Summer in the U.S.A.: 20 Best Vacation Destinations

Fishing boat in Tybee Island, Georgia. Photo by Community
By Jessica Langan-Peck

With increasing baggage fees and oversold flights, doesn't a good, old-fashioned road trip to a cabin in the woods or a great American town make total sense? Start planning your next summer vacation with this list of destinations that takes you to 19 states: from the start of the Appalachian Trail in Maine and across the nation to Big Sur, California.

So pack your bags, gas up the car, unfold your map, and hit the road to visit one of these great American summer escapes.

Photo Caption: Fishing boat in Tybee Island, Georgia
Mt Lemmon looking south to Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Community
Hear us out: Yes, Tucson is hot in the summer, with average temps of 100 or higher. Beginning in May, snowbirds flock home to cooler climates, and thirty thousand undergraduates head home. What's left is a quiet, peaceful version of Tucson, the heat necessitating a slower pace. There's hiking to be had in the evenings and in the higher elevations -- Mt. Lemmon, whose 9,000-foot peak is at least 30 degrees cooler than the base of the mountain, and whose burbling brooks and pines offer breezy shade, is a 30-minute drive from downtown. Come for monsoon season's spectacular storms.

Tucson boasts some of the most lovely courtyard dining and drinking anywhere, and even in summer the nights cool sufficiently to sit outside. Check out The Shanty's roomy outdoor space, or head to La Cocina's courtyard, where you can eat fresh, imaginative food, enjoy live music, or have a local beer, is large and shady, protected on all sides by the downtown Artisan's Market.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to come in summer is the deals -- during these off-season months, you'll find cheap hotel rooms, cheap food/drink, and the space to enjoy them.

Where to Stay: DoubleTree Hotel Tucson; From $94/night

Photo Caption: Mt. Lemmon looking south to Tucson, Arizona
East Beach in Santa Barbara, California Photo by Eric Parsons
Los Angeles's smaller, calmer neighbor to the north shares its laid back vibe and perfect temperature all year round. Located at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara's ocean breezes, stroll-able downtown, and ample hiking opportunities (check out the popular Seven Falls/Inspiration Point Trail) make it an ideal summer destination.

Not surprisingly, Santa Barbara's beaches are many and varied. Head to One Thousand Steps Beach at the end of Santa Cruz Boulevard. There are fewer than a thousand steps, don't worry -- and at the bottom you'll find a quiet stretch of beach. Butterfly Beach is said to be one of the best sunsets in Santa Barbara and perfect for romantic strolls, Goleta Beach is frequented mostly by locals who love to picnic and barbeque, and Arroyo Burro Beach County Park is a white-sandy gem where you can try out your board.

In addition to upholding its reputation as classy, upscale spot, Santa Barbara embraces its grungier side, too -- hip eateries, wineries, and stores are beginning to pop up in an industrial area formerly known as the Funk Zone (for its humble origins). Check out the Santa Barbara Winery and sample the sandwiches at Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant.

Where to Stay: Simpson House Inn; From $381/night

Photo Caption: East Beach in Santa Barbara, California
Treman State Park in Ithaca, New York. Photo by Community
Like any place with a long, cold winter, the Finger Lakes region comes alive during the summer months, offering a bounty of fresh produce, new wines to taste, and gorge trails to hike. Ithaca in particular, a pedestrian-friendly college town full of eclectic shops and high-quality restaurants, is an ideal home base from which to explore this region. Start out by dining outside at the Moosewood Restaurant, a famous spot that began as a vegetarian collective and spawned a series of best-selling cookbooks. Head to the Farmer's Market in its permanent lakefront pavilion for a mix of local produce and prepared foods. Rent a sailboat or a kayak/canoe or simply admire Cayuga Lake from its banks at waterfront parks like Stewart Park and Cass Park.

Don't miss hiking along Ithaca's famous gorges. Popular options include Buttermilk Falls, Taughannock Falls, and the particularly spectacular Treman State Park. These trails are closed from November to April due to icy conditions, but in the warmer months they offer shady trails, dramatic vistas, and (very chilly!) swimming holes.

