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. 

  • Bonus Tip! Hiking is a must, and it's even better when you plan ahead (read: wear the right shoes). These five hiking tips from Colorful Places are a good checklist to make the most of your exploration. 

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.

From the Archives: Hawaii, Circa 2002

Later this month, we're heading to Hawaii for a friend's wedding. We're going to split our time between Oahu and Maui -- very similar to a childhood trip I took years ago.

Chris has been to Oahu, but never to Maui -- and I can't wait for him to see it! It's certainly more laid-back than Honolulu, although there's still a lively buzz and plenty to explore.

Here are some of the things I'm most excited for this time around! Any must-see's I should add to the list? Please share!

Flowers, everywhere.

From the moment you land, you can just tell it's a lush tropical paradise. I've never seen such vibrant flowers and greenery. As Chicago anxiously awaits our springtime blooms, I can't wait to be surrounded by palm trees and exotic plants.

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Beachfront living.

There's nothing better than having the ocean at your doorstep, and Maui's string of resorts take it to the next level. While we'll probably spend most of our time exploring the island, I'm already looking forward to kicking back with an evening mai tai and watching the sun set over Kaanapali Beach.

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Diverse natural scenery.

Waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains -- Hawaii's got it all, and plenty more. I'm looking forward to revisiting Haleakala, and the Iao Needle, once we get to Maui. There are also so many hidden waterfalls and outposts on the Road to Hana. So much to explore!

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The Aloha spirit.

From luaus to Kukui beads, the best part of a Hawaiian getaway is the relaxation it affords. This time around, I want to soak up as much of the local culture as possible -- and I have a feeling we'll never want to leave.

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Vail: A City Girl's Guide to the Mountains

I visited Vail last year smack dab in the middle of dead season. I planned a last-minute getaway with a girlfriend, right after the summer rush cleared out and still before the snow would fly in November. So, what do two city girls do in a virtually empty tourist mecca for three cool, but not yet cold, late-October nights? Plenty, as it turns out.

Vail circa 1960's. Source:  CN Traveler

Vail circa 1960's. Source: CN Traveler

We spent the bulk of our trip eating, shopping, cocktailing, repeat. Best of all, we had the pleasure of getting to know the fine folks who call Vail home. As two girls who enjoy a mountain view, but not exactly a mountain retreat (spa over slopes any day, my friends), fall in Vail is the perfect time for no wait at the best restaurants, mingling with boutique shop owners and navigating the (easier) hiking trails, albeit quite muddy.

So here are my picks of what to see and do in Vail, whether you're there for a winter wonderland or the middle of mud season. 

Vail for the Thirty Something:

Considering we aren't exactly nature enthusiasts, I was very proud we actually made it on a mountain hike. Vail looks beautiful even in that awkward late-fall, pre-winter stretch, so I can't wait to check it out with snow on the ground next time.

Considering we aren't exactly nature enthusiasts, I was very proud we actually made it on a mountain hike. Vail looks beautiful even in that awkward late-fall, pre-winter stretch, so I can't wait to check it out with snow on the ground next time.

We stayed at a timeshare resort right next to the  Betty Ford Alpine Gardens  and less than a five minute walk into the heart of town. It was perfect for what we needed, but if you're really looking for luxury spring for the  Arrabelle at Vail Square  -- so beautiful with an authentic ski lodge feel. 

We stayed at a timeshare resort right next to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and less than a five minute walk into the heart of town. It was perfect for what we needed, but if you're really looking for luxury spring for the Arrabelle at Vail Square -- so beautiful with an authentic ski lodge feel. 

We started every morning off with a stop at  Yeti's Grind , located right in the heart of the village. It's got quite the reputation amongst the locals we met, and for good reason. I stuck with plain old brewed coffee every day, but they have an extensive menu of specialty brews, including rotating features. 

We started every morning off with a stop at Yeti's Grind, located right in the heart of the village. It's got quite the reputation amongst the locals we met, and for good reason. I stuck with plain old brewed coffee every day, but they have an extensive menu of specialty brews, including rotating features. 

Navigating the hills on  Berrypicker . 

Navigating the hills on Berrypicker

The view from the top... or maybe almost halfway there.

The view from the top... or maybe almost halfway there.

For lunch, check out  Sweet Basil , located in the heart of Vail Village. It's consistently recognized as one of the best restaurants in Vail, and I can taste why. Try the Winter Squash Soup & the Duck Liver Bruschetta.

For lunch, check out Sweet Basil, located in the heart of Vail Village. It's consistently recognized as one of the best restaurants in Vail, and I can taste why. Try the Winter Squash Soup & the Duck Liver Bruschetta.

Babbling brooks, covered bridges, mountain air. Vail exudes a luxurious relaxation -- the perfect blend of rustic and chic. 

Babbling brooks, covered bridges, mountain air. Vail exudes a luxurious relaxation -- the perfect blend of rustic and chic. 

Just a short walk away, Lionshead Village feels one part more causal than Vail Village, another part equally upscale. We found tons of cute shops, but I'll give a nod to the Vail side of the mountain for better food and drink.

Just a short walk away, Lionshead Village feels one part more causal than Vail Village, another part equally upscale. We found tons of cute shops, but I'll give a nod to the Vail side of the mountain for better food and drink.

Mountain Standard  was easily the stand-out dinner of our trip. It's one of the best designed restaurants in Vail Village, and everything from the meat to produce to cocktail ingredients is sourced locally. Talking about cocktails, their  drink program  is outstanding -- for something sweet, go with the Otoño Pina. For smoky, try the Smoke and Mirrors. 

Mountain Standard was easily the stand-out dinner of our trip. It's one of the best designed restaurants in Vail Village, and everything from the meat to produce to cocktail ingredients is sourced locally. Talking about cocktails, their drink program is outstanding -- for something sweet, go with the Otoño Pina. For smoky, try the Smoke and Mirrors. 

No wonder we loved The George so much. For an apres ski evening reminiscent of your college years, start the night off at  The Shakedown  for some lively live music, followed by a nightcap at The George. Apparently it's a favorite of the  Chicago Blackhawks  -- which explains Kane's signed jersey in the lounge!

No wonder we loved The George so much. For an apres ski evening reminiscent of your college years, start the night off at The Shakedown for some lively live music, followed by a nightcap at The George. Apparently it's a favorite of the Chicago Blackhawks -- which explains Kane's signed jersey in the lounge!