From the enchanting allure of Disney World to the vibrant energy of Times Square, and the breathtaking wilderness of Yellowstone National Park, America’s most popular tourist destinations are often brimming with eager explorers from around the globe. Yet, the vast and diverse United States is home to countless hidden gems that, while equally captivating, tend to escape the typical travel itinerary.
Imagine a treasure trove of hundreds of lesser-known locales, each with its unique charm and character, waiting to be discovered. We’ve curated a list of 25 such destinations, a mix of quaint towns, expansive national parks, culturally rich regions, and even entire states that have somehow managed to stay under the radar, despite the recent resurgence in travel.
These destinations, spanning the breadth of the country from the rugged coastlines of the Northeast to the sun-kissed beaches of the Pacific, offer a refreshing alternative to the usual tourist hotspots. They promise an authentic and immersive experience, a chance to connect with the heart and soul of America beyond the well-trodden paths.
So, pack your bags, fuel up your sense of adventure, and get ready to embark on a journey of discovery. Let’s traverse the American landscape together, one underrated destination at a time.
1. Valley of Pioneers, Massachusetts
While the far west of Massachusetts is known for the Berkshires and the east is marked by Boston and Cape Cod, the heart of the state is home to the Valley of Pioneers, shaped by the Connecticut River and several historic mill towns that have undergone a modern transformation.
Springfield houses the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the birthplace of the sport in 1891, and the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum & Sculpture Garden, a tribute to the beloved children’s author born in the city. Northampton, with its unique shops, eateries, and vibrant LGBTQ community, is worth exploring, or you could venture across the Connecticut River to hike a section of the New England Trail through the northern woods and discover the diverse wildlife.
2. Island of Blocks, Rhode Island
Unlike its larger counterparts off the southern coast of New England, this small island of Rhode Island has made significant efforts to conserve its natural surroundings. The Nature Conservancy has even named this tiny island as one of the “Last Great Places” in the western hemisphere.
Over 40% of the Island of Blocks is protected by wildlife refuges and other nature reserves, and its inhabitants are known for their strong resistance to anything that could threaten their untouched Atlantic home. Daytime activities mainly include beach visits, biking, camping in the wild, and hiking the 32 miles of coastal and inland trails. After sunset, the island offers a surprisingly rich culinary scene and relaxed bars like Captain Nick’s, Yellow Kittens, and the Poor People’s Pub.
3. Buffalo, New York
Once a thriving city at the junction of the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, Buffalo spent much of the 20th century in a slumber. As this metropolis in Upstate New York slowly reawakens, it’s clear that this period of dormancy has helped preserve its classic architecture.
Buffalo’s architectural gems include the Art Deco City Hall, Greek Revival Buffalo History Museum, Victorian glass houses at the botanical gardens, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s sleek Martin House. The city’s waterfront has undergone a renaissance, featuring the Canalside shopping and entertainment district, lakeside trails for hiking and biking, a naval maritime museum, and Silo City with its iconic grain elevators. Plus, Niagara Falls is just a short drive away.
4. Wilds of Pennsylvania
From diverse wildlife and untamed mountain streams to the ancient trees of the Forest Cathedral and the grand canyon-like Pine Creek, the Wilds of Pennsylvania in north-central Pennsylvania still hold plenty of wilderness.
One of the least populated areas east of the Mississippi River, the Wilds stretch across a large portion of the rugged Allegheny Plateau. Besides the Allegheny National Forest, the region includes 29 state parks, two national wild and scenic rivers, and a world-class stargazing center at Cherry Springs, as well as human-made landmarks like the Kinzua Bridge (once called the “8th Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1882).
5. West Virginia
West Virginia may not be “almost heaven” for everyone, but it certainly is for history enthusiasts and outdoor lovers.
Harpers Ferry is known for John Brown’s infamous 1859 raid that sparked the Civil War. Three years later, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson led a successful Confederate attack on the strategic Union-held town. The riverside town is also a starting point for the Appalachian Trail and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath.
Established in late 2020 as the nation’s newest national park, New River Gorge is famous for whitewater sports, hiking and mountain biking, and Bridge Day BASE jumping from the massive New River Gorge Bridge.
6. Durham, North Carolina
Few American cities have undergone a more dramatic transformation over the past 15 years than Durham. Once a hub for the tobacco industry, Durham has transformed into a center for science, art, sports, and entertainment, with a revitalized downtown and a repurposed American Tobacco Campus.