Where to Stay: Inn on Columbia; From $175/night

Photo Caption: Robert Treman State Park in Ithaca, New York
The coastline of Florence, Oregon. Photo by Community
The Oregon Coast is temperate, misty, and lush year-round, and the Pacific breezes and damp air are a welcome reprieve from the steamy summer. Head two hours due west from Portland and you'll hit Tillamook, the most outdoorsy town on the Oregon Coast -- it boasts more than a dozen well-maintained hiking trails. A series of these, known as the spectacular Three Capes Scenic Loop, takes hikers through damp old-growth forests to dramatic Pacific vistas. Tillamook may sound familiar to foodies, because it's also the birthplace of Oregon's locally produced Tillamook Cheese. Buy local fruit and homemade pastries and take them straight to the beach

From here, you can drive down the coast, stopping in towns like family-friendly Lincoln City, bustling Newport, and quirky Yachats. Watch out for the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, as well as numerous spots to get up close and personal with sea anenomes and starfish in the Pacific Coast's unique tide pools, like the formations at Boiler Bay in Depoe Bay. If you make it as far south as Florence, don't miss the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which extends for 40 miles along the coast, making it the largest expanse of its kind in North America.

Where to Stay: Ocean Haven, Yachats, Oregon; From $120/night

Photo Caption: The coastline of Florence, Oregon
San Juan Islands. Photo by Community
It's easy to wax poetic about the San Juan Islands: how green they are, how they come up out of the Pacific, how the light hits them just so. Most agree that traveling to the San Juan Islands is transporting to a slower, dreamier place where mountains and sand meet, where there are very few cars, or where there may be one general store on a whole island. What's special is the San Juans' proximity to Seattle, a city that loves summer perhaps more than any other in the country. You might consider planning your trip around July's Bite of Seattle.

It's true that the San Juans are busiest during the summer months. This means that the islands will be celebrating: various farmer's markets and arguably the best Fourth of July fireworks anywhere. Also, the San Juans are a veritable cyclists paradise. Those looking for a more leisurely day of riding can tool around the mostly flat, rural Lopez Island. More serious cyclists can summit Orcas Island's Mount Constitution.

Where to Stay: Rosario Resort & Spa, Orcas Island; From $169/night

Photo Caption: San Juan Islands
View of Smugglers Notch near Mt. Mansfield, Vermont. Photo by michaelgrogan
Though we tend to think of Northern Vermont (Burlington & environs) as a winter paradise the leafy and relatively cool summers need not be overlooked. In fact, if you're looking for a region that offers the eclectic and cosmopolitan alongside the woodsy, get yourself and your family to Vermont's Green Mountains this off-season. In addition to rolling hills, wineries, pedestrian-only shopping and dining, this area's ski mountains are year-round destinations that offer hiking, biking, and incredible deals.

Smuggler's Notch, located about two hours northeast of Burlington, features about 14 miles of cross-country trails that you can traverse either by yourself or with an experienced guide. If you're in the mood for something more strenuous, you can summit each of the resort's three peaks: Morse, Madonna, and Sterling. Smuggs is also the home of Vermont's first zipline canopy tour. After a long day in the outdoors, relax by one of the resorts four pool areas. Similarly, nearby Stowe offers hiking, tennis, discounted lodging, and gorgeous scenery.

Where to Stay: Green Mountain Inn, Stowe, Vermont; From $156/night

Photo Caption: View of Smugglers Notch near Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Photo by Community
It's certainly not news that visitors flock to Cape Cod for the summer, the sleepy, artsy town of Wellfleet is a low-key alternative to Provincetown. The calmer waters of the bay are great for wading, lounging and various watersports such as kayaking, while beaches on the ocean side boast bigger waves and windsurfing opportunities. If you've got a family in tow, or if you're interested in watersports without navigating the surf, consider heading to one of Wellfleet's kettle ponds, glacier-carved, spring-fed bodies of fresh water. Hike and bike along the miles of national sea shore, or visit the nearly 1,000-acre Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can get close to Wellfleet Bay's unique salt marsh, wooded areas, and barrier reef, as well as the birds and marine life who live here.

