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The Best US Outdoorsy Destinations For Families By State (N-W)

In the previous post on the best US outdoorsy destinations, we established that the US is packed full of splendid and jaw dropping natural landscapes! With so many, even with covering only one per state (and believe me, this is far from all inclusive) it is impossible to highlight them all in one post!

In the previous post we covered top natural landscapes in the states beginning with A-M. Now, we will continue on to explore the best US outdoorsy destinations in the US states beginning with N through W. We will travel to the Valley of Fire in Nevada, to Watkins Glen State Park in New York, to the Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah and everywhere in between!

the grand staircase escalante, best outdoorsy US destinations
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Grand Staircase Escalante. Photo by John Fowler on Unsplash

Nebraska: Scotts Bluff National Monument

Scotts Bluff National Monument is a unique landscape found outside of the Nebraska city of Gering. The area is a combination of the remnants of historic trails, prairies, badlands, and of course the bluffs. The summit of the bluffs is reachable by both car and hike, making it one of the best US outdoorsy destinations in for the whole family.

The Scotts Bluff Summit Road is a 1.6-mile scenic drive that will take you to the summit of Scotts Bluff while enjoying great views and unique landscapes. The drive can take you anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour to complete. Once you reach the top you will be treated to views of the Bluffs from both the North and South overlooks.

Another way to explore the bluffs is by hiking the 4 miles of hiking trails within the park. The trails range in difficulty from easy to moderate, so the whole family can enjoy this experience. For an easy trail check out the Oregon Trail, a 1-mile-long trail with a gentle incline that takes you on actual sections of the historic Oregon Trail.

The North Overlook and South Overlook trails are also easy trails that will take you past many scenic overlooks and views of the bluffs. The Saddle Rock Trail will present more of a challenge at 3 miles in length and with more of an incline. The trail takes you through foot tunnels to the summit of Scotts Bluffs.

For more outdoor fun in the area head to Lake Minatare and climb to the top of the Lake Minatare Lighthouse. The Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area is another nearby option, with hiking trails, bicycling trails, scenic views from the visitor center overlook, and a large nature center.

For accommodations, you can find plenty of tent campsites and RV sites in campgrounds around Gering. The Robidoux RV Park is a great option located on the historic Oregon Trail, or you can find primitive camping sites in the Wildcat Hills. The best time to visit Scotts Bluffs and Gering is summer, from June to August.

US outdoorsy destinations-Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska
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Scotts Bluff National Monument. Photo Credit: Doug Kerr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nevada: Valley of Fire

Recommended by JJ Haglund from The Minivan Bucket List

Sin City might not immediately come to mind for a family road trip but there is a surprising amount of kid-friendly things to do in Las Vegas, especially for families looking for outdoorsy activities. Less than an hour drive from Las Vegas is a spectacular state park called Valley of Fire.

What makes it a worthy inclusion on your family’s bucket list is the amount of kid-friendly hikes, most of which are around one mile or less. The most popular are Rainbow Vista (yes, the rocks really are rainbow colored) and the Fire Wave, which looks similar to Arizona’s iconic The Wave in Coyote Buttes. 

Kids will also love driving around to check out the strange rock formations like Elephant Rock, Arch Rock, and Piano Rock. Be sure to stick around for sunset so you can see why it’s called Valley of Fire – in the right light the red sandstone cliffs indeed look like they’re glowing on fire.  

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Valley of Fire. Photo credit: The Minivan Bucket List.

New Hampshire: White Mountains

Recommended by Kate from New Hampshire Way

The White Mountains of New Hampshire are a fantastic outdoor destination with families — I’ve spent every summer of my childhood there, since I was just 10 days old!

Kids of all ages (and adults!) will love Lost River Gorge, where you can hike through a small canyon, surrounded by lush greenery and rushing water. The gorge is home to several caves with names like the Bear Crawl and the Lemon Squeezer — all optional — and some of them happen to be perfectly kid-sized.

Closer to North Conway, a short hike leads you to Diana’s Baths: a series of waterfalls and shallow rocky pools that you can actually swim in! You can easily spend hours here. Don’t miss Zeb’s General Store for a treat after your day out.

And for something a bit different, Story Land is a wonderful theme park for young kids, based on fairy tales and set beautifully among the forested mountains.

New Hampshire’s two busy seasons are summer and fall. I recommend summer because fall can be quite chilly for most of the day, but September is a wonderful time that isn’t as crowded as August or October.

For accommodation, Lost River Valley Campground in North Woodstock is super-family friendly with options to camp or stay in a cabin. My personal favorite, though, is White Lake State Park in Tamworth, a campground with the best swimming in New Hampshire (and where I took my first steps).

walkway in the Lost River Gorge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, one of the best US outdoorsy bucket list destinations
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Lost River Gorge, White Mountains. Photo Credit: New Hampshire Way.

New Jersey: New Jersey Pine Barrens

The Pinelands encompass a unique section of New Jersey with a combination of natural and manmade landscapes, including historic villages, berry farms, wetlands, and oak-pine forests (pine barrens). The Pinelands extend over 1.1 million acres

Hiking is one of the top things to do in the Pinelands. For a long, multiday hike, the Batona Trail extends 52 miles from the Northern end to the Southern end of the Pinelands. The trail will take you past ponds, cranberry bogs, ghost towns and old rail lines, and the hills of the Pinelands.

