The 10 Best, Safest US States for Summer Travel in 2021
We looked at vaccination rates, park acreage, population density and more to rate each state’s readiness to begin hosting tourists
At some point this year — probably June or July, according to most state legislators — coronavirus restrictions will ease and we will all re-emerge, like bears from their slumber, into polite society. To help you readjust, we’ll be sharing some advice on grooming, fitness, getting dressed in something besides sweatpants (but also sweatpants), how to manage your stress and mental health, dating, concert and bar etiquette, and more.
Based on the uptick in travel bookings in correlation with vaccine distribution and overall optimism as we approach the summer months, it appears that we’ll soon be bravely entering a new “golden age of travel”.
That said, things are going to be decidedly … different. The way we travel has irrefutably changed — arguably on a permanent basis.
As an avid traveler myself, I’ve never particularly reveled in the idea of being where other people are. I’m repelled by tourist-traps and the concomitant crowds, as well as perpetually put off by the idea of resorts. I chose to visit Ibiza in the month of December, and as a general rule of thumb, I avoid all travel during the week of spring break. I have no desire to ever go on a cruise, and given the choice between an Airbnb and a hotel room, I’ll stay at the former every time. And while these personal preferences predate the pandemic, I can’t help but feel they’re more prevalent now than ever – and not just to me.
If you’ve even thought about traveling again, you’ve inevitably asked yourself — and Google — some questions in advance of booking. What is the current rate of infection at my destination? What’s open? What hoops do I need to jump through to get there? How many other people will be there? The pandemic has shifted our entire perception of our personal safety relative to travel, and also brought into focus what, exactly, we’re hoping to get out of it.
With that in mind, we’ve taken the time to establish a baseline set of criteria — vaccination distribution rate and current infection rate (as of the time of this publication), state and national park acreage, tourism rates, population density — that we believe, in aggregate, define the relative “safeness” of a destination in a year when travelers should be exercising vigilance and personal responsibility as they head back out into the world. We put a premium on public lands and outdoor recreation areas, cross-referenced that with with COVID-19 data, and then looked at how each individual state stacks up. From there, we’ve narrowed things down to a list of the top 10 states to visit this summer.
Population density: 1.28 people per square mile (1st)
Annual tourists: Prior to COVID, more than 2.26 million visitors were expected to travel to Alaska in 2020, though more than half of those anticipated visitors were cruisers and because virtually all of those cruises were canceled, the state saw only about half of that.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 119 state parks and 8 national parks for a total of 35,826,051 total acres, making 9.1% of the state protected park land (2nd)
Vaccine rate: 37.36% of population (21st)
Current infection rate: 11 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: Seeing that Alaska is so big, it’s unrealistic to expect to see all of it in one shot. Perhaps a more palatable approach would be to choose one national park to center your trip around, or a handful of landmarks you’d like to knock out. Consider Denali National Park, the third largest National Park in the country, located about 240 miles north of Anchorage and home to a huge array of wildlife as well as North America’s highest mountain (Denali’s peak reaches 20,310 feet above sea level). Or, if you plan to fly into Juneau, just south you’ll find Tongass National Forest — home to Tracy Arm Fjord. Tracy Arm boasts some of the most impressive glacial scenery in the state, making it a popular destination amongst cruise ships. Summer also coincides with salmon fishing season (May to September, but it peeks from June to August), with a ton of great guides and resorts just a quick ferry or float plane away if you fly into Ketchikan. We like the quaint, comfy Waterfall Resort.
Population density: 218.89 people per square mile (40th)
Annual tourists: Hawaii saw more than 10 million tourists in 2019, up 5% from 2018, but hosted only around 2.7 million in 2020.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 50 state parks and 2 national parks for a total of 388,870 total acres, making it 9.41% covered in park land (1st)
Vaccine rate: 41.86% of population (8th)
Current infection rate: 5 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: On the Big Island of Hawaii, Volcanoes National Park is considered a bucket list item, primarily because it includes the summits and rift zones of Mauna Loa and Kilauea, both of which are still active. Here you can explore a lava tube, hike around an active caldera and quite literally watch land form. If you’re not particularly adventurous, the 11-mile Crater Rim drive, which follows the edge of Kilauea and provides by and large some of the most spectacular views of the park, will probably prove more your speed. Of course, the Big Island is just one of the eight main islands and 137 total, so Volcanoes National Park represents only a small fraction of what Hawaii has to offer — a fact that bodes well for prospective visitors.
