Travel

12 Epic Outdoor Summer Vacation Spots in the U.S.

by Dustin Christensen
Updated June 02, 2022

best summer vacation spots in the u.s.

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When the temps heat up and the pull of adventure beckons, it’s time to channel that inner Clark Griswold energy and hit the road.

Few traditions are as American as summer vacations, and the up and at ’em travel dad’s damn near an archetype.

 

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Even if you don’t share the same enthusiasm for clean hotel rooms and breakfast buffets, the allure of summer adventure is downright inescapable. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of gnarly places to explore stateside, especially when you’re tromping around outside making the most of summer’s late-setting sun.

Here’s a look at 12 of the best summer vacation spots for world-class outdoor activities and entertainment around the U.S.

1. Upper Peninsula, Michigan

Isle Royale National Park michigan
Photo: Steven Schremp / Shutterstock

Why you should go: a classic Midwest summer destination.

Cross the Mackinac Bridge onto the Upper Peninsula and you’re in one of the country’s best outdoor playgrounds, where hundreds of waterfalls, thousands of acres of pristine forest and miles of cliffed shoreline await exploration.

The U.P. is home to Michigan’s lone national park, Isle Royale, a 45-mile long island surrounded by hundreds of smaller islands in Lake Superior. Its remote location makes it one of the least-visited national parks in the country and an excellent under-the-radar alternative to the big parks of the West.

On the north side of the U.P. you’ll find Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 42-mile stretch of coast known for stark sandstone cliffs and jutting rock formations. Deeper inside the area you’ll find more than 100 trail miles and camping opportunities up and down the coast.

Even though the U.P.’s a popular summer destination, the region’s sheer size makes it easy to still find a slice of outdoor solitude to enjoy. And for a throwback trip, check out car-less Mackinac Island and its iconic Grand Hotel.

Related Read: 20 Best Cabin Rentals in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan

2. Flagstaff, Arizona

inner basin trail flagstaff arizona
Photo: Jake Case

Why you should go: the ultimate Northern Arizona basecamp for summer adventures.

Summers in central and southern Arizona can be brutal, but it’s a different story up north. Flagstaff’s temperatures are routinely 20 to 30 degrees cooler than Phoenix, making it a popular summer destination — especially for outdoor activities.

Flagstaff’s best hikes — including the Inner Basin Trail — alone make the mountain town worth a visit, and if you’re up for daily road trips, the Grand Canyon’s about 90 minutes away, and Sedona’s even closer. There, you’ll find epic red rock hiking, Arizona’s finest swimming holes and brewpubs like Oak Creek Brewing Co.

Back in Flagstaff, there are two National Monuments nearby — Walnut Canyon and Sunset Crater Volcano — and Petrified Forest National Park is less than two hours to the east. Between all the trails and highways, if you run out of things to do up here, that’s on you my friend.

Related Read: 10 Best Flagstaff Cabin Rentals to Escape to This Year

3. Big Sur, California

big sur california
Photo: Thomas Ciszewski

Why you should go: a coastal road trip you won’t soon forget.

The rocky coastline of Big Sur that hugs Highway 1 is one of the most visited tourist destinations on Earth, and though we haven’t crunched the numbers, it looks right on paper. Neatly hidden coves, plunging waterfalls and epic views define this part of central California that sees millions of visitors each year.

Even with the crowds, Big Sur’s an ideal summer destination. State parks like Julia Pfeiffer Burns and Andrew Molera are gotta-see-to-believe stops, and Point Sur State Historic Park is home to an old-school lighthouse first lit up in 1889 — and remains in operation to this day. Backpacking in Big Sur is as surreal as you’d expect, and the camping and hiking offerings aren’t bad either.

Big Sur is gorgeous, and CABS, the Community Association of Big Sur, is helping to keep it that way for future generations. Before you roll into the area, check out their Big Sur Pledge to help minimize your impact on the environment and its residents.

Related Read: 9 Best Airbnb & Cabin Rentals Near Big Sur, California

4. The Berkshires, Massachusetts

the berkshires
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: a rural escape to some of New England’s best small towns and forests.

The Berkshires’ rolling mountains, farmlands and forests are a refreshing contrast to Eastern Massachusetts’ bustling coast, and an ideal New England summer escape. Plentiful lakes, rivers and creeks offer rafting and paddling opportunities, or you can take it up a notch at Zoar Outdoor, a summer camp with white water rafting, ziplining and more.

For a more lowkey trip, scope out the Berkshires’ best hikes and camping. This region of Massachusetts has many well-preserved lands that play an important role in protecting local animals and landscapes, including the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage, which contains “the most intact forest ecosystem in southern New England,” says The Nature Conservancy.

It only takes about 90 minutes to drive the entire length of Berkshire County, but to truly enjoy the region, you’ll want to spend a few days exploring small towns and historic sites scattered throughout the region. Farmer’s markets pop up throughout the summer and towns like Great Barrington — once named one of the best small towns by Smithsonian Magazine — make it easy to forget about busy life in the city.

