Suggestions for outdoorsy destinations in north-east of North America?
February 28, 2013 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Partner and I are planning to visit family in Michigan (Lake Huron) & Philadelphia in August. Since we are going all that way (from London), we thought perhaps we should also try and do something just ourselves for say 4-7 days but have no ideas. Is there anything like "Grand Canyon" level must-see in that area?

Looking for Non-City suggestions as we are a bit over seeing just another western city. They are all kinda the same. So Hiking, or outdoorsy activities. - although we are a bit new to this. Hike / Cabin trekking perhaps. We don't have any gear for hiking-camping at the moment.

Looking at the map, is there anything interesting up in Newfoundland or the Northwest Passage? Is it easy to get there?

We are both in 30s, looking for low-budget / middle-budget options.
posted by mary8nne to Travel & Transportation around South Burlington, VT (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Grand Canyon is certainly easier to get to from Michigan or Philadelphia than is Newfoundland or the Northwest Passage.
posted by bowbeacon at 7:55 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Niagara Falls?
posted by Perplexity at 7:58 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Will you have a car? That's really the big question here.

That said, in my opinion the nature in the western part of the US is much more awe-inspiring and bombastic than that of the east. There's nothing jaw-droppingly heart-stoppingly WTFSOAMAZINGEEEEEEEE in the Northeast.

But there are lots of beautiful places, lots of historical and cultural places, and lots of places to have a ton of fun. You're just not going to get that "holy shit how can something this beautiful even EXIST" sense that you would in Arizona or Montana.

What about the Adirondacks?
posted by Sara C. at 8:01 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Acadia National Park, on the Maine coast is a great destination for this sort of thing. Not exactly Grand Canyon, but it can be equally amazing if you like rocks and ocean and rocks on the ocean. The mountains are all small, but because they're on the coast they are rocky and open down low and have great views. There are some steep, rugged trails but also gentle trails. You would need little more than boots, and even most trails you'd be fine in sneakers.

The coast of Maine in August is wonderful. The most you'd deal with would be rain and maybe some cool temps at night. Being from England, you might have had your fill of rocky coasts, I dunno, but Acadia is beautiful any time of year.

It can be a bit crowded that time of year, but that goes for most of the Northeast. I'd suggest staying in Southwest Harbor as it's a bit more quiet but still within easy driving distance to good hiking and views.
posted by bondcliff at 8:02 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Skip Niagara, see Letchworth instead: It's less-touristy and - in my opinion - way more beautiful. Went there with the kids a few years ago and we all loved it.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:04 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Michigan and Pennsylvania are both full of beautiful scenery and eminently hikable areas, but I have to begrudgingly agree with Niagara Falls.
posted by Etrigan at 8:07 AM on February 28, 2013

You should certainly have a car - driving is an essential part of visiting the states. Given that, I'd agree that the coast of Maine would be a good destination, and you can and should check out Niagara on your way to or from Michigan. I'll put in a plug for the Finger Lakes as a good side trip as well, particularly the gorge trails around Watkins Glen and the Ithaca area.
posted by mr vino at 8:09 AM on February 28, 2013

You can do Niagara Falls and the Finger Lakes if you have multiple days. The Finger Lakes are not Grand Canyon-level "wow" but they are beautiful. And you can go wine tasting.

On preview: the aptly named mr vino has beaten me to it.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:11 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If by "cabin trekking" you mean the kind of thing where you can hike from one cabin/tentsite to another as part of a proscribed itinerary, there sadly isn't much of that in this country. (Alas, because I'd be totally down with that after reading about some hiking tours in Wales.)

What you could do, though, is get out to different parts of the Appalachian Trail. Part of it passes near Philadelphia, and plenty of people walk parts of the trail just for day hikes (you don't have too much in the way of camping equipment, so day hikes may be a good option).

