So you’ve done the Big Apple, the Grand Canyon, Vegas and Maui. When you and the fam are in the mood for less “been there, done that” and more “under-the-radar hidden gem,” every state in the union has your back.
From sleepy small towns with loads of culture and character to quirky, one-of-a-kind museums, be sure to check out these secret travel spots before they blow up.
Click through to find out each state’s tourist attraction that you probably don’t know about.
Last updated: July 15, 2019
Alabama: Dauphin Island
When it comes to hidden vacation spots, you can’t get much more hidden than an island. Known as the “sunset capital of Alabama,” the island town of Dauphin is home to quiet, lapping waves, the 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary, plenty of boat launch sites and the educational Dauphin Island Sea Lab for the kiddos.
If glamour, excitement and buzz are your jam, cross Cordova off your list. But if your idea of a hidden-gem travel destination is a place where you can truly get away, don’t write off Cordova. You can only get to this quiet hippie town of 2,300 by plane or boat — there are no in-roads to speak of.
Once there, enjoy tours of five different glaciers, hike or kayak to your heart’s content or just enjoy the quiet Orca Inlet.
Arizona: Biosphere 2
Situated in the city of Oracle, the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 is the place where science lives. A futuristic masterpiece of geometric shapes and pristine glass, this forward-thinking biodome houses nonstop discovery, outreach, teaching and research.
Tours go down daily, and you can grab a bite at the Biosphere 2 Cafe as you take in the gorgeous Santa Catalina Mountains.
Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum
You might not think of Bentonville, Ark., as a hub for the progressive melding of nature and art, but maybe you should.
Created by the Walton Family Foundation in 2005, Crystal Bridges features ultra-modern architecture and is surrounded by trees, ponds and walking trails. Inside, you’ll find a permanent collection that includes works by Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe, alongside more than 50,000 volumes of art reference materials.
California: Stinson Beach
The idea of visiting a beach in California might not be novel, but Stinson Beach at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just north of San Francisco, sure is. A slice of laid-back Americana, Stinson offers white sand and some of the best swimming, surfing and sunbathing in NorCal. Volleyball nets and BBQ grills are free to use. And as long as you’re of legal age, you’re free to drink alcoholic beverages as you picnic on the beach.
The town of Nederland offers the usual Colorado cool, but it’s the offbeat events that make it a true hidden gem. In March, Frozen Dead Guy Days is three days of 30 live bands, a parade of hearses, ice turkey bowling, human foosball and more, all in celebration of a frozen dead dude in a shed (seriously). August keeps it kicking with the more family-friendly Nederland Music and Arts Festival, which has played host to blues, bluegrass and folk acts for 20 years.
Connecticut: Cathedral Pines Preserve
As it turns out, you don’t have to go to California to take in stunning, old-growth trees. Across 42 acres in Cornwall, Conn., otherworldly white pines and hemlocks provide an unforgettable backdrop to all the hiking, birding, canoeing and skiing your inner conservationist can handle.
Delaware: Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Skip the tourist traps in favor of a living fairy tale for the whole family at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Wilmington. Classy antique exhibitions and 60 acres of elegant gardens make the trip worthwhile for grownups, but three acres of fairy cottages and Tulip Tree Houses make the Enchanted Woods a very special highlight for kids.
Florida: Cheeca Lodge and Spa
Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge and Spa is one of the best-kept secrets in the Sunshine State. This time capsule to everything great about the Keys encompasses 1,200 feet of palmy beaches, 27 acres of gardens, three restaurants, a 525-foot pier, one Tiki bar, a nine-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and zero Disney World tourists.
Though Cheeca was impacted by Hurricane Irma, a rep tells us that a new, $20 million renovation will “restore it to all its south Florida glory” when the lodge reopens to the public on March 30, 2018.
Georgia: Jekyll Island Club Resort
Florida isn’t the only sunny destination below the Mason-Dixon line. The South is rife with underrated vacation spots. Once named the “South’s best hotel” by Southern Living, this historic island resort is a balmy, romantic slice of the Gilded Age. Follow in the footsteps of visitors like J.P. Morgan and the Pulitzer family as you golf, bike, boat, swim or trot along on a horse-drawn carriage.
Hawaii: Byodo-In Temple
When in Honolulu, forget touristy bustle and embrace the quietude of the state’s most famous — but not that famous — non-denominational, all-faiths Buddhist temple, located among the Ko’olau foothills of the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park.