Population density: 43.78 people per square mile (13th)
Annual tourists: In 2019, prior to the pandemic, Maine saw roughly 16 million tourists. In 2020, that number fell by almost 27% to 12 million.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 83 state parks and 1 national parks for a total of 774,075 total acres, making it 3.59% covered in park land (10th)
Vaccine rate: 47.25% of population (1st)
Current infection rate: 20 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: I grew up frequenting Kennebunkport, and consequently, all of the beaches in the immediate area. It’s left me with a lifelong predilection for the southern Maine coast and I’d be remiss not to recommend a visit there. That said, Acadia National Park — less than 10 miles from Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, and roughly three hours from Portland — is a truly beautiful stretch of coastline, and absolutely worth the trip. In addition to boasting over 100 miles of hiking trails, Acadia is also home to Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard and the first place to view sunrise in the U.S. from October 7 through March 6.
Population density: 252.74 people per square mile (42nd)
Annual tourists: Total visits to California reached 140.6 million last year, a decrease of 50.8% from 2019.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 270 state parks and 9 national parks for a total of 7,613,164 total acres, making it 7.49% covered in park land (3rd)
Vaccine rate: 36.62% of population (26th)
Current infection rate: 4 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: California is heavily saturated with parks, all of which offer varying but equally impressive aspects of the Golden State, but similar to Alaska, you probably won’t be able to do more than a handful in one shot, if that. Joshua Tree, named by Mormon settlers who thought the tree branches reminiscent of the biblical Joshua with his arms outstretched to the heavens, is about 45 minutes from Palm Springs International, or about a three-hour drive from LAX. Camp, hike, Instagram your heart out and, if you do decide to check out another park or two, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Cabrillo National Monument, César E. Chávez National Monument and Lake Mead National Recreation Area are all within 200 miles of Joshua Tree.
Population density: 74.25 people per square mile (23rd)
Annual tourists: In 2019, the state of Washington saw a 2 percent increase in visitor volume over the year prior, for a total of 110 million visitors. In 2020, tourism dropped off so drastically that in the first three months of the fiscal year, visitor spending had declined by $3.8 billion.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 212 state parks and 3 national parks for a total of 1,775,812 total acres, making it 3.93% covered in park land (9th)
Vaccine rate: 38.37% of population (18th)
Current infection rate: 16 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: While Mount Rainier, and by default Mount Rainier National Park, is a must-see in the Pacific NorthWest, it’s not the only noteworthy park in the state of Washington. In fact, North Cascades National Park boasts some of the most pristine land in the entire country. The true gem of North Cascades, Diablo Lake, appears turquoise in hue as a result of tiny ice-eroded rock particles that flow into the lake but on the southern edge of the park, you also have Lake Chelan in the Discover Lake Chelan National Recreation Area — one of the deepest lakes in the country. Both offer ample opportunity for kayaking, paddle boarding and boating.
Population density: 7.42 people per square mile (4th)
Annual tourists: Roughly 12.6 million nonresidents visited Montana in 2019, but in 2020 was closed to travelers for almost the entirety of the second quarter to the detriment of the state’s tourism industry.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 53 state parks and 2 national parks for a total of 1,124,720 total acres, making it 1.2% covered in park land (22nd)
Vaccine rate: 35.37% of population (29th)
Current infection rate: 12 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: The greatest concentration of glaciers in the Crown of the Continent region are found in Montana’s Glacier National Park. With more than 700 hundred miles of trails, Glacier is considered a hiker’s paradise. The 50-mile-long Going-to-the-Sun Road is the only paved route in the park, crossing the Continental Divide at the Logan Pass, and a spectacle in and of itself. Navigate glacial valleys, alpine lakes and snow-capped mountains and, if that’s not enough to sate your appetite for adventure, consider an overnight trip in the park’s backcountry.
