Get Outside! 🌞 Exploring The Best National Parks in Summer

Get Outside! 🌞 Exploring The Best National Parks in Summer

There’s no wrong season to visit a national park. Some folks might prefer to experience the raw beauty of parks in winter or beat the crowds during the shoulder season in spring or fall. But for those who want to experience national parks at their most alive and vibrant, summer is unmatched. Last year, the National Park Service recorded 325.5 million recreational visits, and more people visited in summer than any other season.

Visiting national parks in summer offers a chance to see wildlife in abundance and landscapes in full bloom. It’s also the ideal time to camp out under the stars, paddle a secluded lake, or hike a remote backcountry trail. And where better than in one of America’s spectacular national parks?

Summer is also an amazing time to be a national park photographer. Whether your subject is wildlife, landscapes or the night sky, your next great shot might be waiting at one of these parks. Just don’t forget to grab your National Park Inspired Camera Strap before you hit the trail!

These are some of the best national parks to visit in summer:

Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado)

One of the great family-friendly getaways in the national parks system, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is at its most vibrant in summer. As birds and other wildlife bask in the sun, the park’s high-elevation meadows explode into full bloom. By late August, even the alpine tundra will be alive with wildflowers, making Rocky Mountain one of the best national parks for nature photography and wildlife watching.

And if it’s hiking you want, get ready to lace up your boots. Rocky Mountain National Park boasts 355 miles of trails, providing ample opportunity for hikers of all ages and experience levels to head out and explore. Just remember not to push yourself too hard; the elevation really does take some getting used to.

Many of the park’s trails are kid-friendly, like the easy 1-mile Coyote Valley Trail and the slightly more challenging 1.6-mile Alberta Falls Trail. Plus, while Rocky Mountain National Park might feel remote, it’s closer to civilization than you might think. Less than an hour from Boulder and within two hours’ drive of the Denver airport, it’s not a difficult park to get to.

Acadia National Park (Maine)

Protecting more than more than 47,000 acres on Maine’s windswept coast, Acadia National Park offers not only a stunning landscape, but also tremendously varied opportunities to enjoy it. Over 120 miles of trails and 45 miles of carriage roads await hikers and cyclists, and the park’s Atlantic coast and multiple inland lakes and rivers provide unlimited potential for boating, paddling, swimming, fishing and tidepooling.

Acadia National Park is also a haven for bird watchers, and its skies are some of the darkest on the East Coast, making it a phenomenal spot for stargazing and one of the best national parks for astrophotography. But perhaps the greatest attraction in summertime is whale watching. Guided whale watching excursions depart from nearby Bar Harbor, offering a chance to spot the humpback, minke, finback, pilot and North Atlantic right whales that migrate along the coast from May to October.

Interested in Acadia? Visit our Ultimate Guide to Acadia National Park to discover more!

Show this Must Visit National Park Some Love with the Acadia National Park Sticker!

New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia)

The New River has been a designated national river since 1978, but in 2020 it was given a promotion of sorts, making it America’s newest national park. The newly-minted New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses 70,000 acres of land surrounding its namesake river, and it’s one big playground for anyone who loves outdoor adventure.

Unsurprisingly, it’s especially a hub for water sports. The New River is one of the most photogenic rivers in the East, and 53 miles of it meander through the park’s pristine forests and rugged gorges. Rafting and kayaking are major draws here, but you need to plan your trip carefully. Portions of the New River are slow-rolling and suitable for lazy float trips, but the river can quickly transform into thundering whitewater, with Class I to Class V rapids that can put any rafter’s skill to the test.

It’s always a good idea to pack a fishing rod when you visit New River Gorge National Park. The New is known as one of the best smallmouth bass rivers in America, and it’s possible to tangle with trophy smallmouths weighing 4 or 5 pounds on any given day. This park also offers more than 100 miles of hiking trails and some of the best rock climbing in the East.

Katmai National Park (Alaska)

Summer is all-too-fleeting in Alaska, and it’s the best time to experience the wild, untamed landscape of Katmai National Park and Preserve. From the harsh volcanic landscape of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes to the twin coastlines of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea, this park has a lot to offer anyone with a thirst for adventure and a desire to walk paths that are seldom trodden.

And there are bears. Lots of them. Katmai’s most famous attraction and most-visited area is Brooks Camp, where brown bears fish for salmon beneath a tumbling waterfall on the Brooks River. Salmon arrive in June, and bears are already there to greet them. Daily sightings are consistent into August, when the salmon start to dwindle and the bears disperse.

