The Most Underrated Place in Every State
Every state in this country has something -- be it a park, a museum, a mountain, hell, an entire freaking city -- that's downright fantastic but just doesn't get the credit it's due. Sure, maybe it's known, loved, and revered by some people in the region (those who, no doubt, will roll their eyes at this list 'cause they're already in the know) but for the most part, these spots go unnoticed, or worse, play second fiddle to more popular destinations.
Where are these places? We wanted to know. So to find out, we asked the experts -- from our knowledgeable local writers and editors, to the state tourism boards and visitors bureaus, to our high school friends who never moved away. (OK, so maybe not all experts.) And while we got a lot of suggestions -- from vineyards in Rhode Island to space museums in Mississippi -- each of these 50 best fit the bill as the most underrated place in its US state.
Why you need to go: While the Georgia and Tennessee sides of Lookout Mountain get all the hype, the Little River Canyon and Lookout Mountain Pkwy in Alabama might be the most scenic spots in the state. A drive along that parkway in the spring or fall is as colorful as any drive you'd make in the Northeast, and the 103ft DeSoto Falls is one of the most impressive natural wonders in the South.
Must-do: Dive off the cliffs around DeSoto Falls. You can't (and shouldn't) jump off the top of the waterfall, but the section of the river at the bottom is a popular summer swimming hole.
Why you need to go: Alaska is so incredibly vast that we could name 1,001 different wilderness areas here you’ve never heard of. The problem with that? You're in the wilderness, and will be relegated to eating MREs and canned beans. Visit Alaska's capital city, however, and you're literally at the foot of all the rugged wild terrain (and can easily get to any of the city's staggering 250 miles of hiking trails) but when you're done, you can also explore one of the most unheralded food scenes in the country; it includes everything from Tracey LaBarge, to a top-notch taco joint, to a gourmet waffle shop.
Must-do: Visit the Alaskan Brewing Company, the best-known beer from the last frontier. You'll enjoy plenty of Alaska-only brews that you won't find in the lower 48.
Why you need to go: One of the greatest demonstrations of an ecosystem fighting back after a volcanic eruption is in Northern Arizona. Almost 1,000 years ago, the soft high desert meadows were demolished by lava, and the past millennium of growth has created one of the most diverse landscapes in America. Here the Darton Dome and Bonito lava flow are only a short hike from fields of yellow wildflowers, and the crater itself is a colorful mix of reds and greens that shows how the once-lush foliage has begun to reclaim the volcanic landscape.
Must-do: You can't hike to the summit anymore, so take the one-mile Lava Flow Trail to the ice cave, a former lave tube that has melted water... kidding, ice in it year-round.
Why you need to go: Though it didn't quite make our list of the best rivers to go tubing, the Kings River is nonetheless a relaxing and scenic spot to spend an afternoon. Visitors float the clear waters under shady trees and shale/limestone bluffs. Or, if you'd rather stay off the water, the day-hiking around Kings River is challenging and the bass fishing is some of the best in Arkansas.
Must-do: A daytime float trip. You’ll see the most of the river without having to exert much energy.
Why you need to go: California is awash in world-class wine regions. And while the Thomas Keller-helmed restaurants and dozens of breweries make the other areas -- like Santa Rosa -- great places to spend the weekend, little Amador County southeast of Sacramento is a throwback to what wine country once was. Here you can drive through the tiny towns of Plymouth and Jackson and visit tiny, family-owned wineries tasting vinos you won't find elsewhere. The restaurants in Amador might not boast the famous chefs, but Taste in Plymouth can hold its own against any spot in Napa. And a stop at the Amador Brewing Company will help add a little variety to your wine-heavy routine.
Must-do: Hit the classics: Easton, Renwood, and Turley wineries
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Why you need to go: Getting up in the altitude is the entire point of going to Colorado (insert your weed joke here), but rolling down the Rockies is a pretty terrible idea. Unless you hit this underrated national park, where you can climb to the top of 750ft dunes and then roll down them like an uninhibited second-grader. Once you shake the sand out of your shoes, climb up to Crestone or Cleveland Peak, or backpack into the middle of the dunes for an overnight stay at one of the best campsites in America.
