Spring travel: The big outdoors

Where thrillseekers go to hang-glide, shoot skeet and climb to the top of a world-class bridge
Scale the heights of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, rising about a mile above the water and offering sweeping views of the city and its iconic landmark, the Sydney Opera House. Contributed by BridgeClimb Sydney

Scale the heights of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, rising about a mile above the water and offering sweeping views of the city and its iconic landmark, the Sydney Opera House. Contributed by BridgeClimb Sydney

Instead of just getting outside, make this year the time to turn those outdoor activities into memories you’ll talk about for years. Like hiking? Try a trek atop a bridge that soars almost a mile high. Not quite ready for skydiving? You can still experience the exhilaration of free-form flying from a hang glider or the confines of a specially constructed wind tunnel. Always wanted to experience a “Downton Abbey” style day of bird shooting? Head to one of Alabama’s newest destinations where you can hone your aim. Of course, not all adventures need to be of the daredevil sort. Sometimes the simple pleasure of an undiscovered trail is an adventure with its own rewards.

In Bowling Green, Ky., take a boat ride along the Lost River that meanders past limestone walls and caverns. Contributed by Bowling Green Area CVB

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Bowling Green, Ky.

About an hour north of Nashville, Tenn., Bowling Green, Ky., abounds in natural wonders. The biggest is Mammoth Cave National Park ($7-$15, 1 Mammoth Cave Parkway, Mammoth Cave. 270-758-2180, www.nps.gov/maca), where visitors can explore more than 400 miles of underground caverns. The roughly 80-square-mile park is also dotted with 200 smaller, accessible caves. Closer to town is the Lost River Cave ($20, 2818 Nashville Road, 270-393-0077, www.lostrivercave.org), where the state's only underground boat tours take visitors deep inside the limestone-walled passages where the water is about 5 feet deep, and the natural formations require everyone to duck down in a few spots. The 45-minute tours include a short walk to the cave entrance, a brief information session and about 25 minutes on the river. If being on land is more to your liking, plan a stop at the National Corvette Museum ($10, 350 Corvette Drive. 800-538-3883, www.corvettemuseum.org) to see how the cars are produced. The museum's motorsports park offers the option of driving one of the sports cars or your own vehicle around the road course. The Hot Laps experience puts you in a Corvette with a professional driver who will navigate the course at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. This August marks the 25th Corvette Caravan, expected to draw more than 25,000 'Vette owners from around the country.

The Aerodium attraction in Branson, Mo., creates the sensation of flying in a contained, safe space. Contributed by Fritz’s Adventure

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Branson, Mo.

Perhaps best known for its live shows and concerts, Branson also has an array of adventure activities that makes it a year-round favorite for all ages. Start off at Track Family Fun Park ($12-$150, 3388 Green Mountain Drive 417-334-1612, www.bransontracks.com), where go-karts, bumper boats, laser tag, black-light mini golf and an array of kids' rides are among the tamer options. Or up the thrill quotient with a ride on the 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel or the Skycoaster, a giant swing that mimics the sensation of hang gliding by soaring 100 feet above the ground. New this spring is the Skyscraper, described by many as a "Ferris wheel on steroids" — a windmill-like ride that spins at 55 miles per hour, creating the same 4G's force felt by fighter jet pilots. Those who relish being up in the air won't want to miss a visit to the Aerodium Outdoor Flying Adventure at Fritz's Adventure ($25 and up, 1425 W. Hwy. 76. 417-320-6138, www.fritzsadventure.com/aerodium), an 80,000-square-foot complex where kids and adults can rock climb, tunnel and zip line across a ropes course. The Aerodium ($65-$85) recreates the sensation of skydiving but without the anxiety of having to jump out of a plane. Here, the trip is safely enclosed inside a powerful, vertical wind tunnel, making it accessible to all ages.

Hike, bike or jog along the 20-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail that connects Greenville, S.C., with Traveler’s Rest, S.C. Contributed by DiscoverSC.com

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Greenville, S.C.

Walk, jog or bike the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail (free, 601 S. Main St. 864-288-6470, www.greenvillerec.com), a 20-mile, multi-use path that meanders along the Reedy River and follows the route once traversed by the Carolina, Knoxville and Western Railway. Named in honor of the giant cottontail rabbits that used to inhabit the nearby marshy landscape, the trail links Greenville with Travelers Rest, S.C. Signage points out rest stops, water fountains and places to eat along the way. About 20 minutes east of Travelers Rest is Table Rock State Park ($5, 158 E. Ellison Lane, Pickens, S.C. 803-734-0156, www.southcarolinaparks.com/table-rock), a 3,000-acre destination with two lakes and hiking trails that takes visitors past waterfalls and to the top of Table Rock mountain. Many of the park's cabins, perfect for overnight stays, were a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps from the late 1930s and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Sierra Nevada, Calif.

The tiny community of Midpines in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a gateway to Yosemite National Park, and it boasts a campground that's a bit different from others in the area. AutoCamp at Yosemite (rates $225 and up, 6323 CA 140, 888-405-7553, www.autocamp.com) provides luxury camping accommodations, most notably in the form of custom-made Airstream trailers. Tents with wood burning stoves and plush beds, and modern cabins are also available. Perks include shuttle transportation to Yosemite, so you can enjoy the natural beauty without having to deal with the heavy traffic in and around the popular park during the busy seasons of spring and summer. Plus, scenic hiking trails connect directly to the campground. The historic town of Mariposa, with its restaurants, shopping, breweries and wine tasting rooms, is a short drive away. All camp sites at Autocamp have private patios and campfire rings. There's also a clubhouse, heated pool, community fire pits and lounge areas for mingling with your fellow glampers. AutoCamp also has locations in Santa Barbara and Sonoma in California.

