When you hear the term ecotourism, what comes to mind? Walking in Darwin’s footsteps in the Galapagos Islands? Exploring the coral reefs of Palau? Enjoying a rainforest canopy walk in Costa Rica? Greeting the dawn from the steps of Machu Picchu? According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
What you may not know is that ecotourism doesn’t require traveling to exotic, far-flung locales. In fact, there are exciting ecotourism destinations right here in the U.S! Here are some of our favorites:
Florida Keys National Marine Wildlife Sanctuary, Florida
The Sanctuary is not just one location, but is spread across 15 different areas in the Keys, covering 2,900 square miles of water. The mission of the Sanctuary is to protect large, contiguous, diverse, and interconnected habitats that provide natural spawning, nursery, and permanent residence areas for the replenishment and genetic protection of marine life, and protect and preserve all habitats and species. That’s a worthy goal, and as it turns out, it’s also a transformative, immersive experience you’ll never forget. Explore America’s only coral barrier reef; discover the plants, animals, and sea life that call the 1,700 islands of the Keys home; even dive the mysterious shipwrecks that dot the ocean floor. Plus, you can do all that while enjoying the pleasures of the Florida Keys.
Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail, Virginia
Another ecotourism destination that encompasses more than one location, the VBWT is made up of 65 trail loops containing many of the state’s best birding and wildlife viewing sites. Take only pictures and leave only memories while you enjoy 400 species of birds, 150 species of mammals, 150 species of amphibians and reptiles, 250 species of fish, and countless butterflies, dragonflies, and more. Do you prefer the black bears of the Appalachian Mountains, or are bottlenose dolphins more your speed? The VBWT includes the mountain, piedmont, and coastal regions of the state. Ready to get your hands dirty? Join in one of the many ongoing conservation projects. The beauty of the VBWT is that you can choose where to stay based on what region you’re interested in exploring.
Yes, California. Just about the entire state. California is ground zero for conservation and sustainable tourism in the U.S. From Yosemite National Park to Joshua Tree National Park, from the John Muir National Historic Site to the bioluminescence of Tomales Bay on the Pacific Ocean, California offers unparalleled opportunities to enjoy the heart-stopping beauty and natural wonders of the state, while also helping the environment. And because it’s California, there are eco-friendly, sustainability-focused hotels and other accommodations throughout the state to make your vacation even greener.
Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
14,411 foot Mount Rainier is a glacier-capped, active volcano that’s a haven for rock climbers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. There are endless hiking trails, waterfalls, and lakes for kayaking, fishing, and… well… kayak fishing. Catch the Mount Rainier Gondola to the peak of Crystal Mountain for a truly breathtaking view, then grab a meal at the Summit House Restaurant while you’re there. Make nearby Seattle your home base. It’s one of the greenest, most sustainable cities in the country, and the coffee, locally brewed beer, and stellar seafood aren’t so bad, either.
Indigenous Roots LLC, Colorado
The mission of Indigenous Roots LLC is simple yet profound—to present, preserve, and perpetuate the history and cultural heritage of Native Americans in a way that promotes accuracy, sensitivity, and respect. Spend four days in a small village, sleeping in a tipi, fully immersed in a living experiment in cultural anthropology. Learn to live with and be a part of the natural world. Authentic activities such as traditional food preparation, games, storytelling, smudging, and much more are all part of the experience. Located in Southern Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, Indigenous Roots LLC is experiential education mixed with sustainability best practices, for ecotourism at its best.
Portland and the Oregon Coast
Portland’s contributions to eco-friendly urban planning have been a blueprint for other cities to follow. Halfway between the Pacific Coast and the Cascade Mountains, Portland is very much an outdoor-focused place, with skiing, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, skating/skateboarding, surfing, fishing, and miles of walking and bicycle paths. The Oregon coast is a stunning, truly wild place, and perfect if you’re looking for a destination where environmentally responsible tourism is of paramount importance. All that, and Voodoo Doughnuts.
Alaska and Hawaii
They may not be a part of the continental U.S., but Alaska and Hawaii have an outsized importance in the world of ecotourism. Both states feature world-class scenery—Alaska with its glaciers, icy wilderness, and snow-capped mountains, including Denali Mountain, North America’s highest peak; Hawaii with its black sand beaches, palm trees, active volcanoes, and coral reefs teeming with sea life. Both states are wonderlands of wildlife. Grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, moose, and salmon are just the start in Alaska. The Hawaiian Islands alone contain more than 400 endangered plants and animals. Alaska is home to five Native cultures who offer rich, immersive educational programs. Hawaii offers a plethora of ecotourism experiences that let you walk in the shoes, or sandals, of locals. Finally, both states offer plenty of eco-friendly accommodations.
If you’re planning an eco-friendly getaway, learn about why you should use a travel agent to get the most out of the experience.
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