Must-do: Hike to the top of the dunes at sunset, where you’ll see colors change by the minute
Chatfield Hollow State Park
Why you need to go: This park in Southern Connecticut surrounds Chatfield Hollow Brook and is just as nice as better-known (and more crowded) Devil's Hopyard. Here you can either relax on the sandy beach of seven-acre Schreeder Pond, or hike through soft pines to old Indian caves. Because few people know about it, it’s not uncommon to have most of the place to yourself, and it's an ideal spot for a little peace and isolation.
Must-do: Fish at Mill Pond. You’re limited to two fish per day, but the pond is tiny and never crowded. So your odds are good.
Trap Pond State Park
Why you need to go: Delaware is already known for having some of the cleanest beaches in the Northeast. But head inland a little, and you'll find yourself in a magical cypress swamp -- a weird little slice of Florida in America’s first state. The park is home to the northernmost natural stand of bald cypress trees in the United States and flaunts a picturesque pond for kayaking, canoeing, and fishing.
Must-do: Kayaking through the cypress, naturally. Bring a cooler with you on a sunny day and explore places you can’t get to on a bigger boat.
Why you need to go: Though they love its beaches, Americans tend to rag on Florida for, well, pretty much everything else Florida does. But America's oldest city has done a very un-Florida thing and preserved its vaunted history, making it a classy, educational place where you can also enjoy the sunshine and sand. The walled part of the city is home to enough bars and restaurants that St. Augustine made our list of the country's most underrated party cities, and by day you can hit the beach, zip-line over alligator pits, or visit Castillo de San Marcos.
Must-do:Take a haunted bar tour. It might be a little cheesy, but you'll get to experience both the city's historic sites and best bars.
Why you need to go: If Alabama hadn't already laid claim to Lookout Mountain, we might have given this spot to one of Georgia’s other hidden gems, Cloudland Canyon State Park. That said, there’s no disputing that Brasstown Bald, the state’s highest point at 4,784ft, is equally deserving. From the observation deck at the top of this wildly underrated North Georgia mountain (whose name was erroneously derived from the original Cherokee word meaning "new green place"), you can see -- at least on a clear day -- the surrounding states and the Atlanta skyline. Hike up (don't drive), take a picnic, bring booze -- you're certain to have a lovely afternoon.
Must-do: Since you’ve already been to the top, either head out on GA-180/US-19 and stop in Dahlonega -- where you can both pan for gold AND tour the vineyards of Georgia's wine region -- or roll over to Helen, an authentic Bavarian village in the middle of the American South.
Why you need to go: The Big Island is perhaps the most rustic and diverse of any in Hawaii. And while some parts are flush with big-box stores and breweries, the remote Kau region on the southernmost section seems almost untouched by civilization. Naalehu and Pahala are the only signs of people here (we'd hesitate to call them towns), and it’s perhaps the only part of the state where you can get a sense of the place before tourism took over.
Must-do: Try the coffee. Kona gets all the hype, but the Kau coffee mill is better. Or head there for the annual Ka'u Coffee Festival.
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Why you need to go: In the high desert of Western Idaho, the Snake River cuts a course through jagged limestone and creates one of the most spectacularly underrated canyons in the United States. In fact, it's the deepest river gorge in NORTH AMERICA and offers some of the Northwest's best whitewater rafting. If you prefer a little less intensity, hike the old Forest Service roads and enjoy panoramic views of the gorge, or take a jet boat ride down the river.
Must-do: Drive to Heavens Overlook from Riggins. It's a long and winding road but has the best view of the canyon.
Why you need to go: Southern Illinois doesn't really get a lot of exposure, which is a shame because it rocks some serious natural beauty. And the unexpected gem in this forgotten region -- Rend Lake. Recreation opportunities abound with a 27-hole golf course, two beaches, 900 campsites, and even a smattering of wineries. The venerable sportsman's paradise also boasts hunting grounds and a marina for fishing boats.
