If your family loves to explore the outdoors, then you will love this guide to National Parks for summer travel. The U.S. boasts 63 protected areas known as National Parks and over 400 sites in the U.S. that are regulated and protected by the National Park system. We see the photos of the popular ones and sometimes even experience the crowds at the most visited sites. They are all worth a visit, but some National Parks are best experienced during summer travel. Many families are only afforded time off during the summer months and must take advantage of the same weeks as other families. If you are looking for ideas to get outdoors and responsibly enjoy the protected lands without the heavy crowds we have got a great list of National Parks for summer travel.
National Parks Summer Travel in the Northwest
North Cascades National Park, WA
If you are looking for a remote destination full of glacial lakes and untampered natural beauty, look no further than North Cascades. Just three hours from Seattle, this park boasts craggy peaks excellent for experienced rock climbers, hiking trails, and horseback riding. The lakes offer opportunities for fishing and boating, and the pristine nature is just waiting for you! Camping is available and it’s likely your best lodging option as there are only tiny communities dotted nearby. Entrance fee = FREE.
San Juan Island National Historic Park, WA
Located north of Seattle and accessibly by ferry, you will want to make this stop while visiting the other San Juan Islands. Although, the summer months are busy you will need to make lodging reservations early, the park itself remains mostly crowd free. There is no lodging or food inside the park, so plan accordingly. The park is in two sections: the American camp and the English camp. If you want to kayak, you will need to bring your own equipment. Although the beaches are lovely, swimming is not recommended due to strong currents and very cold water. You can access the beach areas on foot via the prairie walk paths or other hiking trails. You will need to use the ferry system to get to the park, but entrance fee = FREE.
Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, WA
The recreation area is accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. From June-Labor Day the lake levels are kept as high as possible for maximum recreation while boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing and swimming in designated area. There are all kinds of campsites including boat-in campsites. Make sure to plan ahead as some are reservation only and make sure to check all rules and regulations for shoreline camping. Boat launch fees can be purchased for the week at $8 or as an annual pass for $45. Talk about an incredible National Park for summer travel!
Oregon Caves Preserve & National Monument, OR
Located in the Southwestern corner of Oregon, near the border of California are the “marble halls of Oregon”. Cave tours cost between $5-$10 per person and give you a guided look at these marvelous geological wonders. Children must meet a height requirement to do the tour, and babies are not allowed to be carried. These tours can be physically demanding with stooping through the twisting structures and ascending and descending steep stairs. There are also 6 hiking trails inside the preserve if you need some sunlight. There are two dining options inside the preserve, but be sure to check availability before you go. As of this publication in 2021 the historic lodge is closed for a multi-year repair and renovation project.
Crater Lake National Park, OR
Visiting the deepest lake in the U.S. must be on your list of sites! The pristine waters are a wonder to behold. Know that in May and June the weather will likely still be frustrating to see and do all the park has to offer. The most popular months to visit are July-September, making it one of the best National Parks for summer travel. The lake the is the main attraction and most people enjoy the scenic rim drive, a boat tour or a cycling tour on the rim. You can fish on the lake shore during appropriate seasons and there are a few steep hiking trails down to the lake. If you are looking for adventure check out the jumping rock! Lodging and camping are both available and food/restaurants are available starting around mid-May. Entrance fees = $30 per car and lasts for 7 days.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, Northern CA
There are two entrance stations located at the southwest and northwest corners. Entrance fees = $30 per car and last for 7 days. Inside the park are camping, cabin camping and Drakesbad Guest Ranch options for lodging. Lassen has several communities nearby with other lodging and restaurant options. The park offers all kinds of outdoor activities to keep everyone active and happy including hiking, camping, boating, fishing, swimming, and star gazing. The Dark Sky Festival is a special annual event that has an ongoing partnership with NASA Ames Research Center, Astronomical Society of Nevada, Schreder Planetarium and others. Don’t miss the hydrothermal features!
Big Horn Canyon National Recreation Area, MT
Another vast and wild landscape with startling views is Big Horn Canyon. There are two visitors centers open in the summer months, one in Wyoming and the other 3 hours away in Montana. Boating is very popular in both districts. The National Park Service offers free guided kayak tours from both districts. You can bring your own boat or rent from the marinas. Horseshoe Bend Marina offers a daily boat tour that is said to be unforgettable. Due to the incredible water sources, fishing is very popular as well. There are 15 hiking trails, 12 are located in the South district. Most of the trails are easy to moderate and all are less than 4 miles roundtrip. There are no entrance fees, but there are camping and boating fees. This destination is remote so you will need to consider your lodging and meal option
National Parks Summer Travel in the West
Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks
These are two technically different parks, but can easily be explored together. Both parks are open year round, but the summer months provide a respite from the heat due to the high elevation. These parks will be more crowded than others, so it is likely you will need to reserve lodging and camping well ahead of time. Be prepared to make the most of your exploration day by getting out early and/or getting started late when crowds subside. The sequoia groves are best seen during golden hours of morning and evening anyway!
