Some of the United States’s 63 national parks certainly shine in the winter—Yellowstone is particularly gorgeous and Bryce Canyon even hosts a three-day winter festival—but in general, summer brings a sense of vibrancy and life unseen during other periods of the year. During a season full of camping and road trips, quite a few parks, both well-loved and lesser-known, stand out across the country.
But don’t just take it from one AFAR editor. Here’s a curated list of seven national parks to visit in the summer, with input from outdoor adventurers including the National Parks Service and AFAR’s contributors and staff.
1. Acadia National Park
After leaving New York City for greener pastures at age 39, E.B. White once said he “would rather feel bad in Maine, than feel good anywhere else.” In the heart of the most forested state, where the mountains meet the country’s longest coastline and break into its highest concentration of islands, not far from E.B. White’s old Brooklin seaside farm, is the state’s only national park (which also made AFAR’s Where to Go list in 2022).
Maine’s Wabanaki nation came in birch bark canoes and stayed (today, calling for tribal sovereignty) on Mount Desert Island thousands of years before it became Acadia National Park in the early 20th century. Visitors can’t get these ever-changing seascapes off their pages and palettes and out of their hearts—just look at the works of the Hudson River School artists. For me, the sounds of the crashing waves on Ocean Path past Otter Cliffs and Thunder Hole have been a part of personal history since childhood, going back to a time before I could remember my first sighting.
Whether you are rock hopping by Hadlock Falls or catching the first sunrise from the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard at 1,530 feet on Cadillac Mountain, there’s just something about Acadia.
How to visit
- Book now: Claremont Hotel
Via Interstate 95 (or Interstate 295 if you’re coming from the Portland airport), follow Route 1A to Route 3. Once there, get comfortable on the waterfront at the luxe Claremont Hotel. Guests can access boat tours, beach cruisers, yoga on the lawn, and live music on the porch. If you prefer a chic take on the classic Maine beach cottage, consider Salt Cottages for a picnic, s’mores by the fire, and lawn games.
2. Crater Lake National Park
Climbing the Watchman Peak, part of a 1.7-mile out-and-back trail with panoramic views of Crater Lake, my family stopped to figure out where the long cawing sound was coming from. It was a Clark’s nutcracker perched on a tree branch above. Named for Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the pale gray bird with black wings buries tens of thousands of pine seeds during the summer to survive the colder months.
From black bears and elk to some 84 species of songbirds and raptors, Crater Lake National Park is teeming with wildlife. At the Watchman Trail summit, take in stunning cobalt blue Crater Lake and Wizard Island in the center. (Visitors can reach the island on a boat tour, but in order to do so, it’s necessary to descend the steep mile-long Cleetwood Cove Trail to the dock and ascend back up at the end of the day.)
Formed by a volcano that erupted and collapsed, the 1,943-feet deep lake eventually filled with snow and rain. A favorite for its vistas and overlooks, Rim Drive, a 33-mile loop around the caldera is a must-do, but use caution, as it’s narrow and winding with tight curves.
How to visit
- Book now: Crater Lake Lodge
Though many take a day trip to the park from Eugene or Bend, spending the night at the Crater Lake Lodge, overlooking the pristine and sparkling water, is well worth the time and money.
3. Shenandoah National Park
Perched high above Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Shenandoah National Park became the state’s first national park in 1936. Its nearly 200,000 acres are home to wildlife, including black bears, brook trout, and the Shenandoah salamander. Passengers can enjoy panoramic views from some 105 miles of the park’s scenic Skyline Drive, and active visitors can explore nature with 500 miles of hiking trails.
There are plenty of popular hikes, like Old Rag, Dark Hollow Falls, and Mary’s Rock. However, there are also numerous lesser-known hikes, like the Sugarloaf Loop, where the showy white flowers of mountain laurel bloom in abundance during the summer, and the Hazel River Falls hike, which takes visitors on a five-hour journey to a scenic waterfall in the forest.
If you choose to stargaze with a camping trip, you can do so at the Mathews Arm hilly campground, Big Meadows Campground and lodge, the centrally located Lewis Mountain, or Loft Mountain, the only campground in the South District.
How to visit
With the park being only 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., you can make it a day trip or stay overnight in designated campgrounds. Shenandoah also makes for a great national parks road trip, as the park serves as the northern endpoint of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
4. Denali National Park
Spanning 6 million acres of wilderness and containing polychromatic ridgelines, boreal forest, and the tallest mountain in North America at 20,237 feet, Denali National Park inspires awe like nowhere else.
