Just as it felt the world was opening up, the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic changed yet again. One thing that hasn’t changed: our desire to get away—but perhaps not too far just yet. These trips provide the perfect in-between, with many outdoor options. (Be sure to stay informed about the latest, book accommodations in advance, and take safety precautions.) These itineraries are just a starting point while planning your next vacation.
International Falls, Minnesota
THIS NORTHERN MINNESOTA NATIONAL PARK HAS SCENIC VIEWS, WILDLIFE, AND ADVENTURE TO SPARE.
Voyageurs National Park is a water park in the truest sense, complete with natural waterways, forests, and stunning nighttime views of the stars, moon, and maybe even the northern lights. It’s a visual testament to how nature changes over time, molded by earthquakes and glaciers. Located in northern Minnesota, Voyageurs is about a 12-hour drive away.
Despite its beauty, the park remains an under-the-radar escape. “You can go there during [peak tourist] times of the year, go into a campsite, and never see anybody for the entire weekend,” says Michael Ward, the deputy regional director at the National Park Service and former superintendent of the park.
During summer months, visitors can hike; camp under the stars; and fish, swim, canoe, and boat in the nearby lakes. Come wintertime, those lakes freeze over and snow blankets the park, making it an ideal spot to ski, snowmobile, and ice fish.
Although 40 percent of the park is made up of water from the Rainy, Kabetogama, Namakan, and Sand Point lakes, there are forests and they teem with plant and animal life. Those forests are home to North Woods animals such as moose, gray wolves, black bears, beavers, and amphibians. Walleye, northern pike, lake trout, and sturgeon all call these waters home, too. And look up or across the water to find bald eagles, loons, double-crested cormorants, owls, and warblers.
Don’t miss Ellsworth Rock Gardens, located on Kabetogama Lake. The garden has been constructed on a rock outcrop. It features 62 terraced flowerbeds with many flower varieties and around 200 abstract rock sculptures by modern sculptors.
Be sure to block out plenty of time for exploration because, according to Ward, “Voyageurs is one of those places where it’s all remarkable.”
Worth the Trip
On September 12, Arrowhead Stadium hosts the season opener against Baker Mayfield and the Browns in a rematch of last year’s AFC divisional playoff game. Tailgate or visit a local sports bar, such as the Peanut (KC’s oldest bar and grill, famous for its mammoth chicken wings) or Maloney’s (with a rooftop bar in downtown Overland Park).
Held in Alabama’s Gulf Shores from October 7–10, this free festival has taken place every year since 1971 and brings in nearly 250,000 visitors. Guests can indulge in some of the best fresh seafood around, catch concerts across a range of genres, create arts and crafts masterpieces, and enter the sand sculpture contest.
Asheville, North Carolina
THE MOUNTAIN TOWN IS RICH WITH BREWERIES, ART GALLERIES, AND BREATHTAKING VIEWS.
If you’re heading to Asheville, you’ll be implored to tour the Biltmore Estate—the Vanderbilt family’s historic 8,000-acre property in the Blue Ridge Mountains—and for good reason. Tickets are a little pricey (admission starts at $76 per person), but it’s worth it. The history is fascinating (the home has one of the first indoor pools of the late-19th century), and the views are breathtaking (especially when it’s decorated for the holidays).
Spend another day hiking in Mount Mitchell State Park, which has the highest peak east of the Mississippi River, at 6,684 feet. Drive 35 miles northeast of downtown Asheville, along picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway, to reach the summit. There, you have your pick of a few trailheads. A short trail will get you to the observation deck atop Mount Mitchell; a much longer hike will lead you to a waterfall.
And for a more low-key day, shop in downtown’s Grove Arcade. The city is known for its beekeeping, and shops like the Asheville Bee Charmer sell about 25–35 types of honey and honey- or beeswax-infused products. Downtown is also a hub for art galleries and makers’ spaces.
On your first night, visit the hip Italian eatery Modesto, and order a wood-fired pizza to pair with your wine. For breakfast, reserve a spot at Tupelo Honey, which serves Southern fare—notably, sriracha honey fried chicken and waffles. For lunch, try White Duck Taco Shop, where affordable taco options range from duck and banh mi tofu to buffalo chicken and lamb gyro. Another must is Battery Park Book Exchange, a bookstore-meets-Champagne-bar that’s like a dinner party at a global tastemaker’s home. Guests can sit at tables across the two floors and browse the titles on surrounding bookshelves. The North Carolina town is also known for its many breweries and wineries.
