Planning a Summer Adventure? Check Out These 8 National Parks

While there really isn’t a bad time to plan an epic national park adventure, in our opinion the hot summer months might just be the best time to head out into nature and explore some of the best landscapes the USA has to offer.

And just like the fact that many of the USA’s more southern national parks (especially the ones in the desert) really shine in the colder winter months (November — February), once summer rolls around, the national parks up in the northern part of the country really start to bloom and become an absolute wonderland for adventurers. Especially for adventurers and travelers who are looking to check out high mountain lakes, rushing waterfalls, blooming wildflowers, and vibrant green meadows. Plus, the warmer summer months are also the best times to see the abundant wildlife that calls the national parks home; including, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, bears and wolves.

So if you are planning a national park adventure this summer and are still trying to figure out which national parks to explore, then keep reading for our recommended list of the 8 best national parks to visit in the summer.

1 | Mount Rainier National Park

The USA’s fourth national park (it was established in 1899), is famous for being the home of the eponymous monolith Mount Rainier — which is actually not a mountain but a stratovolcano. The national park also includes hundreds of miles of trails, beautiful mountain valleys, actual glaciers (including two of the biggest glaciers in the country), and over 90,000 acres of old-growth forest.

In the summer months, the national park comes alive with multi-colored wildflowers. Also, between the months of June and July you can expect fast flowing waterfalls, lush meadows and pretty clear trails.

DETAILS

WHERE: Washington

COST TO ENTER: $30 per vehicle

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK

By far some of the best adventures include hiking along one of the many trails — including the famous Wonderland Trail, which circles all of Mount Rainier along its 100-mile distance.

Other popular trails within Mount Rainier National Park are the Silver Falls Trail (3 miles), the Naches Peak Loop Trail (3.5 miles), Glacier Basin Trail, which is one of the best places to see summer wildflowers (7 miles), and Tolmie Peak Trail, which heads by some mountain lakes before topping out at a fire lookout tower (6.5 miles).

If hiking isn’t your thing, then other popular outdoor activities in Mount Rainier National Park include checking out the numerous historical buildings (the entire national park was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1997), road biking along the many national park roads (bikes are not allowed on any trails), and fishing at the many mountain lakes and streams.

HOW TO GET TO MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK

The closest big city to Mount Rainier National Park is Seattle, Washington. From downtown Seattle, it takes between 2 hours and 2 and a half hours to reach the national park. There are a couple of entrances to the park, but usually the most popular one is the Nisqually Entrance. From downtown Seattle, it takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach the Nisqually park entrance station.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: during the summer (especially July — August) the park entrances can backup with cars and take up to an hour to get through. If you are planning to visit during the busy season, try to arrive early or visit during the week.

2 | North Cascades National Park

Located in the far northern half of the state of Washington, North Cascades National Park is actually the largest park in the entire Cascade Range. The stunningly rugged national park is famous for high mountain peaks, an expansive glacial system (the largest in the lower 48 states), numerous waterways and vast forests that contain the highest degree of flora (plant) biodiversity of any other American national park.

While this national park is absolutely beautiful, because of its overall lack of services and more remote location, it doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as its national park neighbors Mount Rainier and Olympic. This is great news if you are someone who is looking to explore the high mountain valleys and see the numerous colorful wildflowers, but don’t want to deal with crowds of people.

DETAILS

WHERE: Washington

COST TO ENTER: Free! You do have to pay for some of the campgrounds.

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK

One of the best ways to experience the beauty of North Cascades National Park is to head out on one of the many hiking trails. Some of the best trails to explore include Diablo Lake Trail (7.6 miles), Easy Pass Trail (7.4 miles), Cascade Pass Trail (3.7 miles) and Hidden Lake (4.5 miles).

Another option is to head out on the trails for a multi-day adventure on one of the many amazing backpacking routes. A few of the most popular backcountry trails to explore include Big Beaver Trail, which is an easy 24.6-mile route through an old-growth forest, the East Bank Trail, which is an easy 31-mile route that takes you by Ross Lake, and the Desolation Peak Trail, which is a strenuous and steep hike up to the famous Desolation Peak fire lookout where Beatnik poet Jack Kerouac once lived and worked.

HOW TO GET TO NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK

Though it is located in the complete opposite direction as Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascades National Park also only takes about 2 to 2.5 hours to reach from Seattle, Washington. The closest entrance to downtown Seattle is the west entrance, which is located off of Highway 20 near the town of Marblemount.

