddles and float trips.

The New and Gauley are located within the New River Gorge National River and Gauley River National Recreation Area, respectively. But there are other charms in the region as well: the stunning New River Gorge Bridge (formerly the largest arch bridge in the world, and a BASE jumping mecca), climbing, mountain biking, and fishing. The scenery runs toward rolling farmland dotted with dilapidated barns, historic hamlets, and thick swathes of forest. The New River Gorge Convention & Visitors Bureau site is a good resource for area attractions and amenities.

Many outfitters exist in this region, nearby Fayetteville being the whitewater epicenter of West Virginia. The town’s National Historic District, while small, is very charming, and has pretty much anything you might need. Grab a coffee and afternoon snack at The Cathedral Café, located in an actual former church, or, to quell a hangover, pick up something cheap and carby at the awesomely-named Tudor’s Biscuit World.

Adventures on the Gorge (AOTG), which bills itself as an “outdoor adventure destination company,” was named one of the “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth,” in a 2009 National Geographic survey. They’ve capitalized on the region’s multi-sport opportunities by creating a 1,000-acre “campus” bordering the New River Gorge National Park. The property also has accommodations ranging from camping and rustic platform tents, to new, deluxe cabins and vacation homes.

AOTG was founded in 2008, the result of a merger of two existing–and exceedingly well-regarded–local whitewater companies. Founding Director Dave Arnold has been guiding on the Gauley since the ’70’s. His Class VI-Mountain River merged with The Rivermen; collectively, they possess the most whitewater experience in the region. Safety being my number one criteria for choosing an outfitter, I knew I was in good hands.

AOTG has plenty of seasonal options (April-October) if you don’t go in for big hydraulics, can’t afford a multi-day raft trip, or don’t want to rough it. The company offers half-day, full-day, and overnight runs on the New and Gauley Rivers, ranging from Class I float trips to epic Class V (you must be at least 15 years of age to run the Upper Gauley). The overnights are actually “glamping” on the river (think hot tub, primitive showers and pit toilets, Baggo, fire pit, kegs of Anchor Steam and PBR, and prime rib and salmon for dinner).

As for the testosterone-fueled parking lot scenario, it turned out my trip was comprised primarily of several groups of men who do Gauley season annually. If you’re a solo female planning to run the river and aren’t into crushing beer cans on your head, you can always talk to a rep about booking a trip with a more balanced male-to-female ratio. Private women’s groups do book with AOTG, but the guides I spoke with told me the Gauley tends to be rather penis-centric. Don’t let it dissuade you. The most important things are listening to your guide, paying attention to what’s going on around you, and digging in hard.

As much as I love major whitewater, however, I don’t enjoy courting death or yardsales (something of a sport on the Gauley, which is admittedly very entertaining to watch). Fortunately, Miles, the guide in our nine-person raft, had outgrown the urge to capsize for kicks, although he took us down more technical lines when they presented themselves. A native Coloradan with vast whitewater experience, he was top-notch: patient, skilled, and an all-around good guy. His fiancee, Julie, was the sole female guide. Tough woman, that Julie.

The Gauley isn’t the biggest whitewater I’ve run (that would be the Futaleufu, in Chile), but it’s pretty damn big. What makes it scary are the drops, undercut rocks the size of houses, and churning hydraulics–these are not rapids you want to swim. Thanks to Miles, we didn’t have to. We had a fantastic day on the Upper, and pulled into our campground at the “Canyon Doors” rapid, at the start of the Lower Gauley.

Whether or not glamping is your thing, AOTG has a great set-up. The location is gorgeous–steep canyon walls glowing dusky rose with the setting sun–and a hot shower, drink, and slab o’meat at the end of a cold, exhausting day on the water were very much welcomed. If you require down-and-dirty primitive camping; check with other outfitters, as everyone offers something different. Go to the NPS site for camping permit information if you’re paddling independently.

AOTG offers a total of 14 experiences that can be done independently, or as part of an all-inclusive package. Besides whitewater, there’s rock climbing, horseback riding, tree canopy tours and ziplines (the badass new Gravity zip debuted on Sept. 26), caving, biking, and a Gorge Bridgewalk. There are four restaurants/bars (have a sunset beer at Chetty’s Pub, which has an open-air deck and fantastic view of the Gorge), and three camp stores/outfitters. The property is definitely geared toward families and couples, and customized options like team-building and youth groups. But even if you’re traveling solo and on a tight budget, there are affordable options, with prices starting at $39 for activities/$8 BYOT camping (depending upon season). It does have the feel of a summer camp, so be forewarned.

I actually much prefer independent travel, but I like that AOTG makes adventure activities accessible for the solo adventurer who might otherwise be thwarted by logistical or financial constraints. I ended up doing a package, with two nights in one the sweet deluxe cabins (hot tub, hardwood floors, fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor grill, and fire pit), and the river trip. Also included was a full day doing the Treetops Canopy Tour, and the Gravity Zipline–not stuff I’d ordinarily do, but I’m glad I did. The Treetops Canopy Tour ($99/pp), which debuted in May, ’09, is a three-and-a-half hours, and includes ten ziplines and five sky bridges.

It’s not extreme, but the tour is a fun, educational way to spend the morning. In between zipping over Mill Creek and through ancient hemlock, hickory and magnolia forest, the guides talked about the history and botany of the region. The course is also designed with sustainability in mind, and is part of a project to help save the threatened Eastern Hemlock from wooly ageldid infestation. Thus far, AOTG guides and staff have tagged and treated 6,000 trees, some of which are over 300 years old. Although it rained steadily throughout my tour, it only served to heighten the desolate beauty of the forest. The tours run year-round, so you can also experience zipping in the snow.

Gravity ($69/pp) is a total blast. With lines running 1800-,1600-, and 1300-feet in length, at a height of 200 feet, you can really haul ass (up to 45 mph). The location atop one of the highest points in the valley makes for incredible views of fall foliage and farmland. Do it. What the hell. Do it all.

The New River Gorge is a five-hour drive from Washington, DC. The closest airport to the region is Charleston, WV