Food, Travel and Tech

5 places to head for your outdoorsy summer vacation, from a Florida beach to Utah's national parks

Laura Begley Bloom, special to CNBC

Over 126 million Americans and counting have been fully vaccinated, and the CDC says fully vaccinated people can travel in the US at low risk. So with summer around the corner, many Americans are exercising their pent-up vacation demands.

AAA is projecting that travel during Memorial Day weekend — the official kick-off to the summer season — will soar 60% over 2020. And according to TripIt, 97% of their users plan to take a vacation in 2021, with over half planning to fly domestically by June.

So where should you go this summer? CNBC Make It analyzed destination surveys from a number of travel companies to see what places are trending.

To stay safe, if you're not fully vaccinated, check destination travel restrictions and Covid numbers, consider warnings from the CDC, and take recommended precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing.

From the beach to the mountains, here are five summer vacation ideas.

If you want to hit the beach...

St. Pete/Clearwater, Florida

This destination on the west coast of Florida not only topped trending travel lists from Hopper and Priceline, it's also home to St. Pete Beach, which Tripadvisor named the best beach in the United States in 2021.

"St. Pete/Clearwater has over 35 miles of coastline and offers an array of outdoor activities, making it one of the most popular destinations in Florida," says Ben Harrell, CMO at Priceline.

 One of the advantages of coming here in summer is that it brings fewer crowds than the spring high season. And there's so much to do: Kayak with mangrove manatees, go kiteboarding, stroll through the 100-year-old Sunken Gardens, explore the recently expanded Clearwater Marine Aquarium or hang out on the new St. Pete Pier.

The area has no shortage of dining options, including a standout, Crabby's On The Pass, with the world's longest waterfront bar. Lodging options include vacation rentals and affordable hotels like The Avalon in downtown St. Pete and the Postcard Inn, a motel-style property on St. Pete Beach.

Another thing going for St. Pete/Clearwater: low flight prices. According to Hopper, airfare here is currently averaging $229 round-trip.

If you want to go to an island...

Drone aerial panorama of Baby Beach on the Island of Maui, Hawaii.
Joe West | Moment | Getty Images

Maui, Hawaii

Hawaii has been recognized for its strict pandemic measures and mindful approach to travel —which helped propel Maui onto summer travel lists from Allianz Partners USA and the home rental company Vacasa.

"If you want to spend some time in a tropical paradise, Maui checks that box and then some," says Daniel Durazo, director of marketing and communications at Allianz Partners USA.

Expect a diverse and rich terrain with rain forests, waterfalls and volcanoes. Maui is also a great place to learn how to surf and hang out with exotic fish and sea turtles on a snuba adventure. (Snuba is a snorkeling and scuba diving hybrid.)

One of the best places to base yourself is the town of Lahaina, which Vacasa called a "best bet" for summer 2021. "Lahaina is the quintessential Hawaii destination — it's a truly magical place with rich history," says Natalia Sutin, VP of Revenue Management at Vacasa.

An historic whaling village, Lahaina is home to a number of cultural initiatives, which can pay off. If you participate in volunteer work with a group like the Lāhainā Restoration Foundation (a hands-on project to document island history), you can get a free night at many participating hotels. Or really immerse yourself in local culture by glamping at the oceanfront Camp Olowalu and volunteer with Kipuka Olowalu, which includes a day of discovery at one of Maui's largest cultural sites. 

If you want to head to a national park...

Turret Arch through North Window at sunrise at Arches National Park, Moab, Utah.
Diana Robinson Photography | Getty Images

Moab, Utah

Topping a trio of lists (Expedia, Vacasa, Campspot) is Moab, a desert destination in Utah that's close to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

"Throughout the summer, we're seeing ample demand for U.S. destinations that serve as a gateway to the great outdoors like highly sought-after Moab, which is bordered by stunning red rock formations," says Christie Hudson, senior PR manager at Expedia.

This area is a playground for adventure seekers, with hiking, biking and climbing, not to mention paddle boarding, rafting and swimming on the Colorado River. A one-stop spot for booking activities is the Moab Adventure Center, which has also witnessed a surge in demand. To help accommodate its most popular activity — rafting trips — the company will offer additional launches this summer with fewer guests per boat to help with social distancing.

Campspot, which put this area at the top of its recent trending travel list, recommends staying at Archview RV Resort & Campground, which has tent sites, RV sites, and casitas (and a pool) set right in the heart of red rock country. 

If you want to explore a city...

Downtown Denver, the Flatirons and Longs Peak in Colorado.
Brad McGinley Photography | Moment | Getty Images

Denver, Colorado

With easy access to nature in and around the city, Denver is a no-brainer, according to reports from Travelocity and Outdoorsy, which is known as the Airbnb of RV rentals. "Denver is one of our most popular destinations for RV trips this summer, and that comes as no surprise given its fun vibe, fantastic food, and proximity to several national parks," says Jen Young, cofounder and CMO of Outdoorsy.

Within the Mile High City itself, you'll find one of the largest urban park systems in the country activities from biking to kayaking to paddle boarding. The city also has a thriving brewery scene, which you can experience along the Denver Beer Trail. If art's more your thing, the new Mural Trail will take you to see noteworthy pieces around town.

According to Priceline, Denver is one of the top summer destinations for stretching your dollar when it comes to hotels. Check out the new Life House Lower Highlands, which is styled to look like a Western pioneer's Victorian homestead, or The Curtis, where each floor is pop-culture themed, from superheroes to scary movies.

You can also use the city as a basecamp for checking out the surrounding national parks or starting out on a Colorado road trip. The legendary Pikes Peak Cog Railway is reopening just in time for summer after a multimillion three-year rebuild. Just a couple hours from Denver, the 130-year-old train takes travelers to the 14,115-foot summit where "America the Beautiful" was written.

If you want to head to the mountains...

North Conway, New Hampshire

In a recent travel survey, Trivago found that about one in 10 Americans (12%) said they would be seeking mountain and lake destinations in 2021.

One of those places is North Conway, New Hampshire, which topped Trivago's list of the most popular places to vacation in 2021 due to the fact that it "offers endless activities and adventures for every season." Set in Mount Washington Valley, adventurers can go rock climbing, ziplining, ATVing, you name it.

The area is home to Attitash and Wildcat mountain resorts, which are known for their excellent skiing in winter, but transform into adventure hubs in summer, with alpine slides and scenic gondola rides. Want to stay right on the mountain? The Grand Summit Hotel at Attitash has great views and already low rates, plus an additional 20% discount if you book by May 31.

The town of North Conway itself is a charmer, with colorful vintage houses lining the Main Street (plus, excellent tax-free outlet shopping). An appealing place to stay is the recently renovated Starlight Lodge, a motel-style hotel on the outskirts of town. Farm-to-table dining is an important part of the culture here: Check out Thompson House Eatery in nearby Jackson, which has its own farm right on the property.  

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