Outdoor Activities Bucket List: 18 Fun Things to do Outdoors

From chasing fireflies to floating down a river, this list can break you out of a summer rut

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Not only can heading outside inject excitement into a blah-feeling day, but it can also deliver serious health benefits: Exposure to greenspace is linked to a whole slew of physical perks including reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2018 meta-analysis of 143 studies published in the journal, Environmental Research

Separate research supports the outdoors for your mental health too. Time in nature can decrease mental distress while boosting happiness, subjective well-being, cognitive functioning, memory, attention, imagination, and creativity, a 2019 review in Science Advances concluded.

In short, there’s a lot to gain from stepping out of doors. And with a handy list of outdoor activities at your fingertips, you can soak up all the awesomeness of nature.

From chasing fireflies to birdwatching, here are some pretty amazing things to do outside. Let this article be your outdoor activities inspiration guide.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Lace up for a mindful nature walk

Feeling on edge or unfocused? Slip on your sneakers, head outside, and get in some steps. Not only is walking an excellent form of exercise but intentionally strolling through a natural setting can help you chill out.

When people with chronic stress walked outdoors for 40 minutes, they decreased their cortisol levels more than those who did likewise on a treadmill or who watched nature programming on TV for the same amount of time, a 2020 study published in Environment and Behavior found. They also experienced more a mood improvement afterward. 

To make the most of your stroll, tune into the present moment including what you see and hear around you. Mindful hiking is the perfect way to explore how being present in nature can transform how you feel. For more on mindful hiking you can read these two articles:

2. Gaze at the night sky

Stargazing, one of the most underrated outdoor activities has much to offer: It’s free, accessible, and can be incredibly calming. For an optimal experience, try to get as far away from city lights as possible and turn off all sources of manmade light.

The ultimate stargazing spots are fittingly called Dark Sky Places, designated pockets where light pollution is at a minimum and the stars can shine in all their glory. And the keeper of those Dark Sky Places is the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). 

Across the 94 Dark Sky Places in the United States, you’ll find friendly amateur astronomers and ample opportunities to gaze uninterrupted into the heavens. Consider picking up a red light headlamp—a hands-free way to illuminate your path but not obstruct the experience. Check the weather forecast, bring layers and plenty of water, tell someone where you’re going, and don’t forget to look down every once in a while. You can fall off a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

For more on stargazing and Dark Sky Parks check out these posts:

3. Chase fireflies

Remember how magical the outdoors felt when you were little? Recreate some of that wonder on a summer night by catching fireflies in a jar and briefly observing them before setting them free. 

There are a number of different species of fireflies, none of which are actually flies—they’re beetles. They get the names firefly and lightning bug because of the flashes of light they naturally produce. This phenomenon is called bioluminescence and the bioluminescent organs in fireflies are found on the underside of the abdomen.

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term glowworm can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult females—some of which are not in the firefly family lampyridae.

Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent. The important distinction is that fireflies have wings and glowworms do not. Fireflies can reach up to one inch in length.

Biking the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Dust off your bike and go for a ride

Cycling is a healthy exercise that can be enjoyed by people of all ages from young children to older adults. Cycling strengthens your heart muscles, lowers resting pulse, and reduces blood fat levels. A Danish study conducted over 14 years with 30,000 people aged 20 to 93 years found that regular cycling protected people from heart disease.

If you want to blend low-impact exercise with quality time outdoors, make biking one of your go-to outdoor activities.

5. Be a tourist in your town

Can you confidently say that you know your city in and out? Take the time to visit more than just your usual hangout places. 

Be a tourist in your city, go someplace new and you may be surprised by just how wonderful that old town can be. Most cities have free tours too. You could discover streets, shops, and landmarks that you never knew existed. 

Camping in Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go camping

Camping could mean different things to different people. It can be a chance to bond with family or friends, rediscover yourself, or take a break from regular routines and away from distractions. Nevertheless, it is one of those outdoor activities that could spark that adventurous spirit within you.

You may be wondering, “What are the best places to camp near me?” One of the greatest things about traveling around the U.S. and Canada is that from coast to coast there’s no shortage of beautiful places to camp. Nature lovers can enjoy fresh air, glorious mountains, and clear lakes and streams during a weekend (or longer) camping trip.

Not only can you set up an RV or tent at these picturesque locations, but they also come with plenty of picnic areas, hiking trails, and ample opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other outdoor activities. From scenic forests in New Hampshire to peaceful beaches in Florida and majestic Rocky Mountains in Alberta, there amazing places to camp in the U.S. and Canada.

