For these small towns, summer is the best (and prettiest!) time to visit.
Black Mountain, North Carolina
Outside of the South, not too many people know about Black Mountain and everyone who does know about it would like to keep it a secret. This town of barely 8,000 souls enjoys natural spectacles like spectacular Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure, a rich history of arts (the remarkable Black Mountain College, a landmark 25-year experiment in arts education was located here) and a charming downtown with cafes, bakeries, craft breweries, and shops selling Appalachian crafts. Just 15 minutes up the road, you’ll find the Biltmore Estate and the buzzy streets of Asheville. Obviously, this is a good secret to know.
Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Up in the southern Berkshires, summer rarely gets too hot. If the temperature spikes, you can hike into the woods to enjoy the mist from the rollicking cascade at Bash Bish Falls. Still not cool enough? Right across the state line, the swimming lake at Copake Falls in the Taconic State Park is nice and chilly. The region has great antiquing and some spectacular mountain drives, especially for those who like discovering small towns.
Edenton, North Carolina
Everyone’s heard of the Outer Banks, but did you know that there’s a region nearby called the Inner Banks? Edenton, on the shores of the Albemarle Sound, is a lovely bayside village filled with notable architecture that extends back to colonial days, the beautiful 1886 Roanoke River lighthouse, and lots of summer activities centered on the water. Paddle trails wind through the area wetlands and lead to camping sites on platforms in the wooded creeks. Sailboat and yacht charters tour the sound, the rivers and Edenton Bay. Historic houses and gardens, Civil War battlefields and a renovated Mill District are also worth exploring.
Set right at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg provides a fun and charming base for exploration. Ridge trails get hikers up to amazing mountain vistas and, when you get too tired to hike, a drive along the spectacular Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail allows a way to experience the wildflowers, rushing streams, and thrilling waterfalls of the park’s Roaring Fork.
Brevard, North Carolina
Brevard is a poster child for small-town charm. It is built around a town square with a whitewashed gazebo. It is surrounded by a mountain region of singular beauty that includes 250 waterfalls (including one used as a film location in The Hunger Games). It is even home to a rare and adorable animal—the white squirrels scampering around town are the subject of an annual three-day summer festival. Brevard holds several music festivals and three cycling events annually, so there’s almost always a reason on the calendar to linger longer
Lake Okoboji, Iowa
You may not expect to find a cluster of lakes and wetlands on the prairie, but along the Iowa-Minnesota border, a region known as the Iowa Great Lakes is popular with Midwestern vacationers and fishermen. West Lake Okoboji, East Lake Okoboji and Spirit Lake are the biggest of the deep and beautiful lakes here, creating a destination for those looking for a lake-centric quiet summer vacation. Don’t miss the maritime museum (an unusual feature in land-locked Iowa!) that explores the fishing tradition of the region. The wildly popular Okoboji Summer Theater offers a repertoire of comedies, mysteries and musicals performed by professionals and theater students from Stephens College.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
This popular resort area encompasses the best of lake-living and mountain-living. The vast man-made lake is busy with people swimming, boating, parasailing, waterskiing, and fishing, but there’s enough lake for everyone: The shoreline is a meandering 1,150 miles long. In addition to lake fun, visit the historic swinging bridges, enjoy a creepy and cool afternoon underground in the Bridal Cave or the Fantasy World Caverns, or kick back at one of the local distilleries or wineries.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
Lake Superior is well named. The shores of this vast and beautiful lake have attracted summer visitors for more than 2,000 years, since Native American tribes summered on the lake before heading inland for winter. Today, sailboats tack past piney shores and lighthouse-topped cliffs and children splash in the chilly Great Lakes water. Hikes in Judge Magney State Park can take you from pebbly lake beaches up the Brule River past three waterfalls. One of the waterfalls, Devil’s Kettle Falls, splits into several cascades, one of which mysteriously disappears right into the ground, with no outlet visible.
Just north from Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, little Charlevoix, Michigan has long been a summer destination for city-dwellers seeking cool breezes and beautiful lake beaches. A little harbor, Round Lake, makes this a popular place for boaters and bikers love to ride the gentle trail created when the old railroad tracks were paved. Ernest Hemingway, who spent the summers of his boyhood here, wrote the The Nick Adams Stories about the woods and waterways around Lake Charlevoix.
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
This pretty little town, best known as the site of John Brown’s raid, sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers—the old lower town is tucked right at the edge of the rivers. All that swirling water brings summer visitors interested in whitewater rafting, canoeing, and tubing and trails through the ravines and woods (the Appalachian Trail runs right through town) keep hikers shaded.
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
The Poconos have a mild-mannered reputation, so the dramatic cascades of the Lehigh River Gorge and challenging mountain hikes around Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania may just surprise you. The seriously picturesque river town has a rich variety of American architecture in its streets: Victorian houses, Romanesque churches, Federal-style storefronts and a delightful turreted Queen Anne train station. Take the historic Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway or go rafting or tubing on the river. Shop for antiques or art in town or enjoy a drink on the patio of the Harry Packer Mansion. Chances are, you’ll never think of the Poconos as mild-mannered again!
