The 8 best destinations to visit in September
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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We’ll be here to help you prepare, whether you’re traveling this month or next year.
If you’ve been stuck inside for months, you’re probably starting to daydream about your future travels. Or, perhaps, you’re ready to embrace the changing season and this new normal by heading out on a close-to-home getaway. Some travelers may even be venturing farther afield, to one of the few international destinations accepting U.S. passport holders.
But whether you’re planning for this year or looking ahead to next, September is generally a great month to hit the road and travel. And there are some destinations that, no matter what’s going on in the world, are always at their best this time of year.
Typically, September marks the beginning of shoulder season in many destinations, which means fewer crowds and better deals on everything from airfare to hotel rates — though this is an unusual year, and travelers should be flexible with their plans in case there’s a bottleneck when you arrive. After all, many people are flocking to similar destinations right now, especially national parks, lakeshores and beaches. And with school and work remaining virtual for many, it’s hard to guess just how much demand will drop off when classes start back up.
Just remember, it’s never been more important to make flexible travel plans and to pay close attention to the guidance from local and national officials and medical experts. Take thoughtful steps to minimize your risk of coronavirus exposure and always prioritize your health — and the health of everyone around you.
So, whether you’re craving fall foliage, beautiful crescents of shoreline or a striking mountainscape, these are the eight best destinations to visit this September.
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Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado
Fall in Colorado — especially Rocky Mountain National Park — is spectacular, particularly in mid- to late-September, when you can expect to see elk in full rut and the aspen leaves have (likely) been turned, as if by Midas himself, into striking shades of yellow and gold. This time of year, you’ll hear the bugling elk and the crescendo of Alberta Falls in the background of your Colorado adventure.
A perfect destination for travelers seeking wide-open spaces and wilderness, this sprawling park is punctuated by the jagged ridges of the namesake mountains and is crisscrossed by an extensive network of hiking trails and scenic roads.
Trail Ridge Road, for example, is one of the park’s most famous routes. It’s typically open into October, so September is one of your last chances to experience this “Road to the Sky” before it closes for the season due to winter weather. Snow seekers may even discover fresh powder at higher elevations.
TPG tip: Expect unpredictable weather at Rocky Mountain National Park, so pack for all seasons and forms of precipitation. Also, remember that the park has introduced a temporary timed entry system. Every private vehicle needs to have a reservation for every day it will be in the park, and the person who makes the reservation must be present at the time of entry. The reservation windows are for two-hour time slots. September dates were released on Aug. 1, though a limited number of reservations are held for travelers up to two days in advance.
Florida might not seem like an obvious choice for many travelers right now, but if you’re in the South and looking for an easy domestic getaway this September, the Panhandle can satisfy your appetite for sugary white sand beaches and warm Gulf waters — without the risk of overcrowding you might find elsewhere in the Sunshine State.
This often-overlooked corner of northwest Florida is best known for its swimmable beaches (also ideal for kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing and snorkeling) that are much quieter than some better-known tourist destinations. St. George Island and the charming beach community of Santa Rosa, for example, can be wonderfully crowd-free during parts of the year.
The Panhandle is also home to lovely nature reserves including Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest and Wakulla Springs, for travelers who are looking for other ways to stay outside and avoid people during their Florida vacation.
TPG tip: A vacation to the Emerald Coast can be surprisingly affordable. You won’t find luxury outposts from your favorite brands, but the Panhandle is filled with beachside cottages and vacation rentals that cost a fraction of what a similar property would in Naples or Captiva. But, weather permitting, the Panhandle can also be a great destination for camping. Campsites are available at St. Andrews State Park, where you can also book a campsite.
Related: 13 of the best beaches in Florida
Bar Harbor in Maine
On Mount Desert Island, three hours up the coast from Portland, is the low-key vacation town of Bar Harbor. Surrounded by Acadia National Park, travelers flock here in the summer and fall to enjoy the craggy coastline, windswept beaches and trail-filled woodlands of this outdoorsy destination.
September is still a very popular time to visit, but you can’t beat the weather. The mosquitos are gone and the nights have cooled off, but the days are still warm enough for beach picnics and hiking at all hours.
TPG tip: Though the first sunrise in the U.S. doesn’t technically hit the summit of Cadillac Mountain until October, this is still one of the best ways to experience the diverse terrain and breathtaking scenery of the North Atlantic seaboard. Just be prepared to hit the trail early (think: 3 a.m. early) to reach the top of the 1,529-foot peak when the first evidence of daylight appears over the horizon.
