Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 30 Cities
Take a short drive to a different world.
One thing the pandemic has taught us—beyond how much we hate Zoom—is that nature is not a luxury. It is essential for human survival. And while many of us city folk have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors, you don’t have to commit to some epic cross-country camping trip just to get some fresh air.
With that in mind, we scoured the country for the best outdoor getaways—national parks, monuments, forests, state parks, and the like—to find 12 iconic destinations within easy driving distance of 30 US cities. Whether you’re an experienced camper or a devout Airbnb user, hardcore hiker or an amateaur stargaze-by-the-fire type, these spots offer natural beauty and invigorating adventure in spades. Now hit the road already.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Close to: San Diego (87 miles); Los Angeles (151 miles); Phoenix (372 miles)
This sprawling 600,000-acre state park between San Diego and Palm Springs has appeared in fewer movies than spotlight-hogging Joshua Tree National Park, but manages equal levels of awe. While known for its trippy metal sculptures of dinosaurs and other strange creatures, the park has so much more to offer than a cool Instagram backdrop. Observe desert bighorn sheep, scour the landscape for fossils, and, when you get tired, just bust out the tent and sleep wherever you like.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: There’s more than meets the eye in the funky little town of Borrego Springs. La Casa Del Zorro resort is an A-plus gem complete with CBD massages and some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars just steps outside its doors.
Coolest pit stop: Slab City—an off-the-grid community flush with eccentric desert art and even more eccentric characters—always makes for an interesting stopover. Be sure to check out man-made Salvation Mountain and wander the eerily beautiful Bombay Beach on the shores of the Salton Sea while you’re here.
Sierra National Forest
Close to: San Francisco (198 miles); Reno (263 miles)
One of America’s finest national forests features a gargantuan 1.3 million acres of mountain-rimmed alpine lakes, set amidst vast wilderness areas named after titans of the outdoors such as John Muir and Ansel Adams (so you know you’ll be getting some good photos, at least). Bask in the solitude at Lake of the Lone Indian, ride horseback through some 847 miles of trails, and reel in some pescetarian beauties at Bass Lake before settling under the stars for the night.
Where to stay if you’re not camping:China Peak Mountain Resort offers cozy lodge rooms at an old-school ski resort on a beautiful lake about 30 miles away.
Coolest pit stop: You’ll find a vast array of breweries, wineries, restaurants, and side quests in Gold Country, including a little hidden gem popular with the backpacking crowd known as Yosemite National Park.
North Cascades National Park
Close to: Seattle (107 miles); Vancouver (125 miles); Portland (281 miles)
How the hell this spot deep in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest remains so under the radar we’ll never know, but one of America’s most underrated national parks is a must for roadtrippers in the region (or beyond). In addition to its expansive glacial system and true wilderness feel, expect to be blown away by jaw-dropping mountain peaks like Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan at near every turn. Alpine climbing is big around these parts, but you’ll do fine just wandering the trails marveling at the scenery.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: Find an amazing Airbnb near North Cascades National Park.
Coolest pit stop: Not only is the equally stunning Lake Chelan National Recreation Area adjacent to the national park, it’s also home to one of America’s greatest lake towns, which is also a stellar wine destination.
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Rocky Mountain National Park
Close to: Denver (66 miles); Colorado Springs (134 miles)
Rarely do you get this much stunning scenery so close to a major metro area. This sky-high national park is pretty much the ultimate day trip from Denver. Beware of large crowds on weekends and some park area closures due to recent wildfires, but wander off the beaten path a bit (AKA Bear Lake Road) and bask in the full experience on easy hiking trails like the Upper Beaver Meadows Trail. You can also go more hardcore and climb the 14,259-foot Longs Peak, or cruise the highest continuous paved road in the US along Trail Ridge Road.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: The park’s picturesque gateway town of Estes Park is packed with options from the famous historic Stanley Hotel (for fans of The Shining) to lesser-known little gems like The Inn on Fall River and of course, Airbnb.
