The Great Outdoors 2021 Travel Report

As vaccinated tourists are planning trips again, adventure travel is booming. Hopper shared the top destinations for outdoor travel and tips for how to save.

Adit Damodaran - Jul. 20, 2021

As vaccinated tourists are planning trips again, adventure travel is booming. In fact, the share of bookings to outdoor destinations on Hopper are up 25% from Summer 2019 and bookings to big cities are down nearly 20%. This prompted the team at travel booking app, Hopper to take a closer look into where Americans are planning outdoor adventures, what prices look like and provide tips for travelers on how to save - in our new The Great Outdoors 2021 Travel Report.

Summary:

Most Popular Destinations

  • Airfare to the most popular national parks (Great Smoky Mountains NP, Grand Canyon NP, and Rocky Mountain NP) will be equivalent to or higher than 2019 prices. 

  • The most watched outdoor destinations on Hopper are Denver, CO (#1), Gatlinburg (Great Smoky Mountains), TN (#2), and Kihei, Hawaii (#3)

  • Airlines added new routes to leisure destinations over the course of the pandemic. Among domestic outdoor destinations, Bozeman, MT (#1) won the most new routes, followed by Jackson, WY (#2) and Phoenix, AZ (#3)

  • The highest trending outdoor destinations in flight searches were Jackson, WY (#1), Bozeman, MT (#2), and Asheville, NC (#3).

Where to Go to Skip the Crowds?

  • Among lesser visited national parks, we recommend checking out Black Canyon of the Gunnison (fly to Montrose, CO), Pinnacles (fly to Monterey, CA), and Voyageurs (fly to Duluth, MN) among many others.

  • Keep in mind there are 63 “National Parks”, which themselves are a fraction of the over 400 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites within the national park system, not to mention national forests.

  • Look for destinations with similar vibes that are likely to be less crowded. Instead of the Great Smoky Mountains, try the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead of Grand Teton National Park, give Bridger-Teton National Forest a shot.

  • Keep in mind that amenities and services are more limited off-the-beaten-path. 

Tips and Deals

  • Fairbanks, AK (#1) is seeing some of the best deals with airfare down 48% from 2019 levels. St. Thomas Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands (#2) and Bozeman, MT (#3) are both over 35% off their 2019 prices. 

  • Phoenix, AZ (#1), Denver, CO (#2), and Salt Lake City, UT (#3) were the three destinations where your total trip cost (airfare and hotels) comes out to be the cheapest. Of the Top 10 cheapest destinations, Denver, CO, Chattanooga, TN, and Seattle, WA are probably your best bets for more temperate summer weather.

Part I: Most Popular Outdoor Adventures

Airfare to the Most Popular National Parks

Due to park closures, capacity limits, and travel restrictions, the Top 10 most popular national parks in 2020 looked a bit different from prior years. With the strong return of domestic travel this year, we expect the most popular parks in 2021 to more closely mirror the most popular of 2019. 

Most Popular Outdoor Adventures
Most Popular Outdoor Adventure Destinations

Airfare is down significantly for parks such as Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier. These airports were all among the Top 10 nationwide to receive the most new routes from domestic carriers. Bozeman, Jackson, and Kalispell received 17, 14, and 8 new routes respectively.  

Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ -- airfare to Flagstaff, AZ (Grand Canyon NP) has returned to 2019 levels, with round-trip tickets as high as $453. Grand Canyon National Park was the second most visited in 2019.

Most Watched Outdoor Destinations 

With Hopper, travellers can watch lodging prices in a specific city -- we alert our users when we find great deals and low prices for that destination. We looked at which destinations got the most watches since April 1st for Summer 2021 travel dates (check-ins from June to August 2021). These were the outdoor destinations top of travellers’ minds:

Most Watched Outdoor Destinations on Hopper
Most Watched Outdoor Destinations on Hopper

Denver, Colorado (#1) is the most watched outdoor destination on Hopper, which isn’t too surprising given that it was the second most searched destination back in May for summer travel. Just a short drive to Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado Springs (the fifth most watched destination), Denver offer the amenities of a big city, while being in close proximity with many outdoor activities. Nestled in the heart of the most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg, Tennessee (#2) is the second most watched destination on Hopper. Kihei, Hawaii (#3) on Maui, near Haleakalā National Park, came in as the third most watched destination this summer. Given how high nightly hotel prices average in Kihei at $418/night, it makes sense travellers are keen on finding deals in paradise. 

Highest Trending Outdoor Destinations in Flight Searches

Hopper collects, from several Global Distribution System partners, 25 to 30 billion airfare price quotes every day from searches happening all across the web. We looked at which outdoor destinations were up the most in searches now relative to where they ranked in 2019. The top three highest trending outdoor destinations were Jackson, WY (#1), Bozeman, MT (#2), and Asheville, NC (#3). These three destinations are all within an hour’s drive of at least one park in the Top 10 most popular national parks.

Highest Trending
Highest Trending Outdoor Destinations

Jackson, WY
Jackson, WY -- Near Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, Jackson, Wyoming trended up the most in flight searches relative to 2019.

Outdoor Destinations with the Most New Routes During the Pandemic

Amidst the pandemic, airlines added many new routes to capture growing leisure demand for outdoor oriented travel. Bozeman, MT (#1) was the outdoor destination winning the most new routes, followed by Jackson, WY (#2) and Phoenix, AZ (#3). Montrose, CO saw 7 new routes between JetBlue and Southwest, making it the only Top 10 destination to see newly added service entirely from Low Cost Carriers (LCC’s), although Phoenix comes close. 

