How to Have the Best National Park Vacation This Summer
Insiders share their top tips on how to avoid crowds and make the most of summer travel.
America's national parks, monuments, and recreation areas are filled with natural and historic attractions that are prime to explore in the summertime. While warm weather means a greater ability to explore these locations, that can often mean larger crowds.
Travel + Leisure spoke to the National Park Foundation (the official charity of the National Park Service) and park representatives to learn which sites within the National Park Service make for a prime summer stop and to get insider tips on how visitors can make the most of their time at each without swarms of crowds.
Most of these parks are ideal for families, with specific trails and areas highlighted that are great for kids to explore.
Here's your guide to summer fun at 16 incredible locations, most of which aren't on every traveler's radar.
Channel Islands National Park
Located off of the California coast, Channel Islands National Park is one of the country’s least-visited parks, but boasts five different islands that each offer their own appeal.
While the islands are only accessible by boat or by plane, concessionaires offer transportation to take in the whales and activities like sailing and snorkeling that await in the summer. Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, recommends Cathedral Cove and Landing Cove, which host sea stars, sea urchins and kaleidoscopic fish underneath their waters. For those looking for great hiking trails, Anacapa Island has just what you're looking for. And Santa Cruz is home to a number of underwater caves and clear-water beaches.
Redwood National and State Parks
California's Redwoods National and State Parks are home to the world’s tallest trees, which can take on a stunning appearance in the summertime fog. When cold air comes in from the ocean and combines with warm air inland, it creates a thin layer of fog that shrouds the soaring trees, making for unforgettable photo opportunities.
Well-maintained trails, a 40-mile coastline with beaches and roads that allow easy access to get around make this an ideal location for families. Park representatives even say some of the best features are found along the side roads most travelers often overlook.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve experiences a rare phenomenon that turns a portion of the park into a natural waterslide for youngsters and adults alike in the spring and summer.
Surge flow typically occurs in May and extends into the start of the summer, creating waves in Medano Creek as melting snow from the nearby mountains trickles down and makes underwater ridges in the sand that break with the water flow as often as every 20 seconds.
Since temperatures can dip in the winter, stargazing and backcountry camping are popular activities visitors should enjoy while they can in the summertime, when campgrounds remain open and rangers host a range of evening activities.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is made up of six different sites across south Louisiana, all of which are free.
Most of the location’s programs are also free, making for an affordable getaway for the entire family. Activities abound, from alligator spotting and bayou cruising to learning Cajun dancing.
Most sites offer summer camps, while each also has a Junior Ranger program for kids. Shafroth recommends visitors turn the trip into a multi-stop journey by heading to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, a 30-minute drive away, the park is entirely devoted to jazz.
Indiana Dunes National Park
America's new national park offers 15,000 acres of beaches, woods, prairies and dunes that stretch across 15 miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
Most crowds flock to the beaches in the summer, so visitors looking for uncrowded beaches will want to visit on weekdays, but the park is also home to many other wonders that can get overlooked. These include Pinhook Bog, an old bog completely covered with floating plants that visitors can view through ranger-led tours in the summer, and trails like the Paul H. Douglas (Miller Woods) Trail, which weaves through black oak savannah habitats, ponds, soaring trees and wildflowers.
Isle Royal National Park
Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park has backcountry trails, sunken shipwrecks and hundreds of satellite islands to explore by boat, but it still remains one of the country's least-visited national parks.
While the park can only be accessed by boat or seaplane, transportation services help facilitate visits. One of the lesser-known islands that park representatives recommend is Passage Island, which hosts a jungle-like atmosphere with massive exotic plants.
The Washington Creek Campground is the best option for families looking to stay for multiple days, as it provides access to hikes like the Windigo Nature Trail, which weaves through a historic mining pit, a swamp with Cedar trees in the water and Balsam fir trees.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
At Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, visitors will find islands dotted with cinder cones and lava formations.
Roughly 99 percent of visitors only explore locations around the seven-mile loop road, according to park representatives, even though the preserve is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island.
To get away from the crowds, head to the preserve's wilderness, which includes cinder cone volcanoes, lava formations, small groves of limber pine trees and plenty of wildflowers. Take the family-friendly Tree Molds Trail, the lengthier Wilderness Trail or the Broken Top Loop Trail (which has a lava cave along the way), to head into the wilderness.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Point Reyes National Seashore provides opportunities for hiking, body surfing, kayaking, clam digging, berry gathering and spotting harbor seals.