The Penn Swamp Trail is another great option for those looking for a longer hike, extending 19 miles. For some shorter hikes in the Pinelands, check out Tom’s Pond Trail, a 1.1-mile-long loop trail, the Swamp Trail, a 2-mile-long trail, or the Blue trail at 3.5 miles.

Canoeing and kayaking is another top activity in the Pine Barrens. Depending on what kind of adventure you are looking for you can join a guided day tour or rent a kayak or canoe and explore on your own. The best spots for canoeing and kayaking in the Pinelands include Batsto River, Mullica River, Great Egg Harbor River, and Wading River.

The Pinelands contain plenty of flat trails that are perfect for biking, ranging in length from 11 miles to 51 miles. For animal lovers, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy birdwatching and wildlife viewing. Scenic drives are another great way to explore the Pinelands, especially in the fall months as the fall foliage begins to make its appearance.

Camping options are abundant in the Pinelands, with primitive campsites available in Wharton State Forest, Bass River State Forest, Belleplain State Forest, and Brendan T. Byrne State Forest. You can also find lean-tos, cabins, and RV sites scattered throughout the area.

The best time of year to visit the Pinelands and fully experience the outdoor adventure it offers are the summer months for the warmest temperatures or the fall months for fall foliage. The Pinelands are a popular spot for winter exploration in the Northeast, with the campgrounds open year-round.

the wetlands and lush greenery of the New Jersy Pine Barrens
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NJ Pine Barrens. Photo Credit: andrew leahey, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

New Mexico: Gila Cliff Dwellings

Recommended by Cosette from KarsTravels

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a hidden gem in New Mexico. It’s 44 miles North of Silver City on a dead-end road, but it’s definitely worth the drive. There are historic caves at the national monument where people lived in for thousands of years. It’s surrounded by wilderness with hiking trails running through it. The cliff dwellings were built by the Mogollon in the late 1200’s.

Best thing to do here, certainly with kids in tow, is to go on a guided hike. This hike first leads through the wilderness, from where the caves are already visible, giving a good sense of how life was hundreds of years ago. The hike continues through the caves. The guide gives an excellent explanation on why they built them, how, and how life must have been like in those times.

The next best thing is to have lunch at the visitor center. There are picnic tables to sit at in the shade and dozens of hummingbirds will be flying on and off.

The park is open year-round, but Spring and Summer are the best time to visit. Since there can be snow and ice on upper elevation trails until June. If visiting in Summer, be aware that violent afternoon thunderstorms can occur.

Stay at La Quinta Inn & Suites Deming or at one of the two campgrounds close to the park, such as the Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds, less than one mile from the monument. Gila Cliff Dwellings is a perfect stop on an Orlando to San Francisco road trip.

the Gila Cliff Dwellings of New Mexico, US outdoorsy destinations
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Gila Cliff Dwellings. Photo Credit: KarsTravels.

New York: Watkins Glen State Park

Recommended by Kelly of Travel New York Now

One of the best and most outdoorsy things to do in New York with kids is to visit the town of Watkins Glen. After all, this quaint little village sits along Seneca Lake, making it easy to book a tour with Captain Bill’s Lake Cruise and explore all that this picturesque lake has to offer.

So, after enjoying an awe-inspiring sightseeing tour aboard a vintage boat built for 49-people, make your way through the town to nearby Watkins Glen State Park. It’s a stunning natural oasis that is home to some of the best hikes in upstate New York. If you can, stop for a photo op with the waterfall just outside the park before doing a stunning, 2-mile hike along the Gorge Trail. 

It will take you right through the park center and past 19 truly incredible waterfalls. And although it’s an easy climb that will probably only take you an hour and a half to complete, you will have to go up and down stone steps that can get slippery when wet. So, be sure to wear shoes with traction before starting this hike. Also, try and plan your visit for late September or early October so that you can take in the area’s beautiful fall foliage. 

Afterward, take a short drive to the town of Montour Falls so that can experience the majesty of the 165-foot tall, Shequaga Falls while you’re here. Finally, unwind for the night at one of the Watkins Glen State Park Six Nations Camping Area campsites or at the Clute Park and Campground if you have an RV and are looking for a boat launch.

Watkins Glen State Park waterfall and bridge
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Watkins Glen State Park. Photo Credit: Travel New York Now.

North Carolina: Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is known as one of the most iconic and scenic drives in the US. The road extends 469 miles through the states of North Carolina and Virginia and connects Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

While the drive itself is enough to keep you entertained and at times speechless, there is an endless number of opportunities along the route for outdoor adventure! The best way to keep track of and find your way to the best attractions on the route is by paying attention to the mile markers. The North Carolina section of the road begins at mile marker 216.9 and continues to the end at mile marker 469.

While a good portion of time will be spent driving, there are many opportunities to get out and stretch your feet. The Rough Ridge Trail at mile marker 302.8 is a 1.8 mile out and back trail near Blowing Rock that comes with stunning views and offers a great photo op of the Linn Cove Viaduct.

