Hidden Gems in the US: Unique Vacation Spots to Visit

Do you enjoy finding hidden gems in the US as much as I do? It’s always fun to figure out the coolest places to visit that many people don’t know about.

For example, now that we’ve moved to Maine, we’ve discovered all of the Maine beaches where we can take our dogs. That’s the kind of hidden gems we want for our travels.

Must-visit hidden gems from across the US

Sometimes the most memorable trips happen when you seek out unexpected, under-the-radar spots that you never would’ve known about without some prior research.

For instance, the U.S. is home to 63 national parks. Famous ones like Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and Denali in Alaska tend to get the lion’s share of tourist attention.

One of the prettiest National Parks and the only one in Maine is Acadia National Park. It offers beautiful scenery and plenty of trails — some dog friendly — for a day hike. Plus, if you want to stay overnight as part of your adventure, there are recommended camping near Acadia, since you can’t camp in the park itself. Note: if you want to go mountain biking, you’ll need to stick to the paved roads on Mount Desert Island, where Acadia is located. The trails are not mountain-bike friendly.

On the other hand, some National Parks are in urban centers. For example, did you know that Federal Hall in New York City, where George Washington took the oath of office (cue the original “Hamilton” cast recording), is a National Park Service locale?

National Park Service

In fact, there are a whole host of Hamilton hidden gems throughout New York City, many in parts of historic downtown Manhattan. However, that’s fodder for another article.

On your next excursion, why not try an underrated National Park site like that or Ellis Island in New York Harbor? Or if you’re out west, you could check out New Mexico’s White Sands National Park or Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park? Or you could try Hot Springs, Arkansas, which is filled with natural hot springs. The amount of outdoor adventures are limitless. And if you do decide you like the idea of visiting these places, definitely invest in a National Parks annual pass. It is well worth the money.

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Still, finding those under-the-radar gems can amount to quite a bit of work. So to help you get started, I’ve tapped into research from Stacker.com for some of the best hidden vacation spots in the U.S.

The World’s Largest Mailbox, Casey, Illinois

Guinness World Record-holding largest mail box stands in park.

RozenskiP // Shutterstock

As a child, I had 21 pen pals from around the world. So, my favorite after school activity was running to the mailbox to see if I’d received any letters. Most days I did.

So, as a letter-writing lover, I would have loved it if my parents had taken me to see this world’s largest mailbox. Interestingly, it isn’t the only giant thing in the town of Casey, Illinois.

Casey is also home to the largest chair in the US. That was created as part of businessman Jim Bolin’s Big Things in a Small Town workshop.

Measuring a whopping 5,743.41 cubic feet, the Casey mailbox is also fully functional. That is, it has a built-in stairway where visitors can mail letters of their own. I would have loved that as a kid.

Casey is located nearly midway between Indianapolis and St. Louis. So, if you’re looking for a daytrip from either metro area, this should be an easy drive.

However, if you’re looking to stay overnight, your best bet for lodging are these two properties in Casey:

Danish hidden gem in Solvang, California

Street and shops in Solvang village.

NaughtyNut // Shutterstock

If you want to get a taste of Europe without getting on a plane, check out Solvang, California. Located only two hours from Los Angeles, you’ll find a small town built to resemble both Denmark and Spain. I know, why that combination?

But still, with its Copenhagen-esque mermaid statues and Spanish cathedrals, you’ll be surprised you’re not in Europe.

Speaking of Copenhagen, if you’ve got a trip planned there this winter, here are ideas on what to do in Copenhagen in winter.

Going in the summer? Here are some of the best ways to spend summer in Copenhagen.

Also, Solvang is close to Santa Barbara wine country. Therefore, you can end the day with some wine tasting and then retire to your vacation rental–VRBO has a ton of properties in Santa Barbara wine country.

Salty dunes at White Sands National Park in New Mexico

Tourists walking on sand dunes.

Margaret.Wiktor // Shutterstock

New Mexico is home to one of the most underrated national parks: White Sands National Park. You’ll find giant wave-like dunes of white gypsum salt.

These dunes cover 275 miles of desert, making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world.

I find it fascinating that you’ve got a salty desert in the middle of a land-locked state. In fact, the Pacific Ocean is more than 700 miles to the west.