The Biltmore offers the Inn on Biltmore Estate. Otherwise, the best option is one of the many affordable Airbnb rentals. For example, “Blue Ridge Tranquility,” near Weaverville, is a 20-minute drive from downtown Asheville—just far enough to relax after a day on the town.
❝ Every year, my wife and I leave the NFL season for a trip to Europe. Amsterdam and Paris are our usual stops. We can’t wait to get back.” —Joe Buck, American sportscaster
VIBRANT TOWNS AND PRISTINE TRAILS ARE TUCKED AMONG THE ROLLING OZARK HILLS IN NORTHWEST ARKANSAS, MAKING THEM IDEAL PLACES TO HIKE AND BIKE.
Just north of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas’ campus, Rogers and Bentonville are both welcoming towns that cater to an outdoorsy crowd. Each boasts plenty of hotels and bed and breakfasts (notably, 21c Museum Hotel and the Victoria Bed & Breakfast in downtown Bentonville), along with breweries (Natural State, Bentonville Brewing, the brand-new Rendezvous Junction), coffee shops (Onyx, Airship), cafés (Pressroom, Louise, 8th Street Market, Spark Café), bars (Scotch & Soda, Tower Bar), and restaurants (Preacher’s Son, Tusk & Trotter). That’s not to mention, of course, the artsy destinations (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Momentary) and family-friendly spots (Amazeum, Railyard Park, The Walmart Museum). For camping, Horseshoe Bend Campground on Beaver Lake has both powered and basic sites, along with a marina. Camping along the lakeshore makes for beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
Take a Hike
A variety of trails are available to hikers and bikers at the Hobbs State Park–Conservation Area in Rogers. The Pigeon Roost Trail and Hobbs Karst Loop are two of the most popular choices. Check out the impressive visitors’ center to learn about the area’s ecology. A bit farther south, just outside of Fayetteville, explorers will find Devil’s Den State Park, which offers unique rock formations, springs, caverns, and an 8-acre lake. Fossil Flats and the Devil’s Den are popular day hikes while the Butterfield Trail loop is an option for overnight backpackers. And east of the Rogers/Bentonville area, the 1,610-acre Lake Leatherwood City Park in Eureka Springs offers multi-use trails for hikers and mountain bikers.
An urban mountain biking experience, the Slaughter Pen is as exciting as it is convenient. More than 40 miles of trails wind from the trailhead in the center of Bentonville and provide challenges for all skill levels. Post-ride, bikers can find a bite to eat and a cold beverage within a block or two of the trailhead. A mile west of Bentonville, the Coler MTB Preserve is another destination for those seeking the singletrack. Flow trails and jump lines merge with rocky sections, creating plenty of trail options for every age and ability.
❝ I love getting out and exploring in my RV, but right now I’m most excited about two trips I just booked. The first is Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend, four days of music at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Riviera Maya. The other is a river cruise with Altair Travel & Cruises. We’ll be discovering the food, wine, and culture along the Rhône and Saône rivers. I’ve done two other river cruises in the past, and it changed the way I want to travel.”—Heidi Glaus, on-air personality The Big 550 KTRS
French Lick, Indiana
THE MIDWEST TOWN IS A DESTINATION WITH ENOUGH HISTORY, ENTERTAINMENT, SPA LUXURY, AND TRAINS TO KEEP YOU BUSY FOR A LONG WEEKEND.
French Lick got its name from the high mineral and sedimentary concentrations in the water and soil, which made the Indiana town as appealing to bears and other wildlife as a salt lick—and, therefore, to the area’s early French settlers as well.
The big players in town are twin hotels, French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs, at French Lick Resort. On the two properties (connected by footpaths and both rail and road trolleys), dining options range from the upscale 1875: The Steakhouse to Ballard’s in the Atrium (a casual eatery under the world-famous, 200-foot-diameter domed ceiling of the West Baden Springs Hotel). Note that as of June 2021, you must be an overnight guest to dine at the hotels’ restaurants. For other local eateries, venture to 33 Brick Street, where “sports bar” doesn’t quite do justice to the incredible display of memorabilia from home-towner and retired Boston Celtics star Larry Bird. Grab a burger or chicken salad sandwich, and soak up the local pride. To sample some of the region’s terroir, try a flight from French Lick Winery, where the red Noiret is worth a taste.
Options for fun ways to spend your days abound, from world-class golf courses to the nearby casino to luxury spas. If you’re seeking a Vegas-style show, Abbeydell Hall hosts popular musical revues and illusionist jaw-droppers. Or feast your eyes on some of the surrounding countryside on a two-hour ride into Hoosier National Forest aboard the historic French Lick Scenic Railway. (Thrill-seekers can also choose the “Wild West Holdup” train excursion.) Finally, you may never experience an animal encounter closer than the ones available at Wilstem Wildlife Park, where you and your family can pet a kangaroo, feed a sloth, or bathe an elephant. Ziplining and horseback riding round out Wilstem’s offerings.
