14 Crowd-Free Summer Vacations You Can Book Last Minute
Ready to get out of the house and enjoy the sun? We have great news: It's not too late to have a sun-filled, and socially distanced, summer vacation!
Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.
Get ready for summer vacation!
After a long spring of being locked down at home, the sun-filled summer months seem especially welcoming this year. However, if you haven’t booked a summer vacation, you’re not alone. According to Destination Analysts, many Americans either canceled long-standing bookings when the pandemic hit or didn’t make vacation plans because of COVID-19 concerns. But with most natural areas open to visitors and attractions reopening their doors, everyone’s itching now to book a last-minute local vacation. To find a safe and healthy last-minute summer vacation spot, consider finding a vacation rental that is within driving distance from your home, and look for a destination with activities included or nearby, like a pool or a lake, so that you don’t have to venture further afield and be exposed to more people, suggest Jason and Erika Milovich of Bluefish Vacation Rentals in Harbor County, Michigan. And find out what your destination or vacation rental is doing to keep guests safe during your stay, including social distancing measures and cleaning protocols. Once you’ve got your basics in place, check out some of these tips for finding uncrowded spots perfect for enjoying summer vacation!
Explore the national parks and beyond
The summer of 2020 is a great time to explore the national parks since there are no international visitors, meaning fewer crowds. Greater Zion is a destination that offers more than 2,400 square miles of adventure and inspiration. Zion National Park, the fourth most visited national park in the United States, is the premier attraction, but Zion is only the beginning. There are a number of unique lodging options in the area ideal for social distancing, including Zion Wildflower Resort, where guests choose from several unique and memorable accommodations including covered wagons, canvas tents, and cozy bungalows and then have access to the quiet areas of St. George and Springdale in Virgin near the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park.
Find a car-free island
Bald Head Island, North Carolina, a car-free island only accessible by passenger ferry, has always been a destination where social distancing is part of the experience. With 14 miles of white sand beach wrapping three sides of the island, 10,000 acres of protected natural spaces, private rental homes of all sizes, and alternate modes of transportation being the only way to get around the island, it’s the perfect vacation for social distancing. Plus, there are 14 miles of beach, an ancient maritime forest, miles of winding creek and marsh to explore, and a nesting sea turtles protection program to participate in. Discover 15 more islands in the United States you can visit without a passport.
Camp on the water
Camping is one of the most popular ways to get outdoors this summer. But not all camping areas are created equal. Look for a great location on the water, with plenty of activities and amenities. For example: Located on one of the jewels of the Southeast, Lake Hartwell, Big Water Marina & Campground in Starr, South Carolina, offers the ultimate camping experience with spectacular views along 962 miles of shoreline with outdoor activities such as swimming, fishing, sailing, and hiking. Big Water Marina offers 11 full hookup RV campsites and several guest amenities, ranging from campsite fire pits, picnic areas, and water-sport rentals (ski boat, pontoons, and sailboats) to fishing docks and cleaning stations. Find the best campsite in your state.
Book a vacation rental with Vrbo
According to the vacation rental platform, 95 percent of demand for getaways this summer is in non-urban destinations. Beach, mountain, and lake getaways have been a Vrbo stronghold for nearly 25 years, says the company, and these distanced vacation rentals are still available for this summer. One great option: This five-bedroom home with nearly 3,000 square feet of living space and beautiful grassy yard in the socially distanced beach town of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, just a few minutes drive or bike ride from multiple beaches.
Try a luxe getaway with onefinestay
Need an alternative to regular vacation rentals? Try onefinestay, a managed group of luxe rental homes where you’re dealing with a management company instead of individual owners. You’ll get 24/7 guest support, luxurious amenities, and professional housekeeping with heightened cleanliness protocols that feel like a high-end hotel. One example: Pacific Heights Palace, a five-bedroom, four-bathroom home in Pacific Heights, California; three blocks to the west you’ll find the Presidio, with its green parkland and eucalyptus trees. It’s around a ten-minute drive to the great steel span of the Golden Gate Bridge at the northernmost tip of the Presidio.
Live among the pines, fall asleep under the stars in a comfy bed, and wake up in one of America’s most iconic national parks to the sounds of nature outside your tent walls, and then spend the day on the Appalachian Trail, fly-fishing or white water rafting with Under Canvas in the Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This is one example, but Under Canvas provides a remote camping experience in many of the most popular national parks areas across the country, without any of the work, and with private bathrooms and luxe indoor setups, including real beds with soft linens and a wood-burning stove. Find out 27 more of our favorite luxury camping adventures.
