America's Best Picnic Spots
“Food just tastes better when eaten outdoors,” says avid picnicker Leila Brown, who takes off from her Portland, OR, home (weather permitting) for an alfresco meal among sun-dappled orchards in St. Cloud Park on the Columbia River—or on the dramatic, dune-filled Oregon Coast—any chance she gets.
Summer officially begins the most popular time of year to picnic, with thousands taking to scenic byways, mountain parks, beaches, and lakeshores to enjoy the simple pleasures of homemade food with Mother Nature. And the benefits of outdoor dining are plenty: space is not an issue, it’s more affordable than a restaurant, and nothing quite compares to a lazy afternoon with family and friends eating watermelon under the shady canopy of a tree.
While the picnic spot possibilities are endless, there are many officially designated areas for outdoor dining across the country, especially in our 392 national parks. Along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which wends 469 miles through stunning Appalachian mountains, there are some 15 picnic areas and 275 parking overlooks alone.
“A favorite spots for a picnic is the James River Picnic Area (milepost 63.8). You can cross the river on the walkway beneath the Parkway and watch swallows swoop and dive from their nests under the bridge,” says Ann Childress, Blue Ridge Parkway Chief of Interpretation & Education.
Today, the picnic trend is bigger than ever, with outdoor dining clubs popping up from Tokyo to New York City in the past few years, and design-centric companies creating a new generation of products for the eco-conscious picnicker, from biodegradable cutlery to edible baskets made from bread.
And these days, with so many hotels offering en plein air meals, travelers don’t have to miss out on the perfect picnic op. Guests at Maine’s White Barn Inn wanting to explore the coast can request a wicker hamper packed with lobster rolls; the Grand Wailea on Maui prepares Kau Kau Koolers with sushi rolls to go; and this month, The Plaza Hotel in New York City debuts a new European-style food hall by star chef Todd English, where anyone can pick up gourmet fixings for a picnic in Central Park.
Once your basket is packed, where do you go? Since locavore chefs know food and are often out on country back roads and at markets meeting farmers and purveyors, Travel + Leisure asked some of the country’s top names for their picnic spot recommendations—and preferred picnic eats.
Richard Knight and James and Meagan Silk, the award-winning team from Feast in Houston, look forward to inner-tubing on the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels, TX, when the temperatures rise. And on the East Coast, a half hour outside of Boston, the serene setting of Walden Pond calls to executive chef Will Gilson, when he’s not in the kitchen at Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge and the Herb Lyceum in Groton, MA.
Lauded chef Suzanne Goin, who once worked with Alice Waters at locavore mecca Chez Panisse and who runs Tavern, Lucques, and The A.O.C. in Los Angeles, suggests escaping to Point Dume in Malibu—preferably with fried chicken and garlicky roasted veggies—to spot dolphins and enjoy the crashing waves. “I never understood eating at those picnic benches by the parking lot.”
Arizona: Sonoita Vineyards
Favorite Picnic Spot: “The wife and I head to Sonoita Vineyards in southern Arizona, about 50 miles outside Tucson. We love to sit on the grassy hills overlooking the vineyards—it’s truly rustic, rural, and green in all the most beautiful ways. Insider Tip: Pack a few dog treats for the owner’s friendly doggie duo, Tiger and Tonka.
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “I keep the picnic basket simple with local cheeses, salumi, and some fresh veggies. No refrigeration needed! We always pack a bottle (or two) of Roan Red from Pillsbury Wines, grown and produced in Arizona.”
California: Point Dume
Favorite Picnic Spot: “Point Dume in Malibu is my favorite escape. It’s only minutes from L.A. but you feel transported—wide, beautiful stretch of white sands, crashing waves, and even dolphins if you’re lucky. I never understood eating at those picnic benches by the parking lot.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “I like to do some sort of theme—maybe something Americana with fried chicken...or Frenchy with sliced hangar steak, red onions, and sauce verte with a big arugula salad (I just take lemon wedges and a little bottle of olive oil to dress it). I also like to have grilled or roasted vegetables with lots of e.v.o.o., garlic, and chili.”
