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2023’s Ten Best National Parks in Summer

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If you love the great outdoors, then visiting one of the best national parks in Summer are the perfect way to spend the hottest months of the year. America’s national parks are all absolute gems, but some are simply better than others for your national park summer vacation. I’ve gone through all 63 national parks and ranked them based on a whole host of factors including Weather, Crowdedness, Beauty, Uniqueness, Lodging, Activities, and Accessibility. Each of these factors have also been tailored for finding the top national parks for summer. It’s a pretty comprehensive ranking system that I think will help you choose the best summer national park vacation!

My list of the ten best summer national parks brings plenty of stops to cool off, but also a few where it’ll be hard to beat the heat! So grab your sunscreen and favorite canteen, pile the family into the car, and hit the road to one of these amazing national parks.

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10. Redwood National and State Parks

Redwood National and State Parks comprise a collection of three state and one national park which are jointly managed by NPS and California. Many of these parks were established in the 1920s, part of an effort to preserve the awe-inspiring trees which stood here. While the parks are best known for their namesake trees, they aren’t the only reason to take the time and visit them as part of your national park summer vacation!

Fern Canyon is a one-of-a-kind stop found in Prairie Creek State Park

These parks stretch along the northern Pacific coast of California. Their more remote location makes them a perfect candidate for a road trip along the coast. The southern most parks (Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek State Park) are just over five hours from both San Francisco and Sacramento. While it is possible to make the drive in one day, stretching it over two or three will really turn this visit into an awesome vacation.

Redwoods standing tall and ready for a visit on your summer national park vacations
Any day is a beautiful day among the towering trees

Make sure that you’ve packed your hiking boots and are ready to hit the trails when you arrive. These parks are packed with hundreds of miles of trails. My favorite resource for the trails in this area comes from the team at Redwood Hikes who have rated almost every trail in the parks! Plan out which trails are right for you and then get hiking. The summer weather at the parks are perfect for being outside, with minimal rainy days and great temperatures. My visit to Redwood National Park is one that I’ll never forget and I’m sure you won’t either!

9. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Do you happen to be a big fan of volcanoes? If so, I’ve got one of the best national parks for summer for you. Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California is only 2.5 hours from both Sacramento and Reno. Less than an hour off of Interstate 5, its relatively easy to access or include on a road trip. The park features all four types of volcanoes found in the world, one of the only places like this in the world.

Lassen Peak is a great place to visit on this list of the best national parks in summer
A panoramic view of Lassen Peak and other peaks from the summit of Brokeoff Mountain. NPS Photo

Lassen is well known for its geological activity. If you’re looking for hydrothermal features, the hike to Bumpass Hell is second to none. The hike provides not only great views of some surrounding peaks, but allows you to walk over many of the boiling hydrothermal features. Just make sure you stay safely on the boardwalk to avoid injury. Other trails are scattered throughout the park as well. For a true challenge, take on the hike to Lassen Peak’s summit which can still feature snow through the summer! Alternatively, take the family around Manzanita Lake which features amazing views of Lassen Peak over the lake.

Manzanita Lake provides stunning views of the park

There are a ton of other fun activities as well. Stargazers will find a welcome home here with Lassen’s amazing nighttime views. The park hosts a Dark Sky Festival every August (except 2021) which packs in tons of educational activities for all ages. There is also the iconic Lassen Peak Highway which is one of the best scenic drives in any national park. Throw in all the camping options and you’ve got one the best places to consider taking a national park summer vacation.

8. Channel Islands National Park

Nestled off the coast of Southern California, Channel Islands National Park stands as a true gem for summer adventurers seeking tranquility and natural beauty. With its idyllic landscapes, breathtaking vistas, and abundant marine life, this remote archipelago beckons visitors to embark on an unforgettable summer vacation. Offering an escape from the bustling mainland, Channel Islands National Park promises a unique and immersive experience that showcases the best of what nature has to offer. It has definitely earned its place on my list of national parks to visit in summer.

We love all the cute little animals here, including this adorable Island Fox!

The allure of Channel Islands National Park lies not only in its natural beauty but also in its rich biodiversity. Comprising five main islands—Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara—this park boasts an array of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. From the vibrant wildflower blooms to the charismatic island foxes and playful sea lions, the park presents an opportunity to witness nature in its purest form.

One of the key reasons why Channel Islands National Park is an ideal summer destination is its mild and pleasant climate. With warm temperatures and clear skies, summer creates the perfect backdrop for outdoor activities and exploration. Whether you’re an avid hiker, a wildlife enthusiast, or wanting to explore the depths of the Pacific, this national park offers a wide range of experiences to suit every visitor’s preferences.