Must-do: Ride the 9.4-mile paved bike trail that runs around half the lake
Why you need to go: While Indy was a little too big for its zoo to make our underrated list, it's still one of the best zoos in America. In fact, it's the only one in the US certified as a zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden, and it boasts the only interactive dolphin experience in the Midwest (which can be viewed underwater from the dome below the performance theater).
Must-do: The gondola ride across the zoo provides a perfect view of Downtown Indianapolis, the zoo, and the orangutans, in particular
Why you need to go: In the summer, the lake is a recreation destination highlighted by Arnolds Park, a sort of boardwalk amusement zone built on the shore. But in the winter, it's home to the University of Okoboji Winter Games. The university itself is completely fake, but that doesn't stop the city from selling the U-of-O logo on anything imaginable. The games, however, are very real, and range from broomball to flag football to a "freeze your fanny" bike ride.
Must-do: If you're not up for freezing said fanny, go during the summer and take a ride on the Ferris wheel at Arnolds
Why you need to go: Also known as the "chalk pyramids," these natural wonders were actually not made by ancient Egyptian fifth-graders being forced to clean erasers after class. Rather, they were created 80 million years ago when all of Kansas was part of a vast sea, and sit as the only remnants of an underwater deposit of Niobrara chalk. The rocks stand 70ft over the plains, kind of like a Midwestern Stonehenge, and are one of the more unexpected sights you'll see when traversing the Sunflower State.
Must-do: Take the short road off Hwy 83 and hike through these things. Because they were underwater, the rocks are rife with fossils and offer a lot more than just walking through (rock) chalk.
Why you need to go: Not only does it offer some stunning views of America’s 10th-best skyline (Cincinnati!), but this one-time downtrodden river town has become a hipster enclave. In addition to the art galleries and artist spaces, MainStrasse Village is home to two of America’s best bourbon bars -- Wiseguy and the Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar. Covington also boats 16 nationally registered historic districts, Cathedral Basilica (a one-third replica of the cathedral at Notre Dame), and the Roebling Suspension Bridge. Also known as the inspiration for that, you know, lesser-known bridge in Brooklyn.
Must-do: It’s Kentucky, so absolutely have some small-batch rare bourbon at Wiseguy before getting a slice of pizza at Goodfellas
Bayou Teche Paddle Trail
Why you need to go: Louisiana is about a lot more than fantastic food, partying on Bourbon St, and Swamp People. The marshes and wetlands of the state are pristine Southern wilderness, and the best way to see them is on this 135-mile waterway. It runs from Port Barre to Berwick through 13 small towns, each with its own access point to get out and explore. And every October, paddlers race through the whole thing during that annual Tour du Teche.
Must-do: Take a natural history and wildlife tour. It costs more than if you just rented a kayak on your own, but the guides know where to find crocs, egrets, and other wildlife, and will help you avoid reliving your least-favorite scenes from True Detective.
Allagash Wilderness Waterway
Why you need to go: There are exactly zero people living in this historic waterway that cuts through the heart of Maine’s timber country. Which means that from the comfort of your canoe, you can enjoy the towering fir trees for miles without interruption. For 92 miles, in fact, as that's how far the waterway stretches through lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. Naturally, it's an ideal spot for a summer float-camping trip.
Must-do: For a little more adventure, hit the whitewater at Chase Rapids downstream from Churchill Dam
Why you need to go: Manufacturing towns that have lost their luster since the jobs moved south are more or less the stuff of Springsteen legends, but unlike so many of those the Boss mentions, this one has seen a resurgence as an outdoor recreation destination. Visitors can hike through the C&O Canal, explore the Green Ridge State Forest, or bicycle off-road on the Great Allegheny Passage trail. It’s also home to the Rocky Gap Casino, which maintains a Jack Nicklaus Golf Course and four major museums (including George Washington's headquarters, if you want a little history fix).