The Craggy Pinnacle Trail at mile marker 364.2 is a short trail perfect for sunrise and sunset viewing. Waterfall viewing is another must do activity when driving the Blue Ridge Parkway. Linville Falls at mile marker 316.4 falls 90 ft. into the Linville Gorge and makes for quite the view! Crabtree Falls at mile marker 339.5 are harder to reach, but well worth the view once you reach them.

If you are a history bluff, the many historical sites along the Blue Ridge Parkway will delight you! In North Carolina, you can visit Flat Top Manor, the Linn Cove Viaduct (1,243 ft. long bridge), and the Cradle of Forestry, the first forestry school in the country.

Although you can exit the Blue Ridge Parkway and find a hotel or B&B to spend the night, staying in one of the five campgrounds along the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the best way to get the most of your visit. You can choose from the Doughton Park Campground, Julian Price Campground, Linville Falls Campground, Crabtree Falls Campground, or the Mount Pisgah Campground.

The best time to set out for a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is Spring or early Fall. During these months the weather will be comfortable, and you will avoid the massive influx of visitors seeking to see the fall foliage (unless of course this is your reason for visiting).  

section of the Linville Cove Viaduct on the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
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Linville Cove Viaduct. Photo by Hugo Andrew on Unsplash

North Dakota: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park sits in Western North Dakota and encompasses three unique sections: The North Unit, The South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch. The park is best explored through the roads and trails that take you through the naturally stunning landscapes of the North Dakota Badlands.

One point of interest you will want to be sure to check out is the overlook at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. Standing at the overlook will give you stunning views of the North Dakota badlands. Other activities in Theodore Roosevelt National Park include canoeing or kayaking, fishing, bicycling, wildlife viewing, and if visiting during the winter cross country skiing or snowshoeing.

When visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you will want to spend some time hiking. There is a big variety of hiking trails to choose from, with different difficulty levels and lengths. For shorter hikes, check out Skyline Vista, an easy 0.1-mile flat nature trail, the 0.4-mile-long Wind Canyon Trail, the 0.2-mile Buck Hill trail, or the 0.7-mile Little Mo Trail.

For a more extensive hike, check out the 1.5-mile-long Buckhorn Trail to Prairie Dog Town, Sperati Point on the Achenbach Trail, the 9.6-mile Lone Tree Loop, or the 15.4-mile Upper Paddock/Talkington Loop. You can also enjoy horseback riding on the park’s backcountry trails.

Even if you are not a big hiker, you can still enjoy the natural beauty of the area on a scenic drive. If traveling with young kids, this is the perfect way to see the natural beauty without the work. You can choose from two different drives-the North Unit and the South Unit. The North Unit drive is a 28-mile drive that can be completed in an hour and fifteen minutes. The South Unit drive is a 48-mile drive that takes about 2 hours. Of course, you will want to allot more time to be able to stop and take in the sights.

Within Theodore Roosevelt National Park you can find three developed campgrounds to stay in: Juniper Campground in the North Unit, Cottonwood Campground in the South Unit, and the Roundup Group Horse Campground in the South Unit. If you are exploring the backcountry of the park by horseback you can get a backpack camping permit from the visitor center.

The best time to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park is late Spring/early summer. You will often times find fewer crowds along with milder temperatures to enjoy the park.

a section of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, US outdoorsy destinations
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Rich Martello on Unsplash

Ohio: Hocking Hills Region

The Hocking Hills region of Ohio is an expansive area in Southern Ohio that is made up of gorges, waterfalls, and cliffs. The area includes the picturesque Hocking Hills State Park and Lake Logan State Park, along with many nature preserves and forested areas. The opportunities for fun and outdoor adventure are endless!  

If you are looking for adventure, Adventure Pro Outdoors offers ATV/UTV rentals, mountain bike rentals, and canoe and kayak rentals. Adventure Treks and High Rock Adventures offer rappelling and rock-climbing tours.

Hiking is another top activity in Hocking Hills. You will want to check out Ash Cave in Hocking Hills State Park, explore the scenic waterfalls at Old Man’s Cave, hike along the cliffs and ravines of Clear Creek Metro Park, view the Hope Furnace ruins, and view the stunning landscape from Jacob’s Ladder in Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve.

If visiting the area with kids, head to Equestrian Ridge Farm for horseback riding and get up close to farm animals, including goats, chickens, pigs, ducks, turkeys, and sheep. Spotted Horse Ranch also offers horseback riding tours through 35 miles of trails.

Other activities to enjoy in Hocking Hills include trying your shot at an archery range, belly boat fishing, cycling, and joining an ecotour. Get out on the water with a boat rental, from kayaks and canoes to pedal boats and pontoons.

If you plan on visiting for more than a day trip (and you should!), you will find tent sites, cabins, and primitive sites within Hocking Hills State Park. For a unique experience you could stay in a treehouse cabin.  If visiting with kids, Hocking Hills Jellystone Park is a great option where you can enjoy Yogi Bear and friends come to life.