The cool waters of the Kern River rush down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and empty out into Lake Isabella. Highway 99, which follows the river up into the mountains, leads to the Trail of 100 Giants, an aptly named paved loop trail through a magnificent stand of giant sequoias. The highway has lots of pullovers so you can access the swimming holes along the river. Observe posted safety signs, but find a spot to slip in and cool off. Another fun spot to visit is the Silver City ghost town, a picturesque
collection of haunted buildings that have been assembled on a site near Lake Isabella
While some summer vacationers hurry to crowd the streets of Mackinac Island, some in-the-know travelers exit the highway a little early and head instead to Petoskey. What’s the allure? Bike trails that wind along the shore of Lake Michigan, winery visits, and the dreamy little Gaslight District downtown.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
The same gondola that transports skiers up the Mount Werner all winter ferries summertime hikers and mountain bikers to the top for access to gentle, shaded paths or a few harrowing switchback bike routes back down to the valley floor. Follow the sound of squealing (no kidding!) to find an alpine slide on Howelsen Mountain—an exciting 2,400-foot descent on a wheeled sled, hurtling down a chute that winds along the mountain face. Locals like to chill, literally, with a leisurely tube float down the Yampa River, which runs right through the valley and into town.
Remember the quirky little town that starred in the ’90s TV show Northern Exposure? The fictional Cicely, Alaska—with bush pilots, Tlingit wannabe filmmakers, retired astronauts, fur trappers, and restaurateurs—is said to have been modeled on
real-life Talkeetna. The artsy former railroad town serves as one of the gateways to Denali National Park, so in summer, the streets and pubs are full of hikers and campers, either eager for the start of their trip or blowing off steam after it. Three rivers converge here, so rafting and fishing are popular, as are hiking, camping and flightseeing trips into the park.
Tallulah Falls, Georgia
Escape the extreme summer heat without leaving the South at Georgia’s Tallulah Gorge, a two-mile-long chasm with cliffs that rise as high as a thousand feet. Six different waterfalls, collectively referred to as Tallulah Falls, splash down through the heart of the gorge—you may recognize the wilderness areas from scenes in the film Deliverance. Apply for a permit to hike along the bottom, or walk along the overlook paths and those not afraid of heights can venture out over the gorge on the swaying suspension bridge. Not much is left of the small Victorian resort town that used to draw visitors to see the Niagara Falls of the South, but there are lots of rental properties in the area
Woods Hole, Massachusetts
Most vacationers speed past the southern end of Cape Cod on their way up the peninsula or to board the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard but slow down at Woods Hole and you’ll find a coastal Massachusetts treasure. In addition to days spent sunning at Stony Beach, sign on for a 90-minute Hands-On Discovery Cruise with OceanQuest to get acclimated to the local sea life. Among the local joints, Quicks Hole Tavern serves up pig candy, an obvious hit on the menu, as well as great soup.
Lake Placid, New York
Adirondack State Park is larger than the combined areas of Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Great Smokies national parks. Lake Placid, a town in the northern part of the park, is the gateway to the 46 high peaks of the mountain range and, as it has played host to two winter Olympic Games, the town is built for fun. In addition to hiking, you can visit the Olympic sites (see the rink where the Miracle on Ice hockey game took place or brave a ride down a luge or bobsled track), swim in water so bracingly cold that it feels like pinpricks, and explore the region’s role in the Underground Railroad. This is, after all, where the word ‘vacation’ was coined.
Lynchburg, a pretty college town high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, doesn’t shut down when school’s out. Summer visitors have lots to choose from: active options (hike the steep path alongside nearby Crabtree Falls or bike on the broad trail beside the James River), historic outings (Thomas Jefferson’s getaway, Poplar Forest, is a little-known but fascinating stop), and shopping the many antique stores and boutique shops in the historic downtown district. And if you want to beat that southern heat, take a few runs down the year-round ski slope at Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre.
Door County, Wisconsin
The peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan from Green Bay was essentially made for vacations. Bays and inlets make the forested coastline uneven and jagged, leaving lots of room for waterside cabins, state parks, and small resorts in the woods. It’s not all north woods seclusion, though—the Northern Sky Theater, an open-air experience keeps the nights lively with a summer lineup of comedies. Beaches, boating, winery and lighthouse tours, and ferry rides to neighboring islands (don’t miss the stave church and the cherry train on Washington Island) keep the days active and sunny.
Blue Ridge, Georgia
You’ll want to stay outdoors when you stay in Blue Ridge, hiking the trails of the Chattahoochee National Forest to see waterfalls and mountain vistas. Spend an afternoon on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway, rumbling over trestle bridges and through woods and along the rivers. The rivers up in these hills are a great place to try your hand at trout-fishing, or go a little deeper by tubing down the Toccoa River.
