Sure, the humble “pic-a-nic” basket is famous as a lure for Yogi Bear and his little buddy Boo-Boo. But 2020 created a genuine opportunity for picnics to shine: They’re the perfect blend of opportunities to connect with nature while sharing good food in great company, or letting the whole family run off the silliness that tends to build up if you spend too much time inside.
Here are our favorite places to enjoy a picnic lunch in every state. We’ve made it a point to journey off the beaten path when possible, skipping past the most likely suspects to highlight slightly lesser-known gems. A few of these picnic sites require a short walk to reach them, but most are easily accessed from the road — and all of them highlight the enormous range of natural beauty you’ll find all over this country.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
You know you’ve found a good picnic spot when the on-site cafe rents (and sells) picnic baskets — which is exactly what you’ll find at the gorgeous Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Bring the family and a blanket or chairs to sit on while you eat, then cap it off with family-friendly learning activities and beautiful walking trails.
Seven-mile-long Eklutna Lake may serve as a large freshwater reservoir for the city of Anchorage, but it’s best known for its brilliant-hued, glacier-fed waters. It’s easy to drive to and offers lots of room for all ages to explore, and nearby trails and concessions make it easy to expand your adventure to hiking, biking, kayaking or even ATV rides. Wildlife sightings are common here, so make sure to pack out all your trash and food waste.
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Grand Canyon: Cape Royal or Point Imperial
We tried to stay off the beaten path for post of these picnic spots — really, we did. But there’s just no way you should pass up the opportunity to eat lunch while contemplating one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Arizona’s very own Grand Canyon. Picnic spots abound here, but we recommend checking out Cape Royal or Point Imperial on the North Rim. This part of the canyon is a little less-frequented, and you simply can’t beat the sweeping views.
Two Rivers Park
Sometimes the best picnic spots are unexpected oases in an urban atmosphere. Take Two Rivers Park in Little Rock, Arkansas: Located at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Maumelle rivers, this 1,000-acre gem offers lots of green space and recreational opportunities, including river kayaking and a connection to the Arkansas River Trail. Forgot your picnic goodies? No problem — there are lots of restaurants to choose from nearby.
It’s hard to go wrong with taking a picnic lunch to one of California’s many beaches or mountainside scenery. But what about in the cities? San Diego’s answer to the picnic conundrum is magnificent (and dog-friendly!) Balboa Park. If you tire of the many gardens and picnic-friendly lawns, you’ll find lots of activities, too — from kid-friendly entertainment to parent-friendly shopping and even sit-down meals.
Vogel Canyon Picnic Area, Comanche National Grasslands
Open grassland might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colorado, but that’s exactly what you’ll find in the Comanche National Grassland, which is carved with canyons rich in history. With its covered picnic area, hiking trails, petroglyphs and proximity to the Santa Fe Trail, Vogel Canyon Picnic Area is a particularly good place to pause and eat in your explorations.
Indian Well State Park
You get a little bit of everything in this beautifully scenic park, but two of the biggest highlights are the scenic waterfall and a shaded picnic grove right at the water’s edge. One heads up: There is a permanent alcohol ban here, so save the alcoholic beverages for another trip.
Trap Pond State Park
Once home to an industrial logging operation, Trap Pond is now home to the northernmost naturally occurring stand of baldcypress trees. When you’ve had your fill of the hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, or the nearly 9 miles of canoe and kayak trails and plenty of warm-water fishing opportunities, settle in for a picnic at one of the lovely spots near the nature center.
Gemini Springs Park
If there’s one thing Florida has, it’s beaches — and you can never go wrong with a picnic on the sand. That’s a gimme. So we went inland to DeBary to find the pristine, perfect pocket of Gemini Springs Park — 212 acres of land built around two bubbling freshwater springs. Bring your own picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the tables here, or book a campsite for about half of what you’d pay in other parts of the state.
Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area offers a number of developed picnic areas with tables and grills. But we’re particularly interested in its opportunities to cap off a picnic with miles of biking and hiking trails, float trips down the river, or even catching fish to cook on that grill. Not bad for a natural area so close to the big city of Atlanta.
It’s a little bit of a drive to reach Waimea Valley on Oahu, and there is an entrance fee — but we think it’s worth it to enjoy a day of picnicking, swimming, and exploring in this lush valley and its beautiful landscapes. The valley is full of culturally and religiously significant sites, so please tread lightly in this place where the mountains meet the land and the sea.