However, white gypsum salt is not like the table salt that you’re used to using. In fact, you’ll most often find gypsum used in plaster, drywall and blackboard or sidewalk chalk.

Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

Corn Palace exterior.

Johnnie Laws // Shutterstock

I’m not so sure how much of an American hidden gem the Corn Palace is. Each year, more than 500,000 people visit the tiny town of Mitchell, South Dakota to experience the Corn Palace.

So, clearly word is out about this fun, shall I say, corny tourist trap? Fun facts about the Corn Palace:

  • Built in 1921, it’s stood for more than 100 years
  • The palace is made entirely of corn and corn husks.
  • It’s home to an annual August festival to celebrate the state’s main crop

Finally, some of the best chain hotels close to the Corn Palace include the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Mitchell and the Hampton Inn Mitchell.

However, if you’re looking for some beautiful places to visit in this state, check out these South Dakota landmarks.

The Truman Show “set” in Seaside, Florida

People walk in front of post office building in Seaside.

Andriy Blokhin // Shutterstock

Years ago you could go on a fake studio tour at a now-defunct Disney ride called The Studio Backlot Tour. However, if you want to visit a real city that was the setting of a fake city in a movie, then you’ve got to go to Seaside, Florida.

The real-life town of Seaside is the where Jim Carrey’s character lives in 1998’s “The Truman Show.” In fact, planners built Seaside in the 1980s as a quintessential American town. No wonder its downtown area is so picture perfect.

Seaside is about 20 minutes from Panama City Beach, another picturesque beach town that seems to be from another era. Also, if you’re looking for Florida vacation rentals with Peloton bikes, you’ll find a ton in the Panama City area.

Underground waterfall in Ruby Falls, Tennessee

Cave waterfalls with magenta lighting.

Mia2you // Shutterstock

Ruby Falls is America’s tallest underground waterfall, meaning that it’s literally a hidden gem. It is located inside Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

To reach the falls, you’ll descend 260 feet by elevator. There, you’ll see ancient cave formations and be able to wander its cavern trail.

If you’re planning to stay overnight, you’ll find a number of very nice Marriott hotels in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Bishop Castle in Rye, Colorado

Exterior view of Bishop Castle turrets.

Jim Lambert // Shutterstock

You’ll find Bishop Castle hidden in the foothills of the San Isabel National Forest. It features stained glass windows, wrought-iron bridges and even a steel, fire-breathing dragon.

In my opinion, visiting this gem is like stumbling across something right out of Harry Potter in the middle of Colorado. As far as Rye’s location, it is pretty much due south of Pueblo, Colorado. Or, if you’re heading from Denver, you’ll head south for about one hour.

Fly Geyser in Northern Nevada

Water spouting from Fly Geyser on a sunny day.

Alexandre Olive // Shutterstock

I swear–this natural wonder in Nevada looks like something out of science fiction. However, there is nothing fictional about the Fly Geyser.

In fact, it came to be by accident in 1964 as a result of an artesian well. Because of the different mineral deposits within the rock, including algae, iron and sulfur—when the geyser spews, the water comes out in numerous vibrant colors.

Perhaps because it appears so psychedelic, that’s why the folks at Burning Man bought the property in 2016. Also, because the Fly Geyser is located on private property, you’ll need to book a tour to visit.

Your nearest lodging will be in the Reno, Nevada or Lake Tahoe area.

Wild horses in Assateague Island

Tourist sitting on beach watching wild ponies.

Vicky Faye Aquino // Shutterstock

If you’re a horse lover, then you might find that Assateague Island is one of the most underrated places to visit in the US. That’s because along this 37-mile-long barrier island, you’re bound to see its wild horse population. And what a sight those horses are to see.

However, other nature lovers are sure to love visiting Assateague Island. It’s not unheard of for visitors to see other kinds of wildlife here, including bottlenose dolphins, endangered peregrine falcons and over 200 additional species of birds.

The Assateague Island National Seashore is part of the National Park Service. It is a barrier island south of Ocean City, Maryland that straddles both Maryland and Virginia. The best time to visit? You’ll want to go outside of hurricane season. That’s because these Atlantic Ocean barrier islands are often directly in the path of hurricanes and tropical storms.

If you’ll be taking your electric vehicle on vacation with you, you’ll find hotels in Ocean City with EV chargers.