Related Read: 12 Magical Glamping Destinations in New England

5. Telluride, Colorado

telluride colorado
Photo: Jesse Paul

Why you should go: unparalleled views and classic summer mountain festivities.

The towering peaks surrounding Telluride are impressive when you roll into town, but it’s not until you’ve hit the free gondola ride up to Mountain Village that you truly appreciate this mountain town’s natural surroundings.

The 13-minute ride offers stunning panoramic views of the box canyon Telluride calls home, where the San Miguel River winds through downtown and Bridal Veil Falls — Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall — freefalls just east of town.

Telluride’s location in the San Juan Mountains offers access to premier hiking, fly fishing, whitewater rafting and off-roading — including Ophir Pass, which connects Telluride to Silverton, one of the earliest mining towns in the state.

Summers in Telluride also mean festivals, and lots of ’em: the Annual Telluride Balloon Festival, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride Wine Festival and the Telluride Jazz Festival all take place from June to August.

Related Read: 12 Best Airbnbs in Telluride, Colorado

6. Portland, Maine

portland maine lighthouse
Photo: René Porter

Why you should go: stunning coasts, historic lighthouses and classic Northeast food and brews.

Portland is a quintessential New England locale, where lobster boats and sailing charters cruise Casco Bay, and lighthouses up and down the coast offer iconic viewpoints to surrounding islands and inlets. With roots back to the 18th century, Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth is the main attraction, but don’t miss smaller lights, like Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse.

Old Port is the place to go for antiquated buildings but refreshingly updated restaurants and boutiques, and there’s a two-mile trail from this part of town to the Eastern Promenade, a chill place to take in stunning bay views.

Day trips here are in abundance: take the ferry out to Peaks Island, or cruise the coast up to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, some three hours from Portland. After all that exploring, check out Portland’s best breweries and places to grab fresh lobster around town.

Related Read: 8 Scenic Drives in Maine that Will Leave You Speechless

7. Glacier National Park, Montana

Glacier National Park, Montana
Photo: Tony Reid

Why you should go: majestic landscapes carved by the ages.

Some 20,000 years ago, ice covered the area that is now Glacier National Park. Today, there are about two dozen named glaciers left, and they continue to shrink due to climate change. But despite the park’s name, the glaciers aren’t really the main highlight of a trip here, though you can spot a few glaciers from different viewpoints and hikes.

Instead, it’s what the glaciers left behind that makes the park so special: deep glacial valleys, alpine lakes, flower-lined meadows, and rugged rock formations that live up to its “Crown of the Continent” moniker. Plan to visit in July or later, when Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open and chances of closures are less likely.

The 50-mile road through the park skirts the main lakes — Saint Mary Lake and Lake McDonald — and includes epic viewpoints along the way. Logan Pass, the highest point on the road, is one of the busiest spots in the park, and it’s also where you can access the amazing views at Hidden Lake Overlook.

“Visiting Glacier at least once in your life is an essential experience,” says Jake Case, Territory Supply’s managing editor. “Even just driving Going-to-the-Sun Road and stopping at the main viewpoints offers a glimpse of the magic.”

More than three million tourists hit up Glacier every summer, so don’t expect much solitude. But if you’re down for a day hike or backpacking trip, the park’s 734 miles of trail often wind peacefully away from crowds toward quieter spaces. And despite the traffic, it’s well worth a peak-season visit to fully experience all of Glacier’s natural beauty.

Related read: 11 Dazzling Airbnbs Near Glacier National Park, Montana

8. Finger Lakes, New York

finger lakes new york
Taughannock Falls. Photo: Paul Massie / Shutterstock

Why you should go: a haven of lakes, waterfalls and award-winning food and drink.

The defining feature of this 9,000-square-mile region south of Lake Ontario is 11 finger-shaped lakes in varying lengths and widths. Between the main lakes you’ll find smaller lakes, ponds, swimming holes, creeks, waterfalls — this place is a literal outdoor playground.

You’ll find some of the Finger Lakes’ best hiking in the state parks, which will redefine your idea of how cool a state park can be. There’s no bad place to start, but the 19 waterfalls in two miles of stream at Watkins Glen State Park is as good a place as any. Next, hit up the “Grand Canyon of the East” at Letchworth State Park and round out your trip at Taughannock Falls State Park, where its namesake falls drops 250 feet into a beautifully tree-lined gorge.

Some of the Finger Lakes best treks also have nothing to do with hiking: the wine and beer trails here are just as scenic, including the Canandaigua Lake Wine Trail, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and the ROC/FLX Craft Beverage Trail.

Related Read: 10 Beautiful Cabin Rentals in the Finger Lakes, New York

9. Cannon Beach, Oregon

Cannon Beach, Oregon
Photo: Connor Olson

Why you should go: laid-back days at one of the PNW’s most picturesque coastal stretches.

For a more chill summer vacation, consider Cannon Beach, an artsy seaside town known for 235-foot Haystack Rock and smaller headlands up and down the coast. Instead of running ragged on vacation, a week in Cannon Beach is about enjoying the landscape, slow vibes and warm coastal weather.

