Summer travel in the United States can be idyllic, but it also has some drawbacks—uncomfortably hot weather, relentless biting insects, and throngs of other vacationers who had the same brilliant idea you had. And 2021 is shaping up to be an even bigger year for travel than most, as Americans hit the road en masse after a year spent mostly at home.
It’s a big country, though, and while you might have to restructure your travel dreams for some of the most popular summer destinations (either by visiting in the off-season or preparing with months of advance planning), there are countless other spots around the country that are just as fantastic for a summer trip and have far fewer summer drawbacks. There are music festivals, winter havens that turn into summer adventure parks, beaches where you can have a little elbow room, and national parks that consistently record the fewest visitors every year.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we hope it helps inspire you to get out and explore someplace new this summer.
The town of Stanley is located just north of Sun Valley, one of Idaho’s most popular vacation spots in both summer and winter. The town’s pedestrian name belies the natural majesty of the area, as it counts the Sawtooth Mountains and Salmon River as geographical bookends.
Outdoor recreation is the main draw here. The mountains offer ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and horseback riding—and the Salmon River is one of the best in the country for whitewater rafting. And, at the end of an exhilarating day, you can give your tired muscles a break with a soak in one of Stanley’s natural hot springs.
Popular ski resorts are sometimes only worth visiting in winter, but sometimes they transform in summer to become a different kind of outdoor playground. Such is the case with Ogden.
There are three nearby ski resorts, including Snowbasin and Powder Mountain, where you can choose from summer activities like hiking, mountain biking, scenic gondola rides, disc golf, and mountain top yoga, as well as open air concerts and movies. There’s also a national forest, near Ogden, plus several lakes and rivers that encourage everyone to get outside and explore.
The town itself has historic charm (there’s a train station museum highlighting the significance of Ogden, where the first transcontinental railroad was completed) and plenty of great restaurants to keep you satisfied.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Summer road trips and US National Parks are a match made in travel heaven. Of course, this also means summer is when most parks are at peak (or above-peak) capacity. With more than 400 parks to choose from, though, it’s not hard to find one that gets overlooked.
Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota is among the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 and, true to Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 Lakes” nickname, is more than 40% water. Beloved national park recreation options are favorites in Voyageurs, too, from camping and hiking to boating and fishing. And, thanks to the northern location and dark skies, the Northern Lights sometimes make an appearance at night.
Block Island, Rhode Island
Some of Block Island’s neighbors are better-known summer vacation spots (we’re lookin’ at you, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket), which could be a great reason to choose Block Island instead.
The island’s tiny year-round population swells a great deal in summer, so it’s nowhere near “undiscovered” and you still need to book several months in advance for summer lodging—but Block Island offers many of the charms of a coastal New England town with more open arms.
There are 17 miles of beaches on the island, all of which are public, and a decades-long focus on land conservation over resort-style development that means large swathes of Block Island are protected habitats for migratory birds that are rarely seen these days on the mainland.
The Black Hills, South Dakota
Mount Rushmore is, not surprisingly, the most popular tourist attraction in the entire state of South Dakota. That popularity translates into huge crowds in the summer. But the famous National Monument lies inside The Black Hills National Forest, the vast majority of which is not on the radar of drive-through visitors. In other words, your summer assignment in South Dakota should be to explore the rest of The Black Hills and skip Mount Rushmore entirely.
There are hiking trails aplenty, lakes that are ideal for kayaks and canoes, and several caves to explore—including the Jewel Cave National Monument, one of the longest cave systems in the world. If you’re hoping to avoid all the crowds, just remember to avoid Sturgis in early August, when the famous motorcycle rally draws hundreds of thousands of attendees.
Finger Lakes, New York
Wine lovers looking for vineyard-covered hills without the typical summer crowds of Napa or Sonoma should consider a trip to Upstate New York instead. Wineries in the Finger Lakes region mainly surround three skinny lakes (hence the region’s moniker) produce a variety of wines, though the specialty in this part of the world is Riesling.
In a 2019 USA Today poll, Finger Lakes wine country was voted the best wine region in the country, and peak season is May–September, so a summer visit means you’ll have to deal with some crowds and book lodging in advance. There are more than 120 wineries to choose from, though, and countless dining options that make excellent use of the local agricultural bounty.
If you’d like to work up more of an appetite, lace up your hiking shoes and hit one of the many trails—and bring a picnic so you can kick back and enjoy some beautiful lakefront scenery along the way.
