You don't have to head to the farthest-flung destination on the map to have a fun vacation that blends fresh air and gorgeous scenery.

Whether you’re hitting the road in a camper or your trusty tent, these stunning outdoors destinations near major metropolitan areas are open to overnight stays.

Get ready for sandy beach campsites, rolling meadows and long hikes in the fresh air – all with easy access to airports, train stations and vehicle rentals.

Cub Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park
The Cub Lake Trail starts in Morraine Park and winds through the meadows and hills of Rocky Mountain National Park © Ronda Kimbrow Photography / Getty Images

1. Rocky Mountain National Park – Colorado

One of the crown jewels of the National Park System, Rocky Mountain National Park is a natural playground of snow-capped mountains, sky-blue lakes and high-altitude activities all in close proximity to Denver, Colorado. If you're planning to visit the park from May 27 through October 10, 2022 you'll need to make a reservation on this website for a timed entry permit. This gives quick planners a chance to experience the normally brimming trails mostly free of the park’s 700,000 average visitors in the summer months.

Be sure to check the forecast and pack warm layers and storm gear – the Rockies are known to have unpredictable weather and fresh snow even in the summer months. If there's a piece of gear you've forgotten, however, there are numerous outfitters in Estes Park at the front door of Rocky Mountain NPS where you can grab last-minute supplies.

Natural highs: Colorado’s stunning national parks

Indiana dunes sunset
Sunset on the shore of Lake Michigan in the Indiana Dunes National Park © Daniel A. Leifheit / Getty Images

2. Indiana Dunes State and National Parks – Indiana

A biodiverse beach getaway doesn't require driving to the coast or the Gulf. Newly-minted Indiana Dunes National Park and its sister state park are both just under an hour from downtown Chicago and rest along more than 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s south shore. Though Indiana Dunes is one of the country's newest national parks, the area’s towering eponymous sand dunes and consistent waves have given generations of families, surfers and sunbathers a destination to swim, hike and camp. The region is also one of the most biodiverse among national parks; with forests, rivers, swamps and, of course, miles of boardwalk-paved beaches, visitors should plan to spend days exploring all the parks have to offer.

RVers and car campers alike are welcome, with sites just steps away from the shore. 

15 unforgettable experiences in US national parks

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Campground on San Miguel Island at Channel Islands National Park, California, USA
Campground on San Miguel Island at Channel Islands National Park, California © Tom Bean / Alamy Stock Photo

3. Channel Islands National Park – California

If you’ve ever felt like you wanted a true escape from civilization, Channel Islands National Park might already be at the top of your to-go list. Encompassing five isolated islands off southern California’s coast a little over an hour's drive from Los Angeles, not including your voyage by chartered boat, this park’s boundaries are host to a plethora of wildlife, history and activities.

Visitors can camp on any of the five islands, and typically only share the land with sea birds, seals, dolphins and many other wild creatures. You can arrange your trip to the islands via a private charter company, while camping reservations can be made in advance for any of the wilderness campsites across the five islands.

A quick guide to California's Channel Islands 

Las Vegas: On/Off Strip
Boulder City River Riders guide with kayaks in the Colorado River during a trip through Black Canyon © Kris Davidson / Lonely Planet

4. Lake Mead National Recreation Area – Nevada

Much more than just the largest reservoir in the US, Lake Mead National Recreation Area is Las Vegas’ outdoorsy playground. Ship out for a speedboat ride across the lake’s surface (which is formed by the mighty Hoover Dam), head south for a raft trip down the Colorado River or just relax on a hike through natural wonders adjacent to the Grand Canyon. The park’s latest reopening schedule allows for visitors to enter and camp either in swanky RV resorts on the Nevada side, or the established campgrounds across state lines in Arizona.

Entrance to Lake Mead National Recreation Area requires visitors purchase an annual pass for vehicle entrance, and a separate pass for vessel launching on the water. That means year-round entry for campers, who may inevitably admire the park’s grandeur enough to make countless return visits. 

Gems, caves and stars: Nevada’s most glittering experiences

A kayaker on Trillium Lake with the reflection of Mt. Hood
A kayaker on Trillium Lake with the reflection of Mt. Hood © Ron and Patty Thomas / Getty

5. Mt. Hood National Forest – Oregon

Portland, Oregon is certainly not wanting for green space nearby, but to locals and visitors alike, the Mt. Hood National Forest area surpasses all others. The titular mountain offers skiers and snowboarders fresh powder in the winter (and year-round at Timberline) and hikers and mountain bikers in the summer, while the surrounding 60 miles of forested ridges, lakes and streams sit waiting for adventurers to explore.

The national forest is currently phasing in openings of trailheads, parking areas, river access and campgrounds, and is expected to continue to open even more campgrounds and day-use areas in the coming weeks. Eager campers can look to reserve a limited but popular selection of campgrounds ahead of time through the National Forest Service. 

Vineyards, hiking and hot springs: plan your next trip around Oregon's best experiences

This article was first published Jun 13, 2020 and updated Jun 10, 2022.

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