During the summer, a variety of educational programs are offered, catering to both children and adults. The thing that really sets Wellfleet apart, though, are its galleries, most of which are only open between May and October. This town is the home of over 20 galleries showcasing a wide variety of arts and crafts, ranging from local to international artists. Gallery openings typically take place on summer Saturday evenings. And don't miss double features on most summer nights at Wellfleet's drive-in movie theatre, which will take you right back to the 1960s.

Where to Stay: Surf Side Cottages; From $1200/weekly

Photo Caption: Wellfleet, Massachusetts
The Sunsphere in Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by fweiskopf
Knoxville's location on the banks of the Tennessee River and in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains makes it a perfect warm-weather town. Its large pedestrian-only Market Square is roomy, inviting, and features installation art fountains that are meant for splashing around in. During the summer months, patrons of the many restaurants and bakeries on the square sit at wrought-iron tables out in the open, or under the shade of the stand of trees found at its far end. During the summer months, the square is also home to Shakespeare on the Square, a farmer's market, and many other festivals and events. If your'e still around by Labor Day, don't miss Boomsday -- the self-proclaimed "largest Labor Day fireworks display in the nation."

Meander through the Knoxville Museum of Art's outdoor sculpture exhibition, Art in Public Places, or head to Old City, where much of the city's gritty southern character remains. Live music, from bluegrass to contemporary rock, is easy to find and enjoy in Knoxville -- particularly the Blue Plate Special, a free noon-time show at WDVX on weekdays.

In the summer, make sure you get out on that river. Whether you prefer to lounge on the deck of a cruiseboat with a drink in hand or skim around in a kayak, it's impossible not to feel relaxed on the water.

Where to Stay: The Oliver Hotel; Varies according to room type and availability 

Photo Caption: The Sunsphere in Knoxville, Tennessee
Dock overlooking the harbor, Glacier National Park, Montana Photo by John Lander
Where else in the lower 48 might you find snow in July? Because of weather-related closures, it is nearly impossible to access Glacier National Park, one of nation's most ruggedly spectacular public spaces, for much of the winter. Take advantage of the region's relatively short summer -- cool off, find solitude, and feast your eyes in a spot where it's possible to see the effects of climate change up close. According to the U.S. Geological Survey team stationed in the park, recent warming trends have decreased the size and number of glaciers in the park.

Glacier's Going-to-the-Sun Road, a twisting, turning, mountain-hugging byway that takes visitors deep into the wilds of northern Montana, is navigable by car during the summer months -- it seems a woeful understatement to call this road a scenic route. If you're hankering to get out into the woods, you can hike on the park's 700 miles of trails, camp in one of its 13 campgrounds, or obtain a backcountry permit and go off the beaten path. During the summer months, an array of ranger-led programs, including guided hikes, talks, and boat tours, is also popular.

Where to Stay: Glacier National Park Lodges; From $95/night

Photo Caption: A dock overlooking the harbor in Glacier National Park, Montana
An Amish horse & buggy travels through Lancaster County. Photo by Chris Meck & Jim Graham for
Lancaster is home to a unique and particularly bountiful farming tradition. Set in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country, visitors during the summer months can expect a embarrassment of riches when it comes to produce. In addition to juicy heirloom tomatoes, sweet peaches, and a vast array of all things leafy and green, look for fresh flowers, jams, chutneys, and salsas, not to mention baked goods made with simple, high quality ingredients (and a lot of care). To name a few excellent markets: Central Market, Columbia Market, and Bird-in-Hand Market. For even fresher goods, you can tool along the country roads and keep your eyes peeled for road-side stands.