Meditate among the Japanese-inspired architecture, frolic with the wild peacocks and koi of the gardens or just vibe out at the reflecting ponds. It’s a place to slow down and get your Zen on.
Idaho: Lake Coeur d’Alene
Nope, Lake Coeur d’Alene isn’t in Aix-en-Provence — but it’s an equally laid-back destination for summering right in northern Idaho. Off the southern shore, the hamlet of Harrison offers a marina and charming dining and lodging options, and the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers are within arm’s reach. Hike the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene, spend the day kayaking or tee off at one of several golf courses bordering the lake.
Illinois: Cache River State Natural Area
Why do Chicago again when you can boat, fish, hike, hunt and canoe among nearly 15,000 acres in Belknap, Ill.?
Cypress trees — some over 1,000 years old and sporting trunks 40 feet in circumference — provide a dreamy canopy to these vast river wetlands, which are home to more than 100 endangered plant and animal species. Be sure to learn about them at the Henry N. Barkhausen Cache River Wetlands Center while you’re there.
Indiana: West Baden Springs Hotel
A National Historic Landmark recognized by media outlets like Condé Nast Traveler, TripAdvisor and U.S. News & World Report, the West Baden Springs Hotel from the French Lick Resort group is a slice of Louis XIV in Indiana. The marvelous towers, 200-foot atrium, indoor pool and on-site trolley, which takes you to an adjacent casino, all have one thing in common: They’re draped in an opulent French style that’s wholly unexpected in the Indiana countryside.
Iowa: Grotto of Redemption
Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein began building this breathtaking West Bend shrine in 1912 and it still stands as what some call the Eighth Wonder of the World. Look closely and you’ll see that this handcrafted castle is built from a dizzying array of petrified wood, malachite, agates, geodes, quartz, jasper and more. The campgrounds not only offer a chance to reflect, but also a chance to redeem last year’s overdone vacation.
Kansas: Clinton State Park
Just outside of the music, arts and college town of Lawrence, Clinton State Park’s 1,425 acres host seven cabins and 166 primitive campsites. You’ll need a place to rest your head because your options for activities will make it spin. Picnic or boat on the beach all summer, hike any time of year, ski during the winter or brush up on your nature photography in a wilderness popular with wildflower enthusiasts. Oh, and don’t forget the fishing — Clinton is stocked with catfish, walleye, crappie and, when in season, trout.
A UNESCO Creative City in the U.S. heartland, this Ohio River destination features a surprisingly bustling creative culture. The live music scene is thriving and numerous museums — including the famously quirky National Quilt Museum — dot the Lower Town area, where you’ll also have the opportunity to meet and mingle with dozens of in-residence artists from around the globe. You won’t have to do it on an empty stomach, either. The Tasting Table website named Paducah one of the best small towns for foodies in 2016.
Louisiana: Rip Van Winkle Gardens
If you want the opposite of Mardi Gras, check out the Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island in New Iberia. These serene, semi-tropical gardens transport you into the pages of a steamy Tennessee Williams play, complete with ancient fountains, dropping flowers and dark tales of Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure. You can tour the Joseph Jefferson Home, which was built in 1870. Stay at the intimate French-style Cook’s Cottage near Joseph Jefferson Home. Be sure to dine on the estate’s glassed-in porch as you look over ancient live oaks and the vistas of Lake Peigneur.
Maine: Camden Snow Bowl
At the Camden Snow Bowl, located about 90 minutes north of Portland, you can ski the sea. This municipally owned gem along Maine’s MidCoast harbors features 20 ski runs, a 4,000-foot triple lift, on-site instructors and mountains with 80 percent snow coverage. Those ski instructors also moonlight as schooner captains, so they can help you boat along the vibrant, artsy harbor jam-packed with award-winning restaurants.
Maryland: Matoaka Beach
Southern Maryland’s Matoaka Beach really puts the “hidden” in “hidden gem.” Way off the beaten path, this uncrowded patch of shoreline is stepped in magic. Sandy walking trails, bamboo-lined coves and beautiful clay cliffs make Matoaka feel completely unique. You might not even see another person in sight as you take in the Chesapeake Bay views.
Massachusetts: Hammond Castle
Why shell out for Switzerland when Gloucester, Mass., has a castle of its own?