3 | Denali National Park and Preserve

Centered around Denali — the highest mountain in all of North America (it stands at 20,310 feet or 6,190 meters) — this stunning Alaskan national park is one of the best places to head to once the summer season arrives.

Between the months of June and August, most of the park is open to visitors and almost all of the park’s services (including campgrounds) and trails are open for exploring. This includes the famous Denali Park Road which can be driven in a private vehicle up to Savage River (15 miles) or on a park bus (three options available, they go the full 92 miles).

Along the main park road, you have the option to stop off at various hiking trails, check out the park’s visitor centers, see the park’s numerous wildlife — which includes grizzly bears, wolves, moose and Dall’s sheep — and of course, get a view of the Mountain.

DETAILS

WHERE: Alaska

COST TO ENTER: $15 per person

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

Because Denali National Park was originally established to protect the endangered Dall’s sheep, the park has very little infrastructure. In fact, besides the one park road — Denali Park Road — there is nowhere else to drive. Instead, most adventurers must be prepared to explore the massive park (it encompasses 4.7 million acres) by foot.

Similarly, besides a few established trails by the park visitor centers, most of the hiking and backpacking will be done totally without a trail (aka come super prepared). You can learn more about exploring Denali National Park by foot here (including how to deal with the resident bear population).

💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are hoping to hike around Denali National Park, but don’t think you have the know-how to do it without a trail, then consider exploring the famous Triple Lakes Trail. This is actually the longest established trail in the whole national park (it measures 9.5 miles one-way). To start, either begin at the northern trailhead at the Denali Visitor Center or at the southern trailhead on Highway 3.

HOW TO GET TO DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

While there are a few smaller towns close to Denali National Park and Preserve, the closest bigger city is going to be Anchorage — which is around 4 hours away to the south. To reach the park entrance, you will take Highway 1 out of Anchorage and then turn onto Highway 3. Keep driving along that road until you reach the park entrance station.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: along the drive to the national park, you can also stop off at such beautiful places as Talkeetna, the Willow Creek State Recreational Area and anywhere along the mighty Susitna River.

4 | Wrangell — St. Elias National Park and Preserve

This vast national park rises from the cold ocean all the way up to over 18,000 feet. And when we say vast, we mean that the national park — which measures 13.2 million acres in size — is the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Switzerland combined! In fact, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is not only the largest national park in the whole USA national park system, but it actually accounts for 15% of all national park land in the whole country.

As you can imagine, visiting this massive park is quite an undertaking. While in the summer you do have the most access to the park’s numerous areas, still expect to put in a fair bit of planning in order to see everything you want. This list can include checking out the park’s numerous glaciers — including the Bagley Icefield (which covers much of the national park’s interior and includes 60% of the permanently ice-covered terrain in all of Alaska), some historic mining towns like Kennecott, or just heading out into the wild backcountry.

DETAILS

WHERE: Alaska

COST TO ENTER: Free!

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

As mentioned above, this national park is absolutely gigantic. Therefore it can be tough to figure out what you want to do (or really what you can do) while visiting. A great place to start would be to check out the park’s main visitor center in Copper Center. Or you can simply head straight over to the McCarthy-Kennecott area, which is reached via driving the Edgerton Highway to McCarthy Road (a gravel road) and then crossing over the Kennecott River via a pedestrian bridge. From the small town of McCarthy, it is a 4.5-mile walk to Kennecott, though shuttles are available.

HOW TO GET TO WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE

The closest big city to Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park and Preserve is also going to be Anchorage — which is only about 3.5 hours away. The main entrance area to the national park is the Copper Center Visitor Center Complex, which is located in Copper Center off of Highway 4.

The other visitor centers for the park are in Slana, Alaska (4.5 hours from Anchorage) and Chitina Ranger Station (also 4.5 hours from Anchorage).

5 | Yellowstone National Park

Famously known for both being the world’s first national park, and also the home of such majestic natural wonders as Old Faithful and Yellowstone Falls, this scenic national park is a great spot to head to in the summer if you are looking to go hiking, see plenty of wildflowers and wildlife, or camp out in nature.

While Yellowstone National Park is amazing no matter what time of year you visit, between the months of June and August the national park truly comes alive. During the summer months you have a high chance of seeing calving animals within the park, including elk and bighorn sheep, wildflowers blooming, waterfalls gushing and lakes full of fish just ready to be caught.