Must-do: Float fish on the north branch of the Potomac. Fishing, floating -- it essentially combines two of the best beer-drinking activities on the planet.
Why you need to go: From the Berkshires to the Cape, Newburyport to Northampton, the Bay State has no shortage of amazing places to visit. But are any of them really considered underrated anymore? Hell, even Lowell's had its day in the sun (until The Fighter, of course, undid several years of effective public relations). But the Woo... no, Worcester is the spot you’re gonna be talking about. In fact, we already did right here. For all the Central Mass flak it takes, the city is cheap, full of colleges, and continues to attract artists and chefs and people doing cool things. In addition to a solid art museum and multiple theaters/performance venues, there's also the abandoned Bancroft Tower castle, the Worcester Bravehearts (minor-league baseball), and the surprisingly fun (if you have kids) EcoTarium!
Must-do: Stroll around the Canal District -- hit the shops, farmers market, and historical sites. Maybe kayak on the canal. Who knows, but when you're done, make haste to Wormtown Brewery and Armsby Abbey. Trust us.
Why you need to go: Michigan's Upper Peninsula might be the most untamed wilderness in the lower 48, but you still want a little taste of civilization while you're there. That’s what makes Marquette so great: you're on the shore of Lake Superior and can enjoy 85 miles of beach in the summer and some of America’s best cross-country skiing in the winter. But when you're done paddling and skiing, this city of only 21,000 rocks FOUR breweries, small-roaster coffee houses, a local theater company, and even its own symphony orchestra.
Must-do: Climb Mount Sugarloaf. Not huge, but it's the biggest mountain you'll get to in Michigan outside of the Porcupines. Easy hike, everybody can do it. We all win.
Voyageurs National Park
Why you need to go: It’s like all the charms of Venice, without any of the noise, cars, people, Italian food... OK, well it’s really nothing like Venice except that the only way you can get through the place is by boat. (Or, of course, snowmobile in the winter.) The road-free national park is filled with four large lakes and 26 smaller ones, all of which are only traversable by water. Those lakes are all bordered by cabins, resorts, and campsites where visitors can spend the night on either side of the US-Canada border. Just be on the lookout for any flying squirrels or dimwitted moose.
Must-do: Visit the Ellsworth Rock Gardens, a collection of 62 terraced flower beds and over 200 rock sculptures from artist Jack Ellsworth
Stennis Space Center and INFINITY Science Center
Why you need to go: The road to Mars goes through Southern Mississippi. And while there are a lot of jokes you could make there, we're being completely serious: right now the rockets being tested at Stennis are for our first manned mission to Mars, tentatively slated for 2018. And admission to the science center -- where you'll learn about space and science in decommissioned rockets and Navy ships -- also scores you entrance to the space center, where you can marvel at the technology that sent man to the moon.
Must-do: Take a ride in the Omega Flight Simulator, an immersive experience where you can feel what it’s like to fly in a space capsule
City Museum St. Louis
Why you need to go: If Willy Wonka went hipster and turned the chocolate factory into a vintage store, this is exactly what it would look like. Artist Bob Cassilly repurposed the old International Shoe Company building to create a museum built entirely out of, well, stuff from around St. Louis. As in, the walls are made from glued-together bottles and safety deposit boxes; the parking lot boasts two abandoned planes; Elvis' travel trailer is here, as is the world's largest No. 2 pencil. There are no maps to this museum: the idea is to get lost in the chaos of funhouse hallways and bizarre displays of bugs, doorknobs, and opera posters.
Must-see: Everything. The spirit of the museum is just to wander and observe, and if we gave you some direction, Bob Cassilly would be rolling over in his grave. But when you're done, head down the street and have a beer at Flannery's Irish Pub.