Population density: 65.33 people per square mile (20th)
Annual tourists: Prior to the pandemic in 2019, 46.8 million people visited Arizona. By June of 2020, there had already been a $7 billion net loss in visitor spending.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 36 state parks and 3 national parks for a total of 1,574,753 total acres, making it 2.16% covered in park land (12th)
Vaccine rate: 32.7% of population (36th)
Current infection rate: 9 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: While Arizona is lagging, comparatively, in vaccine distribution, there is no shortage of outdoor activities nor should there be issue abiding social distancing practices in, say, the Grand Canyon. It’s been written a thousand times but still bears repeating: the Grand Canyon National Park is really something to behold. Being that the south rim is historically the most touristy, consider a trip to the north rim or the Grand Canyon West instead, both of which tend to be less crowded. Choose from a plethora of hikes, all of which vary in difficulty, but — and I cannot stress this enough — use your discretion in the summer months where hiking is involved. Speaking from experience, August is not the ideal time for a descent into the canyon. Still looking for a little more variation? Check out Coal Mine Canyon. Just outside of Tuba City, Coal Mine is exponentially smaller but bursting with color and only accessible with the purchase of a permit from the Navajo Nation.
Population density: 6 people per square mile (2nd)
Annual tourists: In 2019, Wyoming received 9.2 million overnight visitors, up 3.4% over 2018, but declined to around 7.25 million during the pandemic.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 31 state parks and 2 national parks for a total of 2,561,043 total acres, making it 4.09% covered in park land (8th)
Vaccine rate: 29.95% of population (44th)
Current infection rate: 11 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: Yellowstone National Park is the first and oldest national park in the country, and as it’s located in one of the most sparsely populated states in the U.S., it’s by default deserving of inclusion. Often described as a geothermal wonderland, Yellowstone is a choice destination for anyone looking to gaze upon grizzly bears, gray wolves and herds of bison or, alternatively, one of the most famously predictable geysers on the planet. Immerse yourself in the Wyoming wilderness via any one of the park’s trails or enjoy it from the comfort of your car by way of the Grand Loop. If you wind up with a little more time on your hands, consider a stop in Wyoming’s adventure epicenter, Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park.
Population density: 67.63 people per square mile (21st)
Annual tourists: In 2019, tourism brought the state of Utah $10 billion in revenue for the first time ever. Interestingly enough, while visitation was down overall, the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation saw an increase of over 2.6 million in state park visitation from 2019 to 2020.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 44 state parks and 5 national parks for a total of 979,259 total acres, making it 1.8% covered in park land (14th)
Vaccine rate: 28.59% of population (48th)
Current infection rate: 10 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: In the race to vaccinate the country, Utah is in 48th place (of 51, to be fair) making its inclusion on this list seem a bit questionable. That said, they’re still only averaging 10 cases per 100,000 people, and a trip with the intent to explore one of the national parks still feels feasible. Less than a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, Zion, in all of its redrocked, waterfalled glory, is the obvious choice. There are a handful of drives, including the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, that pass by most of the major sites while simultaneously providing some of the most spectacular views, making them a worthy expenditure of time. Also, albeit 3.5 hours away from Salt Lake City International and thus a bit of a trek, Arches National Park — host to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches — is deserving of a visit.
Population density: 56.04 people per square mile (15th)
Annual tourists: In 2019, Colorado welcomed 86.9 million overnight and day visitors — up 2 percent from 2018. Between mid-March and late October of 2020, visitor spending fell 52%. That said, similar to Utah, Colorado experienced record breaking park visitation in 2020.
Acreage of State and National Parks per Capita: 43 state parks and 4 national parks for a total of 676,414 total acres, making it 1.02% covered in park land (25th)
Vaccine rate: 39.45% of population (14th)
Current infection rate: 23 cases per 100,000 people
Reasons to go/things to do: Regardless of what you’re looking for in a trip, you’ll most likely find some variation of it in Colorado. Of course the Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the most famous in the country — and just a two-hour drive from Denver Airport, it’s relatively accessible — but it’s hardly the only option. Mesa Verde National Park, originally home to the Ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited the cliff dwellings from 600 AD to 1300 AD, offers guests virtually unlimited access to the ruins and a truly remarkable glimpse into the past. The area itself plays home to over a thousand different species, some of which exist nowhere else on Earth, and a number of trails all leading to various ends, petroglyphs included. But check out Rocky Mountain National Park if you can. And Great Sand Dunes. And Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
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