As the weather warms up and the chills of winter are a distant memory, travelers around the USA are dreaming about where to go on their summer vacation.
The summer months of June to August are the USA’s busiest travel season, with warm days across the entire country bringing in big crowds and higher prices. But music and food festivals and outdoor activities ensure that summer is the liveliest time to travel the country. Kids are out of school, and some of the USA’s outdoor spaces, including national parks, are open for the season.
Here are the best places for a summer vacation in the USA.
In the summer months, Yellowstone National Park is fully open to visitors © Joe Ybarra / EyeEm / Getty Images
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park is the wild, free-flowing, beating heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Its real showstoppers are the geysers and hot springs – nature’s crowd-pleasers – but at every turn this land of fire and brimstone breathes, belches and bubbles like a giant kettle on the boil. The park’s highways traverse these geysers, through meadows and forests, past roadside herds of bison and campsites aromatic with pine needles and family campfires. In between lies the country’s largest collection of elk, the continent’s oldest and largest wild bison herds, and a pristine wilderness roamed by wolves, grizzlies, moose and antelope.
June to August are the busiest times to visit Yellowstone, when more than half of the park’s visitors arrive, but it’s the time of year when the full range of visitor services, accommodations and entrances to the park are open. Hotel rates peak at gateway towns, park campgrounds fill by lunchtime and reservations are essential.
Summer is a great time for quieter explorations of Boston © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
Boston‘s history recalls revolution and transformation, and today the city is still among the country’s most forward-thinking and barrier-breaking cities. For all intents and purposes, Boston is the oldest city in America, and you can hardly walk a step over its cobblestone streets without running into some historic site. But Boston has not been relegated to the past. A history of cultural patronage means that the city’s art and music scenes continue to charm and challenge contemporary audiences. Cutting-edge urban planning projects are reshaping the city even now, as neighborhoods are revived and rediscovered. Historic universities and colleges still attract scientists, philosophers and writers, who shape the city’s evolving culture.
Although summers in Boston are hot and humid, the city is noticeably quieter when students have vacated and Bostonians head to their summer homes. When you need to beat the heat, join them at the irresistible North Shore beaches nearby, which draw crowds thanks to the hot sun and cold sea.
With more than 60 beaches, San Diego has everything you need for a summer vacation © Corey Jenkins/Getty Images
San Diego, California
San Diego calls itself “America’s Finest City,” and its breezy confidence and sunny countenance filter down to folks you encounter every day on the street. It feels like a collection of villages each with its own personality, but San Diego is the nation’s eighth-largest city, and for its size, there’s probably nowhere more laid-back on earth. What’s not to love? San Diego bursts with world-famous attractions for the entire family, including the zoo and the museums of Balboa Park. And then there’s the excellent seafood, a buzzing downtown and beautiful hikes for all, plus more than 60 beaches and the USA’s most perfect weather.
Fully experience the beauty of Glacier National Park in summer © Evgeny Vasenev / Getty Images
Glacier National Park, Montana
Few places on earth are as magnificent and pristine as Glacier National Park. Protected in 1910 during the first flowering of the American conservationist movement, Glacier ranks with Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon among the United States’ most astounding natural wonders. The glacially carved remnants of an ancient thrust fault left a brilliant landscape of towering snowcapped pinnacles laced with plunging waterfalls and glassy turquoise lakes. The mountains are surrounded by dense forests, which host a virtually intact pre-Columbian ecosystem. Grizzly bears still roam in abundance, and smart park management has kept the place accessible and authentically wild.
Although the park remains open year-round, most services are closed between October and mid-May, making a summer visit the best, if not only, time to get the park’s full experience. Going-to-the-Sun Road, which crosses Glacier National Park, opens when they finish plowing the snow, which could be as late as July.
Michigan’s car-free Mackinac Island is a quintessential summer destination © Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock
Mackinac Island, Michigan
From either Mackinaw City or St Ignace, you can catch a ferry to Mackinac Island. The island’s location in the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron made it a prized port in the North American fur trade, and a site the British and Americans battled over many times. The most important date on this 3.8-sq-mile island was 1898 – the year cars were banned in order to encourage tourism. Today all travel is by horse or bicycle; even the police use bikes to patrol the town. Eighty percent of Mackinac Island is state parkland.
The crowds of tourists – called Fudgies by the islanders – can be crushing at times, particularly during summer weekends. But when the last ferry leaves in the evening and clears out the day-trippers, Mackinac’s real charm emerges and you drift back into another, slower era.
Tap into nature and history on a summer trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks © MarkVanDykePhotography / Shutterstock
Outer Banks, North Carolina
North Carolina’s Outer Banks are fragile ribbons of sand tracing the coastline for more than 100 miles, separated from the mainland by sounds and waterways. The ribbon of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, broken up by villages, is home to several noteworthy lighthouses. A meandering drive down Highway 12, which connects much of the Outer Banks and makes up part of the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway (and its 21 coastal villages), is one of the truly great American road trips. The quaint waterfront area of Manteo is a pleasant base from which to explore the Outer Banks. Near the harbor is the Roanoke Island Festival Park, where visitors can learn about the first English colonies on North American soil. In summer, be sure to catch an atmospheric amphitheater performance by Lost Colony Outdoor Drama, which portrays the story of the colonists who arrived in Manteo in the 1580s (before the European settlers arrived at Plymouth Rock) and then mysteriously disappeared.