If you can plan it far enough ahead of time, book a house with views of Haystack Rock, where it’s easy to walk to the beach and around town to avoid heavy traffic on summer weekends. Beneath Haystack Rock you’ll find all sorts of tide pools to explore, and you can check the tide charts to see the best times to head down to the beach.

With Cannon Beach as your homebase, you can also explore nearby areas like Hug Point, Oswald West State Park — check out the iconic Cape Falcon hike — and Ecola State Park, which is currently closed due to road conditions.

At the end of the day, head back to Cannon Beach to see the sun set against its shoreline monolith.

“The best seat in the house is a beach chair in the sand facing Haystack Rock,” says Mac Misseldine, Territory Supply contributor and frequent summer visitor to Cannon Beach. “Layer up so you’re ready for unexpectedly chilly evening weather, bring some cold drinks to sip and smoked salmon for snacking, and feast your eyes on the display of colors as the sun sets over the crashing waves.”

Related Read: 12 Oregon Coast Cabin Rentals for a Relaxing Trip to the Seaside

10. Anchorage, Alaska

alaska railroad to denali
Photo: Shutterstock

Why you should go: epic outdoor adventures in The Last Frontier.

Summer solstice in Anchorage brings 19 hours of daylight, and you’ll need a whole lot of ’em to hit all the natural attractions in the region. Chugach State Park, a sanctuary of nearly half a million acres of wildlands, peaks, glacier and rivers lies just east of town, and makes for a good intro to your trip.

Next up: five of Alaska’s national parks, all within driving distance of Anchorage, including Kenai Fjords, Katmai, Lake Clark and Wrangell-St. Elias. You can day-cruise Kenai Fjords from Seward, which is also a great place to spend a weekend fishing and enjoying the coast’s culinary offerings.

Finally, a trip to Anchorage isn’t complete without a northward trek to Denali, and the best way to get there is the Denali Star Train. The 356-mile ride takes hours to complete, but even then, it’ll go by faster than you’d like. There’s nothing quite like watching the Alaskan interior pass by through massive picture windows, and separate viewing platforms offer even better views.

When you get there, the bus ride on Denali Park Road is just as memorable, and if weather permits, you may be one of the few visitors who gets a clear view of North America’s tallest peak (20,310 feet).

Related Read: 9 Extraordinary Cabin Rentals In Anchorage, Alaska

11. San Juan Islands, Washington

San Juan Islands, Washington
Photo: Russ Heinl / Shutterstock

Why you should go: an ecological sanctuary to explore from land and water.

The Salish Sea — named after the indigenous Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest — is home to the San Juan Islands, a scattering of 172 islands and rock reefs northwest of Seattle. Being in the “rain shadow” of the Oympic Mountains keeps the San Juans relatively dry in the summer and makes for a mellow west coast vacation spot.

Washington’s ferry system hits four of the main, most popular islands — San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island — but there’s under-the-radar adventure to be had pretty much everywhere. Blind Island, for example, is a small three-acre crop of land with a camping park that’s only available to kayakers and sailboats. And if you’re sea kayaking in the San Juans, which you most certainly should be, there’s nearly 500 miles of island coastline to paddle.

There’s no bridge to any of the islands, so it’s a ferry or plane ride in, which only adds to the islands’ sense of leisurely escape. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the main hub of shopping, dining and attractions, including The Whale Museum, dedicated to the iconic marine mammal that calls the Salish Sea home.

The area’s orca population is a mix of resident pods and transients that come to feed on local seals, and you can catch views of the whales from land at spots like American Camp or Lime Kiln Point State Park. You can also snag a vacation rental overlooking the San Juan Channel for far-off orca spotting, or book a whale watching tour to get closer to the action.

Related Read: 9 Rad Airbnbs in the San Juan Islands, Washington

12. Park City, Utah

Park City, Utah
Photo: Olivia Hutcherson

Why you should go: a charming ski resort getaway that’s just as appealing in summer.

Park City Mountain’s 7,000-plus skiable acres makes it the biggest ski resort in the U.S., but winter’s not the only good time to visit. In fact, the mountain’s slopes transform into hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails in the summertime, and the quick 35-minute drive from Salt Lake City makes it an easy escape over the Wasatch Mountains.

Park City’s summer vibe rivals what you’d find in Colorado mountain towns: alpine slides, gondola rides and a full slate of activities and weekend festivals. The Park Silly Sunday Market starts up in June, and foodies will find more than enough to indulge in around town. For more solitude, there’s fly fishing nearby and plenty of ATV trails winding through the mountains.

“My itinerary for the perfect day in Park City starts with lounging by the resort pool, grabbing lunch and drinks at the High West Saloon,” says Mac Misseldine. “Then spending the afternoon on a guided UTV tour of the Wasatch Mountains, and topping it off with a five-star dining experience that you’ll be talking about for months.”

Related Read: 9 Best Cabin Rentals in Park City, Utah

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