Summer brings out both the heat and the crowds! As we’ve been road tripping around the US with a goal to visit every National Park (and all the National Park units), we realized that some parks are only open during a small window and some parks are just plain better during one season out of the year. The dates and seasons for these parks may change year to year, but here’s a list of parks we think you should explore during the summer.
BEST NATIONAL PARKS TO VISIT IN THE SUMMER
Parks with Short Summer Seasons
A lot of the National Parks located further North are very limited in the Winter (some park’s “winter” lasts well into June or July). Snow keeps everything hidden away and much harder to navigate. These are some of the best parks to visit during the summer just because you can’t really see much in the winter. A lot of these parks don’t fully open until well into July, and since they have such a short season, you should go when you can! Be sure check each parks’ site to get the most up-to-date information.
The iconic Going to the Sun Road typically opens late June or early July (check their site for the most recent info since the season can change year to year). Otherwise, what you can see in the park is very limited. Even if Going to the Sun Road is open, the hikes can have an even shorter season. When we went in late June, several hikes we wanted to do near Logan’s Pass were still snowed in.
These parks won’t get you away from the crowds, but the summer will give you the easiest access to the majority of the park. Roads are closed through Winter and it takes time for them to get them ready again for the summer crowds.
North Cascades National Park is one the hardest national parks to access because there are no roads leading into the park. You can drive to the surrounding park units, but you will have to hike to step foot in the actual park. Because of this, you want to be sure the hikes are open and snow free to experience the beautiful wilderness! Check their site to see what is currently open. Also, if you’re there to see the blue color of the glacial lakes, like Diablo Lake, the lake changes color throughout the year and the color is best during late July or August after you get more glacial melt.
This National Park has portions that stay closed late into summer because of its high altitude. Once it’s open, you can explore volcanic landscapes.
Summer brings wildflowers, bear grass, and beautiful views of the mountain (assuming you get lucky and the clouds aren’t around!). The bloom is limited and typically peaks in mid-July and August.
Here are other parks with limited seasons: All the parks in Alaska (Denali National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Glacier Bay National Park, Katmai National Park, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kobuk Valley National Park, Lake Clark National Park. Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve) and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
Parks to Avoid the Heat:
There are parks better enjoyed in the winter, and there are parks better enjoyed in the summer. As much as we love Joshua Tree and Death Valley, it can be miserable in the summer. Last time we went during the turn of the season, we ended up spending a lot of time in the car with the AC blasting rather than exploring the park. These parks, however, are perfect for the summer!
Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the US and has some of the bluest and cleanest water you’ll ever see! The weather stays temperate throughout the summer and you may even still find some patches of snow. Check their site to see what roads are open. The last time we went in the summer, parts of the loop road were still closed off.
Although the surrounding area may be hot and humid, you can escape into the world’s longest cave system and explore this other-worldly park.
The Virgin River stays cold year round, so summer is a great time to hike through the canyon. We still want to do the Subway, but the Narrows is still one of our favorite hikes in the US.
If you ever need a reminder of how small we are, walk amidst the shadows cast by these massive trees! If you’re still too warm outside, you can drive to the end of Kings Canyon National Park and hop into the river to cool off.
Some of the highlights of this park include the Lehman Caves, Bristlecone pines, the oldest living organisms on earth, and astronomy. This park is better when there are no lights! The high elevation and extremely low light pollution make this one of the best places in the continental U.S. to see the Milky Way. It’s best to visit in the summer when the Milky Way is most visible in North America, plus when we were there in their busiest season, we weren’t competing with crowds.
To Avoid the Crowds:
As awesome and beautiful as they are, forget the popular parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and the Great Smoky Mountains. Take advantage of the less popular parks and you’ll find a quiet spot to yourselves. Feeling connected to nature is what we love most about the National Parks, not being elbow to elbow with other people.
The remote location of this park along with its miles and miles of black lava really make it feel like you’ve left the planet! You can explore this park in near solitude and don’t forget to stick around to see the night sky too.
Great Sand Dunes is tucked against the Rockies and has the tallest sand dunes in North America. Get your hands on a sandboard for a truly unique experience or splash around in the creek to cool off from the heat.
Take a Park Service operated ferry to this archipelago that makes its home in one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Wildlife is abundant in this untamed land! Be sure to note that all visitors do need to stop to hear a ranger-led discussion on the area.
A short ferry island will help you escape from the traffic and overly crowded city of Los Angeles to a beautiful archipelago of eight islands just off the coast. You’ll find quiet beaches, beautiful kayaking, and you can even snorkel or dive amongst the kelp beds.
This park offers everything from a leisurely drive to jaw-dropping overlooks, to extreme rock climbing! Regardless of what you’re looking for, you’re sure to stay away from large crowds.
Which National parks did you visit this summer? What did you like or dislike about them?