While Hocking Hills is gorgeous year-round, the best times to visit are early Summer and Fall. The Fall months will bring even more beauty to the area with stunning fall foliage, while early summer will bring you milder temperatures and most often less crowds.

waterfall within Hocking Hills State Park
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Hocking Hills State Park. Photo by Taylor Noble on Unsplash

Oklahoma: Talimena Scenic Byway

While Oklahoma is not exactly known for stunning natural scenery, the Western part of the Talimena Scenic Drive makes for a great one day or multiday outdoor getaway in the state. A visit to the area will leave you dazzled from the mountain views and fun filled activities.

Talimena State Park is a gateway to both the Talimena Scenic Drive and the Ouachita National Forest. If you are looking for backcountry hiking, Ouachita National Forest is the place to go. Here you will find the start of the 192-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail.

The Talimena Scenic Byway is a 54-mile scenic drive through the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma that extends into Arkansas. A drive along the byway will treat you to stunning Ouachita Mountain views with many pull off stops along the way.

The Talimena drive can take as little as two hours or can take multiple days, depending on how often you want to stop and what you want to do when you stop. There are 22 scenic pull offs on the drive, 3 state parks and recreational areas, and plenty of hiking trails along the route. As you drive along the byway and enjoy the stops be sure to keep an eye open for the native wildlife of the area, including deer, eagles, hawks, and beers.

If you do happen to cross over into Arkansas to complete the drive, you will want to stop at Rich Mountain. Rich Mountain is the tallest peak in the Ouachita Mountains and along the byway. Other activities found along the route include kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, and fishing.

For an overnight stay Talimena State Park has 10 RV sites and 7 tent sites. Winding Stair Campground has modern campsites and primitive backcountry camping. If visiting the Arkansas end of the drive, Queen Wilhelmina State Park has a lodge and camping sites. The best time to visit the area and to do the Talimena Scenic Drive is the Fall. You will be treated to unparalleled fall foliage scenery.

mountain views from the Talimena Scenic Drive
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Talimena Scenic Drive. MARELBU, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oregon: Crater Lake

Recommended by Debbie Fettback from WorldAdventurists.com

Crater Lake was created over 7,700 years ago when a volcanic eruption caused the peak of Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot-tall-volcano, to crumble. Once the hole cooled, it filled with rainwater and snowmelt over 600-800 years to turn into what you see before you today. The volcanic terrain limits the nutrients and stops streams from entering the lake, so the water always stays a mesmerizing blue and one of the cleanest lakes in the world.

Crater Lake is the only National Park in Oregon, so it is quite fitting that it is also where you will find one of the most scenic byways in America, the 33-mile Rim Road.  Drive the Rim Road and pull over at more than 30 overlooks that were designed to highlight a specific view of the vibrant bold blue lake. 

There are also several incredible hiking trails that will give you even more viewpoints not available from road level. Take a boat tour of the lake, however, no personal boats or flotation devices are allowed. Swimming is also allowed in designated areas.

Camping is the best way to get a taste for Crater Lake National Park. There are two developed campgrounds, Mazama Campground and Lost Creek Campground. Both campgrounds are only open during the summer, the best time to visit Crater Lake National Park.

Crater Lake in Oregon
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Crater Lake. Photo Credit: World Adventurists.

Pennsylvania: Cherry Springs State Park

Recommended by Pamela from the Directionally Challenged Traveler

Pennsylvania is often overlooked as a travel destination, but it is truly a beautiful state. From the history of Philadelphia to the rivers of Pittsburgh, the state has so much to offer visitors. One hidden gem is Cherry Springs State Park. 

This State Park is located in the north-central part of the state and really captures the essence of the state. The Pennsylvania Grand Canyon has plenty of hikes and breathtaking views to enjoy during the day. As the sun sets, it’s time to prepare for true magic. 

Cherry Springs State Park is the darkest sky park east of the Mississippi. In the park, there are two fields for stargazing. One is for the general public and allows for people to come and go throughout the night (please only use a red light for navigation so you don’t interrupt others’ stargazing). The other field is meant for those with astrophotography equipment and visitors must spend the night in the park (it is a first come first serve basis). 

Even if you don’t have a telescope, don’t worry – it’s dark enough to see the Milky Way without equipment! The later you stay up, the more stars you’ll see. Before you visit, be sure to check the moon schedule – you don’t want to visit during a full moon, it’ll block the stars (and check for clouds!)

Since you’re staying up late, be sure to book accommodation nearby. There is a campground right in the park that has tent, cabin and RV spots available for reservations

view of the milky way from Cherry Springs State Park
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Jupiter & the Milky Way taken from a Canon DSLR. Photo Credit: The Directionally Challenged Traveler.

Rhode Island: Block Island

Block Island is a small island about 9 miles South of Rhode Island’s coast that offers a great summer escape. As an island, it is no question that Block Island makes for a great beach destination, but you can find plenty of other outdoor activities, like hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

Hitting the beach for a day of sunshine, sandcastles, and crashing waves is one of the best things to do on Block Island, which is home to 17 miles of beaches. On the East side you will find Crescent Beach, which is further split into five smaller beaches. A lesser-known beach that is perfect for families on the East side is Baby Beach. The beach has calm waves and shallow water.