Why you need to go: OK, so the airport isn’t offering you much in terms of food, but in a state known for open spaces and national parks, you wouldn’t expect to find one of the next big up-and-coming cities in America. But this small town sits within shouting distance of ski slopes (Big Sky) and fly fishing (the Madison, Gallatin, and Yellowstone Rivers), with four breweries, four distilleries, and art, historical, and geological museums. It’s a college town (probably why it's home to Montana's best pizza at Cosmic Pizza) but not one that's overwhelmed by university students. And between the outdoors and the inventive beer/food, it can be one of the most surprisingly fun spots to spend a weekend.
Must-do: Make a side trip to Palisade Falls and hike to an 80ft waterfall
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area
Why you need to go: The bluffs of Nebraska might be the state’s best-known geographic feature, but viewing them is typically done from a passing car window. At Wildcat Hills, however, visitors have over a thousand acres to explore (it's the most biodiverse place in the state), and they can climb through buttes and pine canyons to reach the majestic vistas that overlook the North Platte River and Scottsbluff region. This spring, they’re also adding a public shooting range where you can fire off everything from arrows to high-powered air rifles.
Must-do: Hike to monument view for the best shot of Nebraska’s famous bluffs
Why you need to go: For years Reno has been the butt of jokes about hookers, meth, and depressing casinos, and its only claim to legitimacy was the National Bowling Stadium (which is real, and huge). But this town in the Sierras woke up and realized it's only a few hours from the Bay Area, and then it proceeded to create a whole category of fun activities that have nothing to do with pai gow. Not only that, but the Midtown area popped up with a clever collection of new restaurants, bars, and cocktail lounges that still stay open late, but forego the traditional sleaze.
Must-do: Hit The Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery. The 100-year-old brick building is the former headquarters of the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway, but now makes aged whiskeys and 13 craft beers.
Jericho Mountain State Park
Why you need to go: Sure, Mount Washington gets all the natural-beauty-and-crazy-weather hype in the Granite State, but does it maintain the longest system of connected trails in America? No, it does not. That honor belongs to Jericho Mountain, where they’ve already cut 1,000 miles of trails and plan to add more. This makes the park perfect for summer camping, canoeing, and fishing, then even better for winter snowmobiling.
Must-do: Rent an ATV. The park offers 75 miles of trails that you can take right up to a cabin, RV, or tent site.
Why you need to go: When you imagine a summer weekend at the boardwalk filled with soft serve ice cream, skee-ball, mini golf, and amusement park rides, you're picturing Point Pleasant. A far cry from the fist-pumping Jersey Shore you saw on TV, or the Lilly Pulitzer crowd you’ll find in more upscale beach towns, Point Pleasant perfectly blends family fun and beach partying; you’ll feel just as comfortable day drinking on the beach and hitting Martell’s Tiki Bar at night as you would taking your kids on the carousel at Jenkinson's.
Must-do: Eat French fries from Chippy’s or frozen custard from Kohr’s. They both just taste like summer.
Santa Rosa Blue Hole
Why you need to go: Just go ahead and hit play on that video above. Bet you never thought you could make New Mexico look like a University of Miami sorority recruitment video, did you? But that's what happens at the Santa Rosa Blue Hole, an 81ft sapphire lake between Albuquerque and Amarillo that has become a destination swimming spot for many a New Mexican. It's one of seven lakes connected by a vast underground water system, but by far the most visible and best for recreation. Here you’ll learn to scuba dive in the middle of a red mesa, jump off a scorching desert cliff into clear blue water, or even hold a business conference -- you know, 'cause they've got the facilities.
Must-do: Jump in. There's not much novelty to a lake in the middle of the desert if you don't use it to cool off.
Why you need to go: As one sommelier we spoke to about America's best wine regions so succinctly put it, "The Finger Lakes are banging some serious juice right now." But there's a lot more to New York's wine country (and 2014’s Wine Enthusiast Region of the Year) than just vineyards. There's also a Finger Lakes Cheese Trail so you can pair all that wine with your favorite fermented curds. In autumn, the foliage around the gorges, from Letchworth State Park to Watkins Glen, puts New England fall colors to shame (although the waterfalls are just as impressive in the summer). And the boating, fishing, and water sports on these 11 mostly undeveloped lakes are the best in the state.
