Weekends are like brain cells: You only get so many in this life, and none should be wasted. My two-year-old son is not quite potty-trained, but he's already mastered the philosophy. Ask him to choose between going to a party or going camping on Saturday and he responds, as should we all, "Can't we do both?" On the day in question, we hit a lunchtime birthday barbecue at a local park, then drove to a campground in New Mexico's Pecos Wilderness in the afternoon. By sunset our tent was pitched, the kids exhausted, the wine opened. And in the morning, I went for a trail run through the aspens instead of sifting through a week's accumulation of junk mail. We were home 24 hours after leaving.
Naysayers will advise against such overnight adventures, claiming the drive is too far, the time too short. Ignore them. While they head to Blockbuster on Saturday night, you'll be stoking the campfire, soaking up the starlight, and planning a Sunday morning you'll rave about all week.
Follow this three-step plan for perfect overnight getaways: (1) You must spend more time at your destination than you spend getting there and back. Break this rule when the road trip is the destination. (2) Keep your bags packed. Nothing kills a quick escape like spending half the morning digging through gear. Store camping equipment in one place so you can grab and go and unpack just as quickly. (3) Plan time to relax. Don't let the compressed schedule make you feel harried. The best weekend trips even short ones should leave you feeling exhausted and rested all at once. To help you achieve the feeling, we've gathered our top five overnight escapes from big cities.
From New York City
Cold Spring, New York (60 miles north)
Paddle the Hudson River to the ruins of a 1901 Scottish-style castle on Bannerman Island, with Hudson Valley Outfitters ($120; 866-865-2925, www.hudsonvalleyoutfitters.com). The Pig Hill Inn (doubles from $150; 845-265-9247, www.pighillinn.com) is a short walk from both the river and the train station.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
(52 miles southwest)
Cycle historic tow paths along the Blackstone River, and back roads through mill country, in northern Rhode Island's bucolic Blackstone Valley as part of a two-day, 70-mile self-guided bike trip mapped out by Cycle New England (from $149 per person; 508-868-9056, www.cyclenewengland.com). The trip includes route maps and a night at the Pillsbury House (800-205-4112, www.pillsburyhouse.com), a Victorian bed-and-breakfast.
From Washington, D.C.
Charlottesville, Virginia (115 miles southwest)
Go for a trail run beneath the oaks and tulip poplars of the 20-mile Rivanna Trail, which wraps around this town, home to the University of Virginia. The fern-flanked path feels like wilderness, and you're never far from a bookstore or a cappuccino or a clear mountain swimming hole. Stay at the newly restored 14-room Clifton Inn (doubles from $295; 888-971-1800, www.cliftoninn.net), on 100 riverside acres.
San Juan Island, Washington
(102 miles northwest)
From the Zen fountain and kimono wall hangings to the Asian-fusion breakfasts (try the orange-blossom scones), the new Dragonfly Inn (doubles, $195, including breakfast; 360-378-4280, www.thedragonflyinn.com) owes its inspiration to Japan's traditional ryokans. Set on 15 wooded acres, the inn is four miles from Roche Harbor, where San Juan Safaris ($75; 800-450-6858, www.sanjuansafaris.com) starts its orca-watching kayak trips. To save time, take the 30-minute flight on Kenmore Air ($221 round-trip; 800-543-9595, www.kenmoreair.com) from Seattle to Friday Harbor, a few miles from the inn.
Delafield, Wisconsin (115 miles north)
Ding your bike bell at sandhill cranes on the 52-mile-long Glacial Drumlin State Trail ($4; 262-646-3025, www.glacialdrumlin.com), a rail trail that meanders through rural Wisconsin's wetlands. Hybrid bikes rent for $20 a day at the Bicycle Doctor (262-965-4144), in Dousman. Stay at the red-brick Delafield Hotel (doubles from $250; 262-646-1600, www.delafieldhotel.com), a 38-suite luxury inn that opened in April.