The beaches on the West side of the island are better for surfing and sunset viewing with rocky coastlines. For some adventure sports, you can find parasailing opportunities, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, banana boats, and sail boating on the East side beaches.

On the North end of Block Island, you will find the Block Island National Wildlife Refuge, abundant in opportunities for wildlife viewing, fishing, wildlife photography, and environmental education programs. If you want to go horseback riding, head to Rustic Rides Farm.

The Mohegan Bluffs are one of the top sites to visit on Block Island. At the bottom of the cliffs, you will find a small, secluded beach. At the top of the cliffs is the Southeast Light, one of the two lighthouses on the island. On the North end of the island, you can view the North Light.

For a relaxing walk head to Rodman’s Hollow, a 230-acre glacial outwash plain that takes you through a forested area, past bluffs, and to a pristine beach. Bicycling is a popular activity on the island and a great way to head out and explore while also providing easy transportation.

To reach Block Island, you can take the ferry from Pt. Judith or Newport, RI, with the option to bring your vehicle. For an overnight stay on the island, you can choose from oceanfront hotels, B&B’s, and Inns. The best time of year to visit Block Island is the summer months. You will find the warmest weather, perfect for enjoying the beaches and outdoor activities found on Block Island.

base of the Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island, US outdoorsy destinations
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Mohegan Bluffs. Waz8, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

South Carolina: Jocassee Gorges

Jocassee Gorges is a 50,000-acre area in Northern South Carolina that includes two state parks, 35 miles of hiking trails, and an endless number of opportunities for outdoor fun. Jocassee Gorges has been named as “the destination of a lifetime” by National Geographic, so it is not hard to see why it should be included as one of the best US outdoorsy destinations.

Driving through the Jocassee Gorges is one of the best ways to experience it. Stop at the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center and pick up a map and driving guide before heading out. The driving tour will take you to many of the top sites in the Jocassee Gorges.

Then head to Devil’s Fork State Park where you can enjoy some water sports on Lake Jocassee, including kayaking, canoeing, and stand up paddleboarding. You can also spend an afternoon sunbathing and swimming at the small beach on Lake Jocassee. If you are up for it, you can even enjoy some scuba diving in the lake. If visiting with kids, embark on a 4-hour adventure with Jocassee Wild Child and explore the waterfalls and history surrounding Lake Jacassee.

The Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve features a 1.7-mile trail that takes you into the gorge, past hemlocks and ferns, and to the Eastatoe Creek. Eastatoe Creek is a popular spot for rainbow trout fishing.

Waterfall chasing should definitely be on the itinerary when visiting the Jocassee Gorges. The area is home to close to a dozen waterfalls, including Laurel Fork Falls, Wright Creek Falls, White Waterfall, Devil’s Hole Creek Falls, and Mills Creek Falls. Some are easily accessible and some you will need a boat to reach, but all are worth viewing!

Table Rocks State Park is home to two lakes, Pinnacle Lake and Lake Oolenoy, making it a great destination for water sports and outdoor adventure. At Table Rocks State Park you can go fishing, rent a kayak, canoe, or pedal boat, go swimming, hiking, or bird watching.

For overnight stays, you can find plenty of campgrounds surrounding Lake Jacassee. Devil’s Fork State Park has camping and RV sites for overnight stays. If traveling by RV you can also check out Jocassee RV Camp. The Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area has primitive campsites.

lake surrounded by trees in Devil's Fork State Park, South Carolina
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Devil’s Fork State Park. Mwanner, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

South Dakota: Badlands

Recommended by Candice of CS Ginger

Badlands National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the country and is located in southwestern South Dakota. The park is about 243,000 acres and is home to eroded pinnacles and spires creating a beautiful landscape, making it one of the best US outdoorsy destinations.

The Badlands were formed over millions of years making it a great place to learn about geology, fossils, and wildlife. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is a 0.4-mile walk where kids and adults alike can learn more about the fascinating geology of the area.

Another fun thing to do in the park is to explore the Badlands hiking trails. The most exciting and best trail to hike in the Badlands is the Notch Trail. It is a beautiful hike with a ladder taking you on top of some of the geological formations. The hike is 1.3 miles long and is ranked as an easy to moderate hike.

While driving throughout the park, be sure to stop at some of the overlooks. The Big Badlands Overlook and Yellow Mounds Overlook are two great overlooks.

There are not a lot of hotels near the Badlands but there are lots of campgrounds both inside and just outside the park. The Cedar Pass Campground is near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and has about 96 campsites. It is open from April through the end of October. There are sites available with electricity if you are bringing an RV.

If the campgrounds inside the park are full, you can look into the KOA just outside the park. It has a swimming pool and is a short drive from the park.

The entire area surrounding the Badlands like Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills is also worth a visit. You should plan on spending three to five days in the area.

the South Dakota Badlands
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The South Dakota Badlands. Photo Credit: CS Ginger.

Tennessee: Gatlinburg & Pigeon Ford/ Great Smoky Mountains

A forested paradise in Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an outdoor lover’s paradise. The Great Smoky Mountains are a mountain range of the Appalachian Mountains. A signature mark of the mountains is the mist that frequently appears to be rising from the mountains.

For stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains, head to the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower. The tower extends 45 ft. above the mountain’s summit, rewarding visitors with views of the Great Smoky Mountains and six surrounding states. To view more of the Great Smoky Mountains without the hiking drive through the roads of the national park, sometimes a better option if visiting with young kids. You will find plenty of spots to pull over and stop to enjoy the natural beauty.

Of course, one of the best ways to experience the great outdoors of the Smoky Mountains is by hiking. One of the best places to go hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is Sugarland Mountain. Two are the most popular hikes in the area are the Old Sugarlands Trail and the hike from the visitors’ center to Cataract Falls. You can find plenty of other hiking options, ranging in difficulty from easy to difficult.

Visit Cades Cove to drive the 11-mile scenic loop, go for a hike, and view the popular Abrams Falls and Laurel Falls. Anakeesta is an adventure park in the Great Smoky Mountains where you can go zipling and a try out the suspended tree canopy walkway.

If you’ve had your share of outdoor adventure, you can head over to Gatlinburg, where you can enjoy a ride on the Gatlinburg Space Needle, visit the Hollywood Star Cars Museum, spend a day at Dollywood, explore the Salt & Pepper Shaker Museum, or experience the Ripley’s attractions.

For some thrills ride the Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster or the Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster. Walk across the Gatlinburg Skybridge for some jaw dropping views, stop at the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook, or take a ride at the Gatlinburg Skylift Park.  

The Great Smoky Mountains are full of accommodations that will get you close to nature. You can stay in a secluded AirBnB cabin, check out a lodge in Gatlinburg, choose a B&B or Inn, or opt to go backcountry camping or stay in a more modern-day campground.

the Great Smoky Mountains covered with fog, US outdoorsy destinations
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Great Smoky Mountains. Photo by Hugo Andrew on Unsplash

Texas: Western Texas

Recommended by Erin from Sol Salute

It’s isolated and mostly desert so it may not be on your radar, but West Texas is an outdoor lover’s paradise if you can get there. The main highlight is Texas’ most beautiful national park, Big Bend. This park has great hiking trails and backcountry camping in the desert, in the mountains (Big Bend houses an entire mountain range called The Chisos!), and along the Rio Grande.

Campsites throughout the park allow for RV’s or more rustic backcountry camping along the trails. My favorite trail, the South Rim, has a view of Mexico that you can enjoy right from your tent! Just outside the park gates is the Terlingua ghost town. If you’d rather not camp there are unique cabins, refurbished trailers, and even teepees in the desert where you can enjoy the milky way every night.

Head further west for more West Texas outdoor adventures near El Paso. Hueco Tanks is a small state park and historic site and one of the most beautiful places in Texas. There are petroglyphs and trails to enjoy along with bouldering opportunities for climbers.

Texas’ second and final national park is also in West Texas, closer to the border with New Mexico. Guadalupe Mountains National Park has its own fair share of hiking trails into the mountains. From here you can cross right into New Mexico for Carlsbad Caverns or head south back into Texas to explore freshwater springs at Balmorhea, a star party at McDonald’s Observatory, or history and hiking at Fort Davis.

The best time of year to visit West Texas is in spring and fall when temperatures are mild. Summers here can be sweltering and in winter temperatures drop drastically overnight.

mountains in Big Bend National Park
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Big Bend National Park. Photo Credit: Sol Salute.

Utah: Grand Staircase Escalante

Recommended by Megan from Red Around the World

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is massive, remote, and breathtaking.  You can be in the town of Escalante, Utah or Page, Arizona, and still be in or near Escalante, it’s that big. It’s a must-see on a southern Utah road trip and an outdoor lover’s paradise and even better for backpacking.  

There are very few marked and maintained trails in GSENM, but a few you can do are Upper Calf Creek Falls, Lower Calf Creek Falls, Escalante River Trail, 100 Hands Pictographs, and Toadstools Trail.  It’s most well-known for Lower Calf Creek and its slot canyons down Hole-in-the-Rock Road: Spooky, Zebra, and Peekabo.

Want something more challenging (as long as you’re experienced with backpacking and route-finding)?  Consider Neon Canyon, Coyote Gulch, Death Hollow, or Reflection Canyon.  Whatever you choose, make sure you’re prepared for desert hiking.  Bring more water than you think you need, tell someone where you’re going, and wear sunscreen. 

While you’re here, base yourself in the town of Boulder or the town of Escalante. In Escalante, you can camp at the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park or stay at Yonder, a nice tiny house resort. In Boulder, the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch is great for glamping. Some other things to do in the area are to drive Hells Backbone Road, drive Burr Trail, hike Willis Creek slot canyon, and visit Kodachrome Basin State Park.

The best time of year to visit will be fall since it’s not as busy and the weather is perfect. In the winter it can snow and get very cold but it’s still a great time to visit.  Spring can be very windy and that is miserable in the desert. Summer will be incredibly hot and much busier. If you’re there from July-September, be extra cautious of flash floods and don’t go in any slot canyons if it’s raining in or near Escalante.  

waterfall in Grand Staircase Escalante
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GSENM. Photo Credit: Red Around the World.

