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 city folks have gained a new appreciation for the outdoors, you don’t have to commit to some epic cross-country RV trip just to get some fresh air.
With that in mind, we searched the country for the best outdoor getaways—national parks, national forests, state parks, and the like—to find seven iconic destinations within easy driving distance of major US cities. Regardless of your level of experience in the outdoor world, these spots offer natural beauty and invigorating adventure in spades. Now hit the road already.
Close to: Washington DC (70 miles), Baltimore (108 miles), Pittsburg (214 miles), Philadelphia (250 miles)
While most well known for its sensational displays of fall foliage, this nature-packed park just outside DC makes for one great 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 black bears, red-tailed hawks, and the full slate of charming wildlife forest creatures.
Where to stay if you’re camping: Mathews Arm Campground (MP: 22.1), Big Meadows Campground (MP: 51.2), Loft Mountain Campground (MP: 79.5)
Coolest pit stop: Charlottesville is one of the most beautiful towns in America—and it’s just 37 miles from Shenandoah and 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: Los Angeles (128 miles), San Jose (234 miles), Sacramento (257 miles), San Francisco (279 miles), Las Vegas (285 miles)
National parks may protect some of the best-known natural landmarks but national forests have just as remarkable landscapes. The U.S. Forest Service manages 154 national forests including Sequoia. Named for the world’s largest trees, Sequoia National Forest has the greatest concentration of giant sequoia groves in the world. One of America’s finest national forests features a gargantuan 1.1 million acres in three counties of Southern California and offers an abundance of recreation opportunities for people to enjoy. The Forest offers 52 developed campgrounds, hiking on more than 1,147 miles of trails including 47 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, over 314,448 acres of wilderness, 222 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, 2,617 rivers and streams, world-class whitewater rapids, 158 ponds and lakes, boating, fishing, biking, horseback riding, and more.
Where to stay if you’re camping: River Run RV Park (Bakersfield), Orange Groove RV Park (Bakersfield), Bakersfield RV Resort (Bakersfield)
Coolest pit stop: As you drive on Generals Highway between the Lodgepole area in Sequoia National Park and Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, you will pass by several popular areas within the national forest. Here, you will find access to campgrounds, Buck Rock Lookout, the Big Meadows area, Jennie Lakes Wilderness, and Montecito Sequoia Lodge.
Coconino National Forest, Arizona
Close to: Phoenix (134 miles), Tucson (203 miles), Las Vegas (267 miles), Albuquerque (290 miles)
This unsung 1.8-million-acre national forest has a little bit of everything for the outdoor enthusiast. From mountains like the famous San Francisco Peaks 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 camping: Black Barts RV Park (Flagstaff), Grand Canyon Railway RV Park (Williams), Distant Drums RV Resort (Camp Verde)
Coolest pit stop: Flagstaff brings a wintery vibe to challenge your notions of what Arizona is all about. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got Route 66 running west of town as well as the nearby freakishly beautiful artsy paradise of Sedona. This road trip basically plans itself.
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina
Close to: Charlotte (126 miles), Knoxville (137 miles), Atlanta (173 miles), Chattanooga (248 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 camping: Asheville Bear Creek RV Park (Asheville), Asheville West KOA (Asheville), Mama Gertie’s Hideaway Campground (Swannanoa)
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 and stuff there, nearby Chimney Rock State Park makes another excellent diversion for heart-stirring mountain vistas.
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, hike the trails, and, when you get tired, head back to your camping site at Palm Canyon and revel in some of the country’s most mind-blowing stars in the night skies.
Where to stay if you’re camping: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, The Springs at Borrego RV Resort & Golf Course
Coolest pit stop: Slab City—an off-the-grid community that’s 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.
Adirondack Park, New York
Close to: New York City (214 miles), Boston (234 miles), Buffalo (268 miles)
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 camping: Lake George Riverside Campground (Lake George), North Pole Resorts (Wilmington), Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park at Paradise Pines Camping Resort (North Hudson)
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?
Close to: Austin (56 miles), San Antonio (64 miles), Houston (142 miles), Corpus Christie (146 miles), Dallas (247 miles)
A little piece of the tropics lies just an hour from Austin and San Antonio. With multiple sources of water (including the San Marcos River), Palmetto State Park is a haven for a wide variety of animals and plants. Look for dwarf palmettos, the park’s namesake, growing under the trees.
This small park offers a large amount of fun, both on water and land. You can swim, tube, fish, and canoe here. Besides the flowing river, the park also has an oxbow lake, an artesian well, and swamps. Hike or bike the trails, camp, geocache, go birding or study nature. Hike the Palmetto Trail which winds through a stand of dwarf palmettos.
Where to stay if you’re camping: Palmetto State Park offers 18 RV and tent camping sites
Coolest pit stop: Luling is home to the Luling Oil Museum and is renowned for watermelons, barbecue, and colorfully decorated pump jacks. Texans know Gonzales as the “Cradle of Texas History” where the first shots were fired for Texas Independence. If you’re hankering for barbecue, head north to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.