I’ve been hiking for years, both throughout New England and around the world. Here’s what I like about it: It’s cheap, accessible, and requires little more than some trust in your own two feet. You can push yourself or take it easy. A solo hike can be meditative, while an outing with friends is generally not so strenuous that you can’t carry on a conversation. And it’s impossible to do inside.
So when, last summer, a friend suggested my husband and I hire a hiking guide to take us up Mount Mansfield in Vermont — a hike we’d completed a half-dozen times on our own — I thought: What for?
What I realized — as our guide led us to some breathtaking views we had never seen before — is that under the care of an expert, there is always something more to learn, whether you’re just starting out or consider yourself a seasoned veteran. This holds true not only for hiking, but for any number of outdoor activities.
Summer in New England offers plenty of opportunity to get outside and appreciate nature; as such, it’s the perfect time to tackle a new adventure with the help of a guide. The right person can enhance your experience in myriad ways, from teaching you the basics of an activity, to showing you a new technique, to tailoring a trip based on your ability level.
Here are five outdoor guided activities that are a great way for beginners to try something new — and, perhaps, for the more experienced to uncover a few unexpected surprises.
1. Rock Climbing
The popularity of indoor climbing gyms has been a boon for the sport of rock climbing, which is far more accessible to first timers than it might seem.
Camden, Maine-based instructor and guide Noah Kleiner, owner of Equinox Guiding Service (equinoxguidingservice.com, 207-619-3957), got hooked on climbing after attending an Outward Bound program as a teenager. Today, he leads families and groups on guided climbs — half day or full day — up outdoor rock cliffs of various lengths and steepness.
Kleiner provides all the gear you need and starts with an on-the-ground lesson in knotting and belaying. After that, up you go. “I love climbing because it’s physical, but also because it develops mental capacity and trust-building between friends and families who learn, and then climb, together,” he says. Kleiner notes that on each trip there is typically one guide for every two climbers.
His favorite spots to take guests are Otter Cliff in Acadia National Park and Barrett’s Cove in Camden, depending on group size, desired day, where they’re staying, and experience level. “I love taking first-timers to the top of a cliff and then rappelling back down over the ocean,” he says. “It blows their socks off.”
Meanwhile, Adventure Spirit Guides (adventurespiritguides.com, 802-535-1498) leads guided climbs in Vermont and New Hampshire; while Eastern Mountain Sports Schools (emsoutdoors.com, 845-668-2030) has programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut, in addition to New Hampshire. You can also search for a guide throughout New England using the app 57hours.
2. White-Water Rafting
There’s no need to travel west to try white-water rafting, says Brian Pytko, director of rafting programs at two sister companies in Charlemont, Zoar Outdoor (zoaroutdoor.com, 413-339-4010) and Berkshire Whitewater (berkshireeast.com, 413-339-6618). The dam-controlled Deerfield River in Western Massachusetts offers rapids ranging from Class II (perfect for beginners) to more challenging Class IV, just a few hours from Boston. A guide can help get beginners on the river safely and smoothly and give those with more experience the encouragement and confidence to push themselves a bit outside of their comfort zones (paddling along instead of simply sitting and holding on for dear life, for example).
Pytko began as a guide back in college and never stopped. “It’s a skill I equate to driving,” he says. “Anybody can do it; some people are better at it than others, but it’s really just about doing a lot of little things at once. With practice, it becomes mostly about muscle memory.” Zoar offers different levels of trips, yet all but the most advanced are designed for anyone who is “reliably coordinated, willing to work as a team, and has a few ab muscles,” Pytko says. Both half- and full-day options begin with an on-land safety meeting before helmeting up and climbing aboard; the full-day ends with a barbecue or picnic back on shore.
“For me, I think the biggest draw is the social connections you make when you’re out on a boat with six of your friends or a bunch of strangers learning to work together and enjoying the catharsis of being on the river,” Pytko says.
Elsewhere in New England, Maine’s Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers are also popular white-water destinations, offering dam-controlled rapids that range from Class III to Class V (extremely difficult), as well as multiple guide services to help you navigate the waters.
One other thing to know, at least when it comes to deciding what to wear: “We go rain or shine,” Pytko says.
3. Race Car Driving
If you’re the type for whom an “outdoor experience” means riding with the top down or the windows open, a spin (or several) around a racetrack might be more your, well, speed.
