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6 Spectacular Spring Day Trips Near Big Cities

Unforgettable excursions from New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and more


spinner image The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes visitors more than 8,500 feet above the desert floor to the hiking trails of the Mount San Jacinto State Park
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Luis Sinco/Getty Images

If you live in or are visiting any of these great cities, you may want to get out of town for a quick adventure. Consider these fun and unique day-trip possibilities, within an easy drive of New York; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Santa Fe; Austin and Atlanta.

spinner image visitors enjoying governors island
Scott Lynch

When in New York City …

Visit one of the Big Apple's most overlooked islands

In a city brimming with attractions, many of them pricey, one of the most exceptional is just a $3 ferry ride away (or free, if you’re 65 or older): Governors Island, a 172-acre former military base that's 800 yards off southern Manhattan. For New Yorkers, it has become a sanctuary in the middle of New York Harbor, with 7 miles of car-free bike paths, green lawns perfect for picnicking and even a grove full of hammocks. To visit the island, hop on the ferry leaving from the Battery Maritime Building, at the tip of lower Manhattan (the ferry leaves every 30 minutes, from 7 a.m. until 4:14 p.m.; you can also get there with NYC Ferry from both lower Manhattan and Red Hook in Brooklyn ). Rent a bike when you arrive, and ride to the far end of the island, exploring as you go. Make sure to stop at the Hills, a high point, with sweeping views of the island and the surrounding harbor. —Ryan KroghEditor's note: This article was published on February 15, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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spinner image shenandoah national parks luray caverns
Kent Kobersteen/National Geographic

When in Washington, D.C. …

Discover the underworld

In the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains — two hours west of Washington, near Virginia's Shenandoah National Park — sits Luray Caverns, a spectacular cave system well worth the trek from our nation's capital. It's known for its stunning, multihued limestone formations and the vast Cathedral Room, where an automated organ produces concert-pitch notes via rubber-tipped plungers tapping stalactites — an otherworldly experience. Other highlights on the 1.25-mile self-guided walk (all paved) through more than a dozen chambers include Dream Lake, which at first appears to be a pool filled with upward-reaching stalagmites but is actually a reflection of the stalactite-covered ceiling, and the impressive Giant's Hall — 164 feet below the surface — which boasts a pillar-type formation that soars to 47 feet. It's chilly, so bring a light jacket, and wear comfortable walking shoes. Auto buffs should leave time to visit the vintage-car museum next door, included with caverns admission. —Kitty Bean Yancey

spinner image taking a porsche for a drive
Porsche Cars North America

When in Atlanta …

Take a Porsche for a spin

Visitors to Atlanta can head to the city's Porsche Experience Center, a high-octane playground located next to the airport that offers the ride of a lifetime for anyone who's ever fantasized about putting a $150,000 racing machine through its paces. Drivers have their pick of the German carmaker's inventory, from a 911 to the 750-horsepower Taycan Turbo S. Whatever your choice, don't expect a leisurely drive. Participants get a quick briefing before buckling up. The speeding vehicle responds instantly to every turn of the wheel or touch of the accelerator, gripping the pavement. A professional driver in a separate car leads the way around the track, offering instruction via radio. There's no speed limit on the twisty, 1.6-mile circuit, which is full of surprises. All you need are a reservation and a valid driver's license. —L.B.

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spinner image The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway takes visitors more than 8,500 feet above the desert floor to the hiking trails of the Mount San Jacinto State Park
Luis Sinco/Getty Images

When in Los Angeles …

Go up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

​Fleeing L.A. for the desert oasis of Palm Springs has a long tradition dating back to the early studio days, when legends like Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor were obliged to remain within easy reach of Hollywood. They would sun and soak, gazing up at the 10,000-foot San Jacinto Mountains backdropping the Coachella Valley. Put yourself in the picture with a ride on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, which spins 2.5 miles up the rock walls of Chino Canyon to Mount San Jacinto State Park, trading oppressive desert heat for snow-covered pines in 10 dramatic minutes by climbing 6,000 feet. From the observation deck, panoramas stretch for up to 200 miles, nearly to Las Vegas to the north and clearly to the Salton Sea to the southeast. If it’s a sweltering 95 degrees Fahrenheit below, it’s a refreshing 60 atop the tram (elevation 8,516 feet), ideal conditions for a hike on some of the 54 miles of trails around Mount San Jacinto, where alpine forests and meadows buffer granite outcroppings. In winters, layer up for the 30- to 40-degree drop in temperature, and have a snowball fight, before descending back into the SoCal balm. —Elaine Glusac

spinner image dance hall in texas
The Washington Post/Getty Images

When in Austin …

Visit an old-time Texas dance hall

Located on a bluff above the Guadalupe River, less than an hour's drive from Austin, tin-roofed, white-clapboard Gruene Hall first served a German community of cotton farmers in the late 1800s. Now the saloon calls itself Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall, and if you've ever tapped your toes to Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson or Loretta Lynn — who've all performed here — you'll want to stop by this Texas treasure in New Braunfels, on the edge of Texas Hill Country. Step onto the worn wooden dance floor to hear fiddles playing and singers harmonizing; it's like being in the midst of a knee-slapping barn dance that hasn't let up for more than a century. You'll be torn: Watch the band and the couples two-stepping around the floor, or join them? And if you ever want a break from the music or the crowd, the adjacent outdoor beer garden is just as welcoming. —L.B.

spinner image santuario de chimayó a roman catholic church
Kristina Blokhin/Alamy

When in Santa Fe …

Savor a New Mexican specialty

Forty minutes north of Santa Fe, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is the Santuario de Chimayó, a Roman Catholic church built in the 1800s — a worthy pilgrimage stop that can be followed by a truly memorable dining experience at the family-run Rancho de Chimayó. Set in a century-old adobe ranch house with a patio, the James Beard award winner is famous for its carne adovada — slow-cooked pork stewed in a sauce of locally grown heirloom-variety Chimayó chiles, which have reddish-orange skins and offer a delicious, sweetly picante kick. Order the Combinación Picante, so you can sample the carne adovada along with a tamale, a cheese enchilada, and beans and posole. Then comes a sopaipilla: steaming, puffed fry bread served with honey. Sitting in the courtyard, with the sunset lighting the hillside in pink, there may be no sweeter way to end a day. —R.K.

Editor's note: This article was published on February 15, 2021. It's been updated to reflect new information.

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