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Weekend getaways (particularly national parks)
August 6, 2014 6:03 PM   Subscribe

What are some natural places in the US that are transcendent and mind-blowing and just made you say "wow"?

I have frequent flyer miles, and I'm looking for places to go within the US for a long weekend.

I'd particularly like to go to national parks or monuments and other places of great beauty. Hiking, biking, kayaking, or just walking around a beautiful mountain or lake.

What are some places you've been to that have been transcendent and mind-blowing and just made you say "wow"...that you can get to within a 1 - 3 hour drive from an airport and enjoy in a 1 - 2 day stretch without too much equipment?

Thank you!
posted by 3491again to Travel & Transportation (40 answers total) 91 users marked this as a favorite
 
Zion. You can drive from Las Vegas. When I went, I stayed at a motel in Springdale which is just outside the park.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 6:06 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


On the stark/desolate side of the scale, I loved Painted Desert/Petrified Forest in Arizona.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern WI is mindblowingly gorgeous. Several outfitters do kayak day trips into the sea caves, or longer trips that involve camping out on the islands. It's a 4-hour drive from Minneapolis-St Paul, but if you can fly into Duluth it's much closer. I also like pretty much all of the North Shore of Superior (the MN side), especially the Split Rock/Gooseberry Falls/Tettegouche section.
posted by dorque at 6:16 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


It's a long flight out but Kauai is seriously amazing.
posted by teremala at 6:22 PM on August 6 [5 favorites]


Everyone must visit Yellowstone at least once. If you haven't, do. It was our first national park for a reason.

You won't be able to see it all in two days, but you can hit the biggies. Fly into Billings and enjoy a beautiful drive into the park.
posted by peakcomm at 6:24 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


Mt Rainier - fly to Seattle. Stunning.

Death Valley - fly to Las Vegas - 2 hours drive. Don't do it in the summer - we went in January and stayed in the lodge. Empty and so astonishingly big.

Zion - yes!

Grand Canyon.
posted by leslies at 6:30 PM on August 6


Tonto Natural Bridge
posted by Sassyfras at 6:31 PM on August 6


Joshua Tree National Park. Amazing views, great hikes.

Couple hour drive from LA. You can get a nice place on Airbnb. Very relaxing.
posted by tommccabe at 6:32 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Acadia National Park is another good one.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:36 PM on August 6


All of these are great places to go and many of them you could spend a lifetime exploring. However, one that's a bit farther off the beaten path that is stunning in a very unexpected way is Devil's Tower National Monument in the NE corner of Wyoming. It's about 1 1/2 hour drive from Rapid City, SD and the drive there is worth the price of admission alone. The surprise is the scale of the thing. You just can't imagine it until you get there. It's not a huge park, but the walk around the Tower is wonderful and the surrounding countryside is beautiful as well.
posted by BillW at 6:39 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


As long as you're doing the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert, hit Sedona. It's one of my most favorite places! Also, Casa Grande, Montazuma's Castle/well.

And the Smoky Mountains.

Yosemite.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:40 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Carlsbad Caverns! The Big Room is cool, but what gave me that transcendent feeling was walking down the Natural Entrance route, all alone, first thing in the morning before too many people got there. Also, in summer you get the bat flight at sunset! The park is two and a half hours from the El Paso airport. (Along the way, you'll go through Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which I have not visited, but which might be a good palate cleanser from all the people at Carlsbad Caverns.)
posted by sigmagalator at 6:41 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


If you can get to Yellowstone, drive the Beartooth Highway. Amazing views. The steep hairpin turns clinging to the edge of the mountain made me cry in utter terror at one point. But it sure was beautiful.
posted by belladonna at 6:45 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Not the continental US, but the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park is the most amazing place I've ever been on this planet so far.
posted by skycrashesdown at 6:56 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


If you've not seen the Sequioas, you should go there. I've been to the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and a bunch of other amazing places, but nothing beats those enormous trees.
posted by something something at 6:57 PM on August 6


Can you get to Denali? Oh, lordy mercy, Denali! It makes my heart go all quiet.
posted by mochapickle at 7:16 PM on August 6


Yosemite and Zion.
posted by willbaude at 7:20 PM on August 6


(CA) You'll have to wait until spring, but the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve is obscenely beautiful.

(MI) Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive - super pretty in the fall, and lots of scenic hikes available.