It’s easy to have a freshwater beach vacation in the state of Michigan. In addition to bordering four of the five Great Lakes, the state has more than 60,000 lakes, meaning there’s no shortage of sand and water for your getaway. Best of all, Michigan is much easier to reach for many travelers in the country than, say, the nearest stretch of oceanfront — especially if you’re already based in the Midwest.
And September still feels very much like summer in the Great Lake State. The weather is warm, summery and usually sunny — and it’s possibly your last chance for a proper summer beach trip to Michigan before autumn takes hold.
Torch Lake (which is filled with sandbars and turquoise waters that will transport you to the Caribbean) and Lake Huron (the clearest of the Great Lakes) are two of our favorite lake destinations in the country. Both will give vacationers a sense of being far from home and have enough space for visitors to safely distance from others.
TPG tip: If you want to recreate an international getaway without the hassle of a coronavirus test, quarantines or health certificates, consider dropping by Holland, Michigan. This decidedly Dutch town is filled with tulip blooms every spring, windmills and classic delicacies such as saucizenbroodjes (Dutch sausage rolls) and croquettes.
Glacier National Park in Montana
September may be your last chance to experience Glacier National Park in its all its glory this year, before frequent late-summer blizzards effectively close the glacier-filled park to visitors.
This remote national park in Montana is one of the only places in the continental U.S. to see glaciers (there are 35 named glaciers in the park) and admire unpolluted starlight at the world’s first Dark Sky Park to span an international border. Glacier National Park is also famous for its incredible array of wildlife and scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, which has closed as early as Sept. 15 and is usually at least partially closed by October.
TPG tip: Staying at a lodge in Glacier can be expensive, and you’ll find better deals if you’re willing to stay at a vacation rental instead. Airbnb has plenty of unexpected properties (log cabins, glamping-style tent and even treehouses). Save even more by look for accommodations in Bigfork, Columbia Falls, The Flathead Lake area, Somers and St. Mary.
Cape May in New Jersey
Approximately 2.5 hours from New York City and 90 minutes from Philadelphia, this quiet escape on the Jersey Shore is filled with elegant Victorian homes, pastoral estates and great bike paths. And that’s to say nothing of the beaches.
As the crowds are likely to be thinning out by September, beachcombers can also head to the boardwalk at nearby Wildwood.
TPG tip: Not quite comfortable with the idea of staying in an inn or one of the area’s iconic motels? Cape May, especially for Philadelphians, is close enough that you can do it as a day trip.
For travelers who are craving crisp, cool nights and pumpkin spice lattes, the Northeastern U.S. celebrates early signs of fall in September. So, if you want to spend your September vacation viewing the changing shades of leaves, sipping tea and cozying up around a fire during cool nights, Vermont is the place to be.
The foliage change normally starts mid-September and extends through mid-October, though it’s determined by many different factors such as temperature, light and soil conditions — meaning you should be especially flexible if your September travels hinge on seeing trees transformed into a riot of colors.
TPG tip: To ensure you get to witness some of the color change, consider embarking on a road trip and seeking higher-elevation towns and villages. You’ll get to witness the varying hues of the leaves, and also soak in the New England charm that’s generally most prominent in these quiet hamlets. Plan to stop along the way to enjoy other outdoor, autumnal activities like apple picking and visits to pumpkin patches.
As one of the few international destinations welcoming American travelers at this time, Croatia is an obvious choice for ambitious travelers eager to fly abroad, likely for the first time since early this year.
Of course, doing so means getting a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken less than 48 hours before departure — tricky business, as tests are still in short supply and results can routinely take a week or longer to be returned. Travelers can also quarantine and take a test upon arrival, though you’ll have to stay in your hotel or vacation rental until you receive a negative test result.
But once you arrive and are clear of any quarantine restrictions, you’ll be able to enjoy a blissfully crowd-free Croatia even during peak season. Take advantage of the warm, sunny weather along the coast in cities such as Dubrovnik and Split, where you can explore the medieval walls and spread out your beach blanket on a pebbly beach with an uninterrupted view of the Adriatic Sea. Travelers can also venture further inland to the nation’s stunning and underrated national parks, which are filled with Seussian rock formations and striking blue waterfalls.
TPG tip: Right now, travelers can save 10% off a vacation rental in Croatia when you book by Aug. 9 through Marriott Homes and Villas, which has one of the most flexible cancellation policies in the game. You can cancel your stay within 30 days without a penalty or within 10 days and only pay a $75 credit card processing fee. You’ll also earn 5 Marriott Bonvoy points per dollar spent on the base price of rooms (excluding cleaning fees and add-ons) plus elite bonuses.
Featured photo of the town of Baska in Croatia by CasarsaGuru/Getty Images.
Additional reporting by Lori Zaino.
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