Related: The Best of Hawaii on a Budget
City of Rocks National Reserve
Landscapes don’t come much more stark — or beautiful — than City of Rocks National Reserve in Idaho, where the massive granite formations really do rise out of the desert like a silent city. Rock climbers flock here, so if you picnic near the rocks there’s usually no shortage of entertainment to observe.
We can’t talk about picnicking in Illinois without discussing Millennium Park. Perhaps best known to non-residents as the home of “The Bean” (the sculpture properly known as Cloud Gate), this is one of the city’s most iconic green spaces. And if the loads of grassy, shaded picnic spots weren’t enough, the park also hosts thriving arts, cultural, and recreational programs; and Lake Michigan is walking distance from the park.
Fort Harrison State Park
Indiana is home to a surprising number of natural gems, and Fort Harrison is one of our favorites. While you can visit historical buildings here, including the former Citizens’ Military Training Camp around the park office, the real draw is 1,700 acres of mostly green space, with walking and jogging trails, fishing, canoeing — and of course some great picnic tables.
Eagle Point Park
There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of picnic-worthy parks to choose from in Iowa — and Eagle Point Park still stands out as one of the best. This 164-acre park overlooks the Mississippi River and Lock and Dam No. 11, and it offers beautiful views into the neighboring states of Illinois and Wisconsin. It’s as close as you can get to picnicking in three states at once.
Coronado Heights Park
While some people might hear “Kansas” and think “beautiful grasslands,” this site offers a scenic overlook with a castle. That’s right: If you head to Coronado Heights Park, you can picnic atop a 300-foot hill fringed in trees and topped with a castle-like building made of limestone. Where there is a castle, there are stone picnic tables, of course, and the views are spectacular.
High Bridge Pavilion
For one of the most unusual picnic experiences on the planet, head to the High Bridge Park in Wilmore with its lofty views over the Kentucky River Gorge. You’ll also find a playground, a museum, a Victorian-style pavilion, and some great places to picnic — all atop what used to be the highest railroad trestle in the world.
Visitors flock from all over the world to see massive migrations of egrets, herons and spoonbills to this rookery area. The birds come in spring but Cypress Island is open year-round, and a massive picnic pavilion near the visitor center offers a great place to eat and rest from your explorations.
Fort Williams Park and Portland Head Light
Visitors might know Fort Williams Park as the home of Portland Head Light, a well-preserved lighthouse whose former Keepers’ Quarters house an award-winning museum. But the locals know that the 90-acre Fort Williams Park is itself a stellar destination for a picnic: You can settle onto a bench overlooking the water, perch on rocks overlooking the coastline, or wander along one of the walking trails until you find the perfect spot.
Quiet Waters Park
Picnic opportunities abound on the 340 acres of parkland in Quiet Waters Park near Annapolis. But the true centerpiece of this wooded swathe is the unobstructed view of Chesapeake Bay that you’ll get if you follow the park all the way to its end along the coast.
Founded in 1634, Boston Common is the oldest park in the United States. Once home to the mustering of the Colonial militia during the American Revolution, it was also home to historical events such as Civil War recruitment, anti-slavery meetings, WWI victory gardens, and civil-rights rallies. And of course it provides a spacious, central home for you and your picnic basket, too.
Mackinac Island State Park
Don’t fancy your picnic with a side of automobile exhaust? No problem — head to Mackinac Island, where cars have been banned since 1898. Instead, people get around on foot, bike, horseback or even horse-drawn carriage. About 80 percent of the island belongs to the state park, offering nearly endless picnic options — but we’re particularly fond of Marquette Park.
Hidden Falls Regional Park
St. Paul’s Mississippi River bluffs make a perfect backdrop for this tranquil natural area, with almost 7 miles of paved trails that wind through shaded bottomlands near the river and past several scenic picnic areas. You can even cast a line in the river and catch a fresh fish for your picnic meal.
Perched atop riverside bluffs in the town of Natchez, Bluff Park isn’t just the perfect spot for a picnic. It’s also the ideal place for catching a spectacular sunset over the water — not to mention views into Louisiana on the other side of the river.
It’s not hyperbole to describe St. Louis’ Forest Park as one of the prettiest urban areas in the world. This 1,300-acre city parkland contains a variety of forests, lakes and streams. It’s the perfect place for an outdoor adventure or cultural experience, but you’ll also find lots of quiet nooks for a peaceful picnic.
Giant Springs State Park
Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls offers an almost shocking variety of picnic options: You can eat beside an enormous freshwater spring, in a grove of silver poplars, along the shore of the Missouri River, or walk or drive to several waterfalls within the park. That’s not even counting the miles of walking, running and biking trails you’ll find here, plus some great fishing opportunities.
