Summer in the U.S.A.: 20 Best Vacation Destinations
No matter what you're looking for in a summer vacation spot—woodsy mountains, beaches and boardwalks, majestic national parks—you're likely to find it somewhere in the United States. Kickstart your summer travel planning with our roundup of 20 top picks and 15 honorable mentions, including old standbys as well as undiscovered gems. Altogether, our list covers 30 states, from the start of the Appalachian Trail in Maine to California's Big Sur coast and everywhere in between.
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: Tybee Island, Georgia
Hear us out: Yes, Tucson is hot in the summer, with average temps of 100 degrees or higher. Beginning in May, snowbirds flock to cooler climates, and the University of Arizona's 30,000 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—Mount Lemmon (pictured), 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 large and shady courtyard for fresh, imaginative food, live music, and local beers.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to come in summer is the deals—during these off-season months, you'll find cheap hotel rooms, cheap meals, and the space to enjoy them.
Los Angeles's smaller, calmer neighbor to the north shares its laid-back vibe and perfect temperatures all year round. Located at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara's ocean breezes, strollable 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. Don't worry—there are fewer than a thousand steps, and at the bottom you'll find a quiet stretch of beach. Butterfly Beach is said to have one of the best sunsets in the area, East Beach is easiily accessible from the downtown area and host to great mountain views, and Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, known to locals as Hendry's, is a white sandy gem where you can try surfing.
In addition to its reputation as a classy, upscale spot, Santa Barbara embraces its grungier side, too—hip eateries, wineries, and stores have popped up in an industrial area formerly known as the Funk Zone. Check out the Santa Barbara Winery and sample the tacos at Mony's.
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, a pedestrian-friendly college town full of eclectic shops and high-quality restaurants, is an ideal home base for exploring the area. Dine outside at the Moosewood Restaurant, a famous spot that began as a vegetarian collective and spawned a series of bestselling cookbooks. Head to the Farmers Market in its permanent lakefront pavilion for a mix of local produce and prepared foods. Rent a sailboat or canoe and head out onto Cayuga Lake—or admire the water from patches of green 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 (pictured). 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.
Year-round, the Oregon Coast is temperate, misty, and lush. Pacific breezes and damp air offer 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. A series of spectacular hiking trails, known as the Three Capes Scenic Loop, takes hikers through damp old-growth forests to dramatic ocean vistas. Tillamook may sound familiar to foodies—it's the birthplace of Oregon's locally produced Tillamook Cheese. You can also 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 (pictured), 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.
It's easy to wax poetic about the San Juan Islands—how green they are, how they rise out of the Pacific, how the light hits them just so. To travel here is to be transported to a slower, dreamier place where mountains and sand meet and there are very few cars. Despite feeling remote, the San Juans are close 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 food festival.
It's true that the San Juans are busiest during the summer months, but that means you can enjoy various farmers' markets and arguably the best Fourth of July fireworks anywhere. Also, the San Juans are a cyclist's paradise. Those looking for a leisurely day of riding can tool around the mostly flat, rural Lopez Island. More serious cyclists can summit Orcas Island's Mount Constitution.
Though we tend to think of Northern Vermont as a winter paradise, the verdant and relatively cool summers of Burlington and its environs shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, if you're looking for a region that offers the eclectic and cosmopolitan alongside the woodsy, get yourself to the Green Mountains. In addition to rolling hills, wineries, and pedestrian-only shopping and dining, this area's ski mountains are year-round destinations that offer hiking, biking, and incredible hotel deals after the snow melts.
Smuggler's Notch (pictured), 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, 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 resort's four pools. Nearby Stowe likewise offers hiking, tennis, discounted lodging, and gorgeous scenery.
It's certainly not news that visitors flock to Cape Cod for the summer. For a low-key alternative to bustling Provincetown, try the sleepy, artsy town of Wellfleet. The calm waters of the bay are great for wading as well as various watersports such as kayaking; beaches on the ocean side, meanwhile, have bigger waves and windsurfing opportunities. Hike and bike along miles of the national seashore, or visit the nearly 1,000-acre Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can get close to a unique salt marsh, wooded areas, a barrier reef, and fascinating marine life.
What really sets Wellfleet apart, though, are its galleries, most of which are only open between May and October. The town has more than 20 of them, showcasing a wide variety of arts and crafts created locally as well as internationally. Gallery openings typically take place on summer Saturday evenings. And don't miss the chance to catch a double feature at Wellfleet's retro drive-in movie theater.
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 spacious, inviting, and features fountains meant for splashing around. 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 shade trees. The square is also home to theater performances, a farmers' market, and many other festivals and events.
