The Coolest End-of-Summer Things to Do Across America
Memorial Day is but a faint memory. Independence Day came and went. Now, with Labor Day looming, you’re looking at your peak tan lines and your too-many-beers-at-the-beach body and wondering where the hell summer went, exactly. But don’t stop yet. You can curl up in a blanket on the couch every weekend in December, promise.
Until then, we put out the call to writers across America to give us recommendations for one last-hurrah to close the summer out right. They came back with a flash bucket list of Great American Summer activities on four coasts, in huge cities, on horseback, in hot-air balloons, and in places Google Maps will struggle to find. So hop in the car for one final spontaneous road trip and head to the one nearest you, or get inspired to recreate some of this summer magic in your own fair city. Either way, you’ve got a few final weeks of heat and sun to make this summer one for the books. Don’t waste it.
Camp with wild ponies on Maryland’s Assateague IslandFor the best end-of-summer camping on the Eastern seaboard, don’t follow the herd to crowded Ocean City, Maryland. Instead, gallop 10 miles south to the natural wonder of Assateague Island, a Maryland state park and national seashore preserve that’s home to a colony of wild horses. Local legend says these horses’ ancestors were the only survivors of a coastal shipwreck off the Delmarva Peninsula, but the most plausible theory is that these ponies came from 17th-century colonists who brought domesticated horses to the barrier island as a way to avoid fencing laws and livestock taxes. Today, Assateague Island remains a rugged place, untouched by time. And you can’t beat the camping conditions in late-August and September as temperatures cool down.
Just be sure to reserve a campsite in advance. Otherwise this island is great for spur-of-the-moment fun, like crabbing, fishing, kayaking, biking, hiking, or simply chilling out by a beach bonfire. There’s just one golden rule to Assateague Island -- no horse play. You’re not allowed to feed or pet the ponies, because they might bite if spooked. -- Tim Ebner
Dune sled at White Sands National Monument in New MexicoIn southern New Mexico, just outside Alamogordo (where you can stay for the night), you'll be greeted by a stunning sight: giant, snow-white dunes stretch to the horizon at the world's largest gypsum sand dune field. The sand here is light, powdery, and cool to the touch -- making it perfect for kicking off your shoes or flopping out to make a sand angel.
There are heavier memories here: The still-functioning White Sands Missile Range is next-door (you’ll be asked to leave the park during missile tests) and on your way in you'll pass by Trinity Site, where the world's first atomic bomb was detonated. Today, though, just swing by the park’s gift shop to pick up a plastic saucer sled that they’ll wax for maximum speed. Find the highest slope and get your dish on. Go head-first, backwards or standing up. At the end of a long day, you'll see people opening hatchbacks or lying on the roofs of their car to catch the sunset (New Mexico is famous for its fiery evening skies) and to do some stargazing. If you time your visit right, you can even see your shadow at night and catch the shimmering dunes reflecting light on a full-moon hike. -- Hannah Freedman
Eat just-caught seafood on a dock in Martha’s VineyardMost of what everyone seems to think they know about Martha’s Vineyard is either rooted in a preppy clothing brand or incorrect association with Nantucket. The real vibe of the island is more laid-back than either the Cape or that other nearby island. Diversity has long been a part of the picture here, as politicians, actors, artists, doctors, and deckhands mingle as freely as can be.
One of the best places to catch this eclectic scene is Menemsha, a very special part of an already unique place. Besides the stunning physical beauty of the beaches and the landscapes you pass on the drive from the ferry towns of Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, or Vineyard Haven, the working docks there are a still-vibrant representation of a profession that’s changing up and down the East Coast. Long-time visitors of the island and locals all wait in the same lines at seafood shacks like Larsen’s Fish Market for cooked-to-order lobsters, stuffed quahogs, and steamers, served with no frills besides the trays to carry them. The only seating available is on wooden crates right on the dock. No one seems to mind when they have seafood in hand and a sunset over the water. And no matter the vintage of that bottle of BYOB wine, you’re probably going to make at least a friend or two sharing it. -- Zach Mack
Kayak through the Canyon of Skyscrapers on the Chicago RiverChicago doesn’t lack in views from spectacular heights, but to truly experience the awesome, imposing power and joy of this city, you have to go dip below street level: kayaking the Chicago River’s Canyon of Skyscrapers. After significant clean-up efforts in recent years, the waterway Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared the “next recreational frontier” has finally arrived. With the Chicago Riverwalk stretching to central Wolf Point, this season brought several art installations, including a 12-foot-tall deer by Tony Tasset (aptly named “Deer”) and a floating museum art barge that docks at various points along the river to present exhibitions, screenings, and other performances.
