Hike, Ski, Surf, Kayak, and More While Studying in the US

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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on August 10, 2023

If you love the outdoors, you will want to explore these four US universities that give you so many ways to get outside and play.

A group of hikers walk up a mountain at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington

Getting outdoors is not only fun, it has proven physical and mental health benefits. According to Harvard Medical School experts, there are many great reasons to spend time outside, including increased vitamin D (which may protect against depression, cancer, and more), improved concentration, and elevated happiness. Additionally, outdoor activities like hiking, going out for a bike ride or jog, or even getting in the water to surf or snorkel can be great ways to meet new friends. Shared experiences can form powerful social bonds that are also linked to improved mental health. 

Many Shorelight universities offer opportunities for outdoor recreation and adventure, often right on campus. Whether you want to take part in a favorite outdoor activity or try something for the first time, the following schools are great places to explore your outdoorsy side. 

Surf, Snorkel, and Kayak at Florida International University 

Florida is called the Sunshine State for a reason: It averages 237 days of sunshine each year. In Miami, that number jumps to 248 days each year. Studying at Florida International University not only gives you access to lots of sun, you also are just 30 minutes away from long stretches of sand on Miami’s famous beaches.

One of Miami’s most well-known beaches is South Beach. South Beach is the best spot to try surfing. There are not a ton of waves in Miami for much of the year, but when there are swells, South Beach is the place to experience the thrill of catching a wave. Since the waves are not generally large, it is a great spot to learn how to surf for the first time.

You can also rent kayaks and paddle to several nearby islands, including Fisher Island and Flagler Memorial Island. The waters of Biscayne Bay make it calmer for kayaking or canoeing than the open water.

Biscayne National Park is another place to get outside and explore. With 95% of the park underwater, it is best for those who want to snorkel or scuba dive to catch a glimpse of the protected species in the park, including manatee and sea turtles. The park also protects the only living coral barrier reef in the United States.

Check out the park’s Maritime Heritage Trail, which leads snorkelers through shipwrecks; kayakers and canoers can paddle through the surrounding mangroves. The park also protects several islands like Elliot Key, once home to pineapple plantations.

 Another easy day trip from FIU is Everglades National Park. The largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, the Everglades is home to manatees, crocodiles, and panther. You can kayak and canoe through various water trails, or hike and bike on trails throughout the park.

If you have never kayaked before, FIU Outdoor Adventure Recreation is a great first stop. You can learn the basics of kayaking on several local waterways, including Oleta State Park. You can even experience kayaking at night under the moon and stars.

Explore Rivers, Lakes, and Trails at Gonzaga University  

Located in Spokane in eastern Washington, Gonzaga University gives you access to both land and water-based activities. Gonzaga Outdoors, a student life organization, offers both trips and gear rentals for those who want to explore the area on their own. (Students can sign up for the email list to find out about outdoor trips, announced weekly.) 

On land, there are several areas that are great for rock climbing. Routes like Post Falls includes opportunities for a range of climbers. Gonzaga Outdoors will rent equipment, including pads and shoes.

You can also rent gear, such as kayaks, wetsuits, snowshoes, snowboards, and more. Plus, Gonzaga Outdoors will help with maps and guidebooks so you can plan your own adventure. Spokane offers a river shuttle to transport you and your kayak so you can paddle the Spokane River.

Popular hikes in the area include Scotchman’s Peak, a steep, seven-mile hike that leads to the highest point in the county. You may encounter mountain goats, as well as snow, which is common on the peak into summer months. 

The Bowl and Pitcher hike, a shorter four-mile loop, takes you over the Spokane River on a swinging bridge. Gonzaga Outdoors also rents backpacking equipment in case you want to spend the night camping in the great outdoors.

During the winter, you will find opportunities for downhill and cross-country skiing. But you will also find fat bike trails that are groomed in winter. (Fat bikes essentially have wider tires so you can navigate snow-filled paths.)

Additionally, Gonzaga Outdoors rents mountain bikes so you can navigate mountain paths in the warmer months. You can also rent a commuter bike for the entire year to get to and from campus, work, and home. 

Ski and Surf in the Same Day at University of the Pacific 

The University of the Pacific is located in the perfect spot for those who love both the ocean and the mountains. The campus is located about one-and-a-half hours from Pacifica, California beaches. Pacifica State Beach is one of the best spots to learn how to surf, while Rockaway Beach is ideal once you are more comfortable on the water. Its steady surf makes it a popular spot for surfing in the area.

For those more comfortable on land, Pacific is located about two hours from Yosemite National Park and two-and-a-half hours to Lake Tahoe.

Yosemite allows you to hike, camp, mountain bike, and more in one of the country’s most dramatic landscapes. From Yosemite Valley, you can access several day hikes, varying from short, half-mile loops to the famous 14-mile Half Dome trail. 

Half Dome is an icon of Yosemite, towering above the valley. The 10- to 12-hour hike offers sweeping panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but the last 400 feet to the summit involves climbing metal cables — without rock climbing equipment. The Baun Fitness Center at Pacific is the perfect spot to train for your hikes, and even includes a 36-foot indoor rock tower.

Lake Tahoe, which spans California and Nevada, is the spot to go for mountain biking. With hundreds of back-country trails and paved paths, you can find the route that fits your skill. The lake also offers several hike-in beach spots during the summer and boasts the largest concentration of skiing on the entire North American continent. North Lake Tahoe has 12 ski resorts for skiing or snowboarding and also has cross-country skiing trails.

Closer to the Pacific campus, you will find tons of parks, like Oak Grove Regional Park, which has a 10-acre lake, two short nature trails, and a disc golf course.

Hike the Mountains at the University of Utah 

The University of Utah, located in Salt Lake City at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, gives you access to all mountain-related activities in your backyard. Campus Recreation Services offers group trips and equipment rentals, so you can get outside and meet new friends or plan your own trip. 

Past trips include visits to Moab, an outdoor haven and gateway to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Moab and its red rock canyons and numerous trails are perfect for mountain biking as well as hiking. 

Other trips include rock climbing, cross-country skiing and staying in yurts, snowshoe days, river trips, yoga retreats, and backpacking in Escalante, famed for beautiful remote canyon hikes, particularly within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It’s adventure with safety: You are able to develop your outdoor skills alongside an experienced trip leader.

For those who want to organize their own trips, gear is available for rent from Campus Recreation Services and includes everything: rafts, kayaks, skis, snowboards, outerwear, climbing gear, mountain bikes, camping stoves, tents, sleeping bags, and more. So, if you do not travel to campus with the right gear for the activities you want to participate in, you can easily rent everything you need.

Salt Lake touts the ability to ski in the morning and golf in the afternoon. In America’s saltiest lake, it’s easy to float without having to do much swimming. Head to Antelope Island State Park for clean beaches and freshwater showers to rinse after a dip.

Almost 42% of Utah is made up of public lands, including five national parks, nine national monuments, 44 state parks, and additional national forest and recreation areas. The hardest part during your four years will be finding the time to explore it all!

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