The 8 Best Eco-Friendly Vacations You Can Take in the U.S.
Getting out and seeing the planet should always involve taking care of it, too.
For most travelers, the world's natural beauty is all the inspiration needed to plan a memorable trip, whether it's a bucket list visit to a national park or a quick getaway to take in the changing colors of autumn. But in a cruel twist of fate, many of those visits can damage the environment that you're traveling to experience. As the effects of global warming and climate change are becoming ever more apparent, it's never been more important to take our responsibility to protect the planet into account when booking trips or selecting destinations. Fortunately, there are still a few ways you can explore and appreciate the world without putting it in harm's way. Read on to discover some of the best eco-friendly vacations you can take in the U.S.
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Mackinac Island (Michigan)
A big part of eco-friendly travel is limiting your reliance on emissions-heavy methods of getting around once you get there. And in one Midwestern location, swapping in your motor vehicle for a set of foot-powered wheels is the only way to go by law.
"Spending some time in Michigan? Go to the top of 'The Mitten State' and travel by ferry to Mackinac Island, where cars are banned," Jessica Parker, founder of Trip Whisperer, tells Best Life. "People get around by foot, bicycle, or horse."
Parker adds that there are "lots of great outdoor activities to enjoy with the whole family," from kayaking tours around the island's shores to spot its famous rock formations to planning a ride down the M-185, which is billed as the one state highway anywhere where only bikes are allowed.
The Florida Keys (Florida)
The allure of pristine beaches and glistening blue waters is too much for some to resist when booking a trip. Now, there's a way to enjoy the sunny vacation you've always dreamed of while still being environmentally conscious.
"With new light being brought to the precious and diminishing coral reef that gives life to the Florida Keys, new companies and businesses are popping up seemingly daily with eco-friendly practices in mind. Now, the continental U.S.'s premier warm-weather winter destination provides visitors with many ways to enjoy world-class snorkeling, dolphin-watching, and dining opportunities with environmental peace of mind," says Adam Marland, travel photographer and writer for We Dream of Travel.
"Companies like Honest Eco and Marathon Turtle Hospital offer iconic and unforgettable experiences that put wildlife and nature first," he adds. "What's more, the Florida Keys and Key West regional tourism boards have even launched an awareness campaign dedicated to green travel, which provides enough information for an entirely eco-friendly vacation, from rental cars to dining to activities."
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Greater World Earthship Community (Taos, New Mexico)
The world will likely look different in the coming years as we make the changes necessary to protect the planet. However, some communities are taking the lead on sustainable lifestyles, including one location that draws in travelers looking to learn more.
"In the high mountain desert of Taos, New Mexico lies the thriving Greater World Earthship Community," Abigail Nueve, editor for Travel Lemming, says. "Though off-the-grid, its residents welcome tourists, excited to share the creative and colorful innovations by architect Michael Reynolds."
"In the early '70s, this eco-conscious pioneer started conceptualizing the Earthship, a sustainably-built, fully self-sufficient home. Today's structures run off natural energy, harvest water, produce food, and even treat waste," she explains. "Explore their visitor center or book one of their unique, futuristic rentals. Nearby, other green attractions include Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa and Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site."
The Ted Turner Reserves (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico)
While some destinations are just starting to get into the eco-tourism trend, others have put preservation and restoration as their first priority for quite some time. And in some cases, it's not just the work of the National Park Service that's on display.
"A trip to The Ted Turner Reserves two southern New Mexico ranches is one of the most special experiences in the U.S.," says sustainable travel advisor Rose O'Connor. "Ted has two large private ranches—which together encompass over 500,000 acres—near the town of Truth or Consequences that can be explored when staying at one of his three accommodations, Sierra Grande, Ladder, or Armendaris."
"This is some of the most beautiful land in the United States and is a living testament to Ted's decades-long commitment to rewinding and ecosystem restoration," O'Connor explains. "When exploring the area with a private guide—which is included in some stays—you can see herds of roaming bison, elk, and pronghorn. Many other species that had been long extinct in the area—like the Mexican grey wolf, the Bolson tortoise, and bighorn sheep—have been reintroduced to the land through the work of the Ted Turner Endangered Species Fund. Their resurgence has had dramatic regenerative effects on the entire ecosystem, and now the land there is amongst the most ecologically healthy in the U.S."