For nearly all of these destinations, airfare is down over 10% from Summer 2019 prices, while the national average airfare is down just 5% from Summer 2019 prices ($284/round-trip now compared to $300/round-trip this time in 2019). This would suggest the newly added capacity and competition along these routes are indeed creating good deals for travellers relative to pre-pandemic prices.

Outdoor Destinations with the Most New Routes During the Pandemic
Outdoor Destinations with the Most New Routes During the Pandemic

Part II: Skip the Crowds -- Off the Beaten Path

Less Crowded National Parks

Some of the most popular national parks in the U.S. are seeing record-breaking crowds this summer. In June, Arches National Park in Moab, Utah hit capacity as early as 9AM on a Thursday. Currently Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Park require reservations for entry, while Acadia, Zion, and Glacier require reservations for access to popular roads. These five parks collectively averaged around 4 million visitors in 2019, and 2.7 million in 2020. We expect them to be jam-packed this summer. 

If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, try some of the lesser visited parks that can offer experiences just as memorable and breathtaking. Of the 63 National Parks in the U.S., we rounded up 10 parks where you can skip the crowds this summer. We chose parks based not only on lower visitation, but also those with relatively temperate summer weather. 

Less Crowded National Parks
Less Crowded National Parks
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, CO
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, CO -- with airlines such as JetBlue and Southwest adding new flights to Montrose, CO over the course of the pandemic, prices are still down 15% from 2019. Black Canyon saw 433k visitors in 2019, making it the 46th most visited National Park at the time.

Other Less Crowded Outdoor Destinations

The ten parks above are just a small selection of the country’s 63 “National Parks”, which themselves are a fraction of the over 400 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites within the National Park system, not to mention National Forests. We’re confident travellers can find plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors away from the crowds this summer, but it may involve looking beyond the conventionally popular destinations. 

Here are just a few examples of alternative destinations with similar vibes.

Less Crowded Outdoor Destinations
Less Crowded Outdoor Destinations
San Juan Mountains, CO
San Juan Mountains, CO -- The San Juan Mountains in Southwestern Colorado have a similar vibe to Rocky Mountain National Park, but with fewer crowds

Part III: Best Deals & Outdoor Travel Tips

Best Deals on Flights to National Parks

Comparing 2021 airfare to 2019 prices reveals some incredible deals to outdoor destinations this year. Fairbanks, AK (#1) is seeing some of the best deals with airfare down 48% from 2019 levels. St. Thomas Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands (#2) and Bozeman, MT (#3) are both over 35% off their 2019 prices. Notably, many of the airports that saw additional new routes and increased service from low cost carriers during the pandemic appear on this list. 

Best Deals on Flights to National Parks
Best Deals on Flights to National Parks
Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Mesa Verde National Park, CO -- Flights to Durango, CO are 23% off 2019 airfare, making visits to places like Mesa Verde National Park particularly good deals

Cheapest Total Trips

But maybe instead of what’s the most discounted from pre-pandemic prices, you’re curious about the absolute cheapest trips you can take to outdoor destinations right this moment. It’s worth being cautious here that several of these outdoor destinations are cheap, but they can also be scorching hot in the summer temperatures. That being said, Phoenix, AZ (#1), Denver, CO (#2), and Salt Lake City, UT (#3) were the three destinations where your total trip cost (airfare and hotels) comes out to be the cheapest. Of these destinations, Denver, Chattanooga, Seattle are probably your best bets for temperate summer weather. 

Cheapest Total Trips
Cheapest Total Trips

Tips

Travel in the Fall for cheaper airfare

As airfare returns to 2019 price levels, it’s a good idea to check how 2019 seasonality affected airfare to outdoor destinations. We found that on average, round-trip airfare did decline for fall travel dates, dropping about 20%. While we’re forecasting that pent-up demand for travel this year will lead to a shallower drop in airfare heading in to the fall, travellers can still expect airfare to be about 10-15% cheaper than summer in the fall shoulder season. A round-trip that costs $295 for summer travel dates, will cost closer to $250-260 for autumn travel dates. 

Seasonal Round-Trip Airfare to Outdoor Destinations
Seasonal Round-Trip Airfare to Outdoor Destinations

So in short, if you can go in the fall, we highly recommend it with a few exceptions. Outdoor destinations in Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, and other northern states are more likely to receive heavy snowfall as early as October, so these destinations are most accessible in the summertime. Instead, look for destinations like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Acadia National Park in Maine that truly come alive in the autumn season as the leaves change color. You may also want to do desert climate destinations in the fall, when the temperatures are cooler.

Plan for the weather

Excessive heat warnings can occur throughout the day for many Western and Southwestern destinations. Be alert of what the weather will be like at your destination ahead of time for the dates you’re planning to visit.  

Peak times

Some national parks are certified International Dark Sky Parks, which often means you can enjoy the park at night provided there is camping or parking space available. We recommend heading into these parks in the early morning or late evening to beat the crowds (and the heat depending on the park), and to see the park in a different light. Check park hours beforehand to make sure that you can do so. 

Check out different airports -- larger airports tend to be cheaper but are usually further away

Look at prices for multiple airports near your intended destination -- prices might even be cheaper in a different state. Jackson, WY ($363/rt) is a popular gateway to both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, but if you’re looking for a cheaper flight Bozeman ($287) will give you access to the north side of Yellowstone within a 1-hour drive. The tradeoff is usually in drive time. If you’re trying to get to Arches or Canyonlands, flights to Moab, UT itself tend to be much more expensive ($552 round-trip) than flights to Grand Junction, CO ($362 and around 2 hours driving), which is closer but still more expensive than Salt Lake City, UT ($291 round-trip and around 4 hours driving). 

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