Toadstool Geologic Park
Nebraska’s Toadstool Geologic Park resembles nothing more than a barren moonscape. While it’s true that the stark landscape of the Badlands makes it an unusual setting for a picnic, that starkness is also beautiful — and kids love that this entire park is basically one giant jungle gym.
Cathedral Gorge State Park
We’re going for another stark, dramatic landscape here: Nevada’s Cathedral Gorge, where water and wind have carved dramatic spires out of the volcanic landscape. Come ready for the desert sun, and top off your meal with a self-led photo tour of the cathedral-like rock spires.
Glen Ellis Scenic Area
At the Glen Ellis Scenic Area, a short walk gives you a magnificent return on your effort, bringing you first to the top of Glen Ellis Falls and then, via a series of stairs, down to the base. The gentle walk is less than a mile round trip and offers plenty of opportunities for picnicking. Watch out if you decide to scramble around near the bottom of the falls: The rocks are slippery when wet!
If you know where to go in New Jersey, the Garden State puts on a spectacular show. Nowhere is that more true than in the Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden in Somerset, which houses hundreds of rose varieties and thousands of plants, all blooming within a single acre. The garden itself sits within 685-acre Colonial Park, and it’s the park — a sprawling mass of green grounds, sports fields, walking trails and fishing holes that we’re recommending as the perfect picnic spot.
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You have a couple of options for reaching the 11,000-square-mile panoramic views from the top of Sandia Peak, which my New Mexico relatives tell me is thus named for its tendency to turn a peachy, pinky watermelon color at sunset. (Sandia is Spanish for watermelon.) This long ridgeline offers the perfect picnic backdrop in almost every direction. Take the easy way up (an aerial tramway), drive to parking areas near the top, or do it the hard way and hike partway up the mountain to find the perfect picnic spot.
Buttermilk Falls near Long Lake
Before we talk about this pick, let’s address the elephant in the room: The first picnic spot that comes to mind when we think New York is, of course, Central Park, followed closely by the High Line — both in New York City.
But remember, we’re trying to stray at least a little bit from the beaten path, and there’s so much more to New York than “just” the prize of New York City. With that in mind, my actual pick for best picnic spot in New York is Buttermilk Falls in the Adirondacks. It’s a very short, easy walk from the road (less than a 1/2-mile round trip) and has picnic tables positioned perfectly near the bottom of the falls.
Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Set aside in 1936 to honor the author of the poem “Trees,” this forest is one of the last stands of virgin timber in the United States. You’ll find more than 100 tree species here, many of them hundreds of years old. This special forest can only be explored on foot, but you’ll find picnic tables near the trailhead.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Throw down your picnic blanket or snag a table almost anywhere in this rugged national park and you’ll enjoy staggering views of the Badlands. Wildlife settings are especially common around dusk — something to keep in mind if you decide to stick around for a sunset picnic!
Ohio River Trail
A lot of careful planning has gone into the Ohio River Trail, also known as the Cincinnati Riverwalk. This paved multi-use trail runs for miles along the Ohio River, stretching into Kentucky. Eventually, its connection to the Little Miami Scenic Trail means you’ll be able to walk or bike all the way to Lake Erie. But for now, the Ohio River Trail passes through a number of beautiful green spaces, each one an inviting destination for a picnic.
Red Rock Canyon Adventure Park
If you think this used to be a state park, you’re right. This 310-acre park has been under private ownership as of 2018. It offers the dramatic beauty of its steep, rugged cliffs and canyon walls, and the brilliant fall foliage that blankets the park every fall. If the abundance of natural beauty and wildlife in this area isn’t enough for the family, there are a few amenities that can only come from a private park, such as a swimming pool and pop-up glamping facilities.
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area — Multnomah Falls
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area houses almost a dozen grand picnic areas — but our favorite by far is Multnomah Falls, where you can picnic near the trailhead lodge or take an approximately 2.5-mile round-trip hike to the falls. This is the most visited natural recreation site in the Pacific Northwest, so going for a weekday breakfast or brunch picnic is the best way to avoid the crowds.
Gettysburg National Military Park
The history of this national military park may be sobering, but it’s important — making this the perfect site for an educational picnic with the entire family. You can explore the battlefield on your own or hire a licensed guide — but don’t forget to visit the museum / visitor center as well. The visitor center is one of two designated picnic areas within the park; the other is on South Confederate Avenue.