But, and this is very important to know, this is also the busiest time of year for the popular national park. During most years, Yellowstone sees around 4 million visitors — and many of those visit during the summer. We suggest booking campsites in advance, heading out to the popular destinations early in the morning or late in the evening, and spending most of your time hiking around if you are looking to avoid overcrowding.

DETAILS

WHERE: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho

COST TO ENTER: $35 per private vehicle.

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

While hiking and backpacking are definitely some of the best ways to see Yellowstone National Park, other popular options for exploring include heading out on a boat on one of the many lakes — including the very large Yellowstone Lake. Or you can switch it up and take a bike out for a ride on one of the many designated routes. A few of the best biking options are along the Abandoned Railroad Bed Bike Trail (in the northern area of the park), the Bunsen Peak Loop Bike Trail (10 miles total), and the Old Gardner Road Bike Trail.

HOW TO GET TO YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

The USA’s first national park is located pretty far away from any major city. In truth, the closest town with any sort of amenities in the town of West Yellowstone. There you can find a couple of decent grocery stores, restaurants, cafes, and lodging options. From West Yellowstone, it is a very short drive to the West Entrance station. And from there it is about 50 minutes to Old Faithful, an hour and 15 minutes to West Thumb Geyser and one hour to Yellowstone Falls.

The closest major international airport to Yellowstone National Park is likely going to be in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is around 5 hours away.

6 | Grand Teton National Park

If you are already planning to explore Yellowstone National Park during the summer, then you might as well add on this amazing national park too. In fact, if we are being totally honest, we actually enjoyed visiting and adventuring in Grand Teton National Park more than Yellowstone. This is mainly due to the fact that you can very easily hike or trail run in the heart of the Teton Mountain Range — home to the famous Grand Teton mountain (which stands at 13,775 feet).

In the summer months, this area of Wyoming starts to bloom with wildflowers — including such flowers as skyrocket gilia, larkspur, and Indian paintbrush. Similarly, because the park has such a short growing season (there are only about 60 frost-free days), you can also expect the aspens to also be in full splendor of green between the months of June and September.

DETAILS

WHERE: Wyoming

COST TO ENTER: $35 per private vehicle.

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK

Hiking is a great way to explore the various landscapes within Grand Teton National Park. In fact, Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park and the greater Bridger-Teton National Forest combined constitute the almost 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is one of the world’s largest intact mid-latitude temperate ecosystems. This means there are a lot of amazing places to explore in this part of the country.

We suggest heading out on the Jenny Lake Loop (which circles Jenny Lake, located in the heart of the park), or deeper into the Teton Mountains along the Cascade Canyon Trail. Or you can go big and attempt to summit one of the big mountains in the park — including Grand Teton mountain itself.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you are hoping to mountaineer in the park, plan to not start doing it until mid-July (at the earliest). Before then, you can still expect a decent amount of snow on the higher peaks.

If hiking and mountaineering aren’t your thing, you can also rent a boat (or use your own) and head out on one of the many lakes within the park. Some of the most popular are Jenny Lake, Leigh Lake and the massive Jackson Lake.

HOW TO GET TO GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK

Located right next door to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park is almost equally remote. Though, while the town of West Yellowstone is a bit rougher, the closest town to Grand Teton is Jackson, which is very posh and a popular travel destination on its own. In fact, Jackson (which is also sometimes called Jackson Hole), has its own airport — that, though small, is the busiest airport in all of Wyoming.

From Grand Teton National Park, it is about 15 minutes to the town of Jackson.

7 | Glacier National Park

Nicknamed the “Crown of the Continent” Glacier National Park is truly a spectacular place to behold and one of the best places to adventure in the whole USA — especially in the summer.

With its showcase of melting glaciers, glowing alpine meadows, rugged carved valleys, and spectacular lakes, Glacier National Park might just be the best national park to explore once the weather warms up. Plus, with over 700 miles of trails to explore, 130 mountain lakes, and hundreds of animals (including grizzly bears, lynx, moose, wolves, and mountain goats) to see, you are sure to not get bored during your visit.

Similarly, one of the best ways to see the beauty of the park is to take a drive up the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, which starts in West Glacier (near Lake McDonald) and ends in Saint Mary (near the Saint Mary Visitor Center). This scenic drive, which tops out at Logan Pass (6,646 feet or 2,026 meters), is around 50 miles long and takes roughly 2 hours to complete. Along the drive, you have a good chance of seeing wildlife like bighorn sheep and mountain goats, as well as good views of Jackson Glacier.