Meander through the Knoxville Museum of Art's outdoor sculpture exhibition, Art in Public Places, or head to Old City, where much of Knoxville's gritty southern character remains. Live music, from bluegrass to contemporary rock, is easy to find and enjoy here—particularly at the Blue Plate Special, a free noontime show held at WDVX on weekdays.
Above all, 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.
Pictured: The Sunsphere
Where else in the lower 48 can you find snow in July? Because of weather-related closures, it's nearly impossible to access Glacier National Park, one of the nation's most ruggedly spectacular public spaces, for much of the winter. So take advantage of the region's relatively short summer: cool off, find solitude, and see for yourself the effects of climate change. (According to the U.S. Geological Survey, recent warming trends have significantly decreased the size and number of glaciers here.)
The park'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 only during the summer months—it seems a woeful understatement to call this 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 at one of 13 sites, or obtain a backcountry permit and go off the beaten path. Ranger-led programs, including guided hikes, talks, and boat tours, are also popular.
Set in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish Country, Lancaster is home to a unique and particularly bountiful farming tradition. 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. A few excellent spots for picking up provisions: Central Market and Bird-in-Hand Market. For even fresher goods, you can tool along the country roads and keep your eyes peeled for produce stands.
Summer is 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.
If you're looking for a sleepy beach town that's a bit under the collective public's radar, consider heading to Delaware. Rehoboth's seafood, lovely sunsets, and outdoor recreation opportunities rival any beach town on the Atlantic coast. Stroll or bike along the boardwalk or lounge on a stretch of sand like Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, or Bethany Beach. You can also head into one of Delaware's pristine coastal state parks: Cape Henlopen's 3,000 acres afford plenty of chances for hiking, camping, and swimming. For an easy hike, check out the Walking Dunes Trail that travels through marshland and woods, ending at the Great Dune.
Perhaps the best thing about Rehoboth's community vibe is the abundance of inclusive, family-friendly events. 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.
The islands off the coast of Savannah offer a southern-charm twist on the classic beach experience. Here you'll find secluded 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 beaches, 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 falls directly in the Atlantic Flyway, which means thousands of migratory birds pass through 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 small chain off the coast of Jacksonville. Sophisticated and deeply southern, the stately houses and draping Spanish moss on St. Simons evoke the look of Savannah, minus the hustle and bustle.
If Kentucky's rolling green hills are calling your name, consider heading to Louisville during the summer months, well after Derby mania has subsided. You can still visit Churchill Downs, where there are races through early July. In the summer, Louisville's bluegrass musicians stay busy. If you're in town on a Saturday, be sure not to miss local musicians at Bluegrass on the Square. A star-studded bluegrass festival is held each June in nearby Bardstown.
Of course, it would be criminal to spend time in the heart of bourbon country without sampling some of the goods. Hit the Louisville Urban Bourbon Trail to visit up to 13 restaurants and bars downtown, or take the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, which links nine famous distilleries, including Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more outdoorsy city than Boulder, where the cool mountain air becomes especially inviting during the summer. 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 coexist with over 300 miles of hiking and biking trails, including the Boulder Creek Path, which runs directly through the city.
For a good introduction to Boulder's altitude and scenery, look for the Bald Mountain Trail, a short hike to the top of a 7,000-foot peak. Once you've acclimated, head to the Flatirons area, which offers a variety of hikes from easy to challenging, or Eldorado Canyon (pictured), where you can walk amid sandstone cliffs or climb them. For even more wilderness, Rocky Mountain National Park is an easy one-hour drive away.
Beginning in June, you can partake in weekly folk dancing and live music performances at various parks, and attend the famous Colorado Music Festival, held at Boulder's historic Chautaqua Auditorium.
The drive to Big Sur alone is a compelling reason to visit—the rugged scenery along California Highway 1 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 coastal destinations in the state. Most beaches, often located on unmarked roads, are windblown and misty and require a short hike to reach. 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. They're filled with mossy redwoods, waterfalls, and rocky coastal vistas.
Go tubing or kayaking on the Big Sur River, soak in Sykes Hot Springs, or simply wander through sleepy towns filled with galleries spotlighting local artists. One of the most exciting reasons to come to Big Sur during the summer is the opportunity to see endangered blue whales moving along the coast from June through October. You can spot the giant mammals from the land or get out in a boat.
This is as green as it gets in Texas. The Hill Country between San Antonio and Austin is a rolling landscape dotted with pecan orchards, wildflowers, wineries, and B&Bs. The streets are wide, the pace slow, and the pie 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 barbecue.