Must-do: Drink some riesling. This cold-weather grape is the specialty of the region and is made best at Ravines and Dr. Frank’s.
Why you need to go: Locals actually have a term for when you visit this island, then leave and forget what day it is: "Ocracoma." That’s how captivating it is. While the beach pretty much begins when you step off the ferry, the island is as rich in history as it is sand and offers visitors the chance to see a colonial British cemetery and the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. The village, which sits along Silver Lake Harbor, is a collection of small shops and restaurants that invites you to come in and spend an entire day. Which, it seems, many do to induce the aforementioned Ocracoma.
Must-do: Take a ghost walk through town with an actual descendant of Blackbeard’s quartermaster. The legendary pirate lost his head off Springer's Point.
Why you need to go: Simply put, there is no roadside attraction on the planet that rivals this collection of amazing metal sculptures. Stretching 32 miles of highway south from I-94, the trail begins with "Geese in Flight" (allegedly the largest metal sculpture in the world) and treats motorists to a new sculpture from artist Gary Greff every few miles -- the world's largest grasshopper, a farmer, a bucking Teddy Roosevelt, it's all here. And the journey continues all the way to the sleepy town of Regent, which the project was originally created to revitalize.
Must-do: Drive it, obviously. The entire thing. It's only an hour detour and your stop for lunch in Regent is why this thing was built in the first place.
Why you need to go: OK, OK, we know: to anyone in the Midwest, this is probably THE most "rated" place in all of Ohio. In fact, it’s probably the only reason you ever visit the state. But you may be surprised to learn that most of America has NEVER heard of Cedar Point. Like, ever. Seriously, it could be the best roller coaster park IN THE WORLD that continues to get overshadowed. It seems like every couple of years, Cedar Point unleashes the biggest, craziest, best roller coaster ever built. Until it does it again. The fourth-best roller coaster here goes 92mph and has insane drops. That's fourth best. The top thrill dragster goes from zero to 120mph in four seconds. Sure, it's tucked away in a place you'd basically never choose to be otherwise -- and is only really open six months a year -- but that's what makes going there pretty damn special. It's also what a lot of kids do the day after prom, aside from buying Plan B and Gatorade.
Must-ride: Millennium Force. It’s been rated the best steel coaster in the world FOUR TIMES and has perfect views of Lake Erie from the 310ft first climb.
Why you need to go: At just under a million people in its metro area, Tulsa is the smallest American city with its own ballet, opera, and symphony. And while it was once an oil hub, it has reinvented itself with burgeoning aerospace and finance industries and is routinely ranked as a top destination for young professionals thanks to its low cost of living and commute times. It's also just a short drive to Natural Falls State Park and the Talimena National Scenic Byway -- one of the top drives in the nation for fall colors. Next year, Tulsa will welcome the Gathering Place, a 100-acre Downtown park along the Arkansas River and the largest private land grant for a park in US history. Seriously, a visit to Tulsa will give you a whole new perspective on this proud plains state. You will not be disappointed.
Must-do: Oktoberfest, if you can make it there in time. Tulsa’s is ranked among the top 10 in the world. Also, grab a slice from Umberto's on South Harvard Ave -- do it!
Why you need to go: Oregon is kind of like America’s hippie uncle -- you know deep down he's pretty smart but no one believes it because he's high all the time. And that uncle probably lives in Ashland, a place with a small-town USA feel interspersed with artists, great beer, and lots of people who still live in the 1960s. It's also the closest thing America has to a Shakespearean theme town, where parks, buildings, hotels, and amphitheaters all boast names from Shakespeare plays. And the annual Shakespeare Festival -- with live performances in the park -- draws nearly 400,000 spectators and brings in a whopping $19 million.
Must-do: Nope, nothing to do with Othello. You should take a wine tour. For far less than tours in more popular West Coast wine destinations, you can hire a limo to drive you to four wineries in the nearby Rogue Valley.
