Image: Katie Carey


Boat the Haida Gwaii

Where You Go

What used to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed in 2009 after the Haida First Nation tribe. The mossy, rugged archipelago of 150 islands is north of Vancouver Island, and about half are designated as national parkland.

What You Do

Since the park islands have no roads, arrange to hop a kayak, boat, or floatplane from the central town of Queen Charlotte—itself a flight or ferry ride from mainland BC. The islands teem with so much wildlife (puffins, black bears, sea lions, bald eagles) that they’ve been called the Canadian Galapagos. Hidden among the rocky coast and coves is SGang Gwaay llnagaay, an abandoned village site where nature is slowly reclaiming 32 memorial and mortuary poles carved into cedar logs (you might mistakenly call them totem poles). A popular hot springs was blocked underground during a 2012 earthquake but shows signs of burbling to the surface again.

How You Change

The Haida have an unprecedented relationship with the Canadian government, running the national park as partners. For the first time, a tribe that lives off the land has a say in how the federal government protects it. Author John Vaillant, who delved into the island culture for his 2005 best seller The Golden Spruce, calls it “what the future of conquered--indigenous relations could look like.” 

Though the water route is the most spectacular aspect of the island chain, local carvers work in Skidegate’s Haida Heritage Centre just down the road from the central hub of Queen Charlotte. But for every handmade canoe on display inside, there’s an equally stunning carved pole in someone’s front yard in Skidegate. Unique accommodations dot the populated isles, like a floating house or a hotel modeled after a longhouse—all rentable.

It’s possible to be invited to a potlatch or pole-raising ceremony, but there’s no official schedule—you have to make friends, be humble, and be in the right place at the right time. The remote islands are a hard-won paradise for anyone who craves authenticity and has hope for the historically ill-treated native tribes of North America.


Work as a Lighthouse Keeper

Where You Go

The New Dungeness Lighthouse in Sequim is at the tip of five-mile-long Dungeness Spit. Volunteer keepers man the lighthouse continuously and stay in the three-bedroom keepers quarters built in 1904.

The New Dungeness Lighthouse in Sequim.

Image: Damon Edwards


What You Do

A week of keeper duties means actual work: polishing the brass, raising and lowering the flag, and leading tours up the 74 steps to the light tower. The Coast Guard automated the lighthouse in 1994, after 137 years of service, and a volunteer crew of keepers has maintained the building every single day since.

“It’s a vacation on one of the premier spots in the United States.” —Chad Kaiser, New Dungeness Light Station Association general manager and occasional keeper


Image: Chad Kaiser

How You Change

When was the last time your labor was simple, crucial, and rewarding? Lighthouse keeping as a profession has mostly gone extinct, but a week at New Dungeness is a unique peek at the effort required to keep the outposts sturdy. No fewer than four volunteers labor at any given time, and the workload doesn’t even include lighting-the-light duties (that part is handled by the Coast Guard, so you won’t have a shipwreck on your conscience). 

Much of the spit, which unfurls into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is closed to humans. A week as a keeper is a rare chance to live inside a wildlife refuge among shorebirds and eelgrass beds, and snowy Mount Baker looms across the sound when the air is clear and cold. Those 74 steps will keep you in shape, plus it’s a chance to connect with fellow keepers and curious visitors far from shore. Give back while you hang with the herons, and for once you can be the one leading, not taking the tour.


Hike the Pacific Crest Trail 

“One of the great things about the Washington section of the trail is that in the north,  there’s no cell service anywhere. Today when we’re always tethered to our cell phones and to our email and everything else, it may be particularly valuable and important to really truly escape.”

    —Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist


Where You Go

Two thousand six hundred fifty miles by foot from Canada to Mexico on a series of hiking trails along the Cascades and Sierra Nevadas; most thru-hikers start in the spring in San Diego and take five months.

What You Do

On the first day, you hike a lot. Day two: Hike some more. Repeat as necessary until you reach Canada. Stop to pick up food packages you’ve sent yourself through general delivery or spend a rare night on a real, blessed mattress.


How You Change

Prolonged nature encounters have a way of giving you perspective, and the trail throws everything at the thru-hiker: glaciers and snowfields, deserts and volcanoes, bears and mice. Some train for months to get in shape, but thru-hikers wrestle most with the mental challenges of isolation, danger, and boredom. Hikers speak of the social perks of the trail, meeting and remeeting people with the same crazy goal but encountering their own version of the wilderness. If you make it the whole way, you can register in the PCT Association’s 2,600-miler list with a trail nickname like the Hoff or Rock Kicker.

Don’t have five free months in a row? Hike the PCT in sections, like New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, who’s attacking the entire trail in weeklong sections to bond with his daughter. “There’s something nice about going to new parts of the trail and having a target, even if it’s a somewhat unreasonable one,” he says.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild and portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in this winter’s movie version, solo trekked the PCT to heal from her mother’s death and a heroin addiction—though, ahem, she skipped the Washington part of the trail. Strayed’s most useful epiphany: No matter how long you hike, there’s still an endless amount to go.


Volunteer with the Quileute

Where You Go

The Olympic Peninsula town of La Push is located on the Washington coast about 15 miles west of Forks.

What You Do

You spend a week or so volunteering on projects run by the Quileute Tribe while staying in communal lodgings in the Akalat Center in La Push and attending tribal events.

Image: Jerry Sanchez

How You Change

Don’t think of this as swooping in to help a poor, beleaguered community; the Quileute have grown their tourism industry to include the central Peninsula’s poshest hotel, Quileute Oceanside Resort, and got a major boost from Twilight-related tourism. Instead the experience is about working alongside locals on unique community issues, all while staying in a beautiful oceanfront town that’s home to about half of the 750-member Quileute tribe.

The volunteer weeks, scheduled a few times a year through the Minnesota-based Global Citizens Network, sometimes include manual work or building repair. But labor can also involve preserving the Quileute language by recording village elders or beach cleanup, a crucial task on land that’s subject to rising water levels and erosion. Global warming isn’t theoretical here. 

By far, the volunteer week’s biggest draw is the social aspect; tribal families invite visitors to home-cooked dinners and drumming circles. The instruction from Global Citizens, which runs similar programs in India, Nepal, and Peru: “Learn from the people; just talk.” The active vacation pulls Washington’s native history out of the history book and into vibrant, modern relief.


Meditate at Cloud Mountain

Where You Go

The retreat center at Cloud Mountain in Castle Rock is a series of low-slung wooden buildings that sit between forest, timber company land, and the Cowlitz River in south-western Washington.

Yogi jeguiy

What You Do

Be very, very quiet. A variety of themed retreats are held at the center every year, mostly meditative in nature and mostly run by Western teachers. They generally follow the Buddhist tradition of Theravada, and silence is crucial to almost every activity.

How You Change

Simple, shared vegetarian meals and classes are the only breaks between meditation and long periods of quiet referred to as noble silence—allowing you to look inward. 

Black-tailed deer wander the 15 acres of forest and trails that encircle Cloud Mountain, itself a small commune of residences, gardens, and a meditation hall. Expect no cell service or Wi-Fi—no temptations. Experienced retreatants come back for sessions lasting from a weekend to as long as 27 days.

Few other vacations specifically ask for respect and sincerity, but the rewards are relief and a sense of perspective. But making that last back in the real world takes work, says Santikaro (that’s his full name), who teaches at Cloud Mountain and sees newcomers expect enlightenment on their first go-round: “It can be powerful, but it’s not a panacea.” 


Plus: Take the ferry to Alaska


Read about the dream, the reality, and one very long boat trip to the last frontier.