The Most Underrated Tourist Attraction In All 50 States
There's nothing wrong with going full tourist when you're visiting a new state—you'd be blowing it if you didn't make time for a trip to The Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate.
But it's also important to go off-guidebook and hit up some of the more overlooked treasures. To help you build out a robust itinerary for your next cross-country road trip, we polled friends, coworkers, and our good ol' pal the Internet to cull together a list of the most underrated tourist destinations in all 50 states and Washington, DC. It's entirely possible that you'll disagree with our picks, so feel free to leave yours in the comments!
This large inlet on 'Bama's Gulf coast is the country's fourth largest estuary, and is dotted with several quaint shoreline towns along the eastern shore. Apart from the stunning sunsets, the area is also treated to a natural phenomenon known as a "jubillee" in the summer months, when fish and crabs swarm the shore and make it incredibly easy for anyone nearby to catch them.
Kenai Fjords National Park
On the smaller side by Alaskan State Park standards, Kenai is nonetheless a breathtaking 1,000 square mile showcase of the state's natural beauty. You'll want to catch a boat tour to see the most of what it has to offer, including its namesake fjords, glaciers, tiny coastal towns, and the Harding Icefield.
This small town near Flagstaff has the winning combo of majestic natural beauty (canyons, red rock formations, etc.) and a thriving downtown arts community filled with galleries, spas, and new age-y shops. And even if you're not a church-goer, don't miss the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which magnificently sits as if it were birthed from the top of a 1,000 foot rock face.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Perhaps the only state park in the country where people regularly walk out richer than they were walking in, this 911-acre spread features the world's only diamond-bearing site accessible to the public. For a fee, visitors can dig around the fields searching for the gems, and you're allowed to keep any you find regardless of value. If you don't believe you'll find anything, consider this: since 1972, people have dug up over 29,000 diamonds.
You'd be blowing it by not making a pit stop here on any drive down the Pacific Coast Highway. The insanely scenic stretch of the PCH that wraps precariously around these towering hunks of earth once carried traffic, but has since been closed due to safety concerns and turned into a 1.3-mile hiking/biking/jogging trail, where you can perch and soak up the spectacular views.
The Stanley Hotel
Best known as the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining, the 114 year old Stanley Hotel has a very real reputation for being haunted, thanks to reported ghost sightings and phantom music coming from empty rooms, The scenically situated resort's history isn't all spooky, though, considering it was transformed into Hotel Danbury for the first Dumb and Dumber.
According to at least two people on the Supercompressor team, this landmark chain of grocery stores is peerless. The New York Times has even declared it the "Disneyland of Dairy Stores," thanks to a layout that sends customers all the way through the store past animatronic farm animals, employees dressed in costume, and copious free samples. As if that weren't reason enough to want to visit, it's also been deemed one of the 100 best places to work for ten years in a row by Fortune.
Sitting on the decidedly un-militaristic-sounding Pea Patch Island, this sprawling fort was originally used by the Union to hold captive Confederate prisoners of war, political prisoners, and federal convicts. It was built with enough barracks for up to 10,000, and even had its own 600-bed hospital. These days, you can take a ferry over and tour the grounds, and if you're feeling particularly ambitious there's an annual triathlon where entrants retrace the route taken by the 52 prisoners that escaped during the Civil War.
Any avowed Airstream fan (and really, who isn't) should make the pilgramage to this Stonehenge-esque homage to the legendary RV. It's weird, sure, but then again you are in Florida.
Once the playground for the Thomas Carnegie family who at one point owned 90% of Cumberland Island, Dungeness was a Queen Anne-style mansion that fell victim to arson in the late 1950s. You're free to tour the ruins as well as the still-standing Plum Orchard mansion nearby, which was constructed for one of the Carnegie sons at roughly the same time.
A little out of the way but well worth the trip, Waipio Valley was once the capital and permanent residence of Hawaiian kings, and you'll recognize why the moment you catch sight of it. While you can drive to a lookout, the best viewpoints are only accessible by foot via a steep and difficult hike.