The kelp forests are one of the more unique aspects of this national park

Exploring the park’s rugged islands and crystal-clear waters is a must-do activity during a summer visit. Snorkeling and diving enthusiasts will be treated to an underwater wonderland teeming with colorful fish, kelp forests, and even the chance to spot majestic whales and dolphins passing by. For those seeking adventure on land, the park offers an extensive network of trails that lead to awe-inspiring viewpoints, sea caves, and hidden coves, ensuring that every step is met with awe and discovery. Channel Islands National Park stands as a remarkable summer destination, offering a picturesque escape from the ordinary and is certainly one of the best summer national parks.

7. Biscayne National Park

The best way to beat the summer heat is often by grabbing your swimsuit and getting into the water. Biscayne National Park in South Florida is the perfect park for just that! Comprised of 95% water, Biscayne is a water lovers dream and the perfect stop on this list of summer national park vacations. The park is also one of the easiest in the country for nearly everyone to reach. Just 45 minutes south of Miami International Airport, it is a fantastic first stop if you’re going to explore everything steamy South Florida has to offer.

Wildlife is abundant along the coral reefs inside Biscayne National Park. NPS Photo.

There are ample ways to explore the gorgeous waters of Biscayne Bay. The Biscayne National Park Institute operates a wide variety of different tours. These include paddle tours through the iconic mangroves, boat tours across the bay, and snorkling or scuba diving. The park even features the only underwater national trail in the country. The Maritime Heritage Trail features six different ship wrecks along with the Fowey Rocks Lighthouse. The entire trail is accessible only by boat.

Boca Chita Key features the iconic lighthouse. NPS Photo

For those who are wanting to spend a couple of days at the park, there are also two small campgrounds. Located on Elliot Key and Boca Chita Key, these campgrounds are accessed by boat. If you’re planning more than one day at the park, just make sure to be prepared for rain that can pop up unpredictably. Spend a night listening to the ocean waters then wake up the following morning to a completely unobstructed sunrise over the Atlantic. It is a sight that is hard to forget and definitely one of the best national parks in summer for sunrise.

6. Canyonlands National Park

One would think you’d avoid the heat during one of your summer national park vacations, but Canyonlands is just too good to pass up. One of Utah’s fabled mighty five, it’s a fantastic destination. Typically featuring fewer crowds than nearby Arches, it still benefits from it’s closeness to Moab and the highway. The park is also divided into three distinct sections, each increasing in isolation and challenge. The park features many of its own distinct geologic features across these different districts. That makes Canyonlands an excellent extended national park summer vacation destination.

Sunrise at Canyonlands’ Iconic Mesa Arch

Canyonlands is also one of the best alternatives to another super crowded desert park. While the Grand Canyon is spectacular, Canyonlands certainly rivals it. Often referred to as a mini-Grand Canyon, Canyonlands actually features the same Colorado River cutting through it. The views are breathtaking and with so few people, it’s an easier visit. There are fewer viewpoints than the Grand Canyon. However, Canyonlands Island in the Sky can easily be done in a single day which isn’t always possible with the Grand Canyon.

The canyon stretches for miles and miles

For those who want the quickest visit, then the Island in the Sky is where you’ll go. This part of the park is closest to Moab. It features stunning Mesa Arch, the unique Upheaval Dome, and unbeatable canyon views. For a more isolated experience you can hit up the Needles district and view the sandstone spires which give it’s name. Finally if you want an off-road adventure, brave the heat and head into the canyon along White Rim Road. Of all the parks on this list, Canyonlands may very well provide the most adventure! My visit there in 2020 was amazing and really helped Canyonlands earn its spot on my list of the best national parks in summer!

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5. National Park of American Samoa

The National Park of American Samoa is a park which I have wavered between including or leaving off this list of the top ten national parks for summer. I previously cut it, simply because of how far away it is. However, this year I felt that if there is any park worth planning a major, overseas trip for then this one is it. With that being the case, how could I not include it on the list. It comes in at #5 due to the distance, but that doesn’t make it any less of a phenomenal place to take a summer national park vacation.

I mean, how could you NOT want to spend summer here? NPS Photo.

More than any other park on this list, careful planning is required for a visit. Hawaiian Airlines is the only carrier which makes regular flights, and these are only twice per week. Additionally, if you want to reach Ofu Island (pictured above), then you’ll need to charter a local boat for transport. However, staying on the main island provides plenty of amazing things to do with some of the “creature comforts” that you might more readily expect if you were at a mainland park.

Activities in and around the park mainly consist of either being in the water, or hiking in the lush rainforest. There are literally hundreds of species which aren’t found anywhere else in the national park system that you can get awfully close to. One particular stand out are the fruit bats. While most think that bats are simply nocturnal, the fruit bats on American Samoa are seen flying around at all times of day or night. Just make sure you’re on the lookout for them and many of the other wonderful creatures while hiking or snorkeling.