The semi-arid climate and rich soil make the region ideal for growing grapes. The resulting wines are refined, but there's a nicely relaxed vibe in Texas Hill Country tasting rooms that you won't find in other centers of viticulture. Snack on local pecans and cheeses while you taste, and don't pass up the peaches you'll see for sale at roadside stands.
For a typically Texas experience, go to Luchenbach, one of the oldest and smallest settlements in Gillespie County. The live music here, not to mention the barbecue-heavy chuckwagon dinner, takes place in a virtually untouched one-horse frontier town.
This lovely lake-filled city is vibrant in summer, when most residents and visitors take to 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 crappiie, bass, northern pike, and more—just be sure to obtain a fishing permit if you're heading out on your own. Later, choose one of Madison's many waterfront restaurants and sip a cocktail in front of lake views. The city's various summer concert series include Concerts on the Rooftop during June and July.
Mountain bikers of all skill levels will enjoy the nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest. The more technically difficult Blue Mound State Park—for seasoned bikers only—offers exciting terrain and great views. If you'd rather pedal on pavement, head to the Capital City Trail, 9 miles of which run through the wild Capital Springs Recreation Center.
In Northern Maine, winters are long. When warm weather finally comes, we recommend heading into the highlands—Mount Katahdin (pictured), the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, is a good place to start. Located in Baxter State Park, Katahdin is the state's highest peak 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 also include the Penobscot River, famous for its whitewater rafting. If you prefer a less strenuous ride, take a cruise on Moosehead Lake on the steamship Katahdin and keep your eyes peeled for moose in the dense forest that surrounds the water.
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.
Ohio's state park system is one of the most extensive in the nation. Mohican State Park (pictured) in Loudonville is particularly inviting. Its 1,110 acres encompass shady old-growth hemlock forests, the Mohican River, and the spectacular Clear Fork Gorge—a glacially carved chasm 1,000 feet wide and 300 feet deep.
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 one of many lakefront state parks. These include Catawba Island, Kelleys Island, and East Harbor. For manmade thrills, ride the 17 world-famous roller coasters at Cedar Point, an amusement park of mythic proportions.
Despite its small size, Ann Arbor regularly shows up on lists of the country's best cities for families, singles, and foodies. The pedestrian-friendly historic downtown Kerrytown District is full of eclectic shops, used bookstores, the Arbor Brewing Company, and open-air markets peddling crafts and fresh produce.
A compelling reason to visit Ann Arbor during the summer 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 downtown for a three-day celebration of color, light, and sound. Exhibits are accompanied by musical performances, outdoor dining, and children's activities galore.
That does it for our top 20 summer destinations—but we're not finished yet! Read on for 15 more great ideas for a warm-weather vacation in the United States. . . .
If you're looking for the sort of quaint seaside getaway that New England is famous for, look no further than Block Island, just off the coast of Rhode Island. Visitors come here for pristine beaches, picturesque lighthouses, and unspoiled nature. Boating, fishing, and swimming are popular pastimes, and you’ll find a nice balance of couples and families.
To get to Block Island, you can take a ferry from Newport, Rhode Island, or Fall River, Massachusetts. Don't worry about bringing your car—many people get around just fine on bicycles and mopeds, which can be rented on the island. A more adventurous option is to go by boat and park it at a mooring. Be sure to stop in at The Oar, a casual bayside eatery named for the hundreds of personalized paddles decorating the interior. The restaurant’s mudslides are famous.
You might think of Alaska as a winter wonderland, but summer is the best season for exploring the country’s wildest frontier. The state certainly beats much of the lower 48 when it comes to pleasant temperatures, which range from 60-80º F during the day and 40-50º at night.
For wildlife viewing, it’s hard to beat the Kenai Peninsula, a 9,000-square-mile wedge of land in southern Alaska. Amid glaciers, forests, and dramatic snow-capped peaks, the region’s most famous inhabitants, a population of black and brown bears, can be spotted fishing for salmon in the Kenai’s rivers from mid-July to late September. There are a number of viewing stands set up to provide an up-close yet safe look at this annual ritual.
To check out watery wildlife, Major Marine Tours in Seward offers cruises into the city’s harbor to provide glimpses of orcas, bald eagles, puffins, sea lions, and humpback whales. Come back in March and you could catch the Iditarod dogsledding race, which starts from Seward.
The oldest national park east of the Mississippi, Acadia has a way of feeling secluded and wild even when the parking lots are full (and in summer, they often are). That’s because with 47,000 acres of streams, mountains, and forests, there's plenty of room to spread out. The park’s diverse landscape includes miles of wooded trails for hiking and biking, as well as dramatic seaside cliffs for rock climbing. If that sounds a little too extreme, the scenic Park Loop Road lets you drive through some of the Atlantic Coast’s best wilderness scenery without having to exert yourself. In fact, many of Acadia's landmarks, including Cadillac Mountain, are reachable by car.
