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.

America's Most Beautiful Scenery

Since today is Earth Day, I've been thinking about some of my favorite scenery trips across the country. From beaches to mountains, volcanoes to forests, canyons to waterfalls, the United States really does have an amazing variety of landscapes. And while I've seen quite a few, there are so many places still on my list -- Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Badlands, just to name a few!

That said, here are my three favorite natural sights, so far:

1. Haystack Rock - Cannon Beach, OR

The Pacific Northwest is probably one of my favorite scenery destinations in the United States. When I think back to a vacation throughout Washington and Oregon, Cannon Beach stands out as a highlight. Nearby Haystack Rock, pictured above, authoritatively commands the coastline. When we were there, it was a cloudy, cool afternoon, which only accentuated the formidable formation's appeal.

2. Mendenhall Glacier - Juneau, AK

While on a cruise up the Alaskan coast, unfortunately our ship had mechanical errors and had to sail home before we made it up to the northernmost destinations. But, we did have the chance to be impressed by the sheer size of Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of Juneau. It's impressive to see the scenery's calm reflection in the icy, smooth-as-glass waters below. 

3. Bryce Canyon - Cedar City, UT

Like I've said, if you're looking for an adventurous, dynamic getaway, you can't go wrong touring Utah. While each national park is essentially filled with rock formations, you'd be shocked at just how different the topography can be. In Bryce Canyon, we took a horseback riding trip along the rocky cliffs. The way the sun streams through the rocks creates such unique and beautiful lighting, and is certainly a sight for your bucket list.

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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