Though much of the world is reopening after pandemic-induced lockdowns, travel is still a tricky proposition these days, especially for trips deemed non-essential. But for mask-wearing city-dwellers desperate for a change of scenery, there are options within driving distance to blow off some steam – without rubbing elbows with too many strangers along the way.
From the sand dunes of southern California to the mountains of upstate New York, here are some of our favorite places near major metropolitan areas to shake off the dust – no boarding passes or overnight stays required.
1. Oceano Dunes: California
After months in quarantine, you might need to get the lead out, and not much fits the bill like hopping on an ATV and going off-roading. A few miles south of Pismo Beach, about three hours north of Los Angeles, the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area spans some 3500 acres of sand, two-thirds of which is a nature preserve home to rare shorebirds like the snowy plover and the California least tern. The remaining 1100 or so acres are fair game for thrill-seekers, with a number of outfitters renting ATVs, UTVs, and 4x4s for day use. Note, though, that the park is currently open to walk-in and bike-in traffic only – most of the SVRA will be closed to vehicle access through October 1.
2. Browns Canyon National Monument: Colorado
Two-and-a-half hours south of Denver is Browns Canyon National Monument, a remote 21,589-acre parcel of public land studded with granite cliffs and outcroppings, designated by President Obama just five years ago. The Arkansas River runs right through, and it’s a stretch tailor-made for whitewater rafting, allowing, as the Bureau of Land Management asserts, “visitors to experience solitude in a natural setting while enjoying the scenery.” The tiny towns of Buena Vista and Salida are gateways to water-based recreation in the area, and operators like River Runners and Browns Canyon Rafting run small-group trips for all skill levels, from mellow family floats to full-day rapids-packed adventures.
3. Speedvegas: Nevada
What’s more socially distant than strapping into your own super-speedy vehicle and taking to the road? On the outskirts of the gambling capital of the United States, Speedvegas boasts two high-performance racetracks: the first, a 1.5-miler with a dozen turns and corners and 60 miles of elevation change, and the second, a 1.4-mile off-road course for trophy trucks, with 14 turns and eight jumps – one of which will have you airborn at heights of 20ft or more. You can sit behind the wheel and handle the driving yourself, or buckle up for a ride-along – either way, there are no speed limits here, so you can cruise as fast as you like.
4. Saginaw Bay Birding Trail: Michigan
Spring and fall are peak seasons for bird-watching, but our feathered friends aren’t completely absent during the summer months. On the eastern shore of Lake Huron, Michigan’s 142-mile Saginaw Bay Birding Trail shelters an assortment of species in its woodland, wetland, shoreline, and grassland habitats, from the blue-winged teal to the black-crowned night heron. It’s one of the few spots east of the Mississippi where you might catch yellow-headed blackbirds in nesting mode, and one of the only places in the country where the rare Kirtland’s warbler makes its home. Just keep your eyes peeled: A few years back, the team here identified 154 species in one 24-hour period, so you never know what you’ll find.
5. Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor: Oregon
Thanks to Haystack Rock and its iconic silhouette, Cannon Beach is one of the most prominent stops on the Oregon coast, and it’s well worth a visit during normal times – but given its popularity, perhaps not the best choice of destinations during a pandemic. Instead, consider one of the region’s lesser-traveled state parks. About five hours south of Portland, near the California border along Highway 101, Samuel H Boardman State Scenic Corridor offers secluded beaches and picnic spots, unique offshore rock formations, and multiple access points to an 18-mile chunk of the Oregon Coast Trail. Trails, viewpoints and beaches are open, as are vault toilets, but visitors are asked to pack out trash and turn around if it’s crowded.
6. Lake Placid: New York
Nestled in New York’s Adirondacks, the village of Lake Placid was the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and there’s lots to do in summertime as well. At the Olympic Sites, where masks are required for entry, Mt. Van Hoevenberg has some 18 miles of cross-country biking trails and more than 27 miles of hiking trails in varying degrees of difficulty, and the Olympic Jumping Center’s gondola and zipline are both open. A 2.7-mile loop encircles Mirror Lake, which anchors the community with shops and restaurants, not to mention swimming, boating, and stand-up paddleboarding in pristine mountain waters.
7. Dahlonega, Georgia
For East Coast imbibers dreaming of California wine country, there’s a respectable substitute right in their own backyard. An hour north of Atlanta in the North Georgia mountains, the Gold Rush town of Dahlonega is the lynchpin of the state’s thriving viticulture scene, with 12 tasting rooms and nine wineries, plenty of which have outdoor seating. Hit the surrounding Chattahoocheee-Okonee National Forest for hiking and waterfall-chasing, then take a leisurely ride along the 39-mile wine trail – with a designated driver, of course – to sample the regional bounty.