To explore Acadia on two wheels, rent from Acadia Bike in Bar Harbor; the company delivers customers and bikes right to the trails via shuttle. Take in the view from the water on a harbor tour from Acadian Boat Tours.
The dark blue waters of Lake Powell stand out in beautiful contrast against an otherworldly landscape of red sandstone rocks in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The lake is actually a manmade reservoir created by the Glen Canyon Dam. But there’s no shortage of unique natural wonders nearby, starting with Rainbow Bridge National Monument, a stone arch that at 290 feet tall and 270 feet wide holds the distinction of being the world’s biggest natural bridge.
Other sights worth seeing: Antelope Canyon, a narrow crevice cut into orange rocks, where individual beams of sun filter down like heavenly spotlights; and Horseshoe Bend, where the Colorado River has carved a giant U into surrounding cliffs (both are on the Arizona side). Note that all of these places are popular in the summer, so plan ahead.
In between hiking over, rappelling down, and climbing up these rust-colored marvels, you’ll want to cool off—temperatures in these parts during the summer can reach 90°F. Fortunately, Lake Powell is there when you need a refreshing dip, not to mention some wakeboarding, waterskiing, or kayaking.
Located just 30 miles from Boston, the quiet New England hamlet of Essex is ideally situated for fun on the water, given its proximity to both the Essex River and Essex Bay. Kayaking, boating, deep-sea fishing, and sunbathing on beaches are all appealing options. Those waterways have also played a huge role in shaping the town's history; it's known for Essex clams and a rich tradition of shipbuilding. You can learn all about that craft at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, which showcases the beautiful wooden vessels that were Essex's specialty in the past. And speaking of the past, Essex is home to more than 25 antique shops, where you can pick up everything from nautical knickknacks to early American furnishings. Sunset boat cruises narrated by local guides make a nice capper to the day.
Gulf Shores has gained a reputation as a rowdy spring break spot. After the college students clear out in March, however, the area takes on a decidedly family-friendly feeling. Warm temperatures, white beaches, and fresh seafood are among the most obvious lures. But there’s more to do than sunbathe and eat—though if that’s how you want to fill your vacation time, we can’t blame you.
If you can tear yourself away from the sand, you’ll find golf courses, the huge Waterville USA water park, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, and Tanger Shopping Outlet Center. History buffs will want to check out Fort Morgan State Historic Site, which was used by the U.S. military from the War of 1812 to World War II.
Generations of travelers have headed "down the shore" to spend summers on Long Beach Island, a slender 18-mile sliver of land that's dotted with tiny beach towns and is no wider than a half mile at any point. Less crowded and less rowdy than other nearby beaches on the Jersey Shore, L.B.I. is a relaxed and family-oriented spot that has little in common with the idea of the area you might have picked up from a certain reality TV show.
On the quiet north side of the island, near historic Barnegat Lighthouse, visitors can take in salty breezes as they bike, stroll, fish, or laze next to the sea. The southern end attracts more families because of the amusement parks and mini golf courses there. L.B.I. is also popular with surfers, who can stock up on gear at the original Ron Jon Surf Shop.
The unique art, architecture, culture, and cuisine of the American Southwest is on thrilling display in Santa Fe. Beautifully preserved Spanish-Pueblo buildings of adobe and wood surround plazas filled with shops, restaurants, and historical sites bearing the marks of the region’s rich blend of colonial, native, and western influences. Stroll through the outdoor Santa Fe Artists Market to find crafts, woodwork, leather goods, and other items made by locals. Take a culinary tour to sample everything from hearty stews and enchiladas to handcrafted chocolates made with red and green chiles. Pop into the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to admire the work of that painter, who adopted Santa Fe as her home—and helped make the city an important player in modern and contemporary art.
Nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg is a gateway town to the nation’s most visited national park. Millions of visitors flock to the Smokies each year to take in misty views from the top of Clingmans Dome, hike alongside streams and waterfalls, and check out the quaint log cabins, barns, and churches in Cades Cove (pictured above). Beyond the park’s boundaries, Gatlinburg has a host of things to keep you entertained, from downhome crafts demonstrations and comfort-food restaurants to shops, theme parks (Dolly Parton’s Dollywood is in nearby Pigeon Forge), and one of the best aquariums in the country.