(AZ) The late summer brings monsoon rains to the Southwest, and rainy deserts are pretty awesome and most of the west is Federal or State property so there's a lot of nature to explore - but with just a weekend you could easily miss the storms.. Around Tucson, I like to go a bit west to Catalina State Park and the Montrose pools, or east to Tanque Verde canyon. Lots of water this time of year and I find canyon walks more interesting and comfortable (cooler) than spending hours switching backing up a mountain trail, regardless of whether it's forested or not.
posted by unmake at 7:20 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I loved seeing Tucson, staying in an adobe b&b, seeing the Arizona-Sonora Desert Musuem, eating fry bread at the Tohono O'odham fair on the grounds of the seventeenth century Mission San Xavier del Bac, one of the finest examples of Spanish Mission architecture in this country, and eyeing the amazing saguaro cactus on the drive. There was a canyon trek, fabulous Mexican food in Old Town and a lively cultural community.

On the same trip, we flew to Santa Fe which enchanted me. I loved seeing pueblos and architecture so different. I loved shopping both for Native American arts and crafts and the more extensive art community offerings. There's a lot of history here; Santa Fe is the oldest city in the country, I have heard.
posted by Anitanola at 7:28 PM on August 6


Lake Tahoe is amazing -- the color of the water is completely unique. There are some very nice hikes in the area, and tons of hotels, but you can still feel like you've escaped. You can fly into Reno, NV.

The Smith River in California is unique -- it's never been damned, and has the most amazing crystal-clear water. You can look down 20-30 feet, and it's as clear as a glass of water. My favorite section runs through Jedediah Smith State park, which is FULL of redwoods, including the world's tallest tree. You can fly to Crescent City from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
posted by OrangeDisk at 7:32 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Having just visited Yellowstone by flying into Billings and driving the Beartooth Highway, yes, it is indeed beautiful. But, in my opinion, the Old Faithful area is the most awesome mind-blowing area, and it is a long, long day to drive from Billings to Old Faithful, walk around, and drive back. I did that a couple of weeks ago and it was a 14 hr day, most of it driving.

You might be better off flying into Jackson and driving up from there. That way you hit the Grand Tetons also which are beautiful as well.
posted by elmay at 7:46 PM on August 6 [4 favorites]


Seconding Devil's Tower, Yosemite, Sequoias and Yellowstone. Also, Crater Lake.
posted by Rash at 7:56 PM on August 6


Yellowstone. There is a tiny airport near West Yellowstone that some tiny planes fly into. From there is a two how drive to West Yellowstone. Though i went to Yellowstone in the winter and did snow mobile tours. Big Sky is also very closeby and hadamazing skiing. And as it is the off season the rates for were cheap. We ended up staying a week longer than expected.

For me it was well worth the 30 + hour drive from Chicago.

I think LA is a good city for vacation. If you know your way around you can visit mountains and beaches in the same day.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:22 PM on August 6


I'm an east coaster but two places in CA have come close to bringing tears to my eyes: the muir woods, for the redwoods, and the devil's punchbowl, in the antelope valley, for the intense high desert quiet.
posted by ftm at 8:40 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Moab, UT - Arches National Park (and Canyonlands just down the road) - Delicate Arch is by far one of the most spectacular sites I've ever seen

The cliff dweelings at Mesa Verde National Park
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:48 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


We loved Arches National Park so much we got married there. It's close to Zion within driving distance. Nthing Yosemite. And, it's small, but I adore Pinnacles National Park. Also...

Bryce Canyon.
Canyonlands.
Mesa Verde.
Monument Valley.
Vermont in the fall.
Acadia National Park in Maine.
Kau'a'i and/or Maui, both have fabulous national parks.
Everglades.
Joshua Tree.
Zion, Zion, Zion. Absolutely stunning.

Oh yes, and buy yourself a National Parks Pass. Most bang for your buck.
posted by onecircleaday at 8:51 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


Big Sur. While you're at it, drive the Pacific Coast Highway.
Santa Fe - no place like it in the country, and best artwork outside of NYC if you're into it.
Tahoe.
posted by onecircleaday at 8:53 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I just took a road trip from LA to Colorado Springs and back. Southern route on the way there, through Colorado and Utah on the way back. I was driving major highways, so not exactly what you're asking, but I found the Petrified Forest mind-numbing, and Western Colorado to be the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
posted by Pacrand at 9:23 PM on August 6


I wasn't Yellowstone's biggest fan - it was sort of crowded and stay-on-the-path for my taste especially in the geyser basin where staying on the path is important for safety.

