Best Places to Relax in the Great Outdoors

American summers are synonymous with the outdoors. From baseball games, to farmer's markets, to balmy evening street fests, the best things to do aren't far from patios and parks.

I've recently discovered a love for hiking, biking and enjoying the truly natural side of nature. Outdoor activities are exhilarating, especially in a beautiful backdrop. That said, sometimes you just want to spend an afternoon basking in nature's beauty -- no sweating required. These four spots are great places to do just that.

Watkins Glen, New York

Located in the Finger Lakes region of upper New York, Watkins Glen boasts an impressive state park with beautiful walking trails winding through a network of waterfalls. The region is well known for its wineries, so you can easily pass a few days alternating between easy nature walks in the park and long lunches on winery verandas. Don't miss: Wagner Vineyards.

Ridgedale, Missouri

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Big Cedar Lodge sits on a peaceful lakefront stretch in Ridgedale, just outside of Branson. The conservation-conscious resort blends a perfect balance of outdoor activities with upscale amenities, making it a great place for family gatherings with mass appeal. You can be as active or relaxed as you want, and with such gorgeous views you don't feel guilty spending a whole day just lounging by the pool. 

Shenandoah, Virginia

On a family vacation through Virginia to South Carolina, we stopped for a night in Shenandoah National Park and stayed in a cabin at the popular Big Meadows Lodge. Talk about a perfect outdoor retreat! The views of the Blue Ridge Mountains are unmatched, especially when followed by a laid-back evening roasting s'mores around the campfire. 

Devil's Lake, Wisconsin

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Back in middle school, our brave teaches packed the entire seventh grade class into buses and spent two nights camping in Devils Lake State Park. With easy hiking trails, a large beach and lots of camping sites, this park is a great weekend getaway for outdoor enthusiasts.

Beer Today, Beer Tomorrow

America has so many great beer cities, like Denver, Millwaukee and Boston -- just to name a few of the tried and true. But after a weekend in Grand Rapids, I second its claim as the top beer town for craft brew enthusiasts.

From the nationally recognized Founders Brewery, to regionally acclaimed brewers like Vivant, this western Michigan gem of a town takes its beer seriously. Last month, seven of us made the three-hour jaunt from Chicago to sample selections at more than five local haunts.

Kicking off the evening with a variety of beers at Grand Rapids Brewing Company, right in the heart of downtown.

Kicking off the evening with a variety of beers at Grand Rapids Brewing Company, right in the heart of downtown.

I did some research beforehand and landed us tickets on the Hoptimus Prime -- an incredible deal at only $10 per person for all-night hop-on, hop-off shuttle service around town. Our driver was more than accommodating, helping us map out the top spots to see over a five-hour span. Yes, folks, this evening was a marathon -- not a sprint.

Now this is my kind of bus. The Hoptimus Prime, operated by Beer City Runner, is the best -- and safest -- way to get around on a Grand Rapids barcrawl... and it's a steal at only $10/person for the entire night!

Now this is my kind of bus. The Hoptimus Prime, operated by Beer City Runner, is the best -- and safest -- way to get around on a Grand Rapids barcrawl... and it's a steal at only $10/person for the entire night!

Here are my tips to make the most of a night in Grand Rapids -- and my top pick for beer to try while you're there. 

1. You must eat at Brewery Vivant.

Besides being one of the coolest breweries in the city, with fantastically eclectic brews, Vivant boasts a delicious food menu -- including to-die-for frites. As a frites connoisseur myself, I don't dole out this distinction lightly. In terms of ambiance, the space is so unique, reminiscent of a trappist monestary with a huge stained glass window in the main dining room. 

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When you're there, make sure you try at least two of the beers. My favorite was the Farm Hand, a French-style farmhouse ale, but I honestly think they could turn even me into a stout fan here. 

2. Founders Brewing Co. is a great daytime stop -- but totally skippable after sunset.

When we got to town, we wanted to see Founders, but thought it would be best to try out the more obscure breweries first (in case we didn't make it all night). But, when Hoptimus Prime stopped in front of the beautiful -- and busy -- patio at the brewery, we knew we needed to make it back.

