Adventure Travel You Can Afford: Cliff Diving and Other Trip Ideas

Cliff Diving
John O'Nolan under Creative Commons

Seeing the Grand Canyon in person is nice, but it’s also a pretty standard tourist activity. On the other hand, the average guide fee for climbing Everest will set you back about $48,000, and more than 200 people have died on the mountain.

What if you want to do something adventurous, but without too much expense or risk?

First, we have to clarify what “adventure” means. An adventure doesn’t have to be dangerous to be fun and exciting. Any activity can be an adventure if it’s new to you and if the outcome is not too predictable.

Here are six relatively safe adventure travel vacations you can actually afford. At least or two of these ideas will likely be new and unpredictable for you, and they won’t cost you an arm and a leg — metaphorical or real.

1. Take a “Highest Point” Trip

Most of us are fascinated by high places, and every state has its highest point. Alaska’s is Denali (also known as Mount McKinley, 20,322 feet), but climbing it is quite expensive and also fairly risky.

Fortunately, you can bag a few peaks that are not so dangerous and expensive. These summits are closer and cheaper for most of us to visit, yet still qualify as high points.

For example, Mount Davis is the highest point in Pennsylvania, but at 3,213 feet above sea level, it isn’t likely to kill you. In Colorado, I went to the top of Mount Elbert (14,440 feet) without too much difficulty.

Check out to find scenic and adventurous hikes to high places near you. Your adventure could cost you less than $20 for gas and snacks.

2. Go Cliff Diving

It can be dangerous to jump off of cliffs, and it’s never entirely risk free. But if you stick to low cliffs with deep water at their bases, and you’re a strong swimmer, it can be relatively safe, in my experience.

For example, in Marquette, Michigan people jump from the 15-foot cliffs in Presque Isle Park into Lake Superior. Just avoid doing it on days with big waves, as Superior is like a freshwater ocean. I’ve jumped from those cliffs many times without incident, but I’ve also been there when the waves were so big they crashed onto the tops of the cliffs — not a day for any jumping.

Search “cliff diving” plus the name of your state to find places that are within driving distance of home. In the results you’ll also see news stories about people hurting themselves jumping off cliffs — a good reminder to stick to the ones you feel comfortable with. Outside magazine recently had an article about safe places to cliff dive in the U.S.

3. Be a Vagabond

The element of uncertainty makes wandering one of the best forms of adventure. Pack your car with enough supplies for a few days or a week and hit the road with no destination in mind. Stop when you see something interesting. Choose a hotel at two in the afternoon or at ten in the evening, or bring pads and sleeping bags so you can camp or sleep in the car.

I did this once and ended up spending the night on the shore of Lake Superior, miles down a dirt road with nobody else around, roasting wild apples on a rock over a fire while watching the waves hit the small cliff I was on. Another time I ended up at a club in downtown Chicago, and split the cost of a hotel room with two friends. Both trips were very inexpensive.

Just go, and see where you end up and what you find.

4. Take a Monastery Tour

Most people don’t realize that many monasteries welcome visitors who want to stay for a night or a week. They usually charge less than a local hotel, and are often in great locations.

Zen monasteries are typically more expensive than Catholic ones, although it was very reasonable when I stayed at a Zen retreat center overlooking a beautiful valley in upstate New York.

Some require that you participate in certain activities, like meals or meditation sessions, while others allow you to just enjoy the peace and quiet on your own terms.

Search online for “Catholic monasteries” and “Buddhist monasteries,” or just “monasteries” to get a list of places that are on your route. Then call each one to see what their rules and prices are. You can also find a list of monasteries at

5. Go Treasure Hunting at the Beach

Talk about unpredictable! A day at the beach with a metal detector might net you nothing more than a few coins and trinkets lost by tourists. But Joel Ruth found 180 silver coins worth over $40,000. It happened on the western side of Florida, north of Palm Beach. Now that would make for an exciting adventure vacation!

Although ghost towns also have lost treasures, antiquities laws protect most such sites. Beaches around the country usually have less-restrictive rules. You don’t even have to buy a metal detector. Some pawn shops and other businesses near the beach rent them out for a daily fee. Search “metal detector rentals” plus the name of the state in which you’ll be traveling to find a place near your destination.

Look for more than just the obvious treasures. I used to find light bulbs that worked and once found a wooden chair that was still good enough to use. I shared some of the other valuables to watch for in my post on beachcombing. If you aren’t near the ocean, keep the cost of your trip lower by treasure hunting at beaches on any big lake near you — my best finds were on the shores of Lake Michigan.

6. Canoe in a New Place

It always at least a minor adventure to travel by canoe in an area you haven’t visited before. Locate an interesting river or chain of lakes near you and search online for “canoe rentals” plus the name of the closest town. Make a few calls and plan the trip.

Be sure to bring food, sunblock, water and anything else the rental outfit recommends. And always bring a camera to document the unexpected sights you’ll see.

Affordable adventure travel is not only possible, but probably close to home. Where will you go on your next adventure vacation?

Your Turn: What was your most affordable adventurous vacation?