18 Best Summer Vacation Spots in the U.S.A.
The best summer vacation memories last a lifetime. There are several spots in the United States that are iconic when it comes to the ideal summer vacation for families, couples, or even solo travelers.
Some of the best places to visit in summer are in the nation's national parks, like Glacier National Park, the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone National Park. Other time-tested summer vacations require more of a journey, like a scenic drive along Route 66, where you get out to explore some of the hidden towns and diners along the nostalgic Mother Road.
The thrill of exploring the United States is that you do not have to go far to find the ocean, wilderness, desert, city life, or solitude, and sometimes you can combine a number of these goals into one trip. As you plan your getaway, it is important to know that oftentimes the best summer vacation destinations are at their prime during the peak tourist season.
While you can expect more crowds and higher prices during June, July, and August in these popular destinations, you will also get to experience the best that location has to offer. With a little pre-planning, you can keep an eye out for cheaper fares, and you can have the vacation of a lifetime.
Find inspiration for your next warm-weather getaway with our list of the best summer vacation spots in the U.S.A.
- 1. Grand Canyon, Arizona
- 2. Mackinac Island, Michigan
- 3. Door County, Wisconsin
- 4. Yellowstone National Park
- 5. Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- 6. Outer Banks, North Carolina
- 7. Glacier National Park, Montana
- 8. Grand County, Colorado
- 9. Jekyll Island, Georgia
- 10. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
- 11. Olympic National Park, Washington
- 12. Portland, Maine
- 13. San Francisco, California
- 14. Panama City Beach, Florida
- 15. The Oregon Coast
- 16. Virginia Beach, Virginia
- 17. Route 66
- 18. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
- Map of Summer Vacation Spots in the U.S.A.
1. Grand Canyon, Arizona
The Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic, family-friendly American summer vacation spots because of its views, notoriety, and things to do while you are here. Summer is a crowded time, as it is peak season, especially with kids out of school, so you will want to lock in lodging many months in advance. Plan ahead for activities that might require a reservation, like rafting on the Colorado River.
There are lookouts and hiking trails throughout the Grand Canyon, and you can even take the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, Arizona to the South Rim, which is a popular vantage point. The South Rim is where you can find the Grand Canyon Village and the winding Bright Angel Trail, which is a popular hike for those who want a more aggressive excursion.
The North Rim is the least crowded spot with fewer tourists and it is only completely open from May to October. From October to December 1 it is only open for day use.
2. Mackinac Island, Michigan
A summer vacation on Mackinac Island in Michigan is a throwback to the simplicity of the summer vacation of the 1800s. A ferry to the island is required, and once you arrive, there are no cars and no chain hotels.
Transportation is by horse and carriage, bicycles, or on foot. There are several resorts on the island, like the famed Grand Hotel and Mission Point resort, where Adirondack chairs adorn the lawn along the Lake Huron shoreline. The island represents a wholesome kind of vacation that is ideal for families or romantic getaways.
Throughout Mackinac Island, you can explore the outdoors with a carriage ride and tour, kayaking trips on the water, horseback riding through Mackinac Island State Park, relaxing at the spa, or taking a leisurely bike ride through yesteryear in a place that seems to have stopped in time.
Grab high tea in the afternoon at the historic Grand Hotel on the hill or enjoy a mega-scoop of ice cream at Sadie's Ice Cream Parlor. Everything on the impeccably manicured island is the epitome of the perfect summer vacation.
3. Door County, Wisconsin
One of the best summer vacation spots in the United States is the serene peninsula of Door County, Wisconsin. The 19 small villages that stretch along the peninsula each have charming uniqueness, from cherry orchards and beaches to cliffs and historic bed and breakfasts. With 300 miles of shoreline along Lake Michigan on one side and Green Bay on the other, there are so many ways to make summer memories.
Take a guided kayak trip in Peninsula State Park or over the shipwrecks of North Bay. You can also choose to hop on board the ferry to Washington Island, where you can see Schoolhouse Beach, which has pebbles instead of sand, and soak in the relaxing aroma at the Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm.
In the evening, gather around for a traditional Door County fish boil as you listen to stories around the fire at one of the historic inns. It is easy to add a day or two in Green Bay to your Door County vacation, where you can tour Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, and visit several other Green Bay attractions.