Stay in the treetops
One way to find a socially distanced place to stay this summer: Look up—up into the trees that are in South Carolina, where many of the top-rated Airbnbs in the whole state are luxury treehouses. There are actually multiple treehouse options, but we found two, five-star options that still have availability: Stella Vista and Bella Luna, in Mountain Rest in the northwest corner of the state. It’s a beautiful area for hiking, fishing, and white water rafting. This is a popular retreat for honeymooning couples and others seeking a romantic getaway.
Find an alternate national park
It might seem unlikely that a national park could be undiscovered in any way, and yet Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina, is certainly a hidden gem. It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country, yet for the adventurous souls who make the trip out to visit, it is full of amazing discoveries. Turtles as big as a coffee table, spiders the size of your hand, and trees that are, literally, the biggest of their kind in the world, will all make you feel like you’ve ventured far out of the United States even though you can drive here from a large portion of the country. Can’t get away? You can tour these 35 national parks online right now.
Consider a New England beach island
If you’re not familiar with New England, you may be surprised to learn about its islands, perfect for summer getaways, including spots like Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, where more than 50 percent of the island is preserved open space—miles of beaches, walking trails, and paved bicycle paths to explore. You can stay on either island, or settle in Cape Cod at Hyannis, Massachusetts, and hop the ferry for a car-free day at the beach. On Nantucket, consider The Roberts Collection, with accommodations spread throughout a small village of historic houses right near the water. Those who love the water won’t want to miss these 50 best beach house rentals in the United States.
Follow a fly-fishing trail
Jackson County, North Carolina, is where to head when you want to get wet without getting hit with pool floaties. You’ll trade traffic for off-the-beaten-track trails in a mountain oasis. You can take a hike to view stunning waterfalls, or suit up for fishing excursions on the Western NC Fly Fishing Trail, the first and only fly-fishing trail in the United States, and perfect for a summer social distancing stay. Reserve a cabin or condo at Bear Lake Reserve, where you can enjoy all the nature this summer and still have access to on-site dining options, a pool, and a golf course. You’ll also want to consider these 14 cutest cabins for a secluded getaway.
Take an American history road trip through South Dakota
South Dakota is the perfect destination for a summer road trip, where travelers can drive along gorgeous rolling prairies, twisting mountain roads, and past iconic American monuments like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Mickelson Trail, open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. This is also a great opportunity to try out camping, a popular trend this summer, at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, right in the heart of the Black Hills. Don’t have a tent (or traveling with your RV)? They also have comfy cabins and full hookup sites, like other KOAs across the country. Find out the best RV park in your state.
Try out ranch life
Want to head out into wide open spaces and explore the west? A dude ranch vacation may be your perfect getaway this summer. There are a number throughout the West, including in Cody, Yellowstone, with availability. Or try Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, one of America’s oldest cattle and guest ranches, dating back 150 years. This ultimate dude ranch offers miles of horse trails, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, Jeep adventures, and kids’ camp, plus tennis courts among the towering saguaro and ocotillo, swimming pools, and 150 horses for lessons and sunset rides.
Use a local expert
Sometimes, the best way to find a vacation rental is to use a local expert. Beach destinations, for example, may have realtors with local inventory, meaning homes don’t hit the popular vacation rental sites. Bluefish Vacation Rentals provides premier properties in Southwest Michigan, recently named one of the “20 Best Places to Go in 2020” by Condé Nast Traveler. Family-owned by Erika and Jason Milovich (see their tips, above), who bring over 26 years in the vacation rental industry, the company boasts a portfolio of homes including 112 properties ranging from charming beachside cottages to elegant lakefront estates with accommodations for two to 26 guests.
Stay at a YMCA
Here’s a surprise: Some of the best outdoor adventures, including comfortable, fully outfitted cabins, can be found at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Parks, Colorado, and other YMCA resort facilities across the country. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park offers private cabins and plenty of elbow room for social distancing, and the grounds and views are both spectacular since the property has been here for 110 years, even before the Rockies received national park designation. Since this is still the YMCA, the focus on family comes first, and there are activities here that could fill the whole summer, including complimentary options such as expert lead hikes, miniature golf, tennis, and naturalist-led wildlife and mountain ecology classes. In fact, the Estes Park location is among the best family vacation secrets in the United States.