Coolest pit stop: The funky hippie-spirited town of Boulder is the ideal halfway point between Denver and Estes Park. Wander downtown’s pedestrian Pearl Street Mall, do some tubing down Boulder Creek, and toss around the disc while staring at the Flatirons in Chautauqua Park. You’ll immediately become transfixed and never want to leave.
Coconino National Forest
Close to: Phoenix (134 miles); Las Vegas (267 miles)
This unsung 1.8-million-acre national forest has a little bit of everything for the budding outdoor enthusiast. From mountains like the famous San Francisco Peaks (yes, there are mountains in Arizona) and the Grand Canyon-esque Oak Creek Canyon to the magnificent Zion-like desert landscapes of Red Rock Crossing and Arizona’s largest natural lake (Mormon Lake), one thing you won’t be here is bored. Pack some extra energy if you wanna see it all.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: Hotel Monte Vista is a cool old Route 66 motel in nearby Flagstaff, full of history and plenty of famous past guests, including ghosts. Or find an amazing Airbnb near Coconino.
Coolest pit stop:Flagstaff brings an unexpectedly wintery vibe to challenge your notions of what Arizona is all about. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got Route 66 running just north of the park, as well as the nearby freakishly beautiful artsy paradise of Sedona. This road trip basically plans itself.
Pisgah National Forest
Close to: Charlotte (126 miles); Atlanta (173 miles)
While the iconic Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the foliage-packed Blue Ridge Parkway are perhaps the most-well known nature retreats around these parts, the lesser-visited Pisgah National Forest outside Asheville remains content to fly under the radar. Explore the forest for top-tier wildflower-dotted mountain landscapes, verdant rolling hills, and serene waterfalls in addition to vibrant swimming holes and rushing whitewater.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: The ultra-chic Inn on Biltmore Estate—famously set on George Vanderbilt’s palatial 19th-century mansion estate overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains—is one of those once-in-a-lifetime stays. Since you’re here, might as well go big.
Coolest pit stop: The national forest is only 30 minutes outside Asheville, so there’s no reason not to visit one of America’s best mountain towns. When you’re done with all the craft beer-ing there, nearby Chimney Rock State Park makes another excellent diversion for heart-stirring, star-spangled mountain vistas.
Shenandoah National Park
Close to: Washington DC (70 miles); Baltimore (108 miles); Pittsburg (214 miles)
While most well known for its sensational displays of fall foliage, this nature-packed park just outside DC makes for one helluva urban escape any time of year. The 105-mile Skyline Drive running the length of the park is Shenandoah’s most famous asset, but the park also boasts nearly 200,000 acres of backcountry camping and numerous waterfalls, views of which you’ll share with to black bears, red-tailed hawks, and the full slate of charming wildlife forest creatures.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: The legendary in-park Skyland Resort is a must for any first-time visitor looking to lock down sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley perched from the highest point on Skyline Drive.
Coolest pit stop: It’s a shame that Charlottesville has become associated with that bullshit 2017 white supremacy rally, because it really is one of the most beautiful towns in America—and it’s just 37 miles from Shenandoah. Home to the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s home of Monticello, and the picture-perfect pedestrian Historic Downtown Mall, C-ville’s more than worthy of a pit stop.
Close to: Boston (299 miles); New York City (313 miles)
Okay, maybe this park isn’t exactly “close” to NYC and Boston, but it’s worth the extra effort. Clocking in at a mind-boggling 6.1 million acres—more than twice the size of Yellowstone— Adirondack Park’s nearly endless list of attractions includes more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 miles of rivers, and 200,000 acres of forest. Explore iconic mountain towns like Lake Placid, scale some mountains, do some canoeing, or just kick back and relax: You’ve heard of Adirondack chairs, right?
Where to stay if you’re not camping: With more than 100 towns and villages scattered within the boundaries of Adirondack Park, you won’t have to work too hard to find an Airbnb. And if you’re looking to stay on the water (because of course you’re looking to stay on the water), it’s hard to beat the “eco-lux” Saranac Waterfront Lodge.