Nags Head, N.C.

There was a good reason Orville and Wilbur Wright picked North Carolina's Outer Banks to test out their flying machine. The area's wealth of sand dunes formed a soft runway, and the ocean breezes provided the lift. In the spirit of those pioneers, Outer Banks still draws flying enthusiasts who turn those dunes into launching pads for hours of hang-gliding. The Jockey's Ridge State Park (free, 300 Carolista Drive, www.ncparks.gov/jockeys-ridge-state-park) is hang-gliding central, where on any given day, the hills are alive with colorful gliders lifting into the air. The crew at Kitty Hawk Kites ($99-$239, Carolista Drive. 252-441-2426, www.kittyhawk.com) offer three-hour beginner lessons that include five flights, as well as instruction in more advanced techniques for veterans. Tandem rides are available, and special classes are offered for kids weighing less than 75 pounds. Those who'd rather keep their toes in the sand can sign up for two-hour stunt kite flying lessons and learn how to launch and manipulate a kite along the windswept dunes. Show off your new talent at the Fly into Spring Kite Festival,  April 21-22 at the park.

Hiking the mountainous Sapa region in north Vietnam offers unparalleled views and chances to meet and learn about the indigenous people in the area. Contributed by T. Opdyke III

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Sapa, Vietnam

The northwestern corner of Vietnam is considered by many to be one of the lushest spots on the planet, and one of the best ways to experience it is on a hike. An array of tour companies offer English-speaking guides who will take trekkers from Sapa, a city about 200 miles north of Hanoi, into the highlands, offering panoramic views of the Muong Hoa Valley, an area noted for its multi-tiered rice fields. The district is also home to the Hoang Lien Son mountains where the country's highest peak, Fan Si Pan, is located in the Hoang Lien National Park, about 12 miles outside the city. Along with stunning mountain views, the park boasts a wealth of forest trails and wildlife. Seasoned travelers warn that getting to the peak requires more stamina than skill, and the weather can often be a challenge. Ethos ($45-$120, 79 Nguyen Chi Thanh, Lào Cai. +84 36 689 2536, www.ethosspirit.com) provides guides who can arrange short day trips or longer, overnight stays that can include visiting with local tribes who have made their homes in the valley for centuries. Intrepid travelers who prefer to strike out on their own can pick up a free hiking guide from the city's visitor center.

Slidell, La.

Louisiana is known as the Bayou State because of its bounty of waterways that cut through the hearts of small towns, offering visitors rare glimpses of unspoiled natural beauty. To get up-close and personal with the bayou, consider an excursion with Pearl River Ecotours ($25-$85, 55050 Hwy. 90. 1-866-597-9267, www.pearlriverecotours.com) that specializes in trips you're not likely to forget any time soon. Among the offerings are tours in small, six-person skiffs that mean you won't have to climb over other passengers to get a selfie with an alligator, swamp pig, crane, giant turtle or heron. The boats are quieter than airboats and shallow enough to glide under the canopies of ancient cypress, oak, willow or sweet gum trees, draped in Spanish moss, where the only sound is the water lapping lightly at the sides. And if you're strong enough to hold onto your end of a fishing pole, you might get to feed a gator or two.

Sydney, Australia

The dramatic bridge that spans the Sydney harbor is more than a conduit for cars. It's also an ultimate climbing challenge. Opened in 1932 after eight years of construction the Harbour Bridge ($180-$277, 3 Cumberland St., The Rocks. +61 (2) 8274-7777, www.bridgeclimb.com) handles eight traffic lanes, two train lines and more than 200,000 vehicles each day, all while soaring almost a mile above the water and offering panoramic views of the city's iconic skyline and its most famous fixture, the Sydney Opera House. But getting to the top isn't for the faint of heart: Even before the 3.5-hour trek begins, climbers must certify they are fit, fed and hydrated, and they must start off with a safety lesson. Shorter climbs take hikers only part of the way to the top in about two hours. More intrepid souls may opt for the twilight and dawn trips that show off the city in a different light. Another alternative: Take a mere 200 steps up to the Pylon Lookout Museum, tucked into the bridge's southeast pylon, where three levels of exhibits tell the story of its design and construction, and an outdoor viewing area provides 360-degree angles for fabulous photos.

Sylacauga, Ala.

Nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts can indulge their passions by heading to Pursell Farms ($285 and up, 386 Talladega Springs Road. 1-877-292-3276, www.pursellfarms.com), an upscale, 3,500-acre destination about two hours west of Atlanta. Once the homestead of the Pursell family, the property now features a lodge, an inn, cottages, cabins and two historic houses where guests can get away from it all. But they can also be in the thick of a variety of activities that connect them to the outdoors. Sharpen those shooting skills with sporting clays and wingshooting, or practice casting techniques with a day of fly fishing. Climb into a John Deere UTV and take a two-hour tour of the property's remote corners along old logging roads that lead to the top of a mountain with panoramic views. Bike along paved trails or horseback ride across the pastures. Take it easy with a relaxing round of golf, a friendly game of bocce or a massage in the spa. Pursell Farms also boasts a fine-dining restaurant specializing in Southern cuisine, a Scottish-inspired pub and a clubhouse grill, where the menus feature ingredients grown either on the grounds or supplied by nearby farmers.

— Blake Guthrie contributed

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