Summer is also the best time to check out the region's many breweries and wineries. The Brandywine Food & Wine Festival in June showcases local wineries, food purveyors, artists, and musicians. After you've gorged yourself on local goods, ride a bike through the Lancaster area's lush, green hills, or tour the approximately 25 historical covered bridges here.

Where to Stay: The Inn at Leola Village; From $195/night

Photo Caption: An Amish horse & buggy travels through Lancaster County
Delaware Seashore State Park, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Photo by Community
If you're looking for a sleepy beach town that's a bit under the collective public's radar, consider heading to Delaware this summer. Rehoboth's seafood, lovely sunsets, and outdoor recreation opportunities rival any beach town on the Atlantic coast. Stroll or bike along Rehoboth's 2010-revamped boardwalk or lounge on a patrolled beach like Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, or Bethany Beach. You can also head into one of Delaware's pristine shore state parks: Cape Henlopen State Park's 3,000 acres affords plenty of hiking, camping, and swimming. For an easy hike, check out the Walking Dunes Trail that travels through marsh land and woodland, ending at The Great Dune.

Perhaps the best thing about Rehoboth's community vibe is the abundance of inclusive, family-friendly events that take place during the summer months. Test out your construction skills at September's annual Sandcastle Contest, take advantage of the great deals during restaurant week, and tour beautiful historic cottages in July.

Where to Stay: The Bellmoor Inn and Spa; From $199/night

Photo Caption: Delaware Seashore State Park, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
The Tybee Island Lighthouse on Tybee Island in Georgia. Photo by Community
The islands off the coast of Savannah offer a Southern-charm twist on the classic beach experience. Here you'll find secluded/private islands, marshlands, sea turtles, and a plethora of rare birds. Head to bike-friendly Tybee Island, just 18 miles south of Savannah, for peaceful public beach, fresh Georgia shrimp, bottlenose dolphin tours, and relaxed nightlife (bars here are known to provide plastic cups for those who want to stroll along the beach with their beverages).

Tybee is best known for its birdwatching. It falls directly in the Atlantic Flyway, which means it hosts thousands of migratory birds each season including rare species like the Piping Plover and the Purple Sandpiper. The best places for birding: The Sally Pearce Nature Trail, Little Tybee Island (a nature preserve), and Fort Pulaski National Monument.

If you crave a more secluded getaway, head for Georgia's Golden Isle, a slightly further-afield group of smaller islands of the coast of Jacksonville, Georgia, including St. Simon's Island. Sophisticated and deeply southern, St. Simon's stately houses and draping Spanish moss evoke the nearby mainland city of Savannah -- without the hustle and bustle.

Where to Stay: Saint Simons Inn; From $164/night

Photo Caption: The Tybee Island Lighthouse on Tybee Island in Georgia
Night time in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Community
If Kentucky's rolling green hills are calling your name, consider heading to this fertile spot during the summer months, well after Derby-mania takes over this town and its surrounding areas. Even post-derby, you can visit Churchill Downs, where there are races through early July. In the summer, Louisville's bluegrass musicians are busy. If you're in town for a summer Saturday, make sure not to miss local musicians at Bluegrass on the Square. The star-studded Bardstown Bluegrass Festival in June is held in nearby Bardstown, Ketucky -- rain or shine.

Of course, it would be criminal to spend time in the heart of bourbon country without sampling some of the goods. In Louisville proper, you can travel the Louisville Urban Bourbon Trail, which visits 13 restaurants and bars in downtown Louisville. You'll also be in excellent position to take the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which tours nine famous distilleries, including Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve.

Where to Stay: Maple Hill Manor; From $171/night

Photo Caption: Night time in Louisville, Kentucky

Photo by Dimo Petrov/ Community
Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder, Colorado. Photo by Community
You'd be hard pressed to find a more outdoorsy city, and Boulder's inherently cool mountain air is especially inviting during the summer months. This place has perfected the balance between the cosmopolitan and the rugged -- the Boulder Contemporary Art Museum, the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Boulder Ballet, to name a few, coexist with the city's over 300 miles of hiking and biking trails -- including the Boulder Creek Path, with runs directly through the city, alongside Boulder Creek.

