How to Have the Best National Park Vacation This Summer

Insiders share their top tips on how to avoid crowds and make the most of summer travel.

America’s national parks, monuments, and recreation areas are filled with natural and historic attractions that are prime to explore in the summertime. While warm weather means a greater ability to explore these locations, that can often mean larger crowds.

Travel + Leisure spoke to the National Park Foundation (the official charity of the National Park Service) and park representatives to learn which sites within the National Park Service make for a prime summer stop and to get insider tips on how visitors can make the most of their time at each without swarms of crowds.

Most of these parks are ideal for families, with specific trails and areas highlighted that are great for kids to explore.

Channel Islands National Park

Located off of the California coast, Channel Islands National Park is one of the country’s least-visited parks, but boasts five different islands that each offer their own appeal.

While the islands are only accessible by boat or by plane, concessionaires offer transportation to take in the whales and activities like sailing and snorkeling that await in the summer. Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, recommends Cathedral Cove and Landing Cove, which host sea stars, sea urchins and kaleidoscopic fish underneath their waters. For those looking for great hiking trails, Anacapa Island has just what you’re looking for. And Santa Cruz is home to a number of underwater caves and clear-water beaches.

Redwood National and State Parks

California’s Redwoods National and State Parks are home to the world’s tallest trees, which can take on a stunning appearance in the summertime fog. When cold air comes in from the ocean and combines with warm air inland, it creates a thin layer of fog that shrouds the soaring trees, making for unforgettable photo opportunities.

Well-maintained trails, a 40-mile coastline with beaches and roads that allow easy access to get around make this an ideal location for families. Park representatives even say some of the best features are found along the side roads most travelers often overlook.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve experiences a rare phenomenon that turns a portion of the park into a natural waterslide for youngsters and adults alike in the spring and summer.

Surge flow typically occurs in May and extends into the start of the summer, creating waves in Medano Creek as melting snow from the nearby mountains trickles down and makes underwater ridges in the sand that break with the water flow as often as every 20 seconds.

Since temperatures can dip in the winter, stargazing and backcountry camping are popular activities visitors should enjoy while they can in the summertime, when campgrounds remain open and rangers host a range of evening activities.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is made up of six different sites across south Louisiana, all of which are free.

Most of the location’s programs are also free, making for an affordable getaway for the entire family. Activities abound, from alligator spotting and bayou cruising to learning Cajun dancing.

Most sites offer summer camps, while each also has a Junior Ranger program for kids. Shafroth recommends visitors turn the trip into a multi-stop journey by heading to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, a 30-minute drive away, the park is entirely devoted to jazz.

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