Pine Creek Gorge
Why you need to go: The place is referred to as "Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon," so if you replace red rocks with sharp green mountains and the furious Colorado River with Pine Creek, you get the idea. The Pine Creek Rail Trail sits at the base of the canyon and makes seeing the whole thing considerably pleasant, but not nearly as pleasant as floating down the river and looking up at the Tioga State Forest. You can also traverse the canyon via covered wagon!
Must-do: Hit the Turkey Path at Leonard Harrison State Park and hike a mile to a secret waterfall
Why you should visit: The Gilded Age mansions of Newport are obviously the city's biggest attraction. Getting ironically dressed up and tailgating at the polo matches is also fun. But few think of coastal Rhode Island as wine country, and they should. The terrain is as green and lush as any West Coast wine region, and the area boasts some solid grapes at vineyards like Carolyn’s Sakonnet, Greenvale, and Newport Vineyards.
Must-do: Try them all. Like the state itself, it'll be small but surprisingly varied.
Why you need to go: Underdeveloped beaches that are actually warm have become harder to find in America than a pay phone. One of the best on the East Coast, however, is on this tiny island, where campsites outnumber vacation rentals and the day's main activity usually involves sitting around on the beach. Edisto is a place for beach purists, for families who want to get away from somewhere small but still enjoy the isolation. Aside from the serpentarium and one fantastic golf course, Edisto is pretty much all about relaxation. And that's how anyone who lives there or visits likes it.
Must do: Take a canoe and spend the night at the Edisto River Treehouses
National Music Museum
Why you need to go: We already told you the 17 reasons why the entire state of South Dakota is horribly underrated. But this spot wasn't one them. Located on the University of South Dakota campus, this museum is home to more than 15,000 musical instruments, including historic beauties from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (the Stradivari items are particularly popular... and amazing), an extremely rare fingerboard theremin (also called a cello theremin), one of Bill Clinton’s saxophones, and a guitar owned by Johnny Cash. It might be the most impressive collection of musical instruments in America that doesn't also sell souvenir shot glasses.
Must-see: The Shakespeare First Folio, one of the world’s most valuable books, is currently on display
Why you you need to go: Even though the town has been named the "Best Town EVER" by Outside Magazine twice, the indoor options here are becoming just as formidable as those out of doors. Plus, it doesn't really seem that people are getting the message about how great this place is. Not only is the Tennessee Aquarium home to baby penguins (!!), but the Tennessee Stillhouse literally got laws rewritten so it could become the first legal distillery in Chattanooga in over a century. And later this year, the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel will reopen (after a $20 million renovation) with two restaurants, a live-music venue, and even a comedy club.
Must-do: Walk the Walnut St Bridge. The world's longest pedestrian bridge connects Downtown Chattanooga to the north shore. And... it's now dog-friendly!
Why you need to go: Perhaps you've never heard of this little ghost town in Southwest Texas. But have you heard of a little restaurant called Chili's? Well, your favorite two-for-on all-day Southwestern joint was launched out of the Chili Appreciation Society International's annual chili cook-off, which is held here every November. When it’s not a chili hub, Terlingua is an old mercury mining town that was abandoned, but is now sparsely repopulated with stone restaurants/cantinas with shady outdoor seating -- it's the perfect place the enjoy a beer on a hot day. For car buffs, the city is awash in Shelby history and is home to the Shelby Terlingua Racing Team.
Must-do: Have dinner and catch a show at the Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon, an Old West theater that’s been converted into an eatery. It feels a little like a tourist trap, but the food definitely doesn't taste like it.
Why you need to go: Affectionately known as "The Palm Springs of Utah," this desert town is only a couple of hours from Las Vegas, offers year-round golf, and serves as a gateway city to Zion National Park. It’s also only about 20 minutes from Snow Canyon State Park, an underrated destination unto itself that rocks a red-orange blend of Navajo sandstone cliffs, petrified sand dunes, and lava fields (seriously, you gotta go). As it is Utah, we can't tell you much about the local beer or bar scene, but if you want a natural resort town with not a lot of people, St. George is your play.