Source: BeerLens

Source: BeerLens

Founders became our second-to-last stop on the barhop -- but when we arrived, well after dark, we were disappointed to find the fun daytime crowd had dissipated into a strange group of folks dancing to a mediocre DJ, complete with strobe lights and old-school rap. This place is definitely a must-do during the day, when the patio is open and you can enjoy laid-back beers with a group of friends.

3. If you're looking for the best international beer selection, HopCat is your place.

While Grand Rapids is all about locally brewed beers, HopCat is a must-see for those of us who have a thing for hard-to-find Belgian classics. It's constantly listed as one of America's top beer bars -- the kind of place that makes you want to swirl, smell and sip while talking the finer points of brewing with a knowledgeable barkeep.

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We didn't have a chance to eat here, but I have a feeling the food is pretty fantastic, too. And with a central location right in the heart of Grand Rapids, it's the perfect start or end on your brewery tour.

4. The B.O.B. only gets better as the night goes on.

Before we even got to town, we had heard about The B.O.B. The downtown hotspot isn't just a brewery -- it's a consortium of restaurants, bars and entertainment venues all under one, constantly hopping roof. Sadly, after lingering a little too long at Founders, we barely made it there to hear the awesome brass band's encore -- a lively rendition of "Uptown Funk." 

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You can tell this is the place where everyone from college kids to middle-aged jazz fans come to kick back. Definitely make sure you get there in time to enjoy the weekend entertainment -- it will be a fun night well spent.

5. My favorite beer in town? The Hefeweizen at Elk Brewing.

To be totally honest, Elk Brewing -- a fairly new brewer on the scene -- wasn't exactly my favorite spot on our trip. We got there a little hungry, and looking for more to tide us over than the bar nuts and popcorn available for purchase. But what this brewery may have lacked in ambiance, it certainly made up for in flavor. I absolutely loved my Hefeweizen -- so much I'd call it my favorite brew of the trip. Chris sampled a really unique IPA micro brew, which literally looked like a science project filtered from a beaker in the middle of the bar. It was super tasty.

If you get there early enough, you'll have a good selection of board games to enjoy over a lively conversation with your buddies. Just beware: Don't plan to eat here -- it's solely focused on good beer (and that's okay by me!).

Memorial Day Destination: Lake Geneva, WI

If you're still on the fence about next weekend's plans, look no further! Lake Geneva is an easy, 1.5-hour drive from Chicago -- and with a sunny weekend forecast, there will be plenty to do. Last month, Chris and I were there to celebrate our second anniversary, since it's the city where we exchanged "I do's." 

The Riviera sits prominently on the edge of Geneva Lake. This is where Chris and I held our wedding reception.

The Riviera sits prominently on the edge of Geneva Lake. This is where Chris and I held our wedding reception.

We stayed at the Mill Creek Hotel, a quaint cottage-style inn right in the heart of the city. It's the perfect location to take advantage of Main Street shopping and dining, along with the lakefront attractions just a few steps away. But if you're looking for more Memorial Day fun, surrounding resorts like The Abbey have full schedules planned.

Lake Geneva's been a well-known summer playground for Chicago's well-to-do for decades, with historic lakeside summer estates once owned by recognizable names like Rockefeller and Wrigley. While you're in town, check out the well-trimmed mansions with a stroll on the lakefront trail, which circles the entire lake and takes you into the backyards of each gorgeous retreat.

Just one example of the beautiful summer retreats sprinkled along Geneva Lake. Source: Keefe Real Estate

Just one example of the beautiful summer retreats sprinkled along Geneva Lake. Source: Keefe Real Estate

When we were in town, we spent our time dining, drinking and lazily strolling through downtown -- but there's really so much more to do in this popular weekend destination. Here are some of my favorite things to check out if you happen to make it there next weekend.

A Romantic Weekend Retreat