Moro Rock and other balds may be steeper climbs, but those sunrise and sunset views will not disappoint. If you want to visit Crystal Cave you will need to purchase tickets online in advance. If you are highly skilled in kayaking or rock climbing these parks are probably very enticing. Entrance fees for this combo national park = $35 per vehicle for 7 days.
Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM
Valles Caldera is located just an hour from Sante Fe and provides activity year round. During the summer months one of the best ways to enjoy this park is mountain biking or e-biking. Keep in mind that if you want to bike the in the backcountry, you will need a permit to drive a vehicle into those remote areas. Double check to make sure you are in compliance. There are also a wide variety of hikes ranging from less than a mile to a difficult 19 miles. If you have horses the preserve welcome you to bring them in and ride them after acquiring the appropriate equestrian special permit. If you fish or hunt, this preserve also has licences for you to enjoy the wild. Astronomy and wildlife viewing are always an option! Before you go, know that you will need a 7 day pass entrance fee = $25 per vehicle.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO
This park is often referred to as a “vertical wilderness of rock, water, and sky”. All entrances are open during summer season and a 7 day vehicle pass = $30. Camping is your only lodging option inside the park and reservations are needed for summer months. Take a hike, enjoy the wildlife, do a scenic drive, bring your horse to the North Rim for an incredible ride, or visit during the Astronomy Festival. If you are looking for a rugged adventure experience you will want to explore the inner canyon wilderness. You MUST have a permit to enter these areas, but the permit is free. It’s about safety and someone knowing you are there. These wilderness areas are great for kayaking, climbing and canyon hiking.
Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle during summer months, but if you would like a guided tour of the cliff dwellings you will incur an additional $8 per person. Those tickets must be purchased in advance and your receipt is your ticket. There is lodging and camping available inside the park along with a few options for eating. There are a number of hiking trails to choose from as well. The cultural experience in this park is well worth the visit.
National Parks Summer Travel in the Midwest
Isle Royale National Park, MI
This island park is a wilderness wonder and only allows people. No vehicles are permitted to cross over on the ferry. In fact, the only way for you to get there is via ferry, private boat or seaplane. Transportation services are offered from both Michigan and Minnesota and will arrive at one of two drop off points. Although the season here is short, it is the perfect spot for a summer adventure.
The island is open from April 16-October 15, but visitors centers and ferries begin operation later. User fees are $7 per day, but children under 15 years old are exempt. You may choose to camp or backpack to get the full wilderness experience, but there are two other lodging options. While there are a few restaurant choices, many bring in their own food while they backpack or boat around. Different permits are required for camping and boating, so be sure to check the details. If you are an outdoors lover and want to get away from it all, this is the park for you.
Apostle Islands National Lake Shore, WI
With the word “island” in the name, then the main attraction with this area will be out on the water. Mainland visitors centers are situated to give information and recommendations. You may choose to explore the islands on your own via private boat or kayak paddling, but there are also guided cruises and tours available. Hiking along the mainland shoreline is a great way to get incredible views of Lake Superior and offers impressive cliffs. There are no entrance fees, but there are user based fees for campers, boaters, and guided programs.
Voyageurs National Park, MN
Interconnected waterways and miles of shoreline offer unparalleled opportunities at this northern park. There are three visitor centers that are open during various season and operate at a variety of hours. The summer season runs from late May to September. Entrance into the park is free, but camping and houseboat permits and fees apply. The visitor centers are accessible by car, but the bulk of the park should be enjoyed by boat. Guided boat tours of three distinct areas give an incredible perspective to the park. If you would like to hike, you will find a variety of trails to choose from. The night skies in this pristine wilderness area a sight to see.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, MI
This park offers 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan beaches, two large islands, stunning sand dunes & bluffs, as well as interior rivers and lakes. The park entrance pass fee = $25 and lasts for 7 days per vehicle. Camping fees, permits and reservations need to be taken into consideration. Float the Platte River or ride bikes along the Heritage Trail, visit the South Manitou Lighthouse, and enjoy fishing or hunting. If you’re in good shape and want incredible views you will want to climb the dunes.