For a good introduction to Boulder's altitude and scenery, look for the Bald Mountain Trail, a short hike to the top of Bald Mountain, 7,000 feet. Once you've acclimated, head to the Flatirons area, which offers a variety for hikers of all abilities, or Eldorado Canyon, where you can hike amongst the sandstone or climb the face of it. If you're looking for something a little more wild, Rocky Mountain National Park is an easy one-hour drive from Boulder.

Beginning in June, you can partake in community folk dancing and live music performances at various parks weekly, as well as the famous Colorado Music Festival, held at Boulder's historic Chautaqua Auditorium.

Where to Stay: Hotel Boulderado; From $303/night

Photo Caption: Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder, Colorado
Big Sur Coast, California Photo by Jason Marcuson
The drive to Big Sur alone is compelling reason to visit -- the rugged scenery along California One rivals any coastal view in the lower 48, and the windy, narrow passage makes this spot less accessible, therefore more secluded and private, than other California coast destinations. Most beaches, often located on unmarked roads, are windblown and misty and require a short hike. If you're looking for an active vacation, you can hike and bike to your heart's content in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Andrew Molera State Park and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, to name a few, through mossy Redwoods, a 60-ft waterfall, and past rocky coastal vistas.

Go tubing or kayaking on the Big Sur River, soak in Sykes Hot Springs, or simply wander through the sleepy town's several galleries, all of which feature the work of local artists. Not surprisingly, this place as served as inspiration to many. Perhaps the most exciting reason to come to Big Sur during the summer months is the opportunity to see certain enormous mammals up close. Endangered Blue Whales move along the coast here from June through October, when krill is most abundant. You can see whales from the land or get out in a boat.

Where to Stay: Big Sur River Inn; From $150/night

Photo Caption: The Big Sur coastline, California
Texas Hill Country at sunset. Photo by Community
This is the greenest it gets in Texas. The Hill Country, roughly the area of central Texas between San Antonio and Austin, is a place of rolling hills, pecan orchards, and bed & breakfasts. The streets are wider here, the pace slower, the pie more plentiful. Though Texas is certainly steamy during the summer months, air conditioning abounds, as do cool drinks and relaxation. The central Texas town of Fredericksburg, originally settled by German pioneers, takes its unique blend of German and Texan hospitality very seriously. It's an easy town to stroll around, with its wide-open Marktplatz, fine shops, and food options ranging from bratwurst to barbeque.

The semi-arid climate and rich soil here make the Texas Hill Country ideally suitable for grapes. Wine culture here is no less refined, but there is a certain relaxed vibe that you won't find in other tasting rooms. Snack on local pecans and cheese while you taste, and don't pass up the peaches you'll see for sale at roadside stands -- they are truly the best you'll ever taste.

For a Texas time, go to Luchenbach, famously one of the oldest and smallest settlements in Gillespie County. The live music here, not to mention the barbeque-heavy chuckwagon dinner, takes place in the virtually-untouched one-horse frontier town.

Where to Stay: Magnolia House; From $135/night

Photo Caption: Texas Hill Country at sunset

Photo by Terry Yarbrough/ Community
Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Community
This lovely lake-filled city is vibrant in summer when most of its residents and visitors are getting in the water. There are 12 beaches in the city of Madison, from which you can enjoy freshwater swimming. Rent canoes, kayaks, or rowboats from Wingra Boats, or fish for crappies, bass, northern pike, and more -- just be sure to obtain a fishing permit if you're heading out on your own. After a day of water-play, choose one of Madison's many waterfront restaurants and sip a cocktail with a lake view.

Mountain bikers of all skill levels have come to the right place. Madison's Kettle Moraine State Forest boasts five loops of various lengths and difficulties. The more technically difficult Blue Mound State Park should only be attempted by seasoned bikers, but offers exciting terrain and views. If you'd rather toodle along on the pavement, head to the Capital City Trail, nine miles of which run through the wild Capital Springs Recreation Center.