Sun Valley rose to prominence in the late 1930s, owing largely to its association with celebrities, including Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and, most notably, Ernest Hemingway. The novelist is said to have finished writing For Whom the Bell Tolls here, and he’s buried in the nearby town of Ketchum. You can pay your respects at the Hemingway Memorial and learn more about the author’s Idaho ties at the Sun Valley Museum of History.
Today, Sun Valley is known for its ski slopes. But if you’re looking for the sort of rugged, mettle-testing activities associated with Hemingway, summer is the season you’re most likely to find them. You can trudge through meadows in the shadow of majestic peaks, go fly fishing in streams inhabited by rainbow trout, paddle across Sun Valley Lake, or even try your hand at skeet shooting. Throw back a whiskey or 12 and start using short, gruff sentences, and you're well on your way to a Nobel Prize.
Home to an incredibly pristine beach and peaceful atmosphere, South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, near Charleston, is at once laid-back and exclusive. It’s a gated community, with long beaches available primarily to residents and visitors staying in rental accommodations. The only public stretch of sand, Beachwalker Park, has a parking lot that only accommodates 100 cars—if you’re lucky enough to snag one of them, you’ll have access to one of the least crowded sunny spots in the area.
Besides the beaches, golf and tennis are top draws. Kiawah’s highly regarded Ocean Course has hosted PGA championships, and the island's tennis courts are set amid woodsy scenery near the shore.
The country’s first national park remains one of its best—a vast, one-of-a-kind combo of woodsy wilderness and simmering geothermal activity visible in the form of geysers and bubbling mud. It would take weeks to see the whole thing: Yellowstone stretches across parts of three states (most of it is in Wyoming) and enough acreage to fill up both Rhode Island and Delaware. About half of the world’s geysers are here (including, of course, the most famous, Old Faithful) as well as nearly 300 waterfalls, fascinating wildlife, and a majestic canyon that looks like it came from the collective daydreams of every 19th-century landscape painter.
Many first-time visitors make the mistake of leaving once they’ve set eyes on Old Faithful and the canyon. But it’s a shame to miss out on day hikes along trails to sites such as the Lonestar Geyser or Mount Washburn. You can get up close to steaming, sulfurous columns of water shooting from the earth and spot bison grazing in meadows or bighorn sheep maneuvering over rocky cliffs. And that’s just the beginning of what you can do here.
Despite their name, the White Mountains are decidedly green in the summertime. Located just a 2-hour drive from Boston, New Hampshire’s natural paradise offers every type of woodsy enjoyment imaginable. Scenic drives feature numerous overlooks with beautiful mountain views, but you’ll definitely want to get out of the car and explore on your own. Franconia Notch State Park is a gem for hikers, with trails showcasing everything from the majesty of Flume Gorge to the far-reaching vistas atop Cannon Mountain. Families can take on a number of kid-friendly hikes.
For a stronger adrenaline rush, outdoor activities such as kayaking, canoeing, horseback riding, and ziplining have become popular here. Later, you can drive to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast, or sit back and relax aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Outside of the Midwest, travelers planning beach getaways often overlook Northern Michigan. But owing to its prime location between Lakes Michigan and Huron, the region has all the sun and sand you could want—with a fraction of the crowds on the east and west coasts. Head to the charming waterfront town of Traverse City to sample the output of numerous cherry orchards, wineries, and farm-to-table restaurants, particularly on the Old Mission Peninsula, a finger of land where you can end your day watching the sunset from a quaint lighthouse.
Other highlights nearby include Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—where sand dunes as high as 450 feet tower next to the water—and picture-perfect Mackinac Island. This roughly 4-square-mile speck in Lake Huron charms visitors with its colorful 19th-century architecture and quiet streets where cars are banned. Most of the island is verdant parkland; its best-known natural landmark is Arch Rock, a limestone formation arcing 150 feet above the shoreline. A trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without stopping at one of the many fudge shops. An island staple since the 1800s, the candy is still made using the technique of “paddling” hot, chocolatey liquid on marble slabs until it cools.
The barrier islands off North Carolina’s coast that are known as the Outer Banks have no shortage of natural charms, starting with their windswept beaches, fresh seafood, and, in some places, wild horses roaming among sandy dunes. In summer, the shipwreck-dotted coast becomes a hotspot for windsurfing, fishing, and lighthouse appreciation—the tallest one in North America is on Cape Hatteras (climb to the top for a dazzling view).
Additionally, the Outer Banks holds the distinction of being the site of at least two world-altering historical events. First, Roanoke Island, founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585, was established as England’s first settlement in the New World. Then, some 318 years later, the Wright Brothers first took flight from the Outer Banks near the start of the 20th century. Today, you can pay your respects at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills.