ACADIA NATIONAL PARK (Maine): The mountains, the ocean, the pine-scented air! You may have thought a trip to Acadia National Park was off-limits, but this popular, well-booked area is still a possibility if you're willing to book lodging a short drive away.
Acadia is for travelers who like their seaside a little rough around the edges, with cliffs, trails, cool ponds (like Bubble Pond, above), and surprisingly empty beaches.
TAOS (New Mexico): This Southwestern town is not only a finalist for Budget Travel’s Coolest Small Town in America 2016, but thanks to its mountain setting, this art-loving town is also literally cooler than you might expect in summer, with highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s.
We love that Taos is home to Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest settlements in America. You can also raft the Rio Grande, get stunning views from the taos Ski Valley lift, drop by an allegedly haunted cantina, and indulge in natural hot springs.
Taos Lodging: The Historic Taos Inn (from $179, taosinn.com)
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming): Who's up for jaw-dropping scenery, warm western hospitality, and the closest thing to a safari experience that the lower 48 can offer? Sure, lodging in the park can be pricey, but a stay in nearby West Yellowstone, Montana, won’t break the bank.
Best known for the Old Faithful geyser, which won't disappoint with its spectacular display, Yellowstone is also home to 1,000 miles of hiking trails, 67 species of mammals (including bears, moose, and, thanks to a successful reintroduction in 1995, more than 300 wolves), and ranger programs such as walks, hikes, and campfire programs that can help you get the most out of this crown jewel of the national park system.
MYRTLE BEACH (South Carolina): If you want a dreamy beach vacation, there's still time to find a deal! Myrtle Beach's miles of sand, wildly popular boardwalk, charter fishing expeditions, and Ripley's Aquarium (where you can get nose-to-nose with sharks) will keep you busy while the sun shines.
Sure, we love the beach, but don’t forget that Myrtle Beach’s world-class eateries roll out an irresistible southern-style welcome with local micro-brews, seafood buffets, and oceanfront tables.
Myrtle Beach Lodging: Best Western Ocean Sands Resort (from $162, oceansands.com)
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS (Tennessee, North Carolina): Are you ready for America's most popular national park (with more than twice as many visitors than the Grand Canyon), a major nearby theme park, and miles of trails and streams?
Head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for fishing, hiking, and scenic drives like the six-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and don't forget to spend at least one day at 150-acre Dollywood (above) for authentic Tennessee music, food, and, of course, thrill rides such as the Wild Eagle and Mystery Mine.
Great Smoky Mountains Lodging: The Park Vista DoubleTree by Hilton Gatlinburg (from $189, parkvista.com)
CHICAGO (Illinois): A major American city that is as affordable as it is friendly, Chicago sends visitors home with bragging rights to incredible shopping, art, theater, and food.
Chicago packs in second-to-none theater, improv comedy such as Second City, the unparalleled Art Institute museum (where you'll find Edward Hopper's moody diner painting, Nighthawks, and Georges Serraut's ground-breaking pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, music venues such as House of Blues, and its rollicking Navy Pier along Lake Michigan. It's also home to the iconic "Bean" sculpture in Millennium Park (above).
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK (Kentucky): If natural history with an air of mystery is your thing, this incredible system of underground caverns may be your perfect summer vacation.
The world's longest cave system, the limestone caverns in Mammoth Cave National Park can be navigated with the help of park rangers, and programs range from the tried-and-true, one-of-a-kind major paths (ideal for all ages and interest levels) to muddier, darker options that the more adventurous among you will revel in. This time of year, lodging near the park tends to fill up, but you can still find affordable options a short drive away.
MORRO BAY (California): Before you cross the California coast off your to-do list for this year, know that Morro Bay, on the central coast not far from the sprawling Hearst Castle, can be a bargain for vacationers.
With a world-class natural history musem, iconic Morro Rock, a beautiful harbor, and, oh yeah, the world's largest ocean just down the street, Morro Bay remains one of the Golden State's "hidden gems."
Morro Bay Lodging: No, you can't bunk down at nearby Hearst Castle (above), but we love Ascot Inn at the Rock (from $159, http://www.innattherock.com/)
(Alexandre Fagundes De Fagundes/Dreamstime)
BERKSHIRE MOUNTAINS (Massachusetts): If you don't want to have to decide between great museums and relaxing mountain hikes, book a week in western Massachusetts, where you can revel in both.
Explore one of the U.S.'s largest collections of modern art in the Berkshire Mountains, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams; see the comprehensive collection at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown; and step back into 19th-century New England by crossing the border into Bennington, Vermont, for the Grandma Moses collection at the Bennington Museum and Grandma Moses Schoolhouse.
Berkshires Lodging: The Williams Inn, Williamstown (from $185, williamsinn.com)
MACKINAC ISLAND & MACKINAW CITY (Michigan): Michigan's lakeshores aren't exactly under the radar—Midwesterners have long regarded locales like the Upper Peninsula and Mackinac Island as the best places for a family vacation. But they remain underrated among travelers from farther away.
If you're still on the fence about where to spend your summer vacation, head for Mackinaw City, a half-hour ferry ride from Mackinac Island's Victorian homes, stunning state park, and iconic Arch Rock.