4. Yellowstone National Park
A summer vacation to Yellowstone National Park enables you to experience some of the most stunning natural beauty in the United States. The park crosses the boundaries of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, with more than two million acres of natural landscape and wildlife viewing to enjoy.
Plan some time for this vacation because there is so much to see and do, from hiking the many trails to photographing the Old Faithful geyser, one of the most popular stops in the park.
It is estimated that Yellowstone attracts two million visitors in the summer months, which means the park will be crowded. It is also the best time to go, not just for the warm temperatures and wildlife activity but also for the events happening in the towns around the park that have many summer festivals.
Some other must-see Yellowstone points of interest are Mammoth Hot Springs and Yellowstone Lake.
5. Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Summer in Cape Cod defines the idea of a cottage escape. With pristine beaches and quaint villages with old-fashioned ice cream parlors, Cape Cod is one of the best vacation getaways in New England.
The ocean and public beaches almost never leave your eyesight, unless you opt for a bike ride along one of the many paths that weave through the area. Kayaking and fishing are top things to do in Cape Cod but so is beachcombing; listening to live music; and visiting art galleries, where you can find lots of unique creations from local glass blowers and painters.
Cape Cod beaches stretch for 40 miles and are home to many celebrities during the summer months. Some of the notable beaches to visit are Herring Cove in Provincetown and Nauset Beach in Eastham. July and August are the best beach months to visit, but be prepared to spend quite a bit for this iconic summer vacation.
Hotel, resort, and bed and breakfast rates will be at a premium, and availability will be limited if you do not book several months, or even up to a year in advance.
6. Outer Banks, North Carolina
A summer visit to North Carolina's barrier islands, known as the Outer Banks, is one of the best vacations in the United States. You can make a base in one of the small towns along the 130-mile stretch and make day trips along Highway 12 to places like Cape Hatteras National Seashore or to some of the historic lighthouses along the Outer Banks.
It is common for many summer vacationers to rent beach houses in Duck, Nags Head, Hatteras, or Kill Devil Hills and make the Outer Banks an annual tradition. The area has long stretches of beautiful beaches, perfect for family vacations. Due to the popularity of the area, it is best to lock in lodging six months to a year in advance.
While the main attractions in the Outer Banks are the picturesque Atlantic Ocean and dramatic sand dunes, there's much more to explore. On the northern tip of the Outer Banks in Corolla, you can see wild Spanish mustang horses roaming the beaches.
Several historic sites, like the Wright Brothers National Memorial, Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum are worth visits. For a truly unforgettable experience, walk the 100-foot-high sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park or take a hang-gliding lesson at the largest hang-gliding school in the world located at the park.
If you want to make it a truly memorable vacation, consider doing a camping trip to the Outer Banks. Most campgrounds are protected by the dunes but allow easy access to the beaches.
7. Glacier National Park, Montana
Glacier National Park, also known as The Crown of the Continent, is certainly the crown jewel of Montana's state and national parks. The nearly 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road crosses this massive park from east to west, across the Continental Divide, connecting the park's top attractions. The Going-to-the-Sun Road also gives a fantastic preview of the majestic Rocky Mountains peaks that give the park its name.
Summer is a busy time at Glacier National Park. Most visitors either access the West side of the park near Lake MacDonald or the East side of the park at Saint Mary Lake. The National Park Service has recently implemented a permit system throughout summer for driving on the Going-to-the-Sun Road from either side of the park.
But, the park covers over a million acres, so even in its prime summer months, it's still easy to connect with nature. Some of the best hiking trails at Glacier enable this getting away feeling the farther you travel from the trailheads. The same goes for the park's best campgrounds, which offer the best way to experience Glacier's designation as an International Dark Sky Park.
8. Grand County, Colorado
The quiet outdoorsy area of Grand County, Colorado is ideal for a quiet summer vacation. The peak times to visit this picturesque area are during the summer months, when temperatures are warm, wildlife is active, and the plants and flowers are at their peak.
One way to spend a vacation in Grand County is at a dude ranch like Latigo Ranch in the mountains. You spend a week learning to ride horses and experience what true ranch life is like.
You can also rent a cottage or stay at a resort near Grand Lake and enjoy the scene at Colorado's largest natural lake. Take kayaks out for a morning paddle trip and drive through Rocky Mountain National Park in the evening to watch the elk herds graze.
