12 U.S. Destinations for the Perfect Last-Minute Summer Vacation

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The school year and autumn are closing in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze in one last summer adventure.

The following summertime destinations will help you pull off a trip regardless of how many days or dollars you can spare for travel. And because they’re all in the continental U.S., you won’t need a passport.

1. Lake Mead, Nevada

Lake Mead, Nevada
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Lake Mead is a great lake in the desert that is beautiful — it’s 112 miles long and the nation’s largest water reservoir when at full capacity — and close to two major attractions that are far more crowded: the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas.

Attractions include Hoover Dam, which created Lake Mead when it was built on the Colorado River in the 1930s, and Black Canyon National Recreation Trail.

In recent years, however, newly revealed attractions are drawing visitors, CBS News reports.

Lake Mead’s volume has dropped due to extended drought, with a white “bathtub ring” created by the leaching of minerals showing the former high-water level. So hikers can now access the ruins of the Old West town of St. Thomas, which had been underwater for decades after the dam was built.

Also, divers now can see the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that crashed into Lake Mead while on a secret mission in 1948. Previously, it was too far under the surface for sunlight to reach it.

2. St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida
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America’s oldest city, founded in 1565 by Spanish explorers, is famous for its Spanish cultural heritage among other things. (Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. in 1819, and St. Augustine was designated the capital of the Florida Territory.) Sites to see include Fort Matanzas National Monument, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park (located at explorer Ponce de Leon’s reported landing site) and the Old Jail (featured on the Syfy TV series “Ghost Hunters”).

3. Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis, Tennessee in the evening.
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If you’re a fan of the King, start packing now and head straight to his Memphis home, the mansion he called Graceland.

If you’re really quick about it, you can get in on part of Elvis Week 2018, which runs through Aug. 18. The packed schedule of events includes concerts, tours, exhibitions and more.

If you can’t get there on such short notice, don’t despair — Memphis has plenty of attractions, from the National Civil Rights Museum to the musical landmarks of Beale Street, Stax Records and Sun Studio.

4. Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville skyline
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Tennessee’s state capital gets high marks for affordability and for music and hip neighborhoods.

Highlights include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony and enough free live music to merit a mobile app. And don’t forget Nashville’s signature hot chicken, though restaurants serving the famous cayenne-slathered chicken are now joined by a wide variety cuisine from international to Cajun.

5. Denver, Colorado

Denver skyline
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Colorado’s capital made Budget Travel’s list for top affordable destinations in 2015, when the travel website deemed Denver best for “kicking it ‘Amsterdam style.'” Colorado voters legalized marijuana for adult recreational use in November 2012, making Colorado the first state to do so. Since then, marijuana-centric tourism has budded in Denver and beyond — the country’s first “cannabis resort” opened July 1, for example, offering such things as cannabis yoga, cuisine and massage therapy.

While marijuana might be a draw for some tourists, Denver has a lot of other attractions, not the least of which are the Rocky Mountains lining its western horizon. Budget Travel also highlighted Denver’s brewery and food scenes, and the Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Zoo. And if the Rockies are playing at home, you can catch a ballgame at Coors Field.

6. Cleveland, Ohio

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Ohio’s second-largest city made Fodor’s Go List 2015. The travel publication notes that summer is the best time to catch sunny weather in the city on the shores of Lake Erie and to ride the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, an excursion train that follows historic rails through the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

If you prefer the indoors, try the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (pictured, at left) or the Cleveland Museum of Art. Renowned for its Asian and Egyptian art, the museum has a diverse permanent collection and exhibits like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, a dazzling experience of light and color that runs there through Sept. 30. See all the city’s highlights at Destination Cleveland’s website.

7. Asheville, North Carolina

Ashevillle, North Carolina
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Travel planning website Frommer’s has recommended this city an increasingly popular destination:

Everyone’s talking about Asheville. … Asheville’s national profile has risen to qualify it as the Austin of the East — accessible, youth-friendly, affordable, and the place to go for a sweet lifestyle.

Highlights include a bohemian culture, burgeoning artist community and walkable historic downtown (pictured) as well as the River Arts District, the Gilded Age mansion of the Biltmore Estate and the New Belgium brewery.

8. South Carolina’s beaches

Bulls Island, South Carolina
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South Carolina, which has more than 200 miles of coastline, makes a great and affordable destination with its remarkable beaches.

Outside magazine calls out the uninhabited Bulls Island (pictured above) in Cape Romain 
National Wildlife Refuge for hiking and kayaking, Pawleys Island for laid-back beaches, and Huntington Beach State Park for “wide-open white sand for miles.” The magazine notes that water temperatures are comfortable through October.

9. Michigan’s shoreline

Michigan lighthouse
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For more shore, head to Michigan. Lonely Planet calls that state’s inland beaches, on the shores of several of the nation’s Great Lakes, one of the world’s best travel destinations during September:

Michigan borders four of the five lakes and famously has more beaches than the entire East Coast of the USA.

Catch the last of summer’s heat on Lake Michigan Shore — try your hand at lake surfing in New Buffalo and then go for a mosey exploring beaches, trails and artsy resort towns up the coast to the white bluffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Who can resist rolling down a 200-foot sand dune?

10. San Francisco, California

San Francisco street car
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Outdoor activities make the City by the Bay one of the best destinations for what remains of the summer. Options include Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate Bridge, cable-car rides and the Presidio of San Francisco. The former military headquarters first established by Spanish conquistadors in the late 18th century is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has been designated a historic landmark by the state and federal governments. As National Geographic describes it:

The virile park of viridian woods and knockout vistas can make travelers forget its original function was for war, not Instagram. To San Franciscans, it’s both muse and playground — with the latest addition being the newly reopened Officers’ Club, reimagined as a local hub for exhibits, performances and dining.

11. National parks

Arches National Park, Utah.
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The National Park System comprises more than 85 million acres, including sites in every state — among them not only national parks but also monuments, historic sites and scenic rivers. Admission is free on Sept. 22 and Nov. 11 this year.

For more options, try the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of national forests and national grasslands.

Visit the National Park System’s Find a Park tool or the U.S. Forest Service’s Visit Destinations page to search for sites by state.

12. Road trip on a scenic route

Car packed for road trip
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For a laid-back vacation on a schedule as flexible or planned out as you wish, perhaps nothing beats a road trip. AAA reported on Aug. 6 that the national average gas price is $2.87 per gallon, the highest August price since 2014. While that national average is 52 cents a gallon more than last year at this time, driving is still a less expensive alternative to many forms of travel.

To help you pick a scenic drive, check out America’s 150 nationally designated byways.

For help keeping other costs down, check out “10 Ways to Score Free Lodging for Your Next Vacation” and “14 Travel Credit Card Perks You Can’t Afford to Overlook.”

Have ideas for a last-minute vacation this summer? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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