Look how stinking cute they are! NPS photo.

What makes the park distinct from many others on this list is the exposure to a different culture as well. While you might be visiting because it’s one of the best summer national parks, there is much more to the islands than just natural beauty. Make sure that during your visit you take the time to immerse yourself in the local culture. I think it’s vitally important in today’s day and age to experience everything and everyone the world has to offer to us. If you do that, this will no doubt be one of the best summer national parks you could have possibly planned a vacation to.

4. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

This pair of neighboring parks are operated as a single entity and both would have made the list in their own rights. However, since you’ll be able (and would) visit both of these on your summer national park vacation, I’ve decided to keep them grouped together. They both continue our theme of parks which are a fantastic alternative to busier and more crowded national parks. In the case of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, they are just to the south of a far more popular cousin, Yosemite.

Admire the towering sequoias. NPS Photo

With that being said, Sequoia and Kings Canyon do have some excellent features which Yosemite does not. The largest of these are the trees! Home to many of the largest and most massive trees in the world, these two parks are dedicated to ensuring their protection. Two of the largest sequoias (and trees in general) are located in the parks along Generals Highway. If you’re accessing from the south you’ll come across General Sherman first and it’s hard to reckon with the scale of such a tree. Further north you’ll visit the smaller General Grant, which is no less impressive.

Head deep into the backcountry to camp at a place like Spring Lake. NPS Photo

Beyond the amazing trees, there is plenty of other outdoors to explore. Like many of the great national parks of the west, day hiking and back country hikes are extremely popular. While not as well known as its extremely well known cousin in Yosemite, these two parks also feature areas for climbers to test their courage. The parks also feature an abundance of camping, making them a great family vacation to let the kids explore the great outdoors safely!

3. Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park is often overlooked, despite its location in the heart of America’s population center. Just over an hour from Washington, D.C and an easy day’s drive from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Shenandoah’s ease of access along the entire I-85 corridor makes it the most accessible summer national parks on this entire list. It also serves as a change of pace from another Appalachian national park, Great Smoky Mountains. Shenandoah can still receive some crowds, but they are far more manageable than GSM which gets nearly 10x the monthly visitors.

Dark Hallow Falls is a great hike located just off Skyline Drive. NPS Photo

Shenandoah stretches for over 100 miles along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just east of its namesake river. The star feature of the park, and what made it a must feature as one of the ten best national parks in summer, is Skyline Drive. This road snakes along the ridgeline for the entire length of the park. Along this road you’ll find almost every hike, waterfall, and overlook Shenandoah has to offer. It is a perfect length for a multi-day road trip where you can explore the park and get away from people while doing it. Even places like Dark Hallow Falls can be secluded if you start your day early enough.

Catch the sunrise from the Hazel Mountain Overlook. NPS Photo

Another perk of the park is the gorgeous weather you’ll find during the summer months. The higher elevation provides cooler temps during the otherwise hot summer days in Virginia. It also means the nights are more pleasant as well, providing even more incentive to camp or RV through the park. You’ll also find some spectacular mountain sunrises and sunsets along the way. Shenandoah is exactly the kind of park that demands you take your time, look for the hidden gems, and enjoy what the National Park system has to offer. While Shenandoah National Park comes in at #3 on this list, it takes the top spot for the best national parks for spring!

2. North Cascades National Park

Of all the parks which changed spots between 2021 and 2023, this one jumped the most. North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited parks on this list, coming in at 57 out of 63 over the summer months. Which is honestly a shame because it is a gorgeous park, that has an amazing array of activities with nearly perfect weather. However, with such a small number of visitors, you’ll have access to a far less spoiled landscape than some of the more crowded alternatives like Glacier or Rocky Mountain National Parks.

Thornton Lake in the remote backcountry of North Cascades. NPS Photo

North Cascades provides a remote experience that will allow you to escape the day to day. Divided into two primary parts, many people will stick to visiting the area near Highway 20 and the Skagit River. There is plenty of hiking to be found here, including into the rugged back country to the North Cascades. It is also the easiest to reach from the nearest major city of Seattle. There is also access for canoeing and kayaking on Diablo and Ross Lakes, making this an excellent destination for those who like to be on the water. I mean, who doesn’t want to spend their national park summer vacation relaxing on cool mountain lakes?

Boats on the water of Lake Chelan outside Stehekin. NPS Photo

Alternatively, you can visit the southern end of the North Cascades park complex. Chelan, Washington sits at the southern tip of Lake Chelan. From here you can take the boat to the north tip of the lake and the remote town of Stehekin. This area provides a whole new place to play and explore North Cascades National Park. Take the shuttle bus deep into the valley for isolated hikes, or simply enjoy a few quiet days on the cool waters of Lake Chelan. No matter where you choose, North Cascades will provide an experience you won’t soon forget.

