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.

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.