Summer is one of the most popular times to get out and explore the natural, protected lands that the United States has to offer. Some of the most common national parks that come to mind when one thinks of summer vacation are Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
However, these are just two of the 61 national parks in the country. In this guide, I’ll introduce you to five other incredible and totally worth-your-time-and-effort national parks to visit this summer instead. Let’s get started!
1. Crater Lake National Park
Nestled in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon is a one-of-a-kind lake. Crater Lake National Park is unique in more ways than one starting with its origins. This lake was once a volcano called Mount Mazama that collapsed in on itself more than 7,000 years ago.
Though the volcano collapsed violently enough to create a crater that’s 1,949 feet deep at its deepest point (making it the deepest lake in the United States), an island exists inside the lake. Explore the many seasonal trails Wizard Island has to offer–there’s a lot more on this seemingly small island than the gigantic lake around it makes it look.
As the fifth-oldest national park in the country, the trails are worn in and easy to hike. Plus, this park is located in one of the northernmost states so you can count on it being cool and comfortable for a hike at any time of the day.
2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Nothing beats the summer heat quite like a cave that’s more than 1,000 feet underground. Smack dab in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico is the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park which is made up of several humongous chambers, 119 caves, and more than 30 miles worth of mapped passages.
Take the elevator down more than 1,000 feet and step into the Big Room which is more than 250 feet high at its highest point making it one of the biggest caves in the entire world.
Once inside the Caverns, you can do a self-guided tour at your own pace or work your way through with a knowledgeable park ranger that will introduce you to the many unique formations inside the caves.
Scared of elevators? Just feel like walkin’? Take the Natural Entrance Trail into the cave. Get your calves ready, though, because the hike back up these switchbacks is comparable to walking up 75 flights of steps.
3. Glacier National Park
You can’t get much farther north than Glacier National Park without going into Canada. This remote national park is perfect for a summer solely because that’s when it is easiest to access. (More snow = more closed down roads to trails and such)
Encompassing more than one million acres of land, there’s plenty to see and do here during the summer starting with the glaciers themselves. When the park was established in 1910, there were more than 100 glaciers to gaze upon. Today, there aren’t quite as many because of global warming. While this is devastating to think about, the glacial melt feeds into the 130+ lakes in the park turning them a stunningly bright blue.
You can peek at these glaciers from the more than 730 miles of hiking trails that weave throughout the park–you’ll get the most glacier exposure on the Many Glacier Valley Trails like Apikuni Falls, Grinnell Glacier, and Iceberg Lake.
Hiking is far from the only activity that you can enjoy at the park, though. Take a boat out on the lake, take a drive down scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, engage with an educational ranger-led program, or take in the views while you have a nice meal at Lake McDonal Lodge.
4. Bandelier National Monument
Much like we do now, ancestral peoples of this continent moved based on their needs and the resources available to them. The 3,000+ acre area now known and protected as Bandelier National Monument was once occupied by the Ancestral Pueblo people.
From around 1150 CE to 1550 CE (roughly 800 to 400 years ago), the Pueblo people settled here because of the rich volcanic soil found on the mesatop (or the area between the cliff sides). These cliff sides were also made of soft volcanic material which made it easy to carve out and create cavates, or carved rooms, where they could live.
This park not only protects several thousand acres of carefully crafted cliff dwellings and canyon floor dwellings, it also protects a wealth of historical information about life on this continent just before it was reinhabited by foreign settlers.
While you’re at the park, you’ll have your choice between several trails that combine history and hiking starting with the Main Loop trail–a breezy 1.2-mile loop. For something a bit more intense, head over to the Tsankawi section of the park where you’ll find a 1.5-mile loop featuring a variety of cavates that you can explore via wooden ladders set up along the trail.
5. Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park is located just a short boat ride off the coast of Ventura, California. Regardless of its close proximity to the mainland, Channel Islands encompasses an otherworldly landscape made up of five dramatically sculpted islands, a labyrinth of scenic coves, and all kinds of rare wildlife.
First and foremost, this national park protects these islands but it also protects much of the sea floor, sea water, and aquatic inhabitants. Its pristine water conditions, remote location, and array of unique sea critters make it a hot spot for all kinds of water activities like kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling, and diving.
If you don’t feel like getting wet, there’s still plenty to enjoy about this park. Take a guided boat trip out and around the islands, and take in views of the islands themselves and even dolphins and whales along the way.