John Hays Hammond, Jr., completed this European-style castle in 1929 to store his hodgepodge of medieval, Roman and Renaissance artifacts, and now you’re free to tour them. Or, you could just kick back and marvel at the epic Atlantic shoreline. Your choice.
Michigan: Mackinac Island
Known as the jewel of the Great Lakes, Mackinac Island is more than just a gem in the name. More than 1,600 (mostly) adorable rooms give you access to a cornucopia of sailing options, carriage tours, shopping, biking, dining, hiking and horseback riding, all against a backdrop that’ll make you feel like you just joined the yacht club in 1962. And you’ll definitely be boating, because there are no cars on Mackinac Island.
Minnesota: Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park
An underground mine doesn’t exactly sound like a hidden vacation spot, but don’t pass on this idea just yet.
This adventurous state park offers boating, geocaching and fishing along miles of Lake Vermilion shoreline, not to mention hiking through acres of forest, including old-growth pine. But the mine itself is the real standout. Who else can say they spent their vacation half a mile under the earth’s surface?
Mississippi: Bay St. Louis
There’s St. Louis, and then there’s Bay St. Louis, which dubs itself “a place apart.” Here, beach life collides with folk art. Catch the Arts Alive event in March, when dozens of artists’ studios collide for a community-enriching arts festival that features local works, live music, theater, literature and lots of food.
Missouri: Katy Trail State Park
This one is for the bikers: Few people know that Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park offers the longest developed rail-trail in the U.S, spanning 240 miles between Clinton and Machens. With 26 trailheads and four fully restored railroad depots along the way, you’ll have plenty to check out during your ride. Or you can go hardcore and join the 18th annual Katy Trail Ride in June, a four-day trail ride across 237 miles.
Montana: Flathead Valley
You’ll have plenty to choose from in this northwestern corner of Montana. Flathead Valley gives you easy access to Glacier National Park as well as Flathead Lake, one of the biggest natural freshwater lakes in America. It also borders the business-oriented hub of Kalispell and the arts-and-culture hamlets of Whitefish and Bigfork.
Brownville’s official tourism site puts three words front and center: “unique,” “charming” and “historic.” If quaint is your game, Brownville is your paradise. This sleepy, 1850s town features tucked-away museums, bookstores, galleries and boutiques. The must-see tiny town also hosts unique oddities like a winery inside a 100-year-old barn and a bed-and-breakfast that floats on a river.
Nevada: Valley of Fire State Park
If Vegas tells us anything, it’s that Nevada has a taste for the ostentatious. If the strikingly bold patterns of the Valley of Fire’s limestone outcroppings are any indication, that holds true for the state’s geography, too.
Although the bold limestone and petrified trees might make you feel like you’re on an alien planet, the 2,000-year-old petroglyphs and thorough Visitor Center will remind you that you’ve stepped in human history. Don’t miss the Annual Atlatl Competition, which celebrates ancient spear-throwing skills.
New Hampshire: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
Whether it’s the historic home of iconic sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens or the plentiful, year-round hiking trails, art and nature truly collide at Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, N.H. The art provides a glimpse into American history, and the Summer Concert Series from July through September and the Sculptural Visions event in the fall enrich the heart and soul.
New Jersey: Sunset Beach
Not everyone in Jersey gets their tans sprayed on. To get the real thing, pay a visit to Sunset Beach at Cape May Point.
You’ll find the usual kite flyers and sunbathers at this gem near the end of Sunset Boulevard, but you’ll also find the unexpected. “Cape May diamonds,” which are naturally polished bits of quartz from the Delaware River, litter the sand, and the USS Atlantus — an experimental World War I ship made out of concrete — can still be seen lazily sinking into the bay.
New Mexico: Meow Wolf
Forget the traditional vacay spots — Meow Wolf is where you go to revel in the weird. Located in the hip but still sort of under-the-radar art town of Santa Fe, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return is a tech-filled, interactive, immersive art installation that melts your eyes with 20,000 square feet of neon, secret passageways into other dimensions and pure psychedelic madness.
New York: Alexandria Bay
If Meow Wolf melts your mind, Alexandria Bay is where you go to put it back together. Dubbed “The Heart of the 1,000 Islands,” this spot puts you smack in the middle of the St. Lawrence River’s 1,864 islands. As you can imagine, that makes for a true boater’s paradise — not to mention one of the very best bass fishing destinations in the country.