Lake Lure, North Carolina
There are lake resorts all over the country, all of which can make great choices for summer trips, but there’s only one that hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing” Festival.
The popular 1987 movie was filmed in various Lake Lure locations, including the Lake Lure Inn & Spa (you can book the same room Patrick Swayze’s and Jennifer Grey’s characters had) and Esmeralda Inn (the flooring from the dance finale is now the inn’s foyer), and each year the two-day festival features dance contests (of course) and a screening of the iconic movie.
Even if you aren’t nostalgic for Johnny and Baby’s romance, Lake Lure is still a fabulous place to be in the summer. The lake is in the foothills of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and Asheville is about an hour away by car. Outdoor adventures abound, from hiking to rock climbing, and all manner of water sports are on offer.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
If the country’s biggest national park were located in the lower 48, it would no doubt be just as busy in summer as places like Yellowstone or Yosemite are. Instead, the 13.2 million acres of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska are among the least-visited in the National Park System—perhaps partly because it takes a certain level of commitment to reach the park. The main visitor center is some 200 miles from Anchorage and 250 from Fairbanks.
The expansive park includes some of the same natural beauty you’d get with a visit to the more popular Denali (think towering snow-capped mountains, gargantuan glaciers, and abundant wildlife), plus it’s home to the biggest active volcano on the continent. Don’t worry, experts say Mt. Wrangell isn’t likely to erupt anytime soon, but you’ll probably see steam coming out of the crater.
The Golden Road, Maine
Road trips are almost never a bad idea, especially in the summer, and there are so many scenic routes to choose from in the country that there are plenty of non-crowded options. For a truly away-from-it-all drive, though, head to northern Maine’s Golden Road.
This mostly unpaved route is privately-owned by a local paper company and used by logging trucks (stay to the right and always let them pass), and the sometimes-rough surfaces keep most day-trippers away. The whole Golden Road is a little less than 100 miles long, stretching from Millinocket to Maine’s border with Quebec, and most of it is open to private vehicles.
Stop at the North Woods Trading Post near Millinocket for snacks (and fuel) before you set off—and if you’re into fly fishing, bring your gear. The Penobscot River that runs alongside part of the Golden Road is a favorite with anglers.
Just 21 miles from the Canadian border and 90 miles from Seattle, the city of Bellingham is a popular jumping-off point for Washington’s spectacular San Juan Islands—but it’s also a destination in its own right.
Summer means outdoor concerts downtown every Wednesday and outdoor movies on Saturdays. Outdoor recreation opportunities abound in the area, including hiking and mountain biking, with several options that are less crowded (like Sumas Mountain and Lookout Mountain). The agricultural region around Bellingham makes it a culinary wonderland year-round, with berries being a highlight of the summer months. Sample all the local fare at the fabulous Bellingham Farmers Market and take a day trip to nearby Lynden in July for the Northwest Raspberry Festival.
Les Cheneaux Islands, Michigan
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or “the U.P.” to locals and knowledgeable visitors) is home to plenty of popular summer escapes, including romantic Mackinac Island. Just northeast of Mackinac, though, is a cluster of 36 little islands that look a bit like a painter lightly swept a dark green brush over the blue canvas of Lake Huron.
Collectively known as Les Cheneaux Islands, the biggest one (Marquette) is less than 23 square miles. Visitors find myriad ways to explore the water, from kayaking to water skiing, and every August there’s an Antique and Wooden Boat Show. Settling into Les Cheneaux for a vacation requires some advance prep (it’s harder to run to the corner store for milk when the corner store is a boat ride away) but such a trip offers exactly the kind of unplugged holiday many of us crave.
>> Read our travel guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Mendocino County, California
When you hear “California Wine Country,” you likely (and rightly) think of Napa or Sonoma. These neighboring valleys have more than their fair share of award-winning wineries, not to mention stellar restaurants and beautiful scenery.
A short drive northwest, though, is Mendocino County—home to nearly 40 wineries of its own (area specialties include pinot noir and sparkling and rosé wines) as well as a spectacular stretch of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and miles of hiking trails through dense redwood forest. Summer weather isn’t typically stifling (chances are very good you’ll want a sweater most mornings), though rainy days are rare.
Mendocino is busiest during the summer, to be sure, but it’s far less crowded than Napa or Sonoma—and it’s easy to get away from the crowds with a hike in Mendocino National Forest. Don’t miss a stroll on Glass Beach, where tiny pieces of sea glass cover the sandy beach.