Urban Kayaks, with several locations along the riverwalk, offers guided tours, rentals, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer, a fireworks float that puts you under the evening extravaganza at Navy Pier, where the river meets Lake Michigan. The riverwalk also features shops and restaurants including a satellite City Winery, where you can dock and enjoy a tasting while listening to live music. For the more ambitious, a 3.5-mile paddle south towards Chinatown will place you at Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp, one of the best seafood restaurants in Chicago. -- Josh Mellin
Watch highliners walk across mountain chasms in YosemiteYou’re 10,000 feet above sea level, at Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California. The ruby sun is about to kiss the horizon. The wind is blowing; the air is warm. El Capitan gleams in the background. Just looking over the railing is enough to make your stomach drop.
Yosemite attracts all sorts: boulderers, hikers, runners, cyclists, rock-climbers, and rappellers. Kevin Weaver, a highliner, is about to walk across the two peaks at Taft Point, a spot frequented by those who seek the thrill of extreme heights. He’s on a line he could only take two steps on just a year ago. He’s with his crew of photographers and this time he completes it. Twice.
Watching someone walk a line over a chasm -- something I wouldn’t dare do even 10 feet above sea level -- is one of those things you have to experience to believe. Everything happens in slow motion. You can hear every deep breath. See every tremble. Feel every blow of wind. He looks straight ahead. Never down. It’s over in a few minutes but it feels like a lifetime. And then they pack up. No big deal. Next year, maybe it’s you on that line. -- Shylie Rimmer
Ogle the Milky Way at Northern Michigan’s dark sky parkTake your end-of-summer stargazing game to sci-fi-novel status. Trek out to the northwest tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula -- basically, the point where three Great Lakes converge -- and follow the long, wooded trail all the way out to your own private spot on the property’s 2-plus miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan beach. First, scope for white-tailed deer, osprey, coyotes, eagles, and the random black bear. Coast clear? OK, now, look up. Headlands is among only a handful of dark-sky parks in the world, meaning it receives minimal light pollution, and Emmet County and the International Dark Sky Association try to keep things that way.
If you’ve never seen night this black, you owe it to yourself to take a glimpse. Thousands of stars, no bigger than flecks of glitter, seem so close you could stick out your tongue and lick them. Statistically, September’s one of the prime times to peep the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, but put this on your mental map year-round: Headlands is open 24/7, 365 days a year. -- Andrea Kasprzak
Ride horses through the Wyoming frontierIt doesn’t get much more ’Merican than the wide-open West, complete with its majestic mountain backdrop straight out of an Annie Proulx story. Whether you’re looking for a horseback escapade or a poetically scenic respite, put your “out of office” up for the week, and get you to a dude ranch.
You’ll find them around Texas, Colorado, Arizona -- “dude” ranches (aka, guest vacation ranches) are deeply rooted with history, hospitality, and of course, horses. The CM Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming, for example, has been around since 1927 and offers the all-inclusive Western experience: trail rides, rustic cabin lodging, fishing and pack trips, hiking and swimming in glacial lakes, top-notch family dining (BYOB), and real-life cowboys crooning Willie Nelson by the campfire.