North Carolina: The Outer Banks
You know that a place called “The Outer Banks” is going to be wonderfully off the beaten path. Forgo the crowds across miles of untouched beaches. As the home of the nation’s first National Seashore, this region has earned the title of America’s First Beach.
In what the locals call the “OBX,” you can take in the epic Lost Colony live show, hang with the animals at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, do some yoga or take a dip over to Nags Head, where you’ll find just about any type of water sport to suit your fancy.
North Dakota: Sheyenne National Grassland
Nestled in southeastern North Dakota, Sheyenne National Grassland’s simplicity is what makes it so appealing. As part of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, it has everything from green plains to rugged dunes and offers more than 70,000 acres of public land. You can bike, fish, hike, ride and row. The best part is, you don’t even need a permit to camp out here as long as you follow the rules.
Billed as Ohio’s first summer resort, Geneva-on-the-Lake still has that old-school charm, and you’ll always find music, parties or events going on somewhere nearby. The marina and GOTL Brewing Co. provide brews and views, while skating rinks, amusement parks and arcades bring the boardwalk-style fun. If that’s not your thing, Geneva State Park helps you unwind with three miles of sandy shoreline hiking trails.
Oklahoma: The Artesian Hotel, Casino and Spa
Sulphur, Okla. offers a Vegas alternative that’s got a style all its own. With a history that dates back to 1906, the Artesian focuses on timeless style with modern amenities. In addition to a 15,000-square-foot casino that features classic and cutting-edge gambling options, you’ll find a full-service spa, bath house, shopping and three restaurants on site.
Oregon: Mt. Hood National Forest
It’s no secret that the Pacific Northwest is a hiker’s dream come true, but the Mt. Hood National Forest, located about 20 miles outside of the hipster hubbub of Portland, stretches its pine-scented arms across 60-plus miles, which means you’re bound to find some off-the-beaten-path gems. Among the densely forested mountains, streams and lakes — which span from the Columbia River Gorge all the way to the Olallie Scenic Area — you’ll find lesser-known routes like the leisurely, 13.7-mile Tygh Creek Trail. It’s the perfect place to get lost in the best possible way.
Pennsylvania: Ohiopyle State Park
“Ohiopyle” isn’t just really fun to say — it’s also a 20,500-acre state park that’s close enough to metropolitan attractions but jam-packed with rugged whitewater rafting, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and rock-climbing opportunities. Particularly known for the rushing waters of the Youghiogheny River Gorge, Ohiopyle has major extreme sports appeal.
Rhode Island: East Bay Bike Path
The East Bay Bike Path is one of the best ways to tour a slice of modern Rhode Island. Completed in 1992, this contemporary, mostly flat path takes you over 14.5 miles from India Point Park in Providence to Independence Park in Bristol. Along the way, you’ll pass some of the best parks, recreation areas and neighborhoods in the region.
South Carolina: Bluffton
You probably haven’t heard of it, and that’s exactly why Bluffton defines the concept of “getaway.”
Antebellum homes, artisan shops and local eats are shaded by the mossy oak trees of the May River, where you can fish, kayak or just explore. It’s little wonder the Huffington Post once called Bluffton the most “Amazing Non-Beach Getaway” in the U.S.
South Dakota: The Black Hills
When you think South Dakota, your mind likely jumps straight to Badlands National Park. To experience that iconic terrain in a way that veers off the beaten path, try the Black Hills of Custer State Park in winter, where temperatures are 15 degrees warmer than the surrounding areas. Ski or snowmobile in the 200 inches of annual snow or revel in the breathtaking highs of Devils Tower and mesmerizing lows of the Wind Cave.
Tennessee: Incline Railway
After you take a Tennessee vacation, your friends might expect stories of country music and BBQ. Instead, regale them with stories of the Incline Railway, which takes you and family up a 72.7-percent grade on Lookout Mountain. It’s like driving up an insanely pretty wall. Before hopping on the car in St. Elmo, remember to bring some cash to spend at the microbrewery and collection of cafes and small-batch boutiques.
Texas: The Blue Lagoon
Picture warm, sapphire waters that scuba-heads just can’t get enough of. If you’re picturing Maui, you’re way off. The Blue Lagoon just outside of Huntsville, Texas, is where the real divers go.