Gateway Arch National Park, MO
Learn about the gateway to the west and the expansion and exploration that began under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson. This is a great park if you are doing a cross country road trip or if you want to add a city destination to your itinerary. Advanced reservations to ride the tram inside the arch are highly recommended for the summer months. Summer hours are from 9:00 am to 8:00 pm CST. Park visitors age 16 and up pay a $3 entrance fee. Other than the history and visiting the top of the arch there is not much else to this park. However, you can experience the arch from a distance on a riverboat cruise (not associated with the National Park Service).
Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore, MI
One of the most popular reasons to visit Pictured Rocks is for the abundance of waterfalls. Pristine beaches accessible by car or by hike offer solitude and beauty while you take a dip in the chilly waters of Lake Superior. The waters are so clear that this area is a hot spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. Many people like to get up close to the cliffs with a kayak, but know that the only type of kayak for this area is a sea kayak. If you would rather ride along, there is a narrated boat tour offered as well. There are two visitor centers open during the summer season from mid-May to October, but closed for various holidays. Although there are no entrance fees, you will pay for camping permits and a guided tour if that applies. Lodging and restaurant options can be found in nearby gateway communities.
Indiana Dunes National Park, IN
The obvious draw to Indiana Dunes is the beach along Lake Michigan. The beaches span 15 miles with various parking lots, which fill up quickly on weekends and holidays. Climb the dunes, but stay on the marked paths and wear shoes to keep from burning your soles. There are 50 miles of hiking trails throughout the park ranging from short and easy to moderate in length. This park does not have an entrance fee, but beware not to confuse this park with the state park, which does have a daily fee of $7 for in-state plates and $12 for out of state plates. Campgrounds can be found at both the National Park and State Park and have fees associated with the permits, which you can obtain reservations 6 months in advance. Other lodging options and eating options can be found in nearby communities.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH
This park is situated not far from the urban life of Cleveland, yet feels worlds away. Hiking, backpacking, fishing, and paddling on the river are a great refuge for outdoor activity. You will find biking trails ideal for family rides and mountain biking trails are available for the more adventurous. Although there are no lodging or eating options inside the park, you can find several choices in nearby locations. If you choose to paddle, check the website for access and safety information. Brandywine Falls is the most popular park attraction, but the parking lot fills quickly in the summer months. Don’t miss the geological wonders of “the ledges”, perfect for exploring.
Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
The world’s longest cave system ought to be on your summer list. Mammoth Cave is more than just a cave, though. While the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the visitor center has operating hours. You will not pay an entrance fee, but will need to pay for a guided tour of the caves. There are 3 developed camping locations with usage fees and reservations are encouraged. Aside from the caves there are three rivers to enjoy by bringing your own boat or renting one for the day. The Mammoth Cave Railroad hike and bike trail is ideal for a family National Parks summer travel activity.
New River Gorge National Park, WV
This park covers 70,000 acres along the New River through deep canyons in West Virginia. Most visitors seek adventure through whitewater rafting on the two different sections of the river. One section offers a family thrill, the other is much more technical and advanced. Access to the park is year-round and has no entrance fees for you to enjoy. There is a three hour scenic drive that will give you every perspective of the park you are looking for. The cliffs of the gorge made of hard sandstone have become a popular destination for rock climbers on the East Coast, too. Other than primitive camping there are no lodging options inside the park, but the surrounding towns have motels, resorts and restaurants. If you choose to hike, the Sandstone Falls area is not to be missed.
National Parks Summer Travel in the South
Blue Ridge Parkway, NC and VA
Coined as America’s Favorite Drive, this 469 mile parkway meanders through the Appalachian Highlands with incredible scenic vistas with overlooks and easy access to hiking trails, camping, and picnic areas. Operating hours will vary greatly depending on weather conditions as section of the parkway will close due to high snowfall or icy roads. There are 17 visitor centers dotted throughout the parkway in both NC and VA. There are two lodging options on the parkway, but you can plan your route accordingly to stop in at various towns for abundant lodging and restaurants along the way.
Take care to watch out for cyclists along the parkway as they frequent certain sections. There are over 369 miles of hiking trails along the parkway. We like the AllTrails app for directions, parking information, and trail conditions. You can even find parts of the Appalachian Trail along the parkway for day hikes. The popular spots will be busy in the summer months, especially mid-day. As with any planning, try to get there early before the crowds or aim for later when the bulk are on their way out. Parking lots fill quickly starting about 10 am. and then clear out again around 4:00 pm. One of the best things about the parkway is the relaxing nature of the drive with no need to be in a hurry.