1. Olympic National Park

The best of the national parks to visit in summer also happens to be one of America’s most popular! What had been formerly a not-so-hidden gem in the Pacific Northwest is quickly becoming a go to destination for those seeking all that the great outdoors have to offer. Olympic National Park features a dizzying variation in its landscapes which isn’t matched by any park in the country. You can begin the day on a Pacific beach, spend time in a temperate rainforest, and finish with sunset high in the mountains. Where else can you find such variation within one park? Not to mention finding a park that is just as great in the summer, as it is in the winter!

The Hall of Mosses Trail is an easy and accessible walk through the Hoh Rainforest. NPS Photo

When people picture Olympic National Park, they often have vision of verdant moss covered trees and damp trails. These features are abundant throughout the park with miles of trails winding through the rainforest. The Hoh Rainforest is the most well known and features the iconic Hall of Mosses trail. The Hoh River Trail is an excellent choice for a deeper hike into the woods. The Quinault Rainforest and Lake are also prime location for not only hiking but camping during the summer months.

The rugged James Island just south of Rialto Beach

However, you’re not going to want to spend your whole vacation in the forest. Olympic also features miles of coast line, perfect for watching sunsets or camping down by the waters. Rialto Beach features sea stacks off shore and you can grab a picture of the iconic James Island while you’re there. If mountainous terrain is more your style, hike up to Hurricane Ridge. The amazing wildflowers you’ll find in the alpine meadows will have you thinking you’re in another world altogether. Olympic is a park that truly has it all and that is why it is #1 on my list of the best national parks for summer!

General Tips for Visiting the Best National Parks in Summer

Like any good vacation or road trip, you’ll want to make sure that you are planning ahead. One of the primary things to consider is the crowds that will form no matter where you go. Despite not being as crowded as some of the big dogs, many of these parks do fill up. This is especially true when it comes to campgrounds. If you’re going to be camping, make your reservations (if possible) well in advance. I’d also advise seeking out some of the lesser visited campgrounds that might not be as central but will be less popular. You will often find other hidden gems nearby that can make your experience unique.

With summer also comes the weather. A few parks on this list (Canyonlands in particular) can pack quite a punch when it comes to the heat. Make sure you’re keeping an eye on the 10-day forecast and taking a safe approach to the weather. There is also a significant chance of unexpected rain at a few of these parks as well (looking at you Biscayne), so pack for that as well. Overall, despite summer being an absolutely fabulous season for national parks it isn’t without its own hiccups.

Don’t be afraid to turn your summer vacation into a road trip!

My final tip is to give yourself plenty of time. One of my constant stumbles is overplanning or not giving myself enough time. While some of these parks might be easy to see in a single day, others will really demand more of your time. If you have the time to spare, consider spending a week or so at one park. Alternatively, look at linking a couple of parks together in a single trip which can vary your experience up and keep you engaged the whole time! Either way, don’t sell these parks (or yourself) short and enjoy that summer vacation!

Honorable Mentions for the Best Summer National Parks

While my featured top ten includes some absolutely stunning destinations, they aren’t the only parks worth visiting during the summer. If you don’t mind braving both the heat and throngs of people, there are a few additional parks you can add to this list. The all-star parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier and Grand Canyon are all still fantastic summer national park vacations. Their biggest faults come from the sheer amount of people who will be visiting them. I prefer some semblance of solitude and a few parks on my top ten list are fantastic alternatives to these four.

This list was initially created for the summer of 2021. While mostly the parks on this list simply had some shifts in placement, there were a couple which dropped out of my top ten. Wind Cave National Park formerly held the 10th spot and while one of the better national parks for summer trips, there were others I wanted to add instead. The same fate befell Great Sand Dunes National Park, which had been #7 on my previous ranking. Other national parks for summer which just missed the cut include Isle Royale, Voyageurs, and Virgin Islands NP.

I visited a few other parks during my southwest roadtrip in the Summer of 2020. If you want to keep exploring beyond this top ten check out my posts on summer at Arches National Park, Canyonlands Island in the Sky, the under appreciated Capitol Reef, or stunning painted wall of Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

If you have any questions, about these parks or how to plan your trip, let me know in the comments! I’d love to help anyone plan an awesome and unforgettable vacation!

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4 Responses

  1. Great ideas for parks to visit in the summer. Many of them would be cool, literally. I love a good cave, and the winds would cool me off. We tried to visit SD a few years ago, but quarantine rules got in our way just as we got to the state line in our RV. I would love to dive Biscayne, but would rather do it not in the summer.

  2. I must admit that we usually head to National Parks in the spring or fall to avoid the crowds. But I love that this list has some National Parks we have yet to visit. So good to know they are good summer destinations. The Biscayne National Park would definitely be attractive for the water activities.

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