Vermont: Quechee Gorge

Found along U.S. Route 4 in Quechee, Vermont is the Quechee Gorge, one of the best US outdoorsy destinations. The Quechee Gorge is Vermont’s deepest gorge at 165 ft. deep. The gorge was carved out by glaciers 13,000 years ago.

The Quechee Gorge and the Ottauquechee River that flows through it can be viewed from Quechee State Park. Hiking in the park is the best way to view the gorge. The 2.7 mile out and back Quechee Gorge Trail is an easy hike, perfect for hikers of any skill level.

Other activities in the park include fishing, guided nature programs, recreational sports, bird watching, bicycling, wildlife viewing, and boating on nearby Dewey’s Pond. For those looking to see the natural beauty of the area from the comfort of their cars, there are two scenic drives near Quechee State Park.

The Mt. Ascutney Auto Road leads to a summit in Mt. Ascutney State Park that has 360 views of Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire.  The Connecticut River Byway is another option that runs along the border of New Hampshire and takes drivers over an 1866 covered bridge.

Another option for hiking is the Faulkner Trail to Mount Tom in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park or you can conquer a section of the Appalachian Trail from Hanover to Gorham.  Lake Pinneo offers plenty of opportunities for water sports, including kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding.

If visiting Quechee in winter, the family friendly skiing hill at Quechee Lakes is a must. The ski hill has gentle slopes with a ski lift that makes it great for beginners and more advanced skiers alike.

For accommodations, check out the campgrounds at Quechee State Park. The campgrounds contain tent sites, RV sites, and lean-tos. If you prefer more modern accommodations, Quality Inn at Quechee Gorge, although nothing spectacular, is conveniently located. If you are looking for the warmest weather, June through August are the best months to visit Quechee.

river under the Quechee Gorge Bridge
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Quechee Gorge Bridge. Eyeheartbrain, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia: Natural Bridge State Park

Recommended by Erin Gifford of Go Hike Virginia

Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley is a favorite among families thanks largely to its namesake arch. This spectacular 215-foot-tall limestone arch wows all who pass under by way of the one-mile Cedar Creek Trail that leads to tumbling 30-foot-tall Lace Falls.

Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Natural Bridge has held a spot on the National Register of Historic Places since 1997. A stroll under the bridge holds a surprise, George’s Washington’s initials, which he carved on the arch in 1750.

Continue on to see a re-created Monacan Indian Village, a living history exhibit that is open daily from April to November. Kids can explore wigwams and trading posts, as well as watch craft demonstrations, like basket weaving and hide tanning.

There are several other family-friendly trails at Natural Bridge State Park, including the Buck Hill Trail and the Blue Ridge Trail. For a fun rock scramble hike, it’s a short drive to nearby Devil’s Marbleyard. Kids will love scrambling rocks across a massive eight-acre boulder field.

For budding astronomers, this newly designated dark sky park hosts stargazing programs in conjunction with astronomical events, like new moons and meteor showers. There is also a hands-on children’s discovery area with a natural play space.

When visiting this year-round destination, book a stay at the Natural Bridge KOA, which has tent and RV sites, as well as cabins. You’ll find plenty of kid-friendly amenities too, like a basketball court, a playground and a game room.

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Natural Bridge. Photo Credit: Go Hike Virginia.

Washington: Olympic National Park

Recommended by Katie & Ben from Go Wander Wild

Known as one of the most diverse national parks in the country, Olympic National Park in Washington state should be on every family’s bucket list. Nearly 1 million acres of the Olympic Peninsula make up this unique national park which features temperate rainforests, snow-capped mountains, and driftwood-strewn beaches.

With so many geographical and natural wonders to explore, hitting the trails and camping are the best ways to discover the beauty that lies within. There are hikes in Olympic National Park suitable for all ages and abilities, including some highly rated hikes for families with youngsters like the Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rainforest and the Sol Duc Falls Nature Trail. 

As well as hiking, there are plenty of sights to see on a drive through the national park. A stop at the vertigo-inducing High Steel Bridge is a must and you’ll definitely want to make sure you spend some time at the beaches in La Push. Stop at the Hurricane Ridge visitor’s center for some epic mountain views from the parking lot!

Being that the park is surrounded by ocean on the peninsula, the weather here is more temperate than further inland. Visit during the months of July and August for the best shot at dry, sunny weather. But know that this time is also the high season when the park will be the busiest.

If you decide to camp in the Olympic National Park, there are a few excellent campgrounds we’d recommend. The Lyre Campground near Sol Duc Falls is free if you have a Discover Pass ($30 for the year) or $10 per night on a first come, first-serve basis. Another great option is camping on Shi Shi Beach, which requires an overnight permit and a hike in, but is completely worth it to wake up on a deserted beach with the sunrise! 

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Hiking in Olympic National Park. Photo Credit: Go Wander Wild.

West Virginia: New River Gorge National Park

The New River Gorge National Park is a 70,000-acre park that follows the New River in West Virginia. The park is a top spot for adventure sports like rock climbing and whitewater rafting. That in combination with the wooded area surrounding the gorge make it one of the best outdoorsy destinations in the US.