Look, it won’t be the cheapest sojourn (a week will likely run you over a grand), but you can’t put a price on loping through the Badlands and getting up close to a herd of bighorn sheep, or making bourbon-tinted half-memories while stargazing on the porch with new comrades. Plus, dude-ranching is the perfect “escape” that forces you (in a good way!) to disconnect and be adventurous. Good luck finding a cell tower in the Shoshone National Forest. That Instagram post of you donning a Stetson and cheesing with your steed will have to wait until you touch down at JFK. -- Brooke Sager
Get foggy in San Francisco’s Dolores Park with a street cocktailWest Coast double IPAs got you bitter? If you’re looking to get buck-wild in the city by the bay, skip the paper-bagged tall boy and reach for a Cutty Bang. Look in the back of a corner store’s fridge for a Ziploc-bagged pack of airplane-sized bottles of liquor and mixers. The variety alone is worth a look -- aside from the eponymous Cutty Bang (Seagram's, Tanqueray, Bacardi Limon, and pineapple juice), enterprising shops custom-pack shelf after shelf of What It Dos, No Panties, Slow Down Girls, Liquid Viagras, and other back-alley brews sporting names drawn largely from the bay’s hip-hop lexicon. Newcomers might balk at paying $10 to $15, but trust us when we say that this is a one-and-done kind of situation.
Though the complimentary styrofoam cup of ice has been more or less phased out (SF lawmakers hate styrofoam even more than public intoxication), those in the know can still pick up a delicious Gorilla Milk if they know where to go. So what’s your best option when you’re finna get hyphy? You could head down to Charlie’s Pharmacy in the Fillmore or Bayview Liquors at 3rd and Newcomb, but we recommend you swing by Mr Liquor (aka M&C Market) on Valencia Street in the Mission and take your Cutty to Dolores Park, pour it up, and enjoy that California sun. -- Conor O’Rourke
Mountain bike in Utah’s Goblin ValleyDitch the crowds and looky-loos that jam the roads of Utah’s most beloved National Parks and venture 100 miles outside of Moab to a largely overlooked desert wonderland. Out here, with no one else around, you’ll be wondering if you’ve landed on the surface of Mars. The strange and eerily shaped configurations that give this state park its name, lovingly referred to as Goblins, come in all shapes and sizes. Notice them at the main entrance, like knights defending their fortress, and throughout the valley where hundreds stand side by side like gnomes of an army. Set against the vacuous (and terrifyingly bleak) landscape, they’ll be a welcome sight.
After gawking at the sandstone formations, you’ll be itching to explore. Hit the park’s dedicated biking trail system and pop wheelies around one of five loops, like the aptly named “Dark Side of the Moon,” that cross classic Utah buttes and into slot canyons. A nine-hole disc golf course will keep your Frisbee handicap sharp, and if you score a reservation for one of the park’s yurts, kick back in comfort with some AC and a private viewing deck. Come nighttime, you’ll have a prime view of one of the darkest skies in America that lets you see deep into the Milky Way. -- Ryan MacDonald
Go unabashedly shell-mad on Florida’s southwest coastSay what you want about Florida. Whale suicides, sinkholes, and drug-induced cannibalistic feasting aside, the state does have its charms. If it’s good enough for aging New Yorkers, it must be good enough for us mere mortals, right?
But skip Miami and Palm Beach; fancy dance parties and overcrowded sand is so overrated. Embrace the real bourgeois, instead. Ride off into the sunset, final destination: Sanibel and Captiva, the natural scoop of islands where the ocean loves to plop seashells galore. Get ready to bend at the hips and senior shuffle your way down a beach (a phenomenon called the Sanibel Stoop). Embrace the ridiculousness of it.
Locals take the tradition seriously, so much so they have a shell factory, a Shellove bug, a shell festival on National Seashell Day (yes, it’s a thing), a shell museum, shelling tours, and even a resident shell expert. It all sounds very middle-aged suburban-y. But trust us: Once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s not a bad addiction to have. Shell of a lot better than bath salts. -- Michelle Rae Uy
Take a brewery-crawl road trip through beautiful MontanaThe Treasure State is more than just Brad Pitt fly-fishing. It’s also loaded with great beer, and a long weekend is plenty of time for you and a designated driver to stop by half a dozen or more of Big Sky Country's best breweries. Start in Bozeman, home to eight (or more) breweries and three ski areas within 60 miles. A Gallatin Pale from Bozeman Brewing Company will nicely wash down the bison steak from Ted's Montana Grill. From there, hit the capital, Helena, stopping at Lewis and Clark Brewing Co. for a mild yet memorable Back Country Scottish ale on your way to East Glacier, the bedroom for one of America’s finest warm-weather National Parks.