For more on camping, check out my other posts:

Exploring Enchanted Rock State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Explore a state park

If you are interested in the outdoors, being active, or exploring something new, or the combination of all three, perhaps it’s time to take your day exploring the nearest state park. Whether you are looking to explore the mountains, woodlands, or prairies, hike, mountain bike, or horse ride there’s a state park for you. 

From my many articles on state parks here are a few to get you started:

Birdwatching at Bisque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Go Birdwatching

You could go birding right now—this very moment—no matter who you are, where you are, or what stuff you do or don’t own. The most important thing—and really the only thing—you must have as a birder is yourself and your awareness.

There are certain tools that you’re going to want to enhance the experience although the list is short. You don’t need to start out birding by splurging on binoculars that run well above $2,000. Quality binoculars for birding cost between $100 and $400. You’ll also need a bird book (it can be an app as well) and a good amount of patience. You can also connect with any local birders in your area for tips and more.

Here’s more on birding:

9. Float down a river

For super-adventurous folks, whitewater rafting may make the list of ideal outdoor activities. But for people seeking chill time on the water, a gentle river float may be just the ticket. And don’t forget to grab life jackets and tie a whole bunch of inner tubes together and then float on them down a river.  

Rivers are trails. They invite a visitor to put in and travel a distance to a destination or simply float to another landing upstream or downstream. 

The National Water Trails System is a network of water trails open to the public to explore and enjoy. National Water Trails are a sub-set of the National Recreation Trails Program. National Water Trails have been established to protect and restore America’s rivers, shorelines, and waterways; conserve natural areas along waterways, and increase access to outdoor recreation on shorelines and waterways. The Trails are a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained.

I have an entire article on river trails. You can read it at National Fishing and Boating Week: Exploring National Water Trails

You’re bringing sunscreen, right? Okay, good. Just checking! Additionally, you should bring a hat. And although you may feel tempted to leave your shirt back in the car, take it. At some point, you may want to cover up.

Canoeing Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Go Kayaking

Kayaking, as well as canoeing, is a physical outdoor activity you can do in any type of space with water, from a river to the sea. It’s a great way to exercise and improve your body’s strength, all the while being a low impact activity that can offer a whole lot of peace of mind. 

Kayaking can be a great way to get out on the water whether for a leisurely morning paddle or a more rigorous overnight adventure. When kayaking, it’s good to have clothing that you can easily move around in, dries quickly, and will help protect you from the sun. Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day (and could cause chafing).

Zip line in the Smoky Mountains, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Go Ziplining

No outdoor activity bucket list is complete without zip lining included on it! This is an extreme sport where you are attached to cords that zip you from one tree to the next. It has grown so popular over the years it seems to be possible to do just about anywhere! And while it can get your nerves on overdrive before setting off, it’s usually totally safe to do.

Fishing Parker Canyon Lake, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go fishing

Another outdoor recreation idea is fishing. Regardless of whether you catch anything, it can be a fun and relaxing experience. There’s something about just being out there in nature and the feel of the cold water rushing by you and the sound of the river. Fishing can also be a great way to find a sliver of solitude especially if you go in the early morning when few other folks are out. 

Hiking Thumb Butte Trail, Prescott, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Hike a new trail

Each season of the year offers something different for your hiking experiences from the nature around you to the trails that are best to be taken. Hiking offers amazing landscapes with the flowers and the returning greenery! This is your sign to hike a trail you’ve never tried before.

Check these out to learn more:

14. Journal

Journaling allows you to express your innermost feelings and ideas without fear of being criticized or seen by others. It may also assist you in better organizing and comprehending those items. It’s similar to maintaining a diary, except with more freedom. You are free to write (or even draw) whatever you like, so just scribble down any thoughts or emotions as they occur to you!

15. Take a bike ride

Biking is such a great outdoor activity, no wonder it’s so popular. Not only can the bike actually take you to the same places you might otherwise go by public transportation or a car but it’ll keep you fit as you do so. On top of which you might also get some great scenery to enjoy during your bike ride!

For many people, bicycling never stops and continues right into their 80s and 90s and has been an intricate part of their entire life.

Horseback riding Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Go horseback riding

Whether it’s a forested trail or along the beach, horseback riding is another amazing way to enjoy time outdoors and in nature. Horseback riding has an inherent relaxing effect. According to Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Rheta D. Connor, “The natural rhythm of the horse aids in circulation and relaxation while gently exercising and massaging the rider’s joints, muscles and spine”. These physical motions bring about feelings of relaxation naturally without any thought on behalf of the rider.

Wildlife World Zoo, Litchfield Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Visit a zoo

What is your earliest recollection of going to the zoo? It’s likely that you were on a field trip with your class or your family, being fascinated by the many different creatures that make the place their home.

From thrilling encounters with lions to petting rabbits to holding a snake and more, a trip to the local zoo is an entertaining, educational experience for people of all ages.

Sunset Usery Mountain Regional Park, Mesa, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

18. Watch a sunrise or sunset

Whether you’re catching it from a mountain top, the beach, or someplace else, sunsets and sunrises are the days at their most beautiful. So find a spot from where you can clearly see it, preferably against nature’s beautiful backdrop, and perhaps bring along a picnic basket and a mat to fully immerse in enjoying the sight.

Worth Pondering…

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more

—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

What Are You Waiting For? Get Outdoors in the Sonoran Desert NOW!

From hiking and mountain biking to hot air balloon rides and rafting trips, here are the most-thrilling ways to get outdoors in the Phoenix area

The largest city in the Sonoran Desert—and surrounded on all sides by mountains—Phoenix is a paradise for outdoorsy types. Here, you can hike past towering saguaro cacti, take guided horseback rides on tribal land, and kayak on scenic lakes, all just minutes from the city.

Lake Pleasant Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best of all, the area promises ideal weather. Fall and winter offer pleasant temperatures while spring brings a burst of colorful wildflowers. And in the summer months, travelers can cool off with water activities at Lake Pleasant Regional Park or the Lower Salt River.

Cave Creek Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you want to explore by land, air, or water, there’s an adventure waiting for you in this stunning Sonoran Desert landscape. Read on for the most thrilling ways to experience the Phoenix area and spend some quality time in the great outdoors.

Related Article: Where It All Began: My Love Affair with the Southwest

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take an (Awe-inspiring) Hike

There’s a scenic trail for every skill level just a short drive in any direction from downtown Phoenix. If you’re looking for something easy follow one of the meandering walking paths through the Desert Botanical Garden, home to 140 acres of local flora, or explore a saguaro forest on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park. There’s also the Blevins Trail in Usery Mountain Regional Park where you can see quintessential Sonoran Desert scenery or the half-mile hike in Papago Park to the popular Hole-in-the-Rock viewpoint.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a slightly more strenuous hike, try the Tom’s Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve which starts with a series of challenging switchbacks and passes upland boulder fields and desert flora on the way to the top. You could also opt for the two-mile Waterfall Trail in White Tank Mountain Regional Park, home to ancient petroglyphs, massive saguaros, and that namesake waterfall (though only after it rains), or the 3.5-mile Hidden Valley via Mormon Trail loop in the South Mountain Park and Preserve which requires squeezing through a crevice called Fat Man’s Pass and some hand-over-hand clambering toward the top.

White Tank Mountains Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most challenging hikes near Phoenix is the Siphon Draw Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park which starts in an open desert, travels through a basin of smooth, polished rock, and ends in a flat clearing with breathtaking views to the west. Hikers here must be prepared for some hand-over-hand rock faces and rugged, unmarked areas. There’s also the Summit Trail up Piestewa Peak (the second-highest point in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve) and the steep, rocky Echo Canyon Trail up the famous Camelback Mountain.

Related Article: There Is No Winter like a Desert Winter in the Valley of the Sun

Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore by Mountain Bike

Setting out on two wheels is another great way to discover the Sonoran Desert. 360 Adventures offers mountain-biking tours through the desert on trails selected for your skill level while the REI Co-Op Adventure Center boasts half-and full-day excursions on everything from smooth, groomed flows to big rock drops. If you prefer dirt bikes, opt for Extreme Arizona which features guided trips into the Table Mesa area as well as self-led outings in Tonto National Forest.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the Trails on Horseback

Playing cowboy with a horseback ride through the desert stimulates the senses with an authentic experience of history. Horseback rides offer a memorable way to enjoy the scenery. Ponderosa Stables has guided tours in South Mountain Park and Preserve where trails wind past magnificent saguaros while the Koli Equestrian Center located in the Gila River Indian Community features excursions led by American Indian wranglers who take you through their tribal lands while teaching you about their history, culture, and surroundings.

Huhugan Heritage Center at Gila River Indian Community © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Off-road with an ATV Tour

For an adrenaline-pumping experience, try a guided ATV tour with Arizona Outdoor Fun during which you’ll navigate twisting mountain trails to explore Hohokam Indian ruins, visit a former turquoise mine, and learn about Arizona’s history and wildlife. If driving an authentic, military-grade TomCar UTV is more your speed, go with Desert Wolf Tours which covers thousands of acres of Sonoran Desert wilderness to teach cowboy history while soaking up the scenery. Whichever you choose, you’ll get to cover more ground than on a hike or bike ride—all without breaking a sweat.

Related Article: Arizona Lakes: 6 Sonoran Desert Oases

Tonto National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take to the Sky with a Hot Air Balloon Ride

See the desert from a whole new perspective by soaring above the coyotes and jackrabbits in a hot air balloon. Begin on the ground to view the inflation process then take to the sky for an hour during which you’ll float at different elevations to spot local wildlife, plants, and landmarks. Flights with Hot Air Expeditions and Rainbow Ryders take place at sunrise year-round and sunset rides are available in the winter months.

Along the Salt River east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore the Waterways

On Phoenix’s eastern edge you’ll find the Lower Salt River where you can indulge in stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and rafting tours to spot wild horses and eagles along the shore. On the upper part of the river, Arizona Rafting leads whitewater rafting experiences from March through May which include a hot fajita lunch, complimentary wet suit rentals, and some of the best rapids between California and Colorado.

Saguaro Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For something less intense, consider a tour with Salt River Tubing in Tonto National Forest during which you’ll mosey down mountain-stream waters at a pace that makes enjoying a floating picnic possible.

Along the Bush Highway east of Phoenix © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 45 minutes northwest of downtown Phoenix, you’ll even find Lake Pleasant Regional Park one of the area’s most scenic water recreation areas. The 1,000-acre lake has rentals available on-site, as well as opportunities for swimming, fishing, camping, hiking, picnicking, and more.

Read Next: Top 10 Day Trips From Phoenix

Worth Pondering…

This was as the desert should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaros standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and brushy mesquite.

—Dorothy B. Hughes

Guide to Adventure Activities in National Parks

The following list represents the most popular adventure activities offered in national parks with tips on where you can do each one

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service are the 61 headliner national parks, including Arches, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 419 National Park Service sites across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials.

Coronado National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s kick it up a notch (or two) and check out more adventurous activities you can enjoy in sites administered by the National Park Service and pair them up with superb parks for the experience.

Related: Least-Visited National Park Service Sites and Why Each Is Worth a Visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking

The Narrows at Zion National Park (Utah)

It’s hard to find a national park that doesn’t have some good hiking opportunities, but The Narrows at Zion National Park take adventurous hiking to a new level. Why is it so memorable?

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

First of all, you’re hiking through a cold, shallow river, the Virgin. (There might be times of the year, such as early spring, when the trail is closed because of high water. And always check the weather forecast—flash floods are a real danger here.) And then you’re hiking through canyon walls that can be up to 1,000 feet high but only 20 to 30 feet wide in spots. Definitely chilling and thrilling.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Lassen Volcanic National Park (California)

The name of the park says it all—volcanic!

Related: Why America Needs More National Parks

Bicycling

Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Canyonlands is famous for its mountain biking terrain, particularly for the 100-mile White Rim Road at Island in the Sky. This road loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides expansive views of the surrounding area. Bicycle trips usually take three to four days.

Canyonlands National Park (Needles Unit) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elephant Hill Road at Needles is one of the most technical roads in Utah. You’ll experience steep grades, loose rock, and stair-step drops.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: New River Gorge National River (West Virginia)

The beautiful landscapes and the variety of difficult to less challenging bike routes make the New River Gorge among the most popular destinations for mountain biking trips in the eastern U.S.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Tennessee and North Carolina):

Guided horseback rides are available at four concession horseback riding stables in the park from mid-March through late November. Or bring your own to explore 550 miles of hiking trails open to horses. Five drive-in horse camps provide ready access to backcountry horse trails in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)

If it’s named after our rough ‘n’ tumble 26th president, you know it has to be an adventure. Find out why the Badlands are so good for riders.

Related: National Park Programs that Enhance Your Visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rock climbing

Joshua Tree National Park (California)

Best known for its cacti where two distinctive desert types meet, Joshua Tree is also a superb place to do some rock climbing. The park offers challenges for all ability levels with more than 8,000 climbing routes, 2,000 boulder problems, and hundreds of natural gaps to choose from. It is truly a world-class climbing destination.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you are learning to climb or are looking to expand your climbing skills, a guided day or class could be of interest to you. When hiring a climbing guide, make sure that they are permitted to work in Joshua Tree National Park.

Related: National Park Facts: The Biggest, Smallest, Oldest, Newest, Most Visited, and More…

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another adventurous option: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California)

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are great places to climb. One can enjoy an endless variety of climbs from easy to extremely challenging-without the crowds and pressure of more famous climbing areas. Outstanding routes in the parks include the Obelisk and Grand Sentinel. Most climbs require at least a day’s hike in.

Worth Pondering…

Adventure is worthwhile.

―Aesop