Grand Valley, Colorado
While the Colorado River’s most famous sculpting project is undoubtedly the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Colorado’s petite-in-comparison Grand Valley deserves some attention, too. Grand Junction, the biggest city in the roughly 30-mile valley, is about a four-hour drive west from Denver.
Outdoor adventurers enjoy the same slate of activities as nearby Moab without Moab’s summer crowds. Grand Valley is home to the biggest natural lake in the state, popular rock climbing spots, the headwaters of the Colorado River, and hundreds of miles of mountain bike trails, as well as being a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. And if you’d like to sample the flavor of the Wild West, the summer events calendar typically has a rodeo every weekend.
Towns along Oregon’s northern coast see a huge influx of visitors in summer, largely because they’re the closest ones to the state’s most populous city, Portland. If you’re willing to head further south, not only will you find beaches that are just as inviting, you might just escape the biggest crowds.
The little town of Florence is on the central Oregon coast, about an hour east of Eugene and a three-hour drive from Portland. There’s a delightfully walkable historic town center (complete with a boardwalk), and several access points to the sandy beaches (and like all Oregon beaches, they are all public).
The Sea Lion Cave is thought to be the biggest sea cave in North America, and it’s home to hundreds of sea lions. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where you can go on a dune buggy ride or do some sand surfing, is less than a half-hour away. And the historic Heceta Head Lighthouse is even closer, perched on a rocky cliff since 1894 and open for guided tours most days.
Gros Ventre Wilderness, Wyoming
There’s no denying that Yellowstone National Park is a national (and international) icon. With that fame, however, can come enormous crowds—particularly in the summer months. Luckily, Wyoming’s Gros Ventre Wilderness is right next door and offers plenty of places to get away from it all.
Located in the Bridger–Teton National Forest, which is sandwiched between the NPS stars of Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Gros Ventre is named for the mountain range it contains. Because of National Forest rules, there are no man-made roads or modern buildings, nor are motorized vehicles allowed, but intrepid visitors can get permits for camping and fishing and (thanks to that lack of infrastructure) are more likely to see wildlife like elk, bighorn sheep, and black bear. There are roughly 250 miles of hiking trails, too, many of which have fantastic views of the Tetons.
A lot of summer travel in the US revolves around the outdoors, from beaches to national parks, but there are lots of cities that shine brightest in summer.
Wisconsin’s most populous city, Milwaukee, often takes a back seat to nearby Madison among visitors. So, while Milwaukee is by no means uncrowded during the summer, you’re more likely to be joining the throng of locals as opposed to other travelers.
Summerfest, billed as the “world’s largest music festival,” is the highlight of the season with more than 800 acts taking various stages over 11 days. Some of the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan are literally downtown, summer means the Brewers season is in full swing (pun intended), and the city’s brewing history and a plethora of craft breweries makes it an ideal destination for beer lovers.
Bromley Mountain Resort doesn’t typically make many “best of” lists for Vermont ski areas, which might make its home in southern Vermont a good destination for less crowded winter trips. During the summer, though, the ski resort helps make the tiny town of Peru a great option for uncrowded warm weather adventures.
Bromley becomes Mountain Adventure Park, with multiple zip lines (including one that’s a half-mile long), a water slide, a triple-track alpine slide, a disc golf course, and a fun aerial adventure challenge course. For other outdoor adventures, Vermont’s beautiful Green Mountains (that cut through Peru) are full of wilderness hiking trails. Easy day trips include Manchester, where you can visit the historic home of President Lincoln’s only child to live to adulthood, and several nearby creameries on the Vermont Cheese Trail.
Big Sky, Montana
Winter travelers will probably scoff at the idea of Big Sky being a vacation spot that isn’t too crowded, but this popular ski resort is a different animal come summer.
Because it’s a mountain town, even the hottest temperatures are relatively mild, and a calendar of festivals and events appeal to locals and visitors alike. There’s a free summer concert series in Town Center Park (shows every Thursday, spread out a blanket and bring a picnic) and the city’s Brewfest draws craft brewers from all over Montana. Big Sky Ski Resort offers summer recreation, too, including mountain biking, golf, and scenic rides on ski lifts. And if all that isn’t enough to pique your interest, Yellowstone is less than 50 miles away if you fancy a day trip.