This post is a compilation of my favorite go-to resources for finding things to do in nature, places to go in nature, or both. These are sites (and occasional suggested search terms) that can help you find a last minute hike on a sunny Saturday, or give you tools and ideas for developing your own list of resources.
It’s dedicated (with affection) to everyone — family and friends (and friends of friends of friends) — who have called and emailed over the years asking how to find ways to connect with nature near them. Special shout out to those who thanked me for sending them helpful links and search terms instead of Let Me Google that for You, which I admit, was kind of tempting.
I’m always looking for tips and ideas so please share your recommendations in the comments.
See above: my place of employment. I’m clearly biased. Still — even with all the behind-the-scenes access that comes with being a science writer for the Conservancy (seriously: best. job. ever.) — this site is still my first go-to. You can search by state for volunteer opportunities, field trips, things to do, and preserves to visit. I use it all the time, especially when I’m visiting other places around the country.
There is also an interactive preserve map to help you plan your travels. Heading to South Florida for vacation? Check out Blowing Rocks Preserve. North Carolina has Nags’ Head Woods Preserve if you need a break from the beach. And for those of you in the Midwest, Nachusa Grasslands’ in Illinois is spectacular.
Pro tip: Don’t forget social media. Most Conservancy state programs have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, which are great ways to keep up with the latest happenings. You can also find links to individual state resources — events, preserves, and volunteer opportunities — on state pages at nature.org.
This should probably be two entries, but I’m keeping them together for now because they’re related.
First: RootsRated. This is my second stop after the Conservancy pages if I’m looking for things to do and places to go in nature. The site is two years old, extremely well-organized and sources its content from local experts. I like the site because it essentially consolidates and curates information you used to have to do some leg work to collect. And so far, I’ve found its search function to be a thing of intuitive beauty.
As long as you don’t mind sharing your location with the site, you can use the “Near Me” search from the home page. Just put in your desired activity (like hiking) and hit the red “Let’s Go” button and it will give you results within 100 miles.
Which brings us to the second part of this resource: Local Outfitters, Outdoor Retailers, Guides, Bike and Run shops.
I’ve always encouraged people who want to get out in nature to go talk to the owners, managers and staffers at local outfitters, outdoor retailers, bike and run shops, if at all possible. I still recommend that because in addition to helping you find things to do and places to go, these businesses can help you build your skills and expand your capacity for experience: Want to learn the principles of Leave No Trace? Learn to kayak? Rock climb? Read a Compass? Get fitted with your first pair of hiking boots?
Many (if not all) local outdoor-oriented businesses and guides in your area can hook you up. Even if you’ve never hiked farther than your own mailbox — they can help you get started.
If you have an REI — or similar outfitter — near you, you can search classes, events and trips at a store near you. Many outfitters have local maps and recommendations about where to go in the local area. When I lived in Florida, Black Creek Outfitters was my go-to for gear, classes and information on local opportunities to get out and about. (They fitted me out in my first pair of Vasque boots for a trip to Alaska 20 years ago. Loved those boots.)
Want to bunk in a historic fire lookout tower in Wyoming? Or find a hiking trail in Missouri? Build a trip? Make reservations?
Rec.gov has you covered with information and advance reservations at 2,500 federal areas for over 60,000 facilities and activities. It is THE site for finding things to do on national public lands in the U.S., from National Parks to National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and Monuments.
I use this site to see what’s out there that I hadn’t thought of — and then can narrow my options by visiting individual refuge or national park pages. Many sites have great “Things to Do” links and itineraries based on how much time you have to spend, and what you’re interested in.
State Departments of Natural Resources & State Departments of Game and Fish
I’m always surprised at how few people seem to explore state parks and public lands, or take advantage of the many outdoor programs they offer, from hunting safety and tracking courses to birding clinics.
You can usually find listings and links by searching [State] + “state parks.” You can also narrow your search further by adding an activity like “hiking,” if you know what you’re looking for.
Most state sites I’ve visited lately seem to have interactive maps to help you narrow by geography or activity. Wyoming’s Department of Game and Fish, for example, has a page that has Float Access Maps and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has a Dark Skies program to promote stargazing in state parks.
If you prefer information to come to you, many states have online calendars and e-newsletters you can subscribe to. They typically go out monthly and list upcoming events at individual parks.
Social media and newsletters are also great resources whether you’re exploring close to home or planning a wider trip. I currently live in Maryland and make frequent use of the Department of Natural Resources’ State Park Directory. You can search by activity (did someone say Owl Prowl?), or find out which parks and campgrounds are dog-friendly.
Many states also have family-oriented activities like Maryland’s ParkQuest to help you get outside and engage with nature near you.
Clubs and Groups (National & Local)
Maybe you’re looking to meet people who share your interests in nature, or you want to develop new interests, or wilderness skills. If so, finding local clubs and groups can be a great way to find things to do and places to go. There are groups for orienteering, geocaching, birding (so many for birding), hiking and trail associations (ditto), hiking with your dog — pretty much anything you can think of, and most welcome beginners.
This is another kind of search that can become overwhelming with page after daunting page of links that may or may not be useful. If you’re looking for something specific, make sure your search terms match your goals as specifically as possible. For instance, I’ve been researching different hiking and trail groups in the Maryland/DC region and my search on “hiking clubs” + “washington, dc” led me to Washington Women Outdoors.
There are also specialty groups, like Outdoor Afro, dedicated to inclusion and diversity in outdoor recreation, nature and conservation. The Sierra Club Military Outdoors is designed to ensure “service members, veterans, and their families have the skills, exposure, knowledge, and confidence to access the great outdoors.”
Old School: Libraries
One of the best — and most often overlooked — resources for connecting with nature near you is your local library. And in the age of computers, you don’t even have to fight with the dreaded card catalogue. (Well, for those of you old enough to remember the card catalogue. You know who you are.)
Ask your librarian for recommendations for search terms, or just have her point you to the travel and/or outdoors and nature sections and spend a happy afternoon browsing guides — from field guides to local flowers and trees to books with recommended hikes, paddling trails, and parks near you.
I bought my first National Geographic Road Atlas on a whim at the LL Bean Store in Freeport, Maine in the days before smartphones and GoogleMaps. I still get a new one every couple of years (and some libraries carry them — though I always buy my own because I like to make notes in the margins).
I love maps in general (especially topo maps), but I recommend this atlas in particular because of its emphasis on highlighting opportunities for nature near you in all 50 states, from state parks, natural areas, and monuments to places you never would have known existed if you hadn’t spotted it on a map.