Byodo-In Japanese Temple, Kaneohe, Hawaii

Exterior of Byodo-In Temple on lake.

Lynn Watson // Shutterstock

In 1968, Hawaii celebrated the 100-year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants arriving on the islands. So, it should come as no surprise that, this same year, the state opened a replica of a Japanese World Heritage Site.

Called the Byodo-In Temple, it is located within the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park on the island of Oahu. It is a replica of the Uji, Japan temple of the same name.

The connection between Japan and Hawaii is obvious. What’s less obvious is why there is a giant Pagoda in Reading, Pennsylvania.

When I visited this central Pennsylvania town a few years ago, I was shocked to see this red-roof, distinctly Japanese building overlooking the city. These days the Reading Pagoda, built in 1908 and pronounced “redding” not “reeding”, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Speaking of Japan, here are some of the things Japan is famous for.

Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, Wisconsin

Rocky shores of the Apostle Islands in summer.

Gottography // Shutterstock

Lake Superior’s shores touch three American states–Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The northern part of the lake is in Canada.

However, off the coast of Wisconsin is a collection of 22 islands, known collectively as the Apostle Islands. One of the hidden gems there is out of sight–literally and figuratively.

They are the islands’ gorgeous natural ice caves. It’s best to explore them in warmer weather, for obvious reasons, via kayak.

I probably should have included the Apostle Islands in this article about the best US islands to visit.

Devils Tower, Wyoming

Devils Tower above hayfield in autumn.

Hale Kell // Shutterstock

You and I are probably of the same generation if you look at this picture of Devils Tower and think about the 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Do you remember actor Richard Dreyfuss making a Devils Tower replica using mashed potatoes?

Well, it’s a real place located in the northeastern corner of Wyoming, close to both Montana and the Black Hills of South Dakota. In fact, Northern Plains Indigenous groups consider Devils Tower a sacred place. Given that aforementioned connection to that Steven Spielberg movie, I would think this rock structure would be on every Gen Xers must-see list. Now, it’s on mine.

Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Michigan

Colorfully painted house at The Heidelberg Project.

JHVEPhoto // Shutterstock

The Heidelberg Project, which artist Tyree Guyton created on the street where he grew up in Detroit, Michigan, is on the list of must-visit outdoor art destinations.

You’ll find some of the few remaining drive-in movie theaters in Michigan near Detroit.

Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque, Iowa

Fenelon Place elevator on a sunny day in Dubuque.

Wirestock Creators // Shutterstock

Located within the town of Dubuque, Iowa, some call the Fenelon Place Elevator the world’s “shortest, steepest, scenic railway.” With a $3 round trip, you get panoramic views of the Mississippi River and three surrounding states:

  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Wisconsin.

This incline might be a hidden gem in Iowa. However, you’ll find a better-known incline, also known as a funicular (not an elevator), in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In fact, there are two of them.

“The Duquesne Incline (pronounced “doo-KANE”) has red cars and is visible from The Point, while The Monongahela Incline (commonly called “The Mon Incline”) has yellow cars and can be seen from the South Shore.”

Visit Pittsburgh

I lived in the Pittsburgh area for five years. Sadly, I never got to ride either of these inclines.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

People riding bicycles on busy Market Street.

Alexey Stiop // Shutterstock

Another place I lived–Michigan–and another place I never got to visit. And that would Michigan’s Mackinac Island.

It’s one of very few car-free places in the United States, which is why I think it’s a hidden gem. Another car-free place where I have visited many times? Fire Island off New York’s Long Island.

The famous Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island has Peloton bikes. FYI, Mackinac is pronounced MACK-IN-NAW, not NACK.

Mile High Swinging Bridge, Linville, North Carolina

Grandfather Mountain and suspension bridge on a clear day.

Cvandyke // Shutterstock

This hidden gem is a hard pass for me. It’s the Grandfather Mountain’s Mile High Swinging Bridge.

The words mile high and swinging are non starters for me. However, if you’re more daring than I am, then you’ll love this 228-foot suspension bridge that spans an 80-foot chasm and provides breathtaking 360-degree views of the surrounding North Carolina mountains.

Portions of this article originally appeared on Stacker.com and are re-published pursuant to a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

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