Plotting a summer family vacation was one of my favorite things to do as a kid, and these days, I’m keeping that tradition going with my own family. There are plenty of places to visit in the world, but many incredible locales are right here in the United States. These six options are what I consider bucket list summer vacations that everyone needs to take at least once in their lifetime. You can book a hotel on Rakuten for almost all of them and get Cash Back in the process so you’ll have some extra dough to spend at your destination.
Big Sur, California
Big Sur is my favorite west coast destination, and I always recommend it when someone asks where to go for the best summer vacation. It’s a few hours from San Francisco down California Highway 1, which is an adventure all on its own. On your way down the coast, stop in Monterey to check out the Monterey Bay aquarium, and take a lunch break in Carmel. Then, make your way to Big Sur where you can either camp or stay in one of the many four-star hotels. I recommend camping because it’s the only way to truly experience the magic of this place. You’ll never see the stars as bright and vast as you will in Big Sur. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan
As a Michigander, I’m biased, but I think Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the surrounding area are a must-visit for anyone planning the ultimate summer family vacation. When I was a kid, we traveled all over Michigan in the summer — making our way to upper peninsula and Pictured Rocks where we stayed for several days. Views like what you’ll experience during your trip are normally reserved for the coasts, and Lake Superior’s bright blue waters will make you think you’re in the tropics. You can kayak, hike or bike the coast, and boat tours run frequently during the summer months.
Yosemite is a top summer vacation destination for many, so you’ll need to plan early if you want to take advantage of all the park has to offer. If you’re camping, sites book up fast so you’ll need to get on recreation.gov and book early. Often, it feels like you’re trying to score popular concert tickets, but it’s all worth it in the end. I recommend Lower Pines campground if you can snag it. The sites are dwarfed by Half Dome, one of the park’s iconic rock features, and a river runs through the outer edge of the campground where you can set up your camp chair and enjoy the views for hours on end. It’s hard to imagine that you can stay in a place with views this good for $25 a night.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
It’s hard to imagine that the longest cave network in the world exists under Kentucky (of all places), but that’s where you’ll find Mammoth Cave National Park. More than 400 miles of underground adventure have been charted in this cave network. If you’re into camping, this destination makes for a perfect cheap summer vacation.
There are plenty of campsites to be had at an affordable price, and admission to the various tours ranges from $15 to $30, which makes this destination a top pick for cheap summer vacations. I recommend the extended historic tour because you get a more in-depth overview of the caves. It also gets you into the dome and rotunda, which are two of the main highlights of this cave system. In the rotunda, you’ll feel like you’re in a stadium — only you’re 140 feet under the ground.
Black Hills, South Dakota
Few people I’ve talked with have ever been to South Dakota, but it’s a destination you need to visit at least once your lifetime — specifically Black Hills, which is located in the Southwest portion of the state. This area is home to Mount Rushmore, state and national parks, and is only a few hours from another landmark, Devil’s Tower, if you want to cross over into Wyoming. There’s plenty to do and see in this wild country. My favorite activity when I visited was driving through Custer State park. There’s a stretch of road where you’re almost guaranteed to encounter wildlife up close including buffalo, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, coyotes and even mountain lions.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
No summer vacation list is complete without mentioning the Grand Canyon. Pictures never do it justice, and it’s hard to actually wrap your head around what you’re seeing when you visit in person. The sheer size of this natural landmark is mind blowing, and the views are unreal. There’s plenty do to both in and around the canyon, including the skywalk, which lets you walk out over the canyon on a structure with a glass floor. Everyone should visit the Grand Canyon once in their lifetime. It should be included in your summer vacation bucket list.