Summer is officially here!
Schools out, the weather is warm and now it’s time to start planning that memorable vacation. Thankfully, the U.S. has amazing National Parks that offer a range of incredible types of summer vacations, from rustic camping excursions to RV camping sites with stunning views.
But with more than 400 sites scattered across the country, choosing a National Park is no easy task. Don’t worry, though.
We’ve listed the top 10 National Parks that you absolutely need to visit in the summer. Time to pack up the car!
1. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, MI
With more than 70,000 acres of protected wilderness and 35 miles of sandy shorelines to take in, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a must-visit park in the summer. Located in Northern Michigan, on Lake Michigan’s northwest coast, there are plenty of activities to take in on your summer getaway.
- Dune climb. The crown jewel of this National Lakeshore is the 300-foot-tall dune climb. Be warned: While running to the bottom is invigorating, climbing back up isn’t for everyone. Make sure you’re in good shape and are prepared for a 20 to 30-minute excursion back up. Make sure to swim in pristine Lake Michigan at the bottom before heading back up.
- Kayaks and Canoes. The Platte River and the Crystal River flow through this park. Rent a kayak or canoe from one of the many trading posts or outdoor sports retailers in the area to leisurely travel these shallow rivers.
There are a handful of camping sites, including the Platte River Campground, which features electric hook-ups, showers, and modern restrooms. Bring plenty of towels to deal with the sand, in addition to some blankets because it can get chillier at night with winds coming off the lake.
2. Crater Lake National Park, OR
Head west to Southern Oregon to take in the beauty of Crater Lake National Park. This national treasure was created 7,700 years ago by the eruption and collapse of Mount Mazama. That chaos created the peaceful Crater Lake, which is perfect for stand-up paddleboarding.
Rim Drive is the main attraction here. The 33-mile loop is packed with scenic overlooks that are perfect for afternoon picnics.
Make sure you bring your hiking backpacks for a trek up Garfield Peak. This is a steep, 3.6-mile hike, but the work to get to the top is worth it. For most families, it’ll take two to three hours to finish.
Make a point to wake up early to take in a famous sunrise over Crater Lake.
3. Apostle Islands National Park, WI
If you like lighthouses, head to Apostle Islands National Park in Wisconsin where you’ll also take in relaxing beaches and stunning sandstone cliffs.
With nine historic lighthouses on-site, this site has more lighthouses than any other National Park. There are a number of tour companies that can take you inside most of these towers. Make some instant coffee at your campsite before you start lighthouse exploring.
While some will go to the lighthouses, most head to this National Park for hiking, paddling, and sailing. Lake Superior is the perfect playground for your summer adventure, especially on hot summer days.
4. Denali National Park and Preserve, AK
If you’re looking to take a big excursion, head to Alaska and Denali National Park and Preserve.
Denali is an absolute treat to hike. But with more than 6 million acres to explore, picking a starting point can be difficult. We recommend paying for a guided hiking tour to ensure you get to see some of the park’s best highlights.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can rent an ATV or a Jeep to go off-roading across the Alaskan tundra and backcountry.
Finally, we recommend doing a guided rafting tour on the Nenana River.
5. Channel Islands National Park, CA
California is home to nine national parks, but only one is solely accessible by boat or plane: Channel Islands National Park. For that reason, we recommend adding this park to your must-visit list for this summer.
Most people take a ferry to one of the four islands, which takes about three hours and costs between $45 and $115, depending on your final location. You can make a daytrip, but you can also book a campsite to stay overnight. Book early, though! These sites fill up quickly.
If you’re staying overnight, after setting up camp, go on a hike. You’ll take in absolutely incredible ocean views. But hiking is only half the fun. We recommend renting a kayak and even taking a kayaking tour to really see the true beauty of these islands.
If you’re going to go, we highly recommend camping a couple nights. At $15/night, it’s super affordable, but it also gives you more time to swim, hike and simply enjoy the great outdoors.
6. Haleakala National Park, HI
If you have the resources to fly to Hawaii, we recommend checking out Haleakala National Park. Located in Maui’s southeastern region, there’s more than 30,000 acres to explore including the Haleakala summit, which peaks out at more than 10,000 feet.
So, as you can guess, Haleakala is a hiker’s paradise. But it’s also great for biking. Most visitors rent a bike to take down the 21 switchbacks on Haleakala.
If you want to switch it up a bit, the Haleakala Zipline Tour is perfect for all adrenaline junkies. Don’t worry. It’s safe and the perfect family activity.
You can camp Haleakala, but get ready for a hike. One of the sites is almost 4 miles down the Halemauu Trail; the other is nearly 10 miles down the Sliding Sands Trail. Luckily, there are some drive-up sites, too, assuming you rented a car for this excursion.
7. Grand Teton National Park, WY
Located near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park is another stunning National Park that’s perfect in the summer.
If you go to Grand Teton, you need to take a scenic rafting tour on the Snake River. Even better, hire a knowledgeable guide, who can help you find wildlife, including moose and beavers.
Grand Teton is also known for its world-class fishing, especially fly fishing. If you have your own poles and equipment, that’s great, but if you want to travel lighter, there are guided fish tours you can take where all equipment is provided.
If you plan on camping in the park, there are seven sites to choose from. Make sure you bring bear spray with you, as grizzle and black bears are common sightings at Grand Teton.
8. Badlands National Park, SD
Badlands National Park is home to one of the most unique geological displays that you can drive through. From the big buttes to the colorful spires, the Badlands is the perfect backyard for a fun summer vacation.
We recommend camping at cedar Pass Campground or Sage Creek Campground. Both are operated by the National Park Service and equally impressive. It’s a significantly longer drive to Sage Creek, but some campers prefer the peace tranquility of those sites. Both offer views of the buttes and spires.
The Badlands is one of those National Parks where there isn’t a ton of amenities, but you can always take day hikes from your campsite. If you’re into photography, get ready for some of the coolest sunsets and sunrises you’ve ever seen. The formations in the park make for exquisite photos.
9. Great Sand Dunes National Park, CO
While Michigan and other coastal areas are best known for sand dunes, the Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado is also quite impressive, and the perfect destination for a summer camping trip.
If you own a fat tire bike, we highly recommend biking Medano Pass Road. Be attentive, though. A majority of this park bans mechanical transportation, like bikes. But the Medano Pass Primitive Road is the one area where bikes are permitted. It’s not for novice bikers, though. Get ready for a workout. And if the sand gets too dry, biking may not even be possible.
Many bikers will put their gear on their back and do some camping in Medano Canyon. So, make sure you have a good hiking backpack to carry everything.
10. Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is a history lover’s paradise, and the perfect park to visit with your kids while they’re away from the classroom.
This park features ruins built by ancient people, some of which you can still tour today. Make sure to take a ranger-led tour to learn about the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling.
Mesa Verde National Park is also an amazing park for seeing unique wildlife. There are plenty of coyotes, foxes, jackrabbits and even bears. There’s also a chance of seeing wild horses, which are actually considered trespassers because they are known to damage the archaeological sites.
To end your day of exploring, book a dinner reservation at the Metate Room, which not only offers amazing food by award-winning chefs, but also incredible panoramic views.
Andrew Dodson is an avid camper who enjoys the great outdoors with his wife and two-year-old son. He resides in Colorado, where you can often find him enjoying hikes with a toddler strapped to his back and mini goldendoodle Percy nearby.