Little River Canyon National Preserve, AL
This preserve is located about 1.5 from Huntsville, AL close to the Georgia border and open daily from sunrise to sunset with no entrance fees makes this preserve a great day trip or the perfect passing through destination. Canyon Mouth Park does have a daily pass fee of $15 per vehicle, cash only. There is literally something for everyone at this preserve from hiking, kayaking, hunting, fishing, cycling, rock climbing, and scenic drives with excellent overlook picnic spots. Blue Hole is a popular swimming hole for families, but know the parking lot often fills by 11 am. especially on summer weekends. There are three waterfalls within the preserve, each with parking lots that fill quickly. Enjoy the beauty and have fun wading in the waters. Currently there are no campgrounds within the preserve and no choices for eating. Fort Payne is the nearest location for food and lodging.
Wright Brothers National Memorial, NC
The memorial is located in the Outer Banks of NC, a popular summer beach destination for east coasters. The park is open 7 days a week year-round from 9 am- 5 pm, but closed on Christmas day. An individual pass for ages 16 and up is $10, but everyone else is free! We highly recommend this for younger children who have a budding interest in airplanes and history. During your time at the park you will learn all about why the Wright brothers chose Kitty Hawk to run their experiments and all about their lives. You will even see where they first took flight!
Cape Hatteras & Cape Lookout National Seashores, NC
Cape Hatteras seashore is comprised of beaches, sand dunes, marshes and woodlands in the southern region of the Outer Banks of NC. Three barrier islands are protected as part of the National Seashore. Beach and sound access ramps, campgrounds, nature trails, and lighthouses can be found and explored on all three islands. Although there is no entrance fee per se, there are various fees for camping and visiting lighthouses. Reaching the seashore is not difficult, but you will need to use the ferry to get to Ocracoke Island, which has camping and hiking nature trails or can be done as a day trip. Although camping is available at the seashore, there are a wide variety of accommodations available in the Outer Banks. You will definitely want to indulge in the fresh seafood at local restaurants.
Cape Lookout is located further south than Cape Hatteras, near Beaufort, NC or Morehead City, NC. The full experience requires a boat ride three miles off shore to the barrier islands where you can experience shelling, fishing, horse watching, lighthouse climbing, birding or camping. If you plan to stay the night you will need to bring all of your own supplies including water and food. This is a carry in carry out location! ALL trash must be taken with you and the Leave No Trace practices are strongly in place. The seashore is open all year round with reduced hours at visitor centers during the winter months. Ferries are available all year, weather permitting. There are a host of commercial guide options including dolphin cruises, shelling tours, and crabbing excursions for you to choose from.
Shenandoah National Park, VA
Located just 75 miles from the bustling metropolis of Washington D.C. this 200,000 acre nature wonder is a wonderful place to explore in the summer months. All facilities should be open in the summer months and Skyline Drive should be fully accessible after March into November. A single vehicle entrance pass is required and $30 will give you access for 7 full days after purchase. Camping fees are separate from entrance fees and will depend upon where you plan to camp. Aside from camping there are other lodging options both inside the park and in the gateway communities surrounding the park. There are a handful of eating options inside the park during your visit as well. A host of outdoor recreation activities are at your fingertips inside Shenandoah including hiking, cycling, rock climbing, horseback riding, fishing and more. You will find cascades and falls along with epic overlooks, meadows, and forests to fill your wilderness lust.
Assateague Island National Seashore, MD
Explore sandy beaches, salt marshes, maritime forests and coastal bays on the edge of the continent at the Assateague Island National Seashore. There is a Virginia district and a Maryland district, both with a visitors center operating at various hours. There are entrance fees to both districts ranging from $10-$25 and allow for visitation up to 7 days. Both entrances are accessible by car, but you are not able to travel between the two districts via car. You will need to return to the mainland and enter through the other district if you want to see both. Camping is available (reservations are required) in the Maryland district, but you must be prepared to bring your own firewood, food, and other supplies. While biking and hiking are available, two coastal activities that are popular are surf fishing, crabbing, and see the wild horses. Be sure to read and follow all regulations as they can change.
Chesapeake Bay Watershed, MD and others
The nation’s largest estuary and one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in the world is recognized as a national treasure. Here, you can visit major league cities, colonial towns, American Indian landscapes, farms and fishing villages. You can learn to kayak, pick crabs, go fishing, tour a lighthouse, slurp oysters, and slow down to enjoy the natural beauty of the Chesapeake. The Chesapeake covers 7 states and a diverse natural space. The headquarters can be found in Annapolis, MD. There are over 170 sites and trails that cover the entire watershed area. Birdwatching, paddling, boating, fossil hunting, even Geotrails give you opportunities to explore the outdoors.
National Parks are always great for summer travel, but there are so many to choose from! You and your family can find incredible opportunities to explore the outdoors while recreating responsibly on our protected lands. I even love the idea of gaining new experiences and new perspectives in new places. Summer travel in the National Parks will give your family a lifetime of memories.