Wake early and drive the gorgeous Going-to-the-Sun Road through Glacier National Park and over the Continental Divide on your way to Whitefish, another ski town, where Great Northern Brewing Company serves its Going to the Sun IPA. Head south through Kalispell -- it has breweries, too -- and into Big Fork. End your day at Flathead Lake Brewing Co. and watch the sun set over the largest freshwater lake in the lower 48 west of the Mississippi, an elk bratwurst in one hand and a Bufflehead Brown ale in the other. It’s a quintessential Montanan experience. -- John Maher
Zip down a Rocky Mountain slope in a Colorado alpine coasterYes, most of Vail thinks it’s too good for you. The exception: the Forest Flyer Mountain Coaster, your own personal summer sled. Part of Vail Mountain’s Epic Discovery adventure park, this mini-roller coaster winds through the alpine-covered peaks and around hairpin turns, following the natural landscape. The car careens more than 3,400 feet down the mountain, showcasing some of the best views of the snow-capped Gore Range without ever touching the ground. That flying feeling will continue as an automatic belt pulls you back up for a leisurely ascent. You’ll see deer and marmots peek out of the mountainside wildflowers, wondering why humans shriek so loudly in the middle of the their lunch.
If whizzing down a mountain at 35 mph isn’t your idea of a good time, take a leisurely 8-minute gondola ride up Vail Mountain to Bistro Fourteen (no cars allowed), only steps away from the Forest Flyer. Enjoy a bison cheese steak or Colorado lamb reuben with a local brew while gazing out on the 14,000-foot-tall Mount of the Holy Cross. Sunshine or snow, you’ll never forget the view. -- Nicole Schuman
Hop the hot springs along California’s Highway 395After day hiking the Eastern Sierras or skiing the slopes of Mammoth, you may need more than a few cold ones to help ease the pain in your achy-breaky back. You’d do right to find a nice hot cauldron of warm water. California has you covered.
Travertine Hot Springs is a good place to start. The panoramic views of the Sawtooth Range can’t be beat, and even the most navigationally challenged road trippers can find their way here from the town of Bridgeport. Arrive early to beat the local crowds, but remember: Clothing is optional. So if someone drops trou, stay chill. Extend your lazy afternoon by heading to the outskirts of Yosemite National Park, where you’ll hike down into Buckeye Hot Springs. Soak in these thermal pools that flow down over rocks like warm waterfalls and Zen out to the sounds of a nearby stream.
After all the roughing it in nature, a stop at Benton Hot Springs maybe just the touch of luxury you need. These nine man-made pools (constructed from redwood, tile, and concrete) will seem decadent. And they are. Before hitting the road, chow down at Erick Schat’s Bakkery, a local spot that's been carb-loading customers with its famous Sheepherders Bread for nearly 80 years. -- Ryan MacDonald
Ride a hot-air balloon over Pennsylvania Amish countryAt first glance, central Pennsylvania may not seem like the most exciting adventure in this big ol' country of ours. But buckle up, kids, ‘cause clearly you haven't trudged through woody thickets to scoop up our homegrown treasures. That’s right, I’m talking wineberries. The wineberry is an Asian species of raspberry, and it's sprouted over every damn square foot of central Pennsylvania, leaving translucent, tangy berries for the picking, totally for free. Once you read up on the identification of wineberries, adventure through the fields around the Lebanon/Lancaster area, you'll likely see plenty of ripe bushes on the side of the road. Bring buckets. It's work, but it's the best kind of work, because it leads to free food. If you're feeling lazy, there are plenty of Amish stands on the side of the road throughout Lancaster county where you can buy some fresh berries already picked.