Drink up the sun by the water on a summer trip to Chicago © elesi / Shutterstock
Steely skyscrapers, top chefs, rocking festivals – the Windy City will blow you away with its low-key cultured awesomeness. It’s hard to know what to gawk at first in Chicago. High-flying architecture is everywhere, from the stratospheric, glass-floored Willis Tower to Frank Gehry’s swooping silver Pritzker Pavilion to Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained-glass Robie House. Whimsical public art studs the streets; you might be walking along and wham, there’s an abstract Picasso statue that’s not only cool to look at, but you’re allowed to go right up and climb on it. For art museums, take your pick: impressionist masterpieces at the massive Art Institute of Chicago, psychedelic paintings at the midsized National Museum of Mexican Art or outsider drawings at the small Intuit gallery.
Chicago’s peak visitor season is June through August. Summertime festivals rock Chicago’s neighborhoods almost every weekend, and Millennium Park plays hosts to many concerts downtown. Fireflies glow everywhere. It can be hot and humid, but who cares?
Aspen is one of the world’s most famous mountain destinations, but that doesn’t mean it’s only a good spot to visit in winter. Aspen takes on new shades and personalities with the seasons. In fall, the hills are set afire with the quaking of a million golden Aspen leaves; in winter, the slopes come to life and the party hits maximum velocity; come springtime, the flowers start to bud near the mirrored alpine lakes; and finally, in summer – ah, summer in Aspen! – everything unites with music festivals, arts, miles upon miles of trails to explore and perfect days under the bluebird Colorado sky.
There are excellent restaurants at nearly every corner of the historic downtown area. Top it off with an understated chic that permeates nearly everything you do, eat, see and experience here, and you have the makings of the best mountain vacation ever.
Portland, Oregon, is surrounded by incredible outdoor spaces © Erik Isakson / Getty Images
Best coffee. Most food carts. Top craft breweries. Number-one hipster haven. Portland is a city of indie-spirited superlatives and humble, offbeat charms. Portland has an almost unfair abundance of natural beauty – perfect parks, leafy trees, vibrantly flowering shrubs lining pretty residential streets, the Willamette River meandering through town, and Mt Hood on the horizon. Summer in Portland sees festivals galore, including the Oregon Brewers Festival and the Bite of Oregon. Long-awaited wildflowers reach their peak bloom in early summer.
Grand Canyon National Park makes for a classic summer trip in the USA © Alexey Suloev / Shutterstock
Grand Canyon, Arizona
No matter how much you read about the Grand Canyon or how many photographs you’ve seen, nothing really prepares you for the sight of it. One of the world’s seven natural wonders, it’s so startlingly familiar and iconic you can’t take your eyes off it. The canyon’s immensity, the sheer intensity of light and shadow at sunrise or sunset, even its very age, scream for superlatives. The Grand Canyon embodies the scale and splendor of the American West, captured in dramatic vistas, dusty trails, and stories of exploration, preservation and exploitation.
Most visitors head to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but the summer months are the best time to visit the North Rim, which is open only from mid-May to mid-October. The North Rim is Grand Canyon plus. Here, the elevation is a little higher, the temperatures are a little cooler, the trails are a little steeper and the views…yeah, they’re a little bigger. Since it gets more rain and snow, erosion has chewed deeper into the North Rim, creating mazes of side canyons while leaving sky islands and temples towering above the Colorado River.
Relax at more than a dozen beaches in South Walton in Florida’s panhandle © Steven Greaves / Getty Images
South Walton, Florida
Sandwiched between Destin and Panama City along Scenic Highway 30A are 16 unincorporated communities collectively known as South Walton. Each town has its own identity, and most are master-planned resort towns with architecture following set themes. If you only make two stops, we recommend delightful Grayton Beach, which feels as though it was settled by old-school hippies who came into money (stay a night here if you can) and the meticulously manicured village of Seaside, which is so well planned they filmed The Truman Show here. Other points of interest include the whimsically named community of WaterColor, Moroccan-themed Alys Beach and the Dutch-inspired hamlet of Rosemary Beach.
Nature rules in the Ozarks, Missouri’s hill country that extends into Arkansas and Oklahoma © larrybraunphotography.com / Getty Images
The Ozarks, Missouri
Hiking and river floating are the two best reasons to visit the Ozarks, though flashy Branson receives the lion’s share of tourists – nowhere in the USA will you find more family-friendly entertainment (huge hokey musicals abound) and attractions. Elsewhere in the Ozarks, it’s the exact opposite: nature rules. The Ozarks’ true charms lie in the rolling hills and deep clefts, where wild spring-fed rivers carry legions of happy people floating downstream. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways – the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers – boast 134 miles of splendid canoeing and inner-tubing. Back on land, you never know when you’ll stumble onto another tiny village seemingly conjured up out of a Hollywood back lot.