East Bay Bike Path
The East Bay Bike Path may be popular with bicycle commuters, but it’s also a fantastic opportunity to meet friends from the next town — or towns — over for a picnic. Once a railway, the bike path travels 14.5 miles, passing through half a dozen picnic-ready parks along the way.
Once the home of Civil-War-era coastal defense artillery, The Battery in Charleston consists of a fortified seawall and promenade, and the nearby White Point Garden, which is littered with oyster shells beneath live oak trees. Bring a picnic blanket to spread out beneath the shade of palmetto trees on the promenade, and keep an eye out for dolphins playing in the nearby harbor.
A river runs through this 128-acre park, the Big Sioux River to be exact. We don’t think anyone would ever tire of watching this enormous, cascading waterfall, especially with the elevated lookouts from the park’s observation tower. But if you need a break, the park has biking and walking paths, playgrounds, and art and historic displays to take in.
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Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park
If you like your picnics with a side of local history, this 11-acre Nashville park is for you. It’s small but mighty, sitting in the shadow of the Capitol building and housing several historical artifacts and memorials. But we really have our picnicking sites on the 2,000-person amphitheater that sits facing the Capitol building. Instead of benches or seats, each level of the amphitheater is a level, picnic-friendly grass shelf.
Estero Llano Grande State Park
Estero Llano offers a spectacular variety of wildlife, thanks to its abundance of wetlands, ponds, woodlands, and thorn scrub. It’s also part of the World Birding Center — a series of protected wildlife habitats in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Be ready to carry your food, because cars are prohibited in Estero Llano. You can park near the entrance, then explore on foot or by bike. This rich region houses about 340 bird species, plus other wildlife including bobcats and American alligators. Pro tip: Stock up on healthy picnic food by visiting one of the locally owned fruit stands just outside the park.
Maple Canyon in Manti-La Sal National Forest may be known as one of the world’s most unique rock climbing areas, but it’s also a stunning haunt for hiking, camping — and of course picnicking. Its rocky walls and cliffs are embedded with water-worn cobbles, and the climbers who come to try their luck offer plenty of entertainment. Stay for the views, though, and don’t worry about the sun — you’ll find plenty of shade under the maple trees that flourish here.
White Rocks Cliffs
It’s no coincidence that Vermont is known as the Green Mountain State. If you stop off at White Rock Cliffs, you can take in two mountain ranges at once — the Taconic Mountains, with the Adirondacks in the distance. This is the sort of place to bring your own picnic blanket and basket, and be ready for a short walk as you scope out the perfect lookout point for your meal.
South River Picnic Area, Shenandoah National Park
While this picnic area in Shenandoah National Park is fantastic in its own right, it comes with quite a bonus: It’s just a 3- to 5-mile round-trip hike away from one of the most spectacular waterfalls in Virginia: South River Falls.
Deception Pass State Park
Deception Pass is Washington’s most-visited state park — and we’ll never get tired of the great variety it encompasses. Visitors can fish and swim in the nearby lake, hunt for historical Civilian Conservation Corps landmarks, take a short hike, or cruise for seashells along a Puget Sound beach. We recommend starting the trip with these fun activities, then timing an evening picnic to coincide with the spectacular sunsets you can see here.
Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens
Perhaps best known for its national monuments, remarkable museums and political houses of power, Washington, D.C., is still home to pockets of natural beauty. One of the most picturesque picnic sites you can find is in the beautifully groomed Hillwood Estate, which famously used to loan picnic blankets out to visitors. Although that generous policy was placed on hold due to COVID-19, they’ll still give you a map of the best picnic spots and invite you to bring your own blanket, food and non-alcoholic beverage to enjoy on the carefully groomed grounds.
Blackwater Falls State Park
Named for a nearly 60-foot waterfall, this state park contains some of the most-photographed scenery in West Virginia. If you can’t get enough of the park’s natural beauty with a short picnic, you can linger to explore 20 miles of hiking trails or stay overnight in the campground. When winter comes, the park is too cold for a real picnic, but it’s home to the longest sledding run on the East Coast.
If your ideal picnic features stunning views and wide-open lawns, don’t miss out on the chance for a scenic meal at Milwaukee’s Lake Park. This landmark city park overlooks Lake Michigan — one of the largest lakes in the world — and features winding footpaths, charming bridges and spectacular views over the water.
Wyoming may be famous for its rugged landscapes and massive wilderness areas, but one of the best picnic spots in the state is hiding out in a relatively small pocket of beauty: Rotary Park. Once you’ve had your picnic, leave time for the short hike to Garden Creek Falls, a beautiful, multi-tiered strand of water that’s less than a half-mile round trip.