However, I frakkin love Grand Teton National Park.
posted by 26.2 at 9:39 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]


The Black Hills of South Dakota, particularly Custer State Park.
posted by katemonster at 11:04 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Yosemite is #1 for me. Also September is a great time to go. The summer crowds are almost all gone, but it hasn't got cold yet. Go up to Glacier Point, see the view of Half Dome, then watch the beautiful sunset. Wait for darkness and watch the stars. Oh the stars there are amazing. The view of the night sky is almost as breathtaking as the view of Yosemite during daytime. If you have time, drive up onto the Tioga Pass, because Tenaya Lake is beautiful too.
posted by Joh at 11:18 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]


Sequoia and Kings Canyon, about an hour out of Fresno. Deep misty redwoods; bizarre moonscape, cliffs, idyllic wooded valley, one after the other. I think I say 'wow'!
posted by Erasmouse at 12:21 AM on August 7 [1 favorite]


A lot of these seem like a stretch for a weekend. You'll spend more time on flights and driving than at the park.
posted by smackfu at 4:55 AM on August 7


In Northern NM, there's Tent Rocks, which is amazing. You could easily see it in the same weekend as Sante Fe, Taos (& the Rio Grande Gorge box canyon along the way), Bandelier, and Valles Caldera, where the sky feels close enough to touch. And there's great hiking generally in the Santa Fe area -- pick up a copy of the really nice (and thick!) guide to Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area, which you can order preemptively on-line or find basically anywhere in Santa Fe.

Further south is White Sands. Stay for nightfall; the sky is crystal clear, and sometimes you'll have amazing thunderstorms off in the distance at the same time as the cloudless skies above. It would be a fair bit of driving, but you could do a larger loop of NM if you had a week instead of a weekend -- Tent Rocks, Bandelier, &c; then White Sands (you could stop to see the VLA on the way); then Carlsbad & back again.
posted by Westringia F. at 5:26 AM on August 7 [2 favorites]


(I meant to add: Santa Fe & environs are all within a couple hours drive of Albuquerque, and if you're willing to rough it in a lousy motel for gov't physicists, you can stay in Los Alamos for half of what you'd spend to stay in Santa Fe. If you're feeling adventurous, you can even fly directly into Los Alamos from ABQ on a Cessna for fifty bux, and rent a car there. I've taken that flight and it is awesome.)
posted by Westringia F. at 5:38 AM on August 7


Zion was amazing. On the same trip we saw the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Antelope Canyon, and Valley of Fire SP but Zion really is the place I want to return to.

Acadia is nice too, if you like rocky coasts and steep hiking. There's also nice bike trails there as well.
posted by bondcliff at 6:09 AM on August 7


We did Joshua Tree in a three-day weekend, flying into Palm Springs. No special equipment needed (we were there early winter, so with the hot weather it may take a little more planning). We stayed at a really awesome bed and breakfast nearby.

While it wasn't a national park, kayaking in the Florida Keys was also very restful.
posted by typecloud at 7:35 AM on August 7


Further south is White Sands. Stay for nightfall; the sky is crystal clear, and sometimes you'll have amazing thunderstorms off in the distance at the same time as the cloudless skies above. It would be a fair bit of driving, but you could do a larger loop of NM if you had a week instead of a weekend -- Tent Rocks, Bandelier, &c; then White Sands (you could stop to see the VLA on the way); then Carlsbad & back again.


If you can manage it, camping at White Sands during a full moon is spectacular.
posted by Flamingo at 7:54 AM on August 7


Of the many national parks I've been to Bryce Canyon was the most mind-blowing.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:52 PM on August 7


The unbelievable, unparalleled, unforgettable Mighty 5: Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks (and all the amazing landscapes in the relatively short distances between them). This site allows you to plan an itinerary among this little cluster of stunning parks that best suits your interests for long weekends or week-long excursions.
posted by beanie at 9:08 PM on August 8


Zion is amazing. The Narrows is one of the most awesome places I have ever been.

Another of our favorite spots is Olympic National Park. Beautiful mountains, lakes, beaches, and a rain forest.
posted by jpdoane at 7:08 AM on August 11


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