Ultimately, O'Connor says the destination provides a truly unique way to experience nature. "Exploring the Ladder and Armendaris ranches is like visiting a national park without the crowds," she concludes. "It's truly one of the most unique and intimate wildlands and wildlife experiences in the lower 48."
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Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa (Buena Vista, Colorado)
Sometimes, getting someplace where you can truly appreciate nature means disconnecting from your devices when you get there. Of course, it also doesn't hurt if your eco-friendly trip is to a relaxation destination that relies solely on sustainable energy to run its operations.
"Set in the shadows of 14,000-foot Colorado peaks, Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa is a soul-enriching escape," says Nueve. "Cellular service is spotty at best, and inside their rustic log cabins, you won't find a blaring television or Wi-Fi password. Rather, entertainment is found in nature—stargazing, hiking, and soaking in gravity-fed hot spring pools."
"In addition to geothermal energy, the resort relies fully on renewable sources, including wind and solar," Nueve continues. But the commitment to nature doesn't end with the resort: Other local businesses also maintain sustainable energy practices, including Wilderness Aware Rafting, a local outfitter that offers summer tours. She also points out that winter guests can visit nearby Monarch Mountain, which "draws ecotourists with its 100 percent all-natural snow."
It's not just rural areas and dense forests that can be appropriated for eco-friendly travel: Even some of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. can provide plenty of environmentally sound options for visitors looking to minimize their footprint.
"Austin, Texas, just speaks to my eco-friendly heart," says Jenny Ly, travel blogger and founder of Go Wanderly. "Although it's understandable why live music and southern BBQ are the only things that come to mind when we think of Austin, there are other things to enjoy as well. The ever-expanding city is a great place for both new residents and tourists, with more than 200 parks, 12 preserves, and 26 greenbelts, incentives for eco-friendly enterprises, and hotels that are going green."
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Any trip booked through an eco-conscious booking service
While dedicated ecotourists have forged the path to plenty of destinations around the U.S., the number of places where environmentally friendly travel is possible is growing by the day. And thanks to new booking services that make it a point to offset your travel emissions, the options are now practically infinite.
"With each stay booked on KindTraveler.com, you'll get to donate to the charity of your choice—including those local to your destination," says Parker. "You can search the U.S. for more charities and hotels that really speak to your family and even bring the kids into the giving experience. Of course, it's important to check out their guides that will include conscious and sustainable suggestions. The best part is that the hotels featured there are all vetted on the platform and include the donation component."
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…Or anywhere that doesn't require a long voyage
Every little bit helps when it comes to environmentally conscious travel, from how you offset your carbon footprint to how you get around once you arrive. But experts point out that if your ultimate goal is to plan an eco-friendly trip from beginning to end, you should consider limiting how far you have to travel.
"To minimize carbon emissions, the absolute easiest steps are to stay closer to home," Charles van Rees, PhD, wildlife expert and founder of the Gulo in Nature Blog, tells Best Life. "If you're within the U.S., explore options for destinations closer to your own state rather than on the opposite coast."
Often, booking the perfect trip might just take a little more digging, which can also pay off in your overall enjoyment. "A lot of people are shocked to find that their home states, or neighboring ones, have incredible destinations in their state parks that fly totally under the radar," van Rees says. "These under-explored, dark-horse destinations can often be a lot more enjoyable because you and your family can get them to yourself. There will be less rush and competition for sights, experiences, and vacation memories. Also, your Instagram won't look like everyone else's."
If you are planning a decently long trek, van Rees adds that the method you choose can greatly impact your overall carbon emissions. "Flying in an airplane contributes much more to carbon emissions than driving in a car, which in turn contributes more than taking a train. Trains are highly underrated as an option for travel, especially for vacations," he explains. "If you're going to do a cross-country trip, look into your train options! Sleeper cars are really comfortable for longer journeys. They can also give you the opportunity to explore stopovers on the way to your destination, to enjoy views and sights are the country rolls by, and you won't have to fight anyone to make room for your carry-on baggage."