When you're finished, bring a bowl of berries to Intercourse, Pennsylvania (yes, it's a real city) to enjoy while on a hot-air balloon. Float over Amish countryside while you stain your fingertips with wineberry juice. You'll often see children from below chasing your balloon barefoot, trying to catch a glimpse. You'll see farmers plowing the fields, and acres and acres of fields, with horse and buggies trotting along the roads. And at the end, you'll get a flute of Champagne to toast your journey. ‘Cause that’s how big we roll in Pennsylvania. -- Sammy Nickalls
Enjoy a responsible booze tour in Wichita, the former cradle of ProhibitionWichita may be flat, but the people, culture and beer ain’t. Its once-lawless Delano neighborhood tolerated boozing, brothels, gambling, and gunfight-leaning saloons catering to cattle-driving cowboys. That was until Kansas implemented prohibition from 1881 to 1948, longer than any other state. That buzzkill cloud has, over time, evaporated. Totally. Wichita’s main drag, Douglas Avenue, is now within lasso reach of eight rocking brewpubs including Central Standard Brewing (picnic-tabled patio) and Wichita Brewing Co. & Pizzeria (two wood-fired locales). Enjoy a beerdom tour de force without traffic jams.
Wichita’s backdrop includes Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, old-timey diners with vintage hand-pulled sodas, mile-long freight trains a-rollin’, and a historic Old Town with 100-plus thriving businesses on brick-lined streets. Made in Wichita also means custom-cut jeans, classic live music joints, art galleries, and comfort food in nifty bars like Public at the Brickyard (get the buffalo cauliflower) and The Anchor (a huge ruckus-adapted tavern). Nearby, Wyldewood Cellars and Grace Hill Winery prove that gorgeous wineries can take root on the prairie. More buzz? Old Town’s Wheat State distillery is the city’s first (legal) distillery. Carrie Nation ain’t in Kansas anymore. -- Bruce Northam, American Detour
Chug along on Napa Valley’s wine trainPicture yourself on a train cruising through Napa Valley. You’re drinking wine. Outside, on both sides, are endless rows of lush, leafy vineyards. You’re sitting in one of those antique train dining cars, something out of an old Cary Grant film. It feels like you’ve traveled back in time as it chugs along, past some of the country’s best wineries toward Yountville, then Rutherford, and onto St. Helena.
The vineyards are so close that when the train stops up, you can walk from the tracks right to some of the wineries. Leave your glass behind. You’ll be tasting Napa’s best reds and whites at private tours at Robert Mondavi, V. Sattui and Charles Krug. Back on the train, you’re surprisingly hungry. Perhaps it was all that sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon at the last stop. You know, though, that in wine country, the food is next-level. Between stops, the chefs on board are serving up multi-course gourmet meals, for after all this is home to California cuisine and the farm-to-table movement. Emphasis, today, on the movement. -- Jennifer Mattson
Tube down Boulder Creek in ColoradoNothing encapsulates summer quite like immersing yourself in a cool swimming hole, or slippity-sliding down a natural rockslide, or just floating the day away on a river with canned suds in the sun. And the premier destination for the latter is Colorado. Just a hop away from Pearl Street Mall is Boulder Creek Trail -- a local favorite for morning walks, running, and cycling. Come the weekend (normally between May and September), the locals take to tubing down the mountain-water stream for their outdoor fun. As soon as the snowcaps melt and the water levels are high enough, Boulderites young and old (and extremely young, and extremely old), flock to the creek -- tube, inflatable boat, or inflatable pink flamingo in hand.
Many locals have their own, but travelers can rent them from multiple stores in town for $16 to $21 depending on the tube. (Get the double tube for 2x the fun with a friend.) Then, head to the top of the creek -- taking pointers from the resident tubers along the way -- and you’re off. Befriend some locals and you just might score an invite to the creek-side, Sunday BBQ they almost always have after a tiring day of outdoor fun. -- Shylie Rimmer