As for other nearby places - well, first, Newfoundland would be quite hard to get to - it'd take a whole flight from Michigan or Philadelphia, or a couple days' drive if you have a car. Not sure what you're referring to as far as "the Northwest Passage." And Sara C. is right about the West being better for the real whizbang scenery. But Michigan and Philadelphia would put you rather near the following:

Mackinac Island
Cuyahoga Valley National Park (national parks may be a good bet, as they may have cheapish places to stay)
Shenandoah National Park
The Delaware Canal State Park
The Delware Water Gap (national "recreation areas" don't have quite the lodging facilities as such, but they are a bit different from parks in that they're more expressly for sports and recreation rather than preserving natural beauty)
Alleghnany National Recreation Area
Gateway National Recreation Area (this is spread between 3 spots in New Jersey and New York City, including tent camping sites in Brooklyn!)

Have a look at all that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:15 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just to address the question on a Car: We will hire a car if necessary, we both have licenses and have driven in the US before. I was expecting that its likely to be necessary for most destinations given the reputation of public transport in the USA.

Although I do prefer train travel when possible (i.e. in Europe).

On Camping Equipment: We could buy some basics if necessary. I"m not against camping - I just haven't really done it since I was a kid. and that was more "Car-Camping" with big tents and lots of gear.

Cabin Trekking - yes I meant where you do a multi-day walk stopping overnight at different Cabins along the way. They have them in Europe in the Alps quite a bit I believe.
posted by mary8nne at 8:16 AM on February 28, 2013

Oh, and getting to Fire Island national seashore would be do-able as well. It'd take a day to get you there, but it is possible to get there entirely via public transportation.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:19 AM on February 28, 2013

Rent a car and go caving in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. It's an experience you'll never forget.

Barring that, Niagara and the Finger Lakes are lovely.
posted by gauche at 8:24 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do not go to Niagara Falls.

I grew up near Niagara Falls and we always had to take relatives from Ireland to see it. You get there after a long drive, you drive up and down the road by the falls and argue about where to park and get out and look at the falls for a half an hour. While there are cool things like the butterfly conservatory, most of the other attractions are horrible rip-offs. Not even scenic in a kitchy sense. Just horrible.

If I were you, I'd go up to the north end of the peninsula and visit Manitoulin Island. Cup and Saucer mountain (just a hill, with cliffs on one side) was one of the first bits of land in the area to rebound as the glaciers retreated. The boulders along the pathway to the top are worn smooth in places from thousands of years of foot traffic.

It's a special place. They also don't allow franchise stores (except maybe Tim Horton's).
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:25 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Although I do prefer train travel when possible (i.e. in Europe).

Amtrak is much better on the East Coast than the West Coast, as far as frequency is concerned. That actual trains aren't as nice as they are in Europe.

Amtrack is now limiting baggage on some routes, so if you expect to check a bag, that could be problematic. That said, you can take a train from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls, Ontario in Canada (which I would TOTALLY recommend!) The fare is $142 one-way. You could then fly home out of Toronto.

We loved our excursion to Niagara Falls, and there's an adorable little villiage close by, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

SEPTA in Philladelphia may be okay for what you need to get around town, so you may not need to rent a car. There's the Phlash which will take you around to all the monuments and museums in Philly for $2.00 per day.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:27 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cabin Trekking - yes I meant where you do a multi-day walk stopping overnight at different Cabins along the way. They have them in Europe in the Alps quite a bit I believe.

There are a network of huts in the White Mountains of New Hampshire (and I think there are some in Maine now) and you could certainly do a hut-to-hut hike. The terrain can be rugged, the huts can be crowded, and they're not exactly cheap. I don't know how they compare to the ones in the Alps. Certainly the scenery would be different. Not quite as awe-inspiring as the alps but the Whites are beautiful in their own way.
posted by bondcliff at 8:27 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh The Appalachian Trail sounds like a good option as we were thinking of flying in/out via Philadelphia. Although it looks like the "Good-Bits" might be more up towards Vermont and New Hampshire. Thats where the national parks are:

Niagara Falls doesn't really appeal to me. I was thinking more wilderness.
posted by mary8nne at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2013

I think the reason why you're seeing the back-and-forth about Niagara Falls is because: on the one hand, it is indeed a scenic national wonder, but on the other hand there is a lot of tourist ticky-tacky built up around it. You would not be hiking through a forest to a protected wilderness spot and then coming upon it, you would be staying in a very kitschy touristy town and riding a tour guide bus to it and then maybe paying to take a boat ride to its base or...

