Summer in the U.S.A.: 20 Best Vacation Destinations
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
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.
Where to Stay: DoubleTree Hotel Tucson
Photo: Mount Lemmon looking south to Tucson, Arizona
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, Goleta Beach is loved by locals, and Arroyo Burro Beach County Park 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 sandwiches at Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant.
Where to Stay: Simpson House Inn
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
Photo: Robert Treman State Park in Ithaca, New York
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
Photo: The coastline of Florence, Oregon
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.
Where to Stay: Rosario Resort & Spa, Orcas Island
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, 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.
Where to Stay: Green Mountain Inn
Photo: View of Smugglers Notch near Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
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.
Where to Stay: Surf Side Cottages
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.
Where to Stay: The Oliver Hotel
Photo: The Sunsphere in Knoxville, Tennessee
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 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.
Where to Stay: Glacier National Park Lodges
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.
Where to Stay: The Inn at Leola Village
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.
Where to Stay: The Bellmoor Inn and Spa
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.
Where to Stay: Saint Simons Inn
Photo: The Tybee Island Lighthouse
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.
Where to Stay: Maple Hill Manor
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, 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.
Where to Stay: Hotel Boulderado
Photo: Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder, Colorado
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.
Where to Stay: Big Sur River Inn
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.
Where to Stay: Magnolia House
Mountain bikers of all skill levels will enjoy the nearby Kettle Moraine State Forest. 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 pedal on pavement, head to the Capital City Trail, 9 miles of which run through the wild Capital Springs Recreation Center.
Where to Stay: Arbor House
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
Photo: Sandy Stream Pond and Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine
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.
Where to Stay: Cabins at Mohican State Park
Photo Caption: Mohican State Park in Loudonville, Ohio
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.
Where to Stay: Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast
That does it for our top 20 summer destinations—but we're not finished yet! Read on for 15 more great ideas for a U.S. vacation . . .
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.
Where to Stay: If you don't rent a cottage, the Spring House Hotel is a great option.
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.
Those who do want to explore Acadia on two wheels can 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.
Where to stay: Many picturesque accommodations can be found through Airbnb and other home-sharing services. If you’re looking for a hotel, try the Bar Harbor Grand.
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 town's 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.
Where to Stay: Shea's Riverside Inn & Motel is a charming spot only steps from a dock.
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.
Where to Stay: Though there are small motels throughout the island, renting a beach house will provide the authentic shore experience.
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. The area has become a tourism giant—and a resilient one, as demonstrated by how fast it bounced back from damaging wildfires in the fall of 2016.
Where to stay: There are any number of chain hotels in Gatlinburg. For a unique, secluded cabin experience, try a rental from Stonecreek Cabins.
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—which means that 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 Ocean Course hosted the 2012 PGA championships and will host the event again in 2021. On the island's top-of-the-line tennis courts, meanwhile, visitors can take lessons with pros amid woodsy scenery near the shore.
Where to Stay: Private homes and condos are available for rent on the island and offer a more affordable alternative to the Sanctuary, an oceanfront stunner.
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 even 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 instead.
Where to Stay: The RiverWalk Resort at Loon Mountain is a new hotel with spacious suites and an onsite winery.
Where to Stay: Grand Hotel