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon (nhms.com, 603-783-4931) offers several types of driving adventures through the spring and fall, including a NASCAR experience along the speedway’s mile-long oval. There’s also Xtreme Xperience, which gives participants a chance to drive a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, or other high-end car on a 1.6-mile course. And while operations manager Alex Guilbeault says most clients are men, the sport has seen a noticeable uptick in women drivers.
All experiences take two to three hours and include a safety briefing and guided racetrack lesson, then the chance to take the wheel, with guided instruction piped through a headset. Those not quite ready to be in the driver’s seat can ride along as a passenger with a professional. “The goal is to define and then help drivers get to their ‘perfect lap,’” says Josh Jenny, the chief instructor and safety manager for Xtreme Xperience, which brings its fleet of eight “supercars” to the Speedway in late spring.
Occasionally, prospective car buyers come looking for the chance to drive more “spiritedly” than at a dealership, but most are just car-lovers looking for an adrenaline-filled experience. “The best for me is getting to see the [excited] look on guests’ faces,” Jenny says, “like they got called by Bob Barker from The Price is Right.” Bring nothing but yourself, a valid driver’s license, close-toed shoes, and a need for speed.
Hiking in New England has a relatively low barrier to entry. It’s customizable for a variety of fitness levels, mostly free (with the exception of the occasional park entry fee), and unless you’re camping overnight, requires little in the way of gear. For example, I hiked for years in running sneakers. But once you start going higher, and harder — or in challenging weather — you’ll want to up your game with proper hiking boots. You’ll also want water, snacks, sunblock, and layers of clothing as weather changes and you work up more of a sweat.
For DIY hiking, paper maps are available at bookstores and most rest stops, and trail locations, lengths, and difficulty levels can be found online. With a guide, however, you can leave the map at home; recommendations for booking a guide are often available through your hotel concierge or campground, or state resources like the Maine Professional Guides Association (maineguides.org).
During a stay at The Lodge at Spruce Peak in Stowe, Vermont (sprucepeak.com, 888-478-6938), we signed up for a guided hike along the Long Trail, a historic trail that runs the length of the state. Our guide, a fit, chatty Grateful Dead fan named Dylan Griffin, took us along a section we’d never even seen on a map, pointed out flora and fauna along the way, and chatted about music, his developing love of snow golf, and his favorite restaurants in town.
Over in Manchester, Vermont, at the Equinox Golf Resort & Spa (equinoxresort.com, 802-362-4700), general manager Jay Sheldon leads weekly, all-levels “Golden Hikes” with hotel guests and his 6-year-old golden retriever, Cooper, through parts of the more than 900 wooded acres and 11 miles of maintained trails that surround the hotel. “It’s a great way for guests to learn a bit about the area, and see parts of the property they would not have otherwise,” Sheldon says.
5. Deep-Sea Fishing
Rhode Island offers some of New England’s best, and most accessible, saltwater fishing, which throughout the summer might include hooking striped bass, bluefish, scup, and fluke, or, if you’re ambitious, sharks and tuna.
In Newport, Captain Connor MacLeod runs Tall Tailz Charters (talltailzcharters.com, 401-855-1471), offering half- and full-day trips as close to a mile off the beach and, for the more experienced, as far as a few hundred miles. “Deep-sea fishing is really a blanket term for offshore fishing, and there’s lots of great catch to be found pretty close to shore,” says MacLeod, who generally advocates for catch-and-release angling, but will gladly help guests who want to bring their fish home by filleting and packaging it up for transit. (Many local hotels will help guests arrange to have their catch cooked at the hotel or a local restaurant; just ask your concierge.)
Trips with Tall Tailz typically start early, and you’ll get a quick lesson in casting, reeling, and water safety before heading out on a boat that generally carries up to six passengers. No previous experience or gear is required, though sunglasses, a hat, a waterproof jacket, and sunblock are all very good ideas. “In the summer we get lots of families who just want to have fun,” he says. “I love those types of trips because it allows me to share my craft and hopefully spark some enthusiasm for the sport.” And while MacLeod makes no guarantees, most will end the day having hooked at least one fish, if not several.
Across the Sound, Captain Chris Willi of Block Island Fishworks (sandypointco.com, 401-466-5392) leads rod-fishing and spearfishing trips through Narragansett Bay for bluefish and fluke. Chartered trips are also discoverable up and down the coast, leaving from waterfront towns including Mystic, Connecticut, and Gloucester.
Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more from Globe Magazine’s summer travel feature:
- The best way to explore Maine’s Acadia National Park is by bicycle
- Four great places to learn to surf in New England. Yes, New England.
- A great time to visit Amherst is after the students clear out