Two clear blue spring-fed lagoons occupy this shady former limestone quarry. There’s no camping here, but the pine trees hide one of Texas’ best-kept secrets: A 28-foot-deep diver’s paradise, complete with a fully fledged gear shop and deliciously uncrowded beaches.
Utah: The Backcountry of Bryce Canyon
For hardcore hikers and those in search of sumptuous solitude, the Backcountry of Bryce Canyon National Park boasts strenuous trails surrounded by red cliffs and pink plateaus at elevations up to 9,115 feet. The 22.9-mile Under-the-Rim Trail is a highlight, connecting Bryce Point to Rainbow Point. With eight ultra-cheap campsites along the way, you’ll have ample opportunity to rest your head.
With fewer than 2,000 residents, Newfane is like a living Norman Rockwell painting where you can go to get away from it all. Alongside maple sugar houses and picturesque country stores, you can bike the Stratton Mountains in summer or ski Haystack Mountain in winter in what Only In Your State, a resource proving information on the United States, calls a “charming town (that’s) picture perfect in every season.”
Virginia: Assateague Island
There’s Hawaii, there are the Keys — and then there’s Assateague Island.
The Assateague Island National Seashore spans Maryland and Virginia, but the eye of adventure is Assateague Island itself, where salt marshes and maritime forests meet sandy beaches. Camping and kayaking would be the stars of the show here if not for one legendary element — the island is inhabited by majestic wild horses that look like they’re straight off the painted cover of a romance novel.
Taking a wintertime trip to Leavenworth, Wash., will save your family a whole lot of money compared to that vacation in Germany. And when you look around, you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference.
Leavenworth doesn’t just have an in-your-face Bavarian theme — it’s got all the skiing, snow tubing, spas and shopping you could ask for. The whole place is lit up for the town’s annual holiday Winter Wonderland event, while cutting-edge indie artists in just about every musical genre bring their A-games to the Timbrrr! music fest in January.
West Virginia: Bluestone National Scenic River
Rivers don’t always get the praise travelers heap on oceans and lakes, but the Bluestone National Scenic River is here to change all that. Hidden in a rugged gorge in the Appalachians, this 10.5-mile waterway stretches through southern West Virginia and offers unspoiled natural diversity all along the way.
Every adventurer will find something to enjoy here. If coasting down the sleepy river isn’t for you, try the New River Gorge National River 100 Mile Challenge, an epic endurance hike along the Bluestone and New River Gorge.
Wisconsin: The Apostle Islands
With their windy beaches and postcard-worthy cliffs, the Apostle Islands are — as the National Park Service puts it — “where water meets land and sky, culture meets culture, and past meets present.” Across 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland, you’ll find everything from the lighthouses of Lake Superior to mysterious sea caves and winter caves jeweled with ice.
Camping is common, but this Wisconsin hidden gem is also an under-the-radar dive for, well, diving.
Wyoming: Jenny Lake Lodge
Luxury accommodations and national parks don’t always go hand in hand, but they certainly intersect at Jenny Lake Lodge, located at the foot of the Tetons.
What looks like a big collection of Old West cabins on the outside is a AAA four-diamond resort on the inside, offering full gourmet breakfasts, nightly five-course meals and perks like free horseback rides. Step off your tastefully appointed porch and you’re ready to hike and bike the shores of three glacial lakes. Just watch out for elk and moose along the way.
About the Author
Dan is an honors graduate of western Kentucky’s Murray State University and has been a freelance writer and full-time creative since 2009, in addition to co-founding and co-owning two active media production businesses – one for the west coast in Los Angeles, California, and one for the east in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an independent creative professional with a scroll-like resume of both blue collar and white collar experience and a longtime business writer, Dan has been fortunate enough to publish with the likes of Chron.com, Fortune, The Motley Fool, Career Trends, Bizfluent, MSN Money, Legal Beagle, San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, USA Today, Builder’s Capital, Salon.com and Zacks.com, among others. He’s also offered his words to such diverse brands as ASUS, Kellog’s, Discover, Sony Pictures, Samsung, Linksys, LIVESTRONG, Office Depot, Canon Inc., Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation and Verizon, as well as frequently writing in the fields of entertainment, travel, fitness, lifestyle and fashion.