As interest grows in ecotourism and responsible travel, these travel spots deliver wildlife, bioluminescence, nature education, and unparalleled beauty.
Tired of tourists, long lines, smoggy cities, and commercialized entertainment? While those options have a place in our vacation plans, more and more travelers are moving away from tourist-heavy destinations in favor of quieter, nature-loving adventures.
According to a report by Grandview Research, growth in ecotourism comes from a desire for immersive travel and outdoor activities that do not adversely affect the environment, instead educating on how to interact with and preserve it. Whether by land or sea, ecotourism and sustainable travel are on the rise, and why not? It’s not just responsible — it’s fun!
Here are my picks for five trips across the nation that bring you closer to nature while protecting the environment.
Bioluminescent Nighttime Kayak Tour in St. Augustine, Florida
Seeing nighttime sea life is usually a treat reserved only for scuba divers, but in select spots around the world, bioluminescent organisms glow close to the surface. In the Maldives, they wash in with the waves, leaving a trail of sparkling gems in their wake. But you don’t have to go nearly that far for these rare sightings. In St. Augustine, Florida, make your way to Guana Lake, where Geotrippin Kayak Adventures will hook you up with everything you need to watch the nighttime waters come alive.
Hop in a kayak and join a small group paddling out into the lake and through estuaries where the river meets the sea. As the sun sets and the sky darkens, dip your small fishing net into the water and watch as the swirl lights up with comb jellies and dinoflagellates. You can even capture them in a cup and study them up close, then release them back into the water.
By day, kayak the Matanzas River Basin, where you will see everything from dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles to wading birds and oysters. The expert guides at Geotrippin will educate you on the history of this ecosystem, the science behind it, and the flora and fauna that make it special. Owner Bed Brandao is all about protecting the environment and letting it work its magic, so tours are engaging and interactive.
The bioluminescent nighttime kayak tour is appropriate for all levels, even first-time kayakers, but there are only 12 spots open each night, so make your reservations early!
Foraging Lessons in Estes Park, Colorado
Self-sustainability has become all the rage in recent years, but many people don’t know how to get started. While most are comfortable with a small backyard garden, they have no idea what wild plants are safe to pick, let alone consume.
Here’s a way to turn your vacation into an opportunity to learn the history and science behind foraging from experts in the field. Through Rocky Mountain Conservancy Field Institute, you can have an educational adventure, or, as they call it, “a classroom without walls.”
Meet up with a foraging expert who will take you to jaw-droppingly gorgeous Lily Lake. Reflecting the mountain range that includes the fourteeners of Longs Peak, the lake is a must-see no matter the season. Your guide will introduce you to the native plants identified by the Utes, the indigenous people who passed down much of their knowledge.
You’ll identify yarrow and learn that you can chew it, make a poultice, and use it to calm mosquito bites and bee stings. Suffering in the high elevation of the Rockies? Your guide will point out mountain gum weed, which you can suck on to open your bronchial passages. Or pick some wild raspberry leaves and make natural tea back in your hotel room.
Be sure to check the calendar for seasonal courses and your choice from a wide range of topics, including wildflowers, mammals, birds, cultural history, outdoor skills, photography, painting and writing.
Jet Boat Through Hell’s Canyon in Lewiston, Idaho
The only way to explore North America’s deepest river gorge (yes, deeper than the Grand Canyon) is by boat, as roads will only take you so far. And if you’re going to spend a half to a full day on the water, you might as well do it in a really fun jet boat.
Book a ride with Snake River Adventures and skim over the rapids as you take in the glorious scenery of three states: Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The Snake River winds its way along a 1,036-mile stretch through volcanic mountains and lava tubes that run vertically along rock edges. Shiny black rocks covered in a manganese patina sparkle among hackberry and mahogany trees.
Your ride will stop at the waterside visitors center that serves as the entrance to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s the best place for a picnic, the river running through the canyon as your soundtrack. You’ll see fishermen catching giant white sturgeon, bass, rainbow trout, and Chinook salmon, but the wildlife is about to become a whole lot wilder.
From this point on, you will go where no roads can take you. You’ll see bald eagles, bighorn sheep, cougars, mountain lions, beer, osprey nests, and even petroglyphs. Better yet, cell phone service is nil, so you can truly relax into the moment.
Head South for the Year of Alabama Birding
Alabama has named 2023 the Year of Alabama Birding and is dedicated to educating visitors on what makes it one of the best birding states in the country.
Birding hotspots (to the tune of 280 updated sites), festivals, and eight birding trails highlight the state’s more than 430 species of birds. A stroll down one of the pathways can elicit everything from bald eagles and whooping cranes to swallow-tailed kites and painted buntings.
Alabama’s many forests, lakes, and waterways make it one of the major stop-off points for migrating birds. For best viewing, check their website for seasonal and hotspot tips. Depending on your preference, you can target the coast, Piedmont Plateau, Piney Woods, Wiregrass, or West Alabama, or road trip through them all.
Immerse Yourself in Marine Life in Loreto, Baja California Sur
Rodolfo Palacios with Sail Loreto is an invaluable resource when it comes to learning about the local ecosystem. Offering small boat sailing cruises, courses, and charters, he and his team will help you get familiar with Loreto and all it has to offer.
Start by sailing among the five islands of Bahía de Loreto National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site known for its marine diversity, especially marine mammals. The Gulf of California, nicknamed the Sea of Cortez, teems with life – 43 species of marine mammals and 900 species of fish, 77 of which are found only here in these waters.
Depending on the time of year, you’ll see dolphins, whales, and sea lions. Snorkel or dive with five of the seven marine turtle species, then come up for air and watch as blue-footed boobies alight on white rock outcroppings.
A four-hour sail around the islands is just $65, and snorkeling is just $70, a bargain when you consider all you’ll see in this one body of water. Knowing that you’re getting an education and protecting the environment makes this deal all the sweeter.