During the summer months, Madison puts on various summer concert series, including Concerts on the Rooftop during June and July. 

Where to Stay: Arbor House; From $140/night

Photo Caption: Madison, Wisconsin
Sandy Stream Pond and Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine. Photo by gods-art
In Northern Maine, winters are long and deep. Thus, we recommend taking advantage of the warm weather and heading into the highlands -- in fact, Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, is a good place for adventure-seekers to start. Located in Baxter State Park, Katahdin is the highest peak in Maine at 5,267 feet. Backpack up and spend the night—the views from the top are breathtaking. Baxter State Park's 200,000 acres of natural riches include the Penobscot River, famous for its whitewater rafting opportunities, many lakes and ponds for fishing and swimming, and miles of hiking trails.

If you'd rather ride, take a cruise on Moosehead Lake on the steamship Katahdin, and keep your eyes peeled—the dense forest that surrounds Maine's largest lake is ideal for moose spotting. If you'd rather not leave your moose viewing up to chance, you can take a Moose Safari—hike into the highlands and let an experienced guide do the tracking.

When you're ready to return to civilization, explore the town of Bangor—a small, eclectic logging town on the banks of the mighty Penobscot. Stroll through downtown's shopping district, or visit the Maine Forest and Logging Musem to learn more about the beautiful country around you. The American Folk Festival, a three-day extravaganza in August, draws thousands to the region for blues, zydeco, bluegrass, gospel, and more.

Where to Stay: The Charles Inn; From $65/night

Photo: Sandy Stream Pond and Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine
Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio. Photo by rubbertoe
Ohio's state park system is one of the most extensive in the nation, and it offers diverse, family-friendly, summer fun. Mohican State Park, in Loudonville, Ohio, is particularly inviting. This 1,110-acre park offers varied scenery: shady old-growth hemlock forests, the Mohican River, and the spectacular Clear Fork Gorge -- a glacially carved chasm that is approximately 1,000 feet wide and 300 feet deep. Mohican's lodging options are varied and can easily be tailored to fit your needs -- camp, stay in a two-bedroom cabin, or put your feet up at the lodge.

After you've had your fill of the forest, head northwest to the shores of Lake Erie, where you can swim, boat, and picnic at the one of the many lake-front state parks (some of these include Catawba Island State Park, Kelleys Island State Park Beach, and East Harbor State Park).

Ride the 17 world-famous coasters at Cedar Point, an amusement park of mythic proportions. There are plenty of thrills for adults and kids here, including (brand-new for 2012) a display of 40 roaring, flailing, and full-sized animatronic dinosaurs.

Where to Stay: Cabins at Mohican State Park; from $135/night for two-bedroom cottages

Photo Caption: Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio
The Michigan Theater, State Theater and the Burton Memorial Tower in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photo by spraginator89
Despite its small size, Ann Arbor is winning accolades left and right -- some recent highlights include Best Midwest Food Town, one of the Ten Best Cities for Families, Best Town for Young Singles, to name a few. Most recently, Ann Arbor ranked #5 on the 2012 "America's Happiest Cities" list, compiled by Newsweek's As you can imagine, Ann Arbor shakes off its lake effect snow in style, sending University of Michigan students packing and really showing its true colors.

The pedestrian-friendly historic downtown Kerrytown District is full of eclectic shops peddling high-quality goods, used bookstores, the Arbor Brewing Company -- and the producers-only, open-air farmer's market, as well as the Sunday Artisan Market, offer exceptional local products, from heirloom tomatoes to handcrafted textiles.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to visit Ann Arbor during the summer months is the city's fabled Street Art Fair, usually held during the third week in July. For more than 50 years, artists practicing all mediums have gathered in downtown arbor for a three-day celebration of color, light, and sound. Art exhibits are accompanied by musical performances, outdoor dining, and children's activities galore.

Where to Stay: Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast; From $205/night.

Photo Caption: The Michigan Theater, State Theater and the Burton Memorial Tower in Ann Arbor, Michigan