Must-do: Go rock climbing at Snow Canyon. The Circus and adjacent Aftershock walls are two of the best in the state.
VINS Nature Center
Why you need to go: If this place held more than birds, it would have been a shoe-in for the most unexpectedly cool zoos in America. But as it is, this aviary at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science rescues and rehabilitates injured birds from throughout New England, then lets them recover in humongous cages meant to recreate their natural environments. So visitors can see birds like bald eagles, falcons, and snow owls flying in their normal habitats. Which is pretty damn cool.
Must-do: Catch a live raptor show and see how some of the biggest birds on the planet behave
Kiptopeke concrete ships
Why you need to go: You'll really gain a new appreciation for Archimedes' principle when you see entire boats made of concrete somehow FLOATING in Chesapeake Bay. And while generations of mobsters have lived (and not lived) by the concept of concrete sinking to the bottom, WWI and WWII ship builders knew otherwise, and constructed these warships during times of immense steel shortages. After the war, these concrete cruisers were decommissioned and now act as a weather breaker to shield the pier at the ferry terminal. They're part of Kiptopeke State Park, and while you can't tour them, they're still one of the most unusual sights in America.
Must-do: Take the ferry ride and see the ships up close
Why you need to go: Bellingham is home to Western Washington University, probably one of the more unheralded college towns in America. It’s also home to the Horseshoe -- the oldest restaurant in Washington -- and nine breweries, most notably Boundary Bay and its "Save the Ales" hoodies. The city is funky in the way only a Northwest college town can be, filled with well-dressed students and aging hippies. And a short drive gets you to alpine skiing, boating, Downtown Seattle, or the Canadian border.
Must-do: Get a burger at Boomer’s Drive-In. It’s like the 1950s had a kid with Sonic and he got sick of them both and moved to Washington State.
Why you need to go: The Mystery Hole is kind of like West Virginia's version of Fight Club -- the first rule is, don't talk about it. That's why this psychedelic Quonset hut on the side of US-60 draws so many visitors. Like most "Mystery" attractions, the deal here is simple: the laws of physics and gravity for some reason don’t apply. So when you walk past the giant clown face and down into the "unknown," you'll see balls roll uphill, people balanced on a tiny wood stick, short people grow taller than tall people, and other things your brain probably won't be able to process. But it’s an absolute must-stop any time you're near the New River Gorge, and if you’re not sure where it is, just look for the giant gorilla guarding the entrance or the VW Bug crashed into the side.
Must-do: Leave your cellphone in the car, they don't let you take pictures inside
Why you need to go: Apologies to all the Midwesterners whose great secret we're giving away, but there are AMAZING sea caves in Wisconsin. The 21 islands that make up this national lakeshore are known as the "Jewels of Lake Superior," but the real attraction is the sandstone ice caves on the 12 miles of mainland. The glacially formed caverns are filled with water and in the summer make for a magical kayak trip. But in the winter, massive icicles hang down from the ceiling like translucent stalactites -- if you can bear the cold, it’s a sight you’ll see nowhere else in America.
Must-do: Kayak through the caves. Sure, the park is beautiful, but the caves are why you are there.
Why you need to go: Typically, visitors to Wyoming come for Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, or, occasionally, for Cheyenne Frontier Days. But little Sheridan is one of the most fun small-town experiences you can have in the American West. By day, visitors explore the Bighorn Mountains on foot or by horseback. And by night, the city has all the charm of an old Western theme town, except it's the real deal. Where cowboys once roamed, there are now bistros, restaurants, and brewpubs, most with outdoor seating so you can can enjoy the cool summer nights.
Must-do: Join the Street Dance during the Sheridan Rodeo, an annual party where guests get down on Sheridan’s main drag in what looks like a combination Western/Bollywood movie
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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram: @meltrez1.