So it's a scenic thing, but not quite the unspoiled verdant landscape I think you may be looking for.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you'd up for an American-length day or two of driving, it can be a beautiful drive down from Niagara down through to Pennsylvania. Lots of cute towns, many large forests, mountains. It's also cooler than Philadelphia will be in the depths of August. Newfoundland would be quite out of the way, as would Nova Scotia/PEI, despite being relatively closer. While you could hike part of the Appalachian Trail, it might require more time and equipment than you have. If you've never done longer hikes, it's certainly a great way to get a taste of backpacking, but you might want to ask more logistical questions about this. This is especially true if you are driving there and will need a ride back to your car. The coast of Maine is a great idea. On a very different note, since you'll be down in these parts anyway, Cape May? Lots of swimming, biking and beach walking, attractive Victorian houses, the chance to see a mellow slice of the Jersey Shore.

You will almost certainly need a car to get to trails and to the more exciting natural areas. If you did do the coast of Maine, you could drive down to Boston and easily take the train to Philadelphia, though.

I love Shenandoah National Park, but it would take a considerable amount of driving to get to or from there from Philadelphia. The Delaware Canal State Park and Delaware Water Gap are really quite nice but much more sedate; the Delaware River itself is a fantastic place to canoe or kayak on lazy water. You will not need a car in Philadelphia.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:28 AM on February 28, 2013

Hut-to-hut in the White Mountains can be pretty great! I love the Whites. It's dorm-style accommodation - bunk beds mostly. You could drive straight there from Philadelphia (7 or 8 hours) or fly into a New England airport (Boston MA or Manchester NH would be the obvious choices, or you could take the train to Boston) and drive 2 or 3 hours. There are buses from Boston but it is probably more trouble than it's worth. There are also buses between the trailheads if your hike doesn't take you in a circle, or you have a decent chance of being able to get a ride from other hikers. Here's a recommended itinerary from the Appalachian Mountain Club. AMC tends to be VERY conservative with their hiking times, for what it's worth.

Or you could just fly out to Las Vegas and see the Grand Canyon. That would be pretty cool too.

Shenandoah National Park can be hot as BALLS in August, and insanely humid. But it is nice too.
posted by mskyle at 8:32 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

You could spend a few days in "Wild and Wonderful" West Virginia and sample several different outdoor activities (personally, I would put 1-2 day whitewater rafting trip on the New River or similar as the centerpiece). Other outdoor recreation options include tons of hiking, mountain biking, caving, rock climbing/rapelling/ziplining. There are lots of outdoor "outfitters" who can set you up with the gear and guides you need for just about any activity--sometimes they can also provide camping/cabin accommodations, and the state parks often also have camping cabins.
posted by drlith at 8:45 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Someone will yell at me for saying this but the Appalachian trail in Pennsylvania is generally boring and full of rocks.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:12 AM on February 28, 2013

There are some nice, pleasant outdoor areas near Philadelphia but none of them are anywhere close to Grand Canyon level of cool. They are also not really what I would call wilderness, just a nice day hike in the woods. Also it will be hot as hell in Philadelphia in August, so not the best hiking weather.

Ricketts Glen
The Pinnacle
The Delaware Water Gap
The New Jersey Pine Barrens - you can pick blueberries there in August
There are some nice state parks at the beach in New Jersey or Delaware.

Around Philadelphia I think you are better off sticking to historic stuff, there are a lot of nice museums. Or Longwood Gardens is in my opinion much nicer than any gardens I've seen in Europe.