Coolest pit stop:Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont makes for a nice diversion on the route from Boston or NYC. Serious question: Has there ever been a bad time to visit Vermont?
Brown County State Park
Close to: Indianapolis (45 miles); Louisville (85 miles); Cincinnati (108 miles)
Boring nomenclature aside, this expansive state park in Indiana has been called the “Little Smokies” due to its resemblance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’re not sure we totally buy that, but we’re on board with the fact that this outdoor oasis strategically placed within a two-hour drive of three mid-sized Midwestern cities makes an ideal road trip destination for those looking to clear their heads and get lost in some nature. It may not be the most beautiful state park in America, but it might be one of its most essential.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: There’s something about the Midwest that calls for a romantic stay in a cute little B&B. Cover all those bases with a slightly upscale flair at the nearly flawless Grant Street Inn in nearby Bloomington, Indiana.
Coolest pit stop: The park is just 30 minutes east of the endlessly cool (and strangely spiritual) college town of Bloomington, home to a range of attractions from Indiana University to the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. If ever there was a time to pick up meditation, this is it.
Kettle Moraine State Forest
Close to: Milwaukee (45 miles); Chicago (133 miles)
Somewhere between a state park and a national forest, this nature retreat provides all the essentials when it comes to some relaxing time spent outdoors. In addition to a wealth of hiking, off-road, single-track, snowmobile, and equestrian trails, the forest is also home to the gorgeous 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive cutting its way through southeastern Wisconsin. And if you feel like hiking from here to “The Cape Cod of the Midwest” in Door County, you can do that too along portions of Wisconsin's 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail that winds through the forest.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: If you’re in the mood to splurge on a fancy-pants five-star resort with world-class spa and golf facilities, there are worse ways to blow a thick wad of cash than a few nights at The American Club in the nearby town of Kohler.
Coolest pit stop: Elkhart Lake is a classic Wisconsin lake town that flies under the radar of more famous area resorts like Lake Geneva, but still more than gets the job done when it comes to chill small-town relaxation.
Cayo Costa State Park
Close to: Tampa (157 miles); Miami (168 miles); Orlando (186 miles)
One of America’s best state parks is a small island oasis perched off the coast of vacation paradise, Sanibel Island. Only accessible by boat (or helicopter if you’re really fancy), the park is pretty much nothing but a long stretch of undeveloped and unoccupied pristine white sand beach. Which is kind of the point. There’s also trippy tree skeletons to wander through in addition to on-site camping, but we doubt you’ll be able to pull yourself up off the beach.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: A dolphin-filled boat ride away over on Sanibel, South Seas Island Resort offers all you need for a classic Florida vacation. Assuming your vacation involves golf cart rentals and two miles of beach... which of course it does, because you’re in Florida.
Coolest pit stop: There’s a reason Sanibel is one of the top destinations in the state. It’s Florida’s “anti-Florida.”
Colorado Bend State Park
Close to: Austin (99 miles); San Antonio (149 miles); Dallas (189 miles); Houston (251 miles)
Within easy driving distance of the four largest cities in Texas, this ruggedly beautiful landscape running along the Colorado River offers a diverse array of treats from fishing to cave exploration, with top attractions including the 70-foot Gorman Falls and the swimming hole at Spicewood Springs. You may not have the place totally to yourself, but venture off the beaten path and you’ll find plenty of peace and quiet nestled in a tent by the river under the stars. Alternatively, stargazers should head an hour south to the mystical dome-shaped Enchanted Rock, designated a Dark Sky Park that welcomes casual campers for star parties and night hikes.
Where to stay if you’re not camping: Find an amazing Airbnb near Gorman Falls.
Coolest pit stop: The Bend General Store just outside the park is a Texas institution. Stop in for everything you need before your trip, and a few things you don’t.