Roughly a 50 minute drive from Twin Falls, this freakish wind-carved rock formation stands 48 feet tall and weighs a terrifying 40 tons. BYO selfie stick.
Robert Allerton Park
Touted by some as the Midwest's must beautiful park, this 1,500-acre meticulously landscaped estate's grounds were dreamed up by the industrialist and philanthroper Robert Allerton, who transformed them into a fantastical series of gardens bedecked with Neoclassical statues and Far Eastern art.
Indiana Dunes National Park
Not quite what you imagine when you think of the Hoosier state, the idyllic Dunes shoreline hugs about 15 miles of Lake Michigan and boasts over 45 miles of hiking trails through all types of terrain. Eat your heart out, Pawnee.
The Amana Colonies
These seven villages near Iowa City were formed back in the 1800s by a cadre of German priests who fled their home due to religious persecution. For nearly a century, the communities maintained a mostly self-sufficient local economy, relying on their specialized craftsmanship and farming techniques. Once the Depression hit, though, they voted to shift focus to become a for-profit entity, and today thrive on visitors who come to buy their top-notch handcrafted goods and soak up the vibes of a simpler time.
Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center
Kansas may not strike you as the sort of place that would house one of the country's greatest bounties of space travel ephemera, but the Cosmophere begs to differ. Inside, the museum is stocked with loads of significant artifacts from space exploration including meticulously restored early American and Russian rockets, and a whole bunch of Apollo-era remnants.
The National Corvette Museum
Once you've sobered up enough to leave the Bourbon Trail, head over to this domed 'Vette Mecca, which is just a quarter mile down the road from the plant that's been making them since 1981. Just be glad you weren't there last year, when a sinkhole opened up beneath the display floor and swallowed up eight one-of-a-kind vintage whips.
Oak Alley Plantation
One of the most accurately and well-restored plantations in the South, its eponymous fantastical alley of oak trees have caught the eye of many Hollywood location scouts—it's been used as a filming location for big-name projects like Interview With The Vampire, and True Detective.
Take a break from the beach and hit up the Old Port section of this harbor city, home to a thriving arts community, amazing food, breweries, and, of course, a sh*t ton of lobster. Just a heads up, like a lot of other things in the state, it's better in the warmer months.
Among other things, this 37-mile long barrier island is a sanctuary for wild horses, which roam the beaches in close proximity to humans. It's also an ideal backcountry camping spot, especially if you kayak to some of the more remote areas on the Bay side.
Gloucestor, Essex, Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Rockport
Overshadowed by its popular southerly cousin Cape Cod, Cape Ann doesn't get nearly the recognition it deserves. Just 30 miles Northeast of Boston, it packs all the charm and beauty you'd find in heavily trafficked New England beach towns in a quieter package.
This four square mile island has a year-round population of under 500 people, though during the summer months it revs up into a proper retreat with a bustling little main street, well-groomed beaches, and a number of boat-related events. To maintain its charm though, there's a unique local ordinance that prohibits the use of any motor vehicles on the island. In fact, it has the distinction of having the only state highway in the nation where cars are banned
Soudan Underground Mine State Park
The state's oldest, deepest, and richest iron mine, Soudan actually stopped being an active one in 1962. It has since been taken over by the University Of Minnesota to conduct specialized physics experiments thanks to its very low rate of cosmic rays down at its lowest level of 2,341 feet below ground. So long as you don't think you'll have a panic attack in one of the mining cars down, there are regular public tours of both the laboratory and historic mining facilities.
In the heart of the Gulf Coast only a few miles from Biloxi, this historic resort town was founded in 1699 and served as the first permanent French outpost in French Louisiana. Despite being badly damaged by Katrina, it's managed to resurrect its flourishing community of artists, performers, and merchants that give the area its charm.
Overshadowed by its brother St. Louis, KC has earned a reputation for being a much hipper city than it gets credit for. It's packed with museums and has a solid music scene, not to mention the legendary BBQ, all of which helped it land the #4 spot on Travel + Leisure's 2015 list of Most Cultured Cities.