One of the most iconic parts of New River Gorge National Park is the New River Gorge Bridge. One of the best ways to view the bridge is by walking the boardwalk trails from the Canyon Rim Visitor Center.

Whitewater rafting is a top activity in New River Gorge National Park. The upper part of the river has easy rapids and the lower part has more difficult rapids ranging in class from III to V. If you are experienced in whitewater rafting you can choose to venture out on the river on your own, or you can join a guided tour.

Another top activity in the New River Gorge National Park is rock climbing, with 1,400 established climbs. The cliffs in the park range from 30 to 120 ft., with most of the climbs being better suited for experienced climbers.

For hikers, there are over 100 trails throughout the park to keep you busy for days. Each section of the park will give you some unique experiences, from the lush woodlands and rock formations in the Grandview area to the waterfalls and cascades of the Glade Creek Area trails.  

A scenic drive is another great way to experience the natural beauty of the park, especially when visiting with kids. The New River Gorge Scenic Drive is an 83-mile-long drive that will take you to many of the top sites in the park, including the Fayette Station Road and New River Gorge Bridge, Kaymoor Mine area, the Glade Creek Area, and Grandview. Other activities found within the park include biking, fishing, hunting, and guided, ranger led programs.

If you are looking to explore the area for several days you can find primitive camping sites along the river, or head to nearby towns for hotels, B&B’s, or cabins. The best time to visit depends on what your interests are. If you are visiting for the rafting, summer will be the best for water levels, but crowds will be heavy. If you want to enjoy hiking and looking at fall foliage, the fall months are best.

New River Gorge Bridge in West Virginia's New River Gorge National Park
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New River Gorge Bridge. JaGa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin: Wisconsin Dells

Recommended by Kylie from Between England and Iowa

One of the best US outdoorsy destinations for families is the Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin. It’s known as the ‘Waterpark Capital of the World’. Although there are waterparks that are open year-round, the best time to visit is during the summer when the outdoor ones are open too! As well as the waterparks, there are theme park attractions, go-kart tracks, mini golf and zipline courses. The Wisconsin River cuts right through the town and during the warmer seasons companies offer ‘duck boat tours’ and jet boat rides.

25 minutes away is Devil’s Lake State Park, which has over 29 miles of hiking trails, as well as a campground with swimming, boating and fishing. It also sits along a section of the Ice Age Trail, a 1200 mile ‘National Scenic Trail’ that goes right across the state of Wisconsin.

For accommodation that’s closer to all the Wisconsin Dells attractions, the ‘Natura Treescape Resort’ has cabins and treehouses which are ‘forest themed’. Along with the cabins, they offer full hookup gravel or blacktop sites for RVs. The resort boasts a ‘natural lagoon’, a swimming pool that is naturally filtered with sandstone and limestone rocks and plants instead of the harsh chemicals typically found in pools.

Alternatively, if visiting Wisconsin Dells in winter, there are two nearby ski resorts: Christmas Mountain and Cascade Mountain. Cascade Mountain is the larger of the two, with 47 ski trails. Both ski resorts also have tubing hills, perfect for younger ‘non skiing’ visitors!

the Wisconsin river running through Wisconsin Dells, one of the best US outdoorsy bucket list destinations!
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Wisconsin River. Photo Credit: Between England and Iowa.

Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park

Recommended by James Ian from Parks Collecting

Yellowstone National Park, which is mostly in Wyoming, is one of the best US outdoorsy destinations. The large national park is one of the main geothermal hotspots in the world.  There are dozens of geysers, bubbling mud pots, churning cauldrons, steaming fumaroles, and brightly colored hot springs to enjoy.  Don’t miss the Upper Geyser Basin, where you’ll find Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts faithfully several times a day, as well as several other regularly erupting geysers. 

There are also dozens of colored hot springs.  The largest hot spring in the park is Grand Prismatic Spring.  Head to the overlook for a bird’s eye view of the incredible sun-shaped pool.  

Another place not to miss is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  The beautiful canyon is home to the thundering Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls.  There are several viewpoints, including the popular Artist Point. 

A short but steep hike will take you down below the canyon rim for closer views of the falls. Red Rock Point is a top pick to see the 308-foot Lower Falls in all their glory.  For another perspective, you can hike to the Brink of the Lower Falls and see the river plunge over the falls right from the edge.

Yellowstone is also a popular place to see wildlife. Lamar Valley has the best chances of seeing herds of bison, black and grizzly bears and even packs of wolves.

Other highlights include the travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs and kayaking on Yellowstone Lake.  You can also go swimming at Boiling River, which is not boiling in the swim spot, but is at a convergence of hot and cold streams.

The best time of year to visit Yellowstone is summer. Although this is when the park is most crowded, this is also when the weather is best and the wildlife easy to spot.

There are several places to stay inside the park. Tops picks include Fishing Bridge RV Park in the south, Madison Campground in the west, and Mammoth Campground in the north (this is the only campground in the park that’s open all year).

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Dive into some of the best US outdoorsy destinations for families, with endless opportunities for wildlife viewing, hiking, water sports, and more!
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