And yes I'll echo what everybody else said. Niagara Falls itself is cool but it is surrounded by tacky crap. And not in the wilderness.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:28 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Michigan offers plenty of amazing natural beauty, particularly in the Upper Peninsula. In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore you can find accommodations at just about every point on the spectrum from tent in the backcountry to swanky hotel. The scenery is jaw-dropping, the weather is great in the summer (warm days, cool evenings), and swimming in Lake Superior is an experience you'll never forget and can wear as a badge of honor.

The downside is that it may be quite a drive from wherever you will be in Michigan.
posted by PhatLobley at 9:35 AM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

Remember, you can drive for 12 hours straight and still be in Michigan. You may want to narrow your geographic scope a little. Although the drive from some parts of MI to upstate New York can be done in less than 10 hours, so if you're looking at those destinations, they may be driveable. Otherwise, you may want to fly between destinations.

Sleeping Bear Dunes on the Lake Michigan side is pretty cool, and if you have time, maybe drive up to the UP and down through Manitoulin, then take the ferry to Tobermory. I don't think there are any true hut-to-hut type hikes on the Bruce Trail, but it ends up in Tobermory, and the ~3 days or so of hiking south of there to/through the Bruce National Park are very pretty, and much more Wilderness than some of the other options. There are some B&Bs around, too.

A hut-to-hut hike on the AT in the Whites will get you mountain scenery that's more spectacular, but also a fair number of other travelers.
posted by ldthomps at 9:46 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Sounds like Maine Huts and Trails might be right for you. The "huts" are more like backwoods lodges, and the forests are beautiful.
posted by rebekah at 10:28 AM on February 28, 2013

I think your best bet would be anything upstate NY. In the scope of things its not as far as say maine or NYC. I live on long island but go upstate a lot and Its beautiful up there.

Long island has some great outdoors places to see but you said not any city type places.

Anyway anywhere upstate NY sounds like what you want.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:35 AM on February 28, 2013

There's nothing jaw-droppingly heart-stoppingly WTFSOAMAZINGEEEEEEEE in the Northeast.

I respectfully disagree. The West has newer, drier features and more empty space, but Michigan, Ontario, and the Northeast have lots of jaw-dropping, heart-stopping WTFSOAMAGINGEEEEEEEE that most people just don't even know about.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Isle Royale
Porcupine Mountains
Sleeping Bear Dunes
Bruce Peninsula
Hocking Hills
Mammoth Cave
Appalachian Mountains
posted by The World Famous at 11:18 AM on February 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

One thing I will say about the White Mountains in August is that the trip can range from absolutely perfect to horribly rainy to awful humidity and anywhere in between. Sometimes you get all these things in the same weekend. So if you're fine with weather or fine with varying conditions, the Whites will be ok. If you can't handle that or you'll be miserable if it rains or whatever then be prepared to change your itinerary or just skip the area altogether. Depending on where you are, some of these conditions can be dangerous. Mostly not though.

This is true for most of the Northeast, but in the mountains especially.
posted by bondcliff at 11:45 AM on February 28, 2013

Yeah don't go to Niagara falls.

I second both the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes - wine tasting + gorge trails + fantastic food.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:41 PM on February 28, 2013

I would add to the list of Michigan destinations within a reasonable distance:

Tahquamenon Falls
Sault Ste. Marie and its locks

If you plan to motor (as you would say) from your Michigan stop to Pennsylvania, then by all means see Niagara Falls on the way. Kitsch is itself an interesting thing to see.
posted by yclipse at 4:47 PM on February 28, 2013

Just jumping in to say there is nothing like Grand Canyon-level anything to rival the actual Grand Canyon. If you have the time and the money (for the round-trip flight) and think this may be one of your only chances to see it, it's worth the trip. It's a loooong way from Michigan or Philly (four and a half hour flight to Vegas, three hour drive to the south rim), but rest assured you won't see anything like it.

That said, the Adirondacks, Finger Lakes, Green Mountains and Maine are all lovely and offer plenty of outdoorsy adventure.
posted by stargell at 7:39 AM on March 1, 2013

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