Mammoth Cave National Park: Kentucky
If natural history with an air of mystery is your thing, Mammoth Cave National Park may be your perfect last-minute vacation. The world’s longest cave system, these limestone caverns 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.
Stay: Super 8 Munford is about a half-hour drive from Mammoth Cave National Park, with other notable caves in the vicinity as well; it offers a complimentary SuperStart breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and kids under 17 stay for free (88 Home Run Rd., Munford, Ky., super8.com, from $49).
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 still be a bargain for August 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.”
Stay: Comfort Inn Downtown is located in the heart of this welcoming coastal town with easy access to Morro Rock and other sites; you’ll get a complimentary breakfast that goes well beyond typical free fare, including eggs, waffles, and other hot favorites (590 Morro Ave., Morro Bay, Calif., comfortinn.com, from $106).
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 artist Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings–not to mention one of the U.S.’s largest collections of modern art–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, Vt., for the Grandma Moses collection at the Bennington Museum and Grandma Moses Schoolhouse.
Stay: Holiday Inn Berkshires is in North Adams, Mass., centrally located for dividing your day among art, theater, and nature; there’s an on-site restaurant and indoor pool (40 Main St., North Adams, Mass., holidayinn.com, from $119).
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 and if you’re still on the fence about where to spend a week before school starts, head for Mackinaw City, a half-hour ferry ride from Mackinac Island’s Victorian homes and stunning state park.
Stay: Days Inn and Suites Mackinaw City Bridgeview Lodge includes complimentary Daybreak continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, a pool, and puts you near Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and local shopping (206 N. Nicolet St., Mackinaw City, Mich., daysinn.com, from $88).
The mountains, the ocean, the pine-scented air! You probably thought a trip to Acadia National Park was off-limits this late in the season. 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, and trails.
Stay: Ramada Ellsworth is 18 miles from Bar Harbor, walking distance from an L.L. Bean outlet, and offers a pool, free Wi-Fi, and complimentary continental breakfast (215 High St., Ellsworth, Maine, ramada.com, from $129).
If you’ve been putting off a trip to theme-park paradise, late August offers some nice discounts on hotel rates. Sure, it’s hot down here in summer, and school is just a few weeks away, but paying less than $75 a night to stay near Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Orlando, and Walt Disney World will take the sting out of some of the park admission, which can top $80 a day for adults.
Stay: Wyndham Orlando Resort is less than 20 minutes from the major parks, includes three restaurants, three pools, a health club, and even an on-site ice cream parlor (8001 International Dr., Orlando, Fla., wyndham, com, from $67).
Mammoth Cave National Park: Kentucky