Lewis and Clark Caverns
Overlooking over 50 miles of Lewis and Clark's expedition trail, these caverns weren't actually discovered (by non-Native Americans, that is) until nearly 80 years after they passed through. A lot of work has been done since to make them accessible to visitors, and there are guided tours from May through September to get an up-close look inside the Fraggle Rock-ian spread.
The Durham Museum
Paying homage to the Western region of the US, Durham occupies the city's former Union Station, which has been renovated to look like it did during the golden age of rail. Inside, the halls are filled with fully restored old train cars and locomotives, a massive collection of rare coins, antiques, and a bounty of modern Smithsonian-affiliated exhibits that regularly pass through.
The Neon Museum
Pry yourself from the grip of the slot machine levers and head on over to this mesmerizing graveyard of Strip signage from years gone by. The six acre property is lined with weathered and restored artifacts from the Moulin Rouge Hotel, the Stardust, Desert Inn, Caesars Palace, and Treasure Island, among many others.
Isle Of Shoals
Straddling the border between Maine, the Isle of Shoals is a group of nine tiny islands, four of which are technically part of New Hampshire. The only one that's served by a commercial boat from the mainland is 46-acre Star Island, a Unitarian Universalist-affiliated property that's home to the Oceanic Hotel and a bucolic fishing village that dates back to the 1600s.
The Stone Pony
Considered one of the greatest rock venues of all time by the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, this unsuspecting dive is best known as the place where Springsteen and Bon Jovi launched their careers. It's since become a must-stop institution for acts travelling through. If you're lucky, you might even catch a set by Bruce himself, who's been known to drop in now and again to play.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
San Juan County
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the densest and most exceptional concentration of pueblos in the country, and is the most sprawling collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico. You'll want to dedicate a solid day or two to explore it all, and most people who've been rave about camping for the night since it's a designated dark sky area and the stargazing is second to none.
The Tenement Museum
Skip the Statue of Liberty and the Times Square M&M store for something a little less chaotic and more interesting. The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side is a five-story brick tenement building that's essentially a time capsule from when it housed thousands of immigrants between 1863 and 1935. The guided tour takes you through immaculately recreated period apartments, which depict the harsh and cramped living conditions so many endured during their first years in the country.
International Peace Garden
Perched on the border between the US and Canada, this 3.5 square mile park was established back in the early '30s as a symbol of the peaceful relationship between the two countries. It's stocked with over 150,000 flowers, fountains, a peace chapel, and two twin 120-foot concrete towers. Plus, you can pass throughout the park freely, crossing the international boundary without going through customs.
The highest peak on the eastern section of the Great Smokey Mountains at nearly 6,000 feet, Grandfather is best known for the mile-high swinging bridge that connects its two high peaks and frighteningly sways side to side in the wind. For an extra thrill, watch Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom before walking across.
Ralphie Parker's House
A Christmas Story may have been set in a fictional small town in Indiana, but the house used for exterior scenes is actually in Cleveland. In 2004, an entrepreneur who built a business selling those iconic leg lamps bought the house on eBay and has had it fully renovated so the interior looks as it did in the movie. It's open to visitors, as is the museum across the street, which is filled with actual props and behind-the-scenes photos.
Turner Falls Park
Home to the tallest waterfall in the state, Turner Falls Park is a pristine 1,500 acre nature preserve with trails, caves and even a big ol' abandoned castle that was built in the '30s.
Silver Falls State Park
Home to a bounty of waterfalls, Oregon's largest state park was once a thriving logging community and was granted park status in 1935. Today, there are 24 miles of walking trails, including one that takes you past and behind ten of the most captivating falls.
Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour
If you've ever wondered what being a coal miner would be like, treat yourself to a trip inside the earth via steel rail car at this old-school coal mine, which suspended operations back in 1966. On the guided tour, you'll get an up-close look at the rough conditions and eventually escape back into fresh air through a rock tunnel.