Read More: Best Lakes in Colorado
9. Jekyll Island, Georgia
The serene Jekyll Island off the Georgia coast is a peaceful summer vacation waiting to happen. The island is a state park, so its natural beauty is preserved in a way that will immerse you throughout your stay. This means that the imagery of your vacation will include artistic driftwood along the shores, historic sites, pristine beaches, and native sea turtles making their way to and from the ocean.
Jekyll Island is part of the Golden Isles, a grouping of four barrier islands off the Georgia coast that also include St. Simons Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Sea Island. The vibe on all the islands is low-key, and the activities reflect this with things like nearby golf courses, art galleries, historic museums, and quaint restaurants.
Be sure to plan a visit to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which is a unique experience to see how the island's sea turtles are protected and rehabilitated.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Jekyll Island
10. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan
Few summer vacation memories can top sliding down the colossal sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore in Michigan. The nice thing about this vacation is that most of the things to do are outdoors, and most of them are free.
You can hang beachside at one of the best beaches in Michigan and relax by the waters of Lake Michigan. For more adventure, tackle one of the many hiking trails through Leelanau State Park and North Manitou Island to get up close to nature and local wildflowers.
There are several local outfitters that have kayaks available for rent and offer tours of the area. Or, you can head out on your own and capture photos of your family taking on the adventure of the 400-foot-tall sand dunes.
There is an abundance of wildlife along the 65 miles of shoreline. The area is especially popular for bird-watching. One of the most peaceful parts of a Sleeping Bear Dunes vacation will be the dramatic sunsets along Lake Michigan, which you can catch from the balcony of one of the resorts in the area.
Read More: Best Places to Visit in Michigan
11. Olympic National Park, Washington
Olympic National Park encompasses nearly a million acres on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. This wild and wondrous national park is home to several distinct climates, including rainforest, high alpine, and a stunning coastline. And while visitors venture to this side of the country throughout the year, the summer is arguably the best time to visit.
Some of the top things to do at Olympic National Park include activities like driving to the top of Hurricane Ridge or hiking the Hoh River Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest. And the peninsula's rugged coast is worth a visit on its own, with sea stacks and sandy beaches defining spots like Ruby Beach and Rosario Beach.
Plan for at least a week to explore the national park and more if you can take the time. Places on the northern peninsula, like Port Angeles, are common home bases for extended stays. Port Angeles is home to the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, offering great resources for first-time or repeat visits.
Accommodation: Best Lodging Options for Olympic National Park
12. Portland, Maine
Summertime is the peak tourist season in Portland, Maine but it is also one of the best times to visit for the full flavor of the city. Temperatures, even during the summer, are comfortable and barely exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you love outdoor activities, Portland fits your vacation style with preserved natural beauty and a simplistic vibe.
Much of your time will be spent on the rocky coastline listening to the sounds of the sea crashing upon arrival. One of the things Portland is most known for is its lighthouses. There are six within close proximity, including its most prominent, Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. You can take a tour of one or all of them to get a sense of the town's importance to maritime history.
Outdoor recreation in Portland spans from kayaking and fishing to golf and sailing. Since Portland is located on the coast, you will find small restaurants serving up seafood and culinary creations using in-season fruits and vegetables.
- Read More: Top-Rated Things to Do in Portland, ME
13. San Francisco, California
The city of San Francisco has the benefit of being a nearly perfect place to visit any time of the year, but a summer vacation to this California destination is memorable. The summer months are the most popular in the San Francisco Bay area, so the beaches will be crowded, and lodging will be at a premium. You will also want to book hotels and transportation far in advance.
The top must-dos in San Francisco include a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge, a boat tour on the bay, and a cable car ride around the hilly streets. A trip to Alcatraz is also recommended but since you must buy a ticket and time slot, you may want to book these online before you go.
San Francisco comes alive in the summer with street artists and musicians, festivals, and an eclectic atmosphere. Be sure to visit Pier 39, where you can see dozens of local sea lions resting on the docks at the marina. The California city of San Diego is another top pick for summer vacation in the Golden State.
- Read More: San Francisco Walking Tour: Top Sights
14. Panama City Beach, Florida
One of the best summer beach getaways happens in Panama City Beach in Florida. There's never a bad spot as you choose your beach spot for the day on some of the 27 miles of beaches. The beach is perfect for long walks and people-watching from the pier.
Besides relaxing at the beach, you can hike or bike in one of the two state parks in the area or take a sunset kayaking trip. The eco-friendly destination also makes it easy to explore the nearby and untouched Shell Island or take an airboat ride to get up close to local wildlife.