The two aforementioned hotels are the town’s marquee properties, but if you’re looking for other options, consider bunking at Big Splash Adventure. It includes a variety of family- and group-friendly room options, such as bunk beds, as well as access to the 40,000-square-foot indoor water adventure park. A retractable roof means you can take advantage of nice-weather days, too.
App Your Service
THESE APPS MAKE TRAVEL THAT MUCH EASIER.
Just as Airbnb revolutionized where we stay, this app is changing how we get there. Through Turo, users can rent local vehicle owners’ cars. Each car owner sets the daily price, allowed mileage (and extra fees if exceeded), and stipulations (e.g., no pets, no smoking, return with a tank of gas). It could be a great way to save money if you’re looking to rent an SUV or test-drive your dream sports car.
Sometimes the best part of vacation isn’t the relaxation but rather the shared experiences. A trip to Wyoming, for instance, promises scenic views, but travelers should consider booking an especially memorable adventure, such as a float trip down one of Grand Teton National Park’s winding rivers. That’s where an app such as Venku comes in handy. Users can swipe through listings from local hosts offering guides through hunting, fishing, camping, and more outdoor activities.
Vacations can be costly. If traveling with a group of friends, each person might want to know who picked up the dinner tab here, paid for groceries there, and put down their credit card for the hotel stay. This app helps users track all of that and then splits it evenly among the parties. You can even link a Venmo account and settle expenses in a couple of clicks.
FOLLOW THE GREAT LAKE’S COASTLINE FOR A BEACHFRONT VACATION.
If you’re looking for a beach trip without traveling to the coasts, there’s an alternative just a five-hour drive north, along the shores of Lake Michigan. Inviting towns dot the Great Lake’s coastline, from Michigan City, Indiana, to Sawyer, Michigan. Each stop offers quaint boutiques, delicious fare, and breathtaking sunsets. Here’s a road map for the scenic journey.
Michigan City, Indiana:
Scour Airbnb and VRBO for listings with private beach access, and close proximity to Indiana Dunes National Park. For a relaxing stay, book a cabin at Serenity Springs resort; if it’s an adults-only trip, consider The Brewery Lodge, a boutique hotel that treats dwellers to bar and brewery tours. There’s also shopping at the city’s outlet mall, games at the local Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa, and public access to the beach at Washington Park Beach.
New Buffalo, Michigan:
One of the most charming towns along the coast, New Buffalo is also one of the most expensive to stay in. Consider booking well in advance, because there are some magical Airbnb and VRBO rentals that don’t stay available long. Or stay with the whole family at Beachwalk Resort, where pastel houses are situated in a neighborhood setting with a heated community pool, coffee and ice cream shops, and kayak rentals. All of the other necessary supplies can be found in town, at Barney’s Supermarket. For lunch, visit the cash-only Redamak’s for a burger and cheese fries. For finer dining accented with waterfront views, visit Bentwood Tavern or ask for a rooftop table at The Stray Dog Bar & Grill. Both restaurants are located at the end of a strip of shops and near New Buffalo’s public beach and boat ramp, which also offers kayak and paddleboard rentals. Finish the day devouring ice cream scoops in your swimsuit at one of the outdoor tables at Oink’s Dutch Treat.
Lakeside and Sawyer, Michigan:
On the way, you’ll drive through Union Pier and its small stretch of businesses, including a market, an ice cream shop, and the Pumpernickel Inn. Lakeside’s historic Lakeside Inn is an affordable but pared-back gem. The hotel’s spacious front porch is filled with rocking chairs, and it sits across from its own private beach. When public spots like Town Line Beach and Berrien Public Beach fill up on the weekends, Lakeside Inn’s quiet private beach is reason enough to book. For breakfast, try the cold brew and bagels at nearby Blue Plate Bakery and Café (or stay in its Airbnb). Then make the drive to Warren Dunes State Park. The $9-per-car entrance fee includes access to the beach, dunes, and hiking trails.
❝ I just returned from Chicago. I eat a plant-based diet, so I was on the hunt for Black-owned vegan restaurants. My favorite was Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, which has a vegan version of a Big Mac. There’s also Virtue, a Southern-inspired fine dining restaurant with a cauliflower dish that was amazing. Both are in Hyde Park, along with other tasty places. Finally, I filled my hotel fridge with bites from Uncooked, near the West Loop.” —Kim Hudson, ANCHOr and reporter, FOX 2 News/News 11