Boca Grande, Florida
This is the Florida that glitz passed by—no Miami glitter or Orlando artifice, just beaches and tarpon fishing and white hot sunlight. This small town on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island, a Gulf Coast barrier island, doesn’t offer a lot of activities beyond those centered on the sugar-sand beaches and the clear blue waters of the Gulf, but that’s just perfect with everyone here. There are no high-rise condos or nightclubs; people ride bikes or drive golf carts to the market: in short, an old-fashioned Florida awaits those who can crave solitude (and don’t mind the afternoon heat).
Ouray, once famous for silver and gold mines, now attracts a different kind of treasure-hunter. In summer, visitors explore charming Main Street (protected in its entirety by the National Historic Registry) of the little box canyon town, along with the microbreweries, hot springs pool, and the nearby mountain trails and spectacular waterfalls. Ouray offers a nice blend of Rockies vacation for both the active traveler and the one who prefers poking around a cool historic town.
Some towns may have music festivals but Galax, in Southwest Virginia, has a complete musical takeover every August. Musicians and music lovers descend on the town for the annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention. Every afternoon and evening—and late into the night—the sound of old-time music plucks, chimes, and wails through the Blue Ridge Mountain air. Music dominates the rest of the summer, too, with frequent performances and radio broadcasts at the renovated Rex Theater and at the outdoor Blue Ridge Music Center. (The Center also has a fascinating on-site museum dedicated to the roots of American music and the fiddle and banjo traditions of Virginia and North Carolina.) The tiny town of Galax has a full-on Mayberry vibe, so prepare to be charmed.
Lake Havasu City, Arizona
How do people beat the summer heat in Arizona? They head to Lake Havasu City and get out on the water. Swimming beaches, water skiing, canoeing, jet ski competitions, SUP and kayaking, and fishing are just some of the ways locals blow off steam—there’s even scuba diving! (A few towns were flooded when this reservoir was created so underwater buildings and roads can be explored by divers at some sites.) Don’t be worried about escaping those crowds: almost 450 miles of the shoreline is undeveloped so there are lots of tranquil coves and quiet trails to explore.
Before the American Revolution, this Shenandoah Valley town was considered the capital of the Northwest Territory, the westernmost frontier of the English colonies. Today, the town’s compact and pretty downtown is positively cosmopolitan, abuzz with arts venues (the American Shakespeare Center is here, staging productions in a faithful reproduction of the Bard’s Blackfriars Theater), galleries, cafes, boutiques, wine bars and brewpubs. Besides the local diversions, the town is a popular jumping-off point for
exploring the region’s natural beauty (Luray Falls, as well as trails, caves,swimming holes and hot springs in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest) and singular place in American history (Monticello, the University of Virginia, and Civil War battlefields).
Lambertville, New Jersey
The Delaware River, famously crossed in winter by George Washington and his Continental Army not far from here, is a lot friendlier in the summer. The wide, beautiful river runs through parks and small towns of the region, flowing down from the Catskills and dividing Lambertville from its twin, New Hope, PA, across the river. The streets of the two small towns, full of shops and cafes, are busy on weekends with antique and bargain hunters (viewers of the PBS series,Antiques Roadshow, may
recognize some of the local dealers). The Golden Nugget Flea Market, along the River Road on the New Jersey side, is fun to explore, even for amateurs. Beyond shopping, vacationers can take float trips to fish on the river or sign up to spend the afternoon tubing or visit the colonial house museums.
Ketchum, in the Sun Valley resort area, draws adventure sports enthusiasts as well as those in search of the region’s bold beauty. Fishing, golfing, hiking, and mountain biking fill days in the great outdoors—the many hot springs and watering holes in the valley provide a great way to unwind after a morning of rigorous activity. For less active days, an hour or two spent at the peaceful Sawtooth Botanical Garden can restore your energy. The artsy downtown offers shops, galleries and regular music and fine art events programmed by the Center for the Arts.
Welcome to the frontier land of Daniel Boone, the James Gang and Abe Lincoln as well as the gracious home that inspired Stephen Foster to write My Old Kentucky Home. This
still untamed region offers lots to explore: bourbon lovers can visit the area’s craft distilleries (organized tours keep those that overindulge in the tastings off the roads). History lovers can visit the historic houses, the Civil War Museum, and the Old Talbott Tavern.
Visitors love this burg in rural south central Indiana. Just three traffic lights big, Nashville brings vacationers interested in the arts—the noted Brown County Art Colony attracted national artists and served as incubator for several American Impressionist painters. The region’s attractions for painters is strong: scenic covered bridges, rolling hills and wooded deep ravines inspire non-artists, too. If observing nature isn’t enough, there are ziplines, horseback riding trails, and lots of options for available.