Colorado: Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre
Favorite Picnic Spot: “Not only is Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, just outside Denver, a great music venue, it has the most amazing views of the city. There are many trails for hiking and biking, so you can pick a new picnic spot every time you go.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “Sandwiches, fruit, nuts, water, and snacks if we are with the kids. If the picnic requires a little romance, then my wife and I go with crackers, cheese, cured meats, wine, and (more) wine.”
Florida: Oleta River State Park
Favorite Picnic Spot: “We usually go with a bunch of families every year for a weekend to the park, which is off of 163rd Street between Biscayne Blvd. and Collins Ave. There’s canoeing, kayaking, swimming, a beach, and we rent these cabins, build a fire, and grill every night. The kids run around. It’s so cool.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “A cooler full of Old Speckled Hen beer, cheese, pickles, great bread...a good little knife. And a lot of friends.”
Massachusetts: Walden Pond
Favorite Picnic Spot: “There’s a reason why [Henry David] Thoreau found Walden Pond so peaceful and tranquil. It’s just 25 minutes from Boston and a great place to spend an afternoon.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “I go to Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge for picnic goods, but sometimes make my own, like radish and cultured butter tea sandwiches, or crème fraîche and cucumber sandwiches with roasted chicken. Rosé wine is my go-to for picnic bevies.”
Montana: Blackfoot River
Favorite Picnic Spot: “My wife and I grew up in western Montana and feel most at home on a crystal clear river. We got engaged on the Blackfoot River on a small patch of sand with giant rock walls on either side of the canyon. For whatever reason butterflies flock this beach like crazy and cover every inch of ground. It’s very romantic.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “Our foods of choice are leftover BBQ chicken, potato salad with herb vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise, and watermelon.”
New York: Brooklyn Bridge Park
Favorite Picnic Spot: “Our ultimate favorite is Brooklyn Bridge Park—not only is it a convenient choice with two kids ages 9 months and three years old, it’s also iconic.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “We go to the Fort Greene farmers’ market to see what looks good, or Choice Green in Clinton Hill for Stumptown coffee and the amazing cheese counter. My wife loves full-flavored stinky cheeses, my son banana bread, and we all make shortcake made with whipped Ronnybrook cream and mixed berries from Phillips Farms in New Jersey.”
North Carolina: Eno River
Chef: Marco Shaw, Eno Restaurant, Durham.
Favorite Picnic Spot: “My favorite place to picnic is along the banks of the Eno River in Hillsborough. Our farm partner, Coon Rock Farm, is located there, and the actual Coon Rock has been the town swimming hole for generations. We jump off the rock, swing from the rope swing, or just loll around on the banks.”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “We always bring cold fried chicken, salami, Brillat-Savarin cheese, a baguette, fruit, Kettle brand potato chips, pasta salad, snacks for the kids, and a bottle of white wine.”
Oregon: Clackamas River
Favorite Picnic Spot: “What I like about the Clackamas is that it’s beautiful, and you can just pull off the road anywhere and it’s a short walk to the water. Plus, if you’re hot, you can just jump in!”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “I like Xener’s jalapeño-cheddar hot dogs to grill, and usually make a Spanish-style macaroni salad to go with them, with sherry mayo, piquillo peppers, chorizo, and marcona almonds. My wife’s a bartender, and she often makes lemonade or watermelon cocktails.”
Texas: Guadalupe River
Favorite Picnic Spot: “We love the Guadalupe River in New Braunfels, TX, because it’s the best place to be in the summertime—sitting in an inner-tube and floating down the river in the hot Texas sun with a group of family and friends!”
Favorite Picnic Fixings: “We always have a full cooler of beer to quench our thirst! And we bring along some sandwiches made with our own house sourdough bread and a variety of charcuterie meats (pork shoulder marinated in wine, coppa, salami or pork cheek).”