Travel Guides

What To Do In America When On A Gap Year

Here's how to make your American gap year full of unforgettable adventures

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If you’re wondering what to do on your gap year, taking a gap year in America is an awesome thing to do, especially if you hanker after adventure and want your gap year to reflect that. America has more adventures on offer than any other country in the world, with its amazing, vast and varied natural landscape, its buzzing cities and its frontier adventurer-ethos, which is ingrained in so many of its citizens.

If you’re planning a gap year in the USA, take a glance at these 10 ideas for adventures you can have along the way. We don’t expect you to use this list as a detailed itinerary but more as an inspirational starting point for your American gap year.

No ‘must-do list’ will work for everyone but you’ll hopefully find some useful info below that you can tailor to your own trip. Have fun!

1) Go Rafting In The Grand Canyon

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The Grand Canyon tops most gap year takers list of essential things to do in America. What’s more it’s often cited as a tourist attraction that more than delivers on its promise, looking even more impressive and spine-tinglingly dramatic in real life than it does in photos.

Rafting through the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s river core is one of the most amazing ways to visit it. Rafting America organise six-day trips, which feature over 60 rapids, six hikes waterfall hikes and lovely food along the way. They tell us that many guests report that this was “the vacation of their lives” and it’s not hard to imagine why.

2) Cycle Over The Golden Gate Bridge In San Francisco

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With its brightly-painted houses, art deco vibes, and beautifully sculpted volcanic curves San Francisco is one of the most stunning cities on earth and the first port of call for many gap year takers from all over the world. The food choice, even at the mid-budget end, is ridiculous, the bars are epic, the cultural history mind-blowing and, if you can handle the hills, it’s a brilliant city to cycle around.

One of the best rides takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge, where you’ll get panoramic views of the bay and city, and end up riding to pretty fishing town of Sausalito, where you’ll then catch the ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf. Blazing Saddles are one of the most popular bike rental outfits in San Francisco with backpackers and they’ll provide maps of tours and advice on where to ride free of charge.

3) Go Skiing Or Snowboarding In Colorado

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It’s not surprising that many gap year takers time their trip to America with the snow season, so they can swing by the world-famous Rocky Mountain range in Colorado. With its dry ‘champagne’ powder, high number of bluebird days and huge variety of jaw-droppingly beautiful terrain for all levels, it’s a pretty special place for snow-lovers, where many a skiing and snowboarding dream are made.

If you’re starting from scratch Burton has a Learn to Ride centre for snowboarders at Steamboat, and Winter Park has a great learn to ski programme, which isn’t super-expensive. Or if you’re at the more intermediate or expert end of the spectrum, you could take a ski or snowboard instructor course in Colorado with Epic Gap Year.

4) Go Running Over The Bridges Of New York

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There’s more to gap year than booze-tubing in Vang Vieng. These days more and more backpackers want a more wholesome experience while they’re away and to keep up their fitness regimes from back home.

With that in mind sight-running is one of the freshest ways to see a city’s streets, while ticking off your exercise for the day too, and New York, with its iconic skyline and bridges from which to view it, is one of the best cities in the world to run around.

You can of course run yourself or make things easy and find out about the city along the way by going with a tour guide. City Running do a Brooklyn Bridge Tour every Friday, with tonnes of historical landmarks along the way, bringing you back across Manhattan Bridge and dropping you at City Hall.

5) Go Surfing In Malibu

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Hawaii might have invented surfing but Los Angeles made it popular, making it one of the world’s great surf cities, and a sweet place for gap year takers to stop and give it a go. There are heaps of good beaches to learn to surf in Los Angeles and the warmer waves of San Diego two hours south are also popular, but the most iconic spot is Malibu.

It’s also a great place to learn and a lovely though often super-crowded wave to ride a longboard on. Malibu Makos formed in 1991 and specialise in teaching young people to surf in and around this world-famous break.

6) Cycle Tour The Best Food Trucks In Austin

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Austin, Texas is a famous live music hub and haven for alternative culture. In recent years it’s also become an epicentre for street food trucks and the kind of affordable inventive grub that hungry gap year takers will love.

Austin Eats Food Tours run bike trips around the best Austin foodie spots so you can work up an appetite between trucks, with stops including breakfast tacos, gourmet BBQ fare, wood-fired Italian sandwiches and of course treats involving chocolate.

7) Go Rock Climbing In Moab

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Climbing the sandstone pillars of the Moab desert might not be the most obvious American gap year activity but it would be a truly unforgettable one, especially if you’re into climbing or think you might like to be. Or maybe you just want to see one of the most unique landscapes in the world, which is what Moab’s towering sandstone pillars are.

The colossal spires have been beckoning hardcore climbers here since the 1960s, but there is still plenty of scope for beginner and intermediate climbing. Moab Cliffs and Canyons organise climbing trips for all level of vertical ascender and promise that many of those towers are within a beginner’s reach.

8) Go Stand Up Paddling On Lake Michigan

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The best way for a backpacker to view Chicago’s skyline and famous waterfront district isn’t trudging the streets while craning your neck at all the skyscrapers. The best perspective is from the water, aboard a stand up paddle board. It’s a great way to see a city while having a fun adventure at the same time. And it’s super easy, you don’t need to have ever tried it before to give it a go.

Kayak Chicago run daytime stand up paddle tours but the sunset paddle at Montrose Beach with a golden city skyline as your distant backdrop looks the most awesome. 

9) Go On A Cocktail Bike Tour Of New Orleans

Credit: Confederacy of Cruisers

We mentioned wholesome gap year choices, such as sight-running above, but sometimes you also want to kick back and have a drink of the tasty cocktail variety and New Orleans is one of coolest places in the world to do that.

Confederacy of Cruisers run cocktail cycling tours around New Orleans with a historical twist. They start at 10.15am but include five (yikes!) drinks along the way, with the tour beginning with the city’s rum smuggling days, when the French Quarter was “so rambunctious that a modern day Bourbon street reveller would either shudder or blush at the city’s antics.”  Gap year stories to take home are a cert.

10) Go Horse Back Riding In Montana

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Last up, we couldn’t talk about doing a gap year in the US without suggesting a horseback ride across a Wild West-style landscape so you can channel that all-American frontier spirit and feel like a cowboy in a film.

The state of Montana boasts such experiences in spades. And Broken Arrow Lodge offers horse back trips, where you camp out, with the promise of seeing elk, deer and moose along the way. Yee-haw!

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