Olympic National Park (Washington)

Sprawling across Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the massive Olympic National Park is the sort of destination that insists on an extended stay. You simply can’t experience the park’s 922,651 acres and multiple ecosystems in a short visit.

The park is most famous for its vast swaths of old growth temperate rainforests, and justifiably so. Hoh Rain Forest is undeniably spectacular, but there’s so much more to see here. Olympic National Park also includes 70 miles of wild coastline, glacier-sculpted peaks and shimmering mountain lakes. Staying in a cabin overlooking the Pacific Ocean or lodging on the shores of mirror-like Lake Crescent are equally valid ways to spend one’s time.

Olympic can get quite busy in the summer months, so visit mid-week if possible, and arrive early. There may be a line of cars at major access roads like Hurricane Ridge, Sol Duc and the Hoh Rain Forest, but it’s also not too hard to beat the crowds once you get into the park. A whopping 95% of Olympic National Park is federally designated wilderness without a single road, and the park’s 600 miles of trails can take you well off the beaten path.

Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)

If it's solitude you seek, consider Isle Royale National Park, a little-known gem on its own private Lake Superior island. Consistently one of the least-visited national parks in the lower 48 states, Isle Royale might be just what you need if you’re looking to get off the grid. This secluded park is open from April to October, and transportation via ferry or seaplane is generally available from mid-May to late September.

What will you do once you’re there? The options are many. In addition to Lake Superior’s legendary fishing and world-class paddling, you can hike and camp among the lofty white spruce and balsam fir forests, tour a historic lighthouse, and take a dip in the crisp waters, which are typically brisk even in summer. Isle Royale and the 400 smaller islands that surround it sprawl over 133,782 acres, so there’s a lot to explore even though the amenities are minimal.

Glacier National Park (Montana)

Summer isn’t just the best time to visit Glacier National Park, it’s kind of the only time. That isn’t entirely true, of course—a handful of park roads are plowed, and the Apgar Visitor Center remains open on winter weekends—but most of this remote, beautiful park is inaccessible until the snow melts. That is to say, around June.

Once the thaw kicks into gear, this park comes to life. The spectacular Going-to-the-Sun Road, which has been called one of the most scenic drives in America, is usually fully open by early July, allowing you to drive 50 miles from Glacier’s west entrance to the east entrance. The high point of the route is 6,646-foot Logan Pass, and it’s a landscape photographer’s dream come true.

Opportunities abound in Glacier National park for hiking, boating, backcountry camping, fishing and biking. Unfortunately, exploring this wild and beautiful place often comes with a twinge of melancholy. Although there were at least 150 glaciers here in the 19th century, today there are less than 30, making Glacier National Park a real see-it-while-you-can destination.

Yosemite National Park (California)

What can be said about Yosemite National Park that hasn’t already been said? It’s simply a stunning place, and perhaps home to more iconic landmarks—El Capitan, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point—than any other national park. John Muir summed it up perfectly in 1912: “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its wall seems to glow with life.”

It especially glows with life in summer. By late June, virtually all of the park’s roads and trails are usually free of snow, though you may still encounter some at high elevations. At lower elevations, the weather is pleasantly hot and dry, with temps typically peaking in the high 80s. Wildflowers in Yosemite Valley are at maximum bloom in June, but the higher Tuolumne Meadows don’t start to sprout elephant's heads, yarrow, gentian, penstemon and shooting stars until July.

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is another must-see area of the park in summer. The giant trees are most easily accessed from the south entrance to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite is one of America’s most visited parks, and the summer months are the busiest. Plan on arriving early in the day, and be sure to make a reservation to enter the park on peak days.

Biscayne National Park (Florida)

Florida in summertime? Before you write it off, consider that the shimmering blue waters of Biscayne National Park are at their calmest this time of year. That makes it a great time to take advantage of some of the most stunning snorkeling and scuba diving in the continental United States. About 95% of this 270-square mile park is underwater, including part of the world’s third-largest coral reef system.

Biscayne National Park also provides exceptional kayaking, boating, fishing and lobstering. Tarpon fishing in Biscayne Bay is excellent during the shrimp run starting in June, and the lobstering season typically begins in early August. Summer is also the off-season here, so crowds will be minimal. Just be sure to pack some sunscreen and insect repellant.

Map of Best National Parks to Visit in Summer

Eager to explore? Which one of these incredible national parks will you visit first?

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