💬 INSIDER TIP: while summer is definitely the best time to visit Glacier National Park, it is also the busiest. You will definitely want to plan ahead before visiting and make sure you can get all permits and reservations ahead of time — especially if you want to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

DETAILS

WHERE: Montana

COST TO ENTER: $35 per private vehicle.

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

While Glacier National Park definitely has plenty of trails to explore (about 700 miles of them), we instead suggest planning a trip into the backcountry for a wilder wilderness experience. One important thing to note about choosing a specific backpacking area to explore is that the park is pretty much divided into two parts: the west side, which is more forested, and the east side, which is a bit more sparsely vegetated and open. The west side is usually quieter, so if you want some solitude we suggest backpacking in that area of the park (the West Lakes Trail might be a good option). You can find a map of all the backcountry campsites here.

HOW TO GET TO GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

The closest sizeable town to Glacier National Park is Kalispell, which is located just under an hour from the West Glacier entrance station. To reach the west entrance of the park, which is where the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road begins, you will head out either on Highway 2 or Highway 35 from downtown Kalispell.

❔ GOOD TO KNOW: there is also the option to take a train into Glacier National Park. The main train line, which is run by Amtrak, is known as the Empire Builder. The route starts/ends in Chicago and heads to either Seattle, Washington or Portland, Oregon.

8 | Crater Lake National Park

As the only national park in the state of Oregon (and the fifth oldest in the country), you can expect some higher crowds during the warm summer months. But with that being said, if you are looking to check out the famous Crater Lake — which is the deepest lake in the USA (and the second-deepest in North America and the ninth-deepest in the world) — then summer is definitely one of the best times to head out to this beautiful national park.

One important thing to know about Crater Lake National Park is that it is actually (and maybe surprisingly) one of the snowiest places in the whole country. Therefore, unless you plan to visit in late June or July, you can likely still expect a bit of snow. In fact, the famous Rim Road — which circles the entire lake — usually only opens completely in July.

DETAILS

WHERE: Oregon

COST TO ENTER: $30 per private vehicle (in the summer), $20 per private vehicle (in the winter).

THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK

Driving (or biking) the entire Rim Road is a great place to start when planning to explore Crater Lake National Park. The road, which is around 33 miles in length, starts near the Steel Visitor Center and takes around 2 miles to complete. Along the drive, you can pull off at one of the 30 overlooks, hike out on one of the many trails (including the Watchman Peak Trailhead), or stop at one of the five picnic areas.

Other popular adventures in Crater Lake National Park include hiking along a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which cuts through the park, swimming or fishing in the lake, or heading out on a tour of Wizard Island, a cinder cone island within the lake.

HOW TO GET TO CRATER LAKE NATIONAL PARK

You might be sensing a trend by now: many of the best national parks to visit in the summer are located in relatively remote places. And don’t worry — Crater Lake National Park is no different.

Located in the southern half of the state of Oregon, this large national park is pretty far from any major metropolis. In fact, the closest town with any major services (like a chain grocery store and hotel/motels) is going to be Klamath Falls, which is located just over an hour to the south.

If you are hoping to fly in and rent a car to visit Crater Lake National Park, then you will likely need to fly into either Eugene or Portland. The former is just over 3 hours away from the national park, while the latter is just under five hours away.

💬 INSIDER TIP: just like you can reach Glacier National Park via an Amtrak train, you can also take a train to Klamath Falls or the nearby town of Chemult and then rent a car to visit Crater Lake National Park. This stunning train route, which is known as the Coast Starlight, starts/ends in Los Angeles and heads up to Seattle, Washington.

Other Amazing National Parks to Visit in the Summer

Besides these 8 national parks above, a few other awesome national parks to visit in the summer include Gates of the Arctic National Park in the far northern half of Alaska, Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, and Rocky Mountain National Park in the central mountains of Colorado.

Have we convinced you to head out on an epic national park road trip this summer? We hope so!

We are positive that these 8 national parks — plus the other 4 awesome options — will surely help you have one amazing summer national park adventure. If you have any questions about these national parks or are just curious to learn more about the USA’s epic national park system (home to 400+ sites!) then leave a comment below or reach out to us at www.backroadpackers.com.

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Backroad Packers

Backroad Packers

Two adventurers creating in-depth travel guides to inspire you to slow down and get off the beaten path more.