International Tennis Hall Of Fame
Down the block from the city's magnificent mansion tours, the shingled building that currently houses the Tennis Hall Of Fame was originally a casino, built in the 1800s for the extremely wealthy. Today, it functions as a museum (complete with a creepily real Federer hologram) as well as an event and tournament venue.
Just a half hour south of Myrtle Beach, this 9,100-acre sculpture garden and wildlife preserve—which is among one of the 10 best public gardens in the country—is situated on the remains of four old rice plantations. It's a remarkably peaceful homage to the old south, dotted with weepy old oak trees and nearly 1,500 pieces of American sculpture.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Conceived as a memorial to the Ogala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, this enormous ongoing sculpture project started way back in 1948 and is slowly being carved into Thunderhead Mountain, which is considered sacred by some in the Ogala Lakota tribe. If and when it's finished, Crazy Horse's head will be nearly 30 feet taller than the heads of all the presidents on nearby Mount Rushmore.
The Lost Sea
The world's second largest non-sub-glacial lake, The Lost Sea is part of an extensive series of caves known as Craighead Caverns in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. It was accidentally discovered in 1905 by a kid playing in the caves, and has been turned into an "adventure" park with daily glass bottom boat tours that'll take you around to explore the dark recesses.
An hour from Houston, this port town has long been a popular spot for Texans to kick back and relax. It boasts a number of remarkably well-preserved architectural gems, a bustling beach culture, packed festival schedule, and several amusement parks.
Natural Bridges Monument
These captivating rock formations are the product of erosion from flash floods and seasonal streams of water passing through the canyons. There are a series of easily accessible trails to explore and a dedicated camping area, which you should consider taking advantage of since it's been a designated dark sky area and promises killer views of the stars at night.
On the shores of Lake Champlain, the 130 year-old, 3,800-acre Shelburne Farms is a well-preserved example of a so-called "ornamental farm," a product of the gilded age. It was originally built by a Vanderbilt heiress, though it turned out to be less a working farm and more a venue for her to entertain—even once hosting President Taft. After decades of sitting nearly dormant, in the 1970s it was reborn as a non-profit dedicated to sustainability education with a quaint on-site inn and restaurant.
Filled with all manner of mesmerizing geologic formations, Luray Caverns are a maze of underground water basins, crystals, and rock. There's also something known as The Great Stalacpipe Organ, which consists of stalactites that when tapped produce a series of tones similar to a xylophone's.
After hitting financial hard times, the city of Leavenworth formed a committee in the early '60s to revitalize the local economy by transforming itself into a mock Bavarian village. Amazingly, it worked and its novelty-themed downtown—which convincingly appears to have been plucked from the German countryside—attracts crowds, especially during the holidays.
Steeped in early American history, the state's easternmost town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers became a Coney Island-like getaway in the early 20th Century for residents of DC and Baltimore, who would ride the train in for the day or a weekend. Today, though, it's a more laid-back retreat with a sprawling state park and well-preserved historic district.
The Apostle Islands
Offering everything from top-notch backcountry camping to beautiful deserted beaches, this group of 22 tiny islands in Lake Superior are best explored by boat, whether on a guided cruise or, if you're brave, by kayak. And while it's most definitely more hospitable in the summer season, in the winter the islands' unique geologic formations create some wild ice caves definitely worth checking out.
Big Horn County
If killer views are your thing, you'll want to do anything you can to make a pilgrimage to see this. The Bighorn Canyon National Rec Area offers some of the most majestic American West vistas, i.e. sheer rock faces dropping into a shallow basin, roaming wild horses, and dude ranches, all of which you can glimpse from a series of winding hiking trails.
Tucked amongst the embassies and estates in one of the city's ritziest neighborhoods, this cascade of concrete steps is a spectacular spot to catch some R&R, or even a casual picnic, away from the crowds of tourists roaming the nation's capital.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supecompressor and would kill to criss-cross the country for a year by car.
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