Heading here Monday through Thursday is the best bet to avoid crowds. Meanwhile, lesser-explored gems include the hiking trails located between Palomarin and Bear Valley, which lead to remote beaches like Sculptured Beach and provide views of a variety of mammals, wildflowers and ocean overlooks.
While the trails range from moderate to strenuous, representatives recommend consulting a map at the visitor center to gauge the difficulty of each. The Bear Valley Trail up to Divide Meadow is also a relaxing hike for families that leads to an open meadow dotted with animals, like deer in the early morning and in the evening.
Mesa Verde National Park
Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is home to the Cliff Palace, North America’s largest cliff dwelling.
Visiting before 10 a.m. or in the evenings provides quiet opportunities and a better chance at spotting animals like mule deer, wild turkeys, gray foxes, or elk, with the park’s main road opening at 8 a.m. through sunset to allow plenty of time to view popular stops before or after the crowds arrive mid-day.
Crater Lake National Park
Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park is famous for hosting the deepest lake in the country, but it's also home to prime hiking trails like Garfield Peak, which can be one of the more heavily trafficked trails in the park.
To get an unforgettable view, Shafroth recommends heading on the trail before dawn to catch the sun rising over the rim of the crater. Shafroth also recommends stopping at Wizard Island, where visitors can see an actual volcano inside of a volcano.
Voyageurs National Park
That's why Shafroth finds that the park offers a magnificent tranquility, where oftentimes, only the sounds of wildlife can be heard. “It’s one of my favorite aspects of this park: you can literally go an entire day without hearing any human sounds,” Shafroth said.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Though California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park is starting to gain in popularity, it still remains a hidden gem. Offering meadows dotted with wildflowers, volcanic formations, steaming fumeroles and crystal-clear mountain lakes, the national park is a scenic destination with plenty to check out.
Oftentimes, families can likely find a campsite without needing reservations, according to park representatives. For those who love winter, the park's higher snowpack allows visitors to have snowball fights and even go sledding in the middle of summer, when temperatures hover around 70 degrees.
While most folks tend to stick to locations along the Lassen National Park Highway on the western side, the eastern side of the park offers just as spectacular scenery, but with fewer crowds. The eastern portion has dirt roads to drive through, but a car with four-wheel drive is not needed to get here.
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore has beaches, cliffs and lighthouses across 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland. But because the islands can take more planning to access, visitors will find smaller crowds once they arrive.
Apostles Island Cruises offers two- to three-hour boat trips along the islands that are a great option for families looking to take in the area’s scenery and its many lighthouses. There are also camping shuttles that can drop visitors off on an island to allow for multi-day explorations.
For families, park representatives also recommend taking the shuttle service to Stockton Island and hiking to Julian Bay, a lovely beach less than half a mile from the campsites where visitors can explore wetlands.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park
At Georgia’s Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, visitors can delve into the historic spaces where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his time, from his childhood home to the church he delivered a variety of sermons in.
The historical park is located just 20 minutes from the Paces Mill entrance of the Chattahooche River National Recreation Area.
While the recreation area is known for its range of trails, Shafroth recommends exploring it by water along the 48 miles of the Chattahoochee River, where views of wildlife and wildflowers can be seen when rafting or kayaking.
Boston National Historical Park
Boston's national parks each have their own charm to offer, with easy access to one another.
Start at Boston Harbor Island National Recreation Area and take the morning ferry out to Peddocks Island to explore military ruins and hiking trails weaving through coastal forests and marshes. You'll even catch views of Boston Light, the nation’s oldest lighthouse station, along the way.
From there, take a boat into Boston National Historical Park, where on Friday nights rangers take visitors out to tours on the Charleston Navy Yard as the sun sets, creating a majestic scene over Boston’s skyline as the canons can be heard. Head to Bunker Hill, where in the evening you'll be treated to incredible views over the city surrounded by nothing but quiet.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
North Carolina's Cape Hatteras National Seashore hosts more than 70 miles of Atlantic Ocean coast, offering beaches that feel uncrowded thanks to such a large terrain.
From July through September, visitors can see sea turtle nest excavations from the female loggerhead and green turtles that nest on the beaches, though this activity is quite popular.
Those in search of peaceful walks can make their way to the three designated trails that form part of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks. Representatives also recommend visiting Ocracoke Island, a less popular option to Hatteras Island that offers prime shelling and trails like Hammock Hills Trail to see dunes, a maritime forest and salt marshes.