Dubbed “The Great One” by Indigenous Athabascans, the mountain for which the protected land is named seems so tall it could poke a hole in the sky. For decades, it has lured alpinists brave enough to scale the hulking mass of granite and glacier. However, you don’t have to be a mountaineer to appreciate Denali. The national park is perhaps Alaska’s most egalitarian—there are opportunities to get outside at all activity levels.
For those who want to get close to the summit without committing to a month of climbing, there are flightseeing companies like Denali Air. Another popular and lower-elevation option for first-time visitors is to take a National Park Service school bus–style shuttle into the park. (After mile 12.5 of the Park Road, it’s the only way to access the park unless you’re hiking or on a bicycle.) There are two types of buses: the more flexible hop-on, hop-off option or the narrated one, where the driver crafts an itinerary for you.
How to visit
Denali National Park is roughly four hours north of Anchorage and two hours south of Fairbanks by car. If you’d rather leave the driving to someone else (the views are distracting), another option is taking the Alaska Railroad, a train that is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2023. It adds a couple of hours to the transit time, but the locomotive offers knowledgeable guides and viewing-dome cars that make it easy to take photos of the mountains and valleys you pass.
5. North Cascades National Park
A walk through North Cascades National Park reveals Wizard of Oz–like landscapes, full of pink wildflowers, dark evergreens, and turquoise lakes. The lakes’ specific shade of blue can be attributed to its glaciers—a third of all of the glaciers in the lower 48 United States are located within this park. While hiking trails like the Diablo Lake Trail and Cascade Pass Trail are the most popular way to explore the 505,000-acre park, activities like whitewater rafting and horseback riding are other ways you can explore.
North Cascades received fewer than 40,000 annual visits in 2022, making it one of the least-visited national parks in the United States. Part of these low numbers can be attributed to its seasonal operation: The park is only open from late May to late September, so the warmer part of the year is the only time visitors can enjoy this underrated national park.
How to visit
- Book now: Sun Mountain Lodge
Located near the Canadian border, the park is about 100 miles northeast of Seattle. The camping options within North Cascades National Park include boat-in and backcountry. For those seeking a more comfortable accommodation option, Sun Mountain Lodge is about 1.5 hours away in Winthrop. The 50-room hotel is based on a 3,000-foot-high mountain top with panoramic views of mountains, wilderness, and valleys below.
6. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The history of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park goes back many years, when a small area of land was raised 60 million years ago to form the Gunnison Uplift. For Ivan Levin, director of strategic partnerships and communications at nonprofit National Park Trust, visiting the nearly 31,000-acre piece of land is a great summer alternative to a well-known park.
“Once you arrive at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the hard part is deciding what outdoor activity to do first—take in the views, try out a beginner rock climbing route, or hit the trails. I personally love hiking and checking out the local flora and fauna, so if you share the same passion and hobby as me then you’ll love Black Canyon of the Gunnison,” he shared with AFAR over email.
Another recommendation from Levin: Take a night visit to the park, which was certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2015.
How to visit
From Denver, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is about a 260-mile drive southwest. When it comes to the most accessible, family-friendly accommodation option, AFAR recommends the South Rim Campground. The campground is near both the Night Sky Viewing and Telescope site as well as the amphitheater. But for a more remote stay, go for East Portal or the North Rim, where according to AFAR editors, campsites are spread out among piñon and juniper trees.
7. Lassen Volcanic National Park
Around 3.3 million people visited Yellowstone in 2022, many in search of panoramic landscapes, dramatic mountains, gorgeous lakes, and hiking opportunities. But what if you could get that experience without the crowds? According to Donald Leadbetter, tourism program manager of the National Park Service, that’s what makes Lassen Volcanic National Park so special in the summer—the ability to have an experience as grand as Yellowstone with only a fraction of the people. (Around 450,000 people visited in 2022, 13.6 percent of Yellowstone’s annual visitors.)
“What I love about Lassen Volcanic is it’s a high-elevation park, so you’re at the convergence of three different ecosystems: You’re in the northern Sierra Nevada, you’re at the southern end of the Cascade Mountains, and you’re at the western edge of the elevated desert that is most of Nevada,” Leadbetter says. “So you’ve got this park where three pretty distinct ecosystems kind of come together.”
Leadbetter recommends taking around two days to explore the park: One day to check out the visitor center and orient yourself in the 165-square-mile park, and the second to take a long hike like the Lassen Peak Trail or Brokeoff Mountain Trail.
How to visit
The closest large airports to Lassen Volcanic National Park are in Reno (about a 130-mile drive) and Sacramento (about a 190-mile drive). Leadbetter recommends combining a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park with experiences in the area like Reno and Lake Tahoe. While he can’t recommend any particular private stays on behalf of the National Park Service, he recommends checking out the plentiful cabin stays in the area.