Pier Park is one way to break up your beach time with some food and activities. The SkyWheel is an exciting way to get a bird's-eye view of the beach scene. Pier Park has more than 124 stores, from boutique and souvenir shops to ice-cream parlors and sundry stores in case you forgot the sunglasses. This is a fun time in Panama City Beach to enjoy the local flavor at the many festivals that happen during the summer months.
For those who enjoy fishing, you can spend a day on a deep-sea charter catching a variety of species then have them filleted at the marina and prepped for you to take to a local restaurant for dinner. If you prefer to enjoy eating fresh seafood more than catching it, Panama City Beach has a wide array of casual to fine-dining seafood restaurants.
15. The Oregon Coast
Sea stacks and stunning ocean vistas line all 360+ miles of the Oregon coast, also known as the People's Coast, thanks to its complete public access. Several summer destinations vie for attention along the state-spanning Highway 101, with all the top attractions on the Oregon Coast best experienced on an extended road trip.
Popular destinations on the Oregon coast span from Astoria up north to the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor down south. Stunning beach scenes span the rugged topography in between, including a crowning collection of beaches, hiking trails, and charming small towns.
If planning to stay in one spot, the best places to visit on the Oregon Coast depend on the activities desired. Depoe Bay is a hotspot for whale watching, for example, and places like Coos Bay lend easy access to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. But everywhere on the coast shares the westward view, lending to stunning sunsets.
16. Virginia Beach, Virginia
Summer is when to experience Virginia Beach in its prime. The beachfront and boardwalk are the two places you will spend a lot of time, as that is where most of the activity happens in Virginia Beach. June, July, and August are the months with the biggest crowds, so expect that as you head to the beach to find a spot for the day. But with 35 miles of shoreline, there is plenty of space for everyone.
Besides the beach activities, you can take a deep sea fishing charter, plan day hikes, take in local festivals, or just relax at an oceanfront restaurant and enjoy the view. There are many tourist activities like parasailing and outdoor tours like kayaking, for an active way to experience Virginia Beach.
17. Route 66
If you prefer to visit several destinations during summer vacation, then a road trip along a section of Route 66 may just fit the bill.
If you have some time, you may want to drive Route 66 across the country from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, planning stops along the way in small towns that still feature neon-lit diners and historic remnants from when the Mother Road was established as a main East-West highway across the country.
The long journey along Route 66 is memorable for anyone who has done it. If you are traveling with children, you will want to spread out the drive time and budget more stops to see some of the historic sites.
On this Route 66 summer vacation trip (if you choose to drive the entire route), you will pass through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. It will be a nostalgic trip back in time but a summer vacation that is easily a bucket-list experience.
18. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
A summer vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee checks all the boxes if you are looking for a combination of activities and some downtime during your getaway. Make no mistake, the heart of Gatlinburg is touristy and busy in the summer months with families, but the buzzing activity is part of its ambience.
The center of Gatlinburg requires no itinerary. It is full of options, from museums to pancake restaurants and miniature golf. Take advantage of the main attractions in the area, like the Gatlinburg Space Needle; Ripley's Aquarium; rides; shops; live entertainment; and the SkyLift, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America.
One of the most popular attractions is the Aerial Tramway, which leaves from downtown Gatlinburg and takes visitors in a cable car up the mountainside to an amusement park and dining at the top. There are plenty of hotels along the main parkway, or you can opt for a more secluded cabin in the woods just outside the main part of town.
Gatlinburg sits in the valley of the Great Smoky Mountains, so every sunrise and sunset is spectacular.
Take a day or two hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for some natural inspiration. It is the most visited national park in the United States and has more than 50,000-acres of trails, as well as wilderness and wildlife to experience. New visitors should stop by the visitor center near the main entrance for ranger guidance on where to go based on your time and skill level, but some of the must-see spots are Cade's Cove and Clingman's Dome.
Map of Summer Vacation Spots in the U.S.A.
More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com
More Summer Fun: Interested in a summer vacation that won't break the bank? While narrowing down your summer vacation options, you might be interested in researching some of the best cheap places to travel in June, the top cheap places to travel in July, and the best cheap places to travel in August.
Another popular thing to do during the summer months is a road trip. For ideas in this category, see our guides to the Best East Coast Road Trips, or the other side of the country, the Best West Coast Road Trips.