The Durham Bulls, the country’s most renowned minor league baseball team, play their often sold-out games at a modern downtown stadium. The Duke Lemur Center allows visitors to walk through large forest habitats dedicated to preserving some of the world’s rarest mammals. Additionally, the city’s craft brewery and distillery scene is truly impressive.
7. National Seashore of Cumberland Island, Georgia
Georgia’s largest barrier island combines beach relaxation and outdoor adventure with abundant wildlife and notable American families.
While most visitors come to Cumberland for the day, either by their own boats or a ferry from St. Marys on the mainland, there are also options to stay overnight at beachside campgrounds or the elegant Greyfield Inn, a 1900 establishment still owned and operated by the Carnegie family of steel fame.
Wild horses frolic and sea turtles nest along the island’s 18-mile-long beach, while alligators roam the wetlands along Cumberland Sound. JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette chose the First African Baptist Church at Northend, a historic African American community founded by freed slaves, for their wedding.
8. Forgotten Coast of Florida
Situated along the Gulf of Mexico between Port St. Joe and St. Marks, this overlooked part of the Florida shore offers a genuine experience of the Sunshine State.
The ultra-fine beaches on the St. Joseph Peninsula and St. George Island provide a less crowded alternative to Florida’s more famous (and crowded) beaches. Wakulla Springs and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge are home to wildlife such as manatees and monarch butterflies.
The St. Mark’s Stone Crab Festival in October and Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola in November offer fresh seafood and live music.
9. Western Tennessee
Adjacent to the Mississippi River, the western part of the Volunteer State offers a compelling mix of nature, history, music, and cuisine.
Memphis’s Beale Street is famous for the blues, but the city is also the birthplace of soul and rock ‘n’ roll and remains one of the best places to enjoy live music today. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and Sun Studio are all located here, and the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is a must-visit historical site.
With over 100 barbecue joints serving tangy, spicy, and sweet Memphis pork barbecue, food lovers are in for a treat. If that’s not your taste, the city also offers excellent soul food and Delta-style fish restaurants.
Western Tennessee’s role in the Civil War is highlighted at Shiloh National Military Park and Fort Donelson National Battlefield, sites of battles that brought the relatively unknown general Ulysses S. Grant to national prominence.
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park preserves nearly 13,000 acres of rare hardwood bottomland along the Mississippi River, including a spooky bald cypress swamp. In addition to boating, hiking, and camping, the park is an Audubon “Important Bird Area.”
10. Ouachita Peaks, Arkansas
Nestled in a valley on the southeastern edge of the Ouachita range, Hot Springs National Park has been a favorite since the 1830s when the first bathhouses were established. However, few tourists venture further into the highlands of west-central Arkansas.
Unlike the nearby Ozarks, which offer manmade attractions to enjoy nature and culture, the Ouachitas remain remarkably untouched. This makes these mountains perfect for those who prefer their hiking, camping, and fishing with a generous dose of solitude.
Magazine Mountain, the state’s highest point, is a regional hotspot for hang-gliding, and the area also features challenging mountain biking trails.
11. Kansas City, Missouri
Missouri’s second-largest city is a feast for the senses. As a birthplace of American jazz, KC is home to over 40 venues where you can enjoy live jazz, blues, and other music, and probably just as many places serving delicious, slow-cooked Kansas City barbecue.
You can watch a Royals game at Kauffman Stadium, compare Van Gogh and Warhol at the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, delve into history at the National World War I Museum & Memorial, explore the frontier-era Arabia Steamboat exhibition, or take a leisurely walk at Country Club Plaza, opened in 1922 as the nation’s first suburban shopping center.
12. Southern Illinois
Sandwiched between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the southern tip of the state still retains much of the early 1800s Illinois feel when the infamous Trail of Tears passed through and a young Abraham Lincoln was still splitting rails.
Hikers can explore the dark woods and deep canyons of Shawnee National Forest – and maybe even spot a Sasquatch – on the 160-mile River to River Trail. Shorter hikes lead to the ancient rocky outcrops of Giant City and Garden of the Gods.
Among the region’s manmade attractions are the Superman Museum and colossal statue in Metropolis, the Cave-in-Rock free ferry across the Ohio River, and the Full Terror Assault heavy metal music festival in September.
13. Lake Superior
The American half of the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area) stretches across northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, a vast expanse of water, trees, islands, and wildlife that rivals anything out west.
Bookended by Duluth, Minnesota, and Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the Lake Superior region includes Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands national lakeshores, Isle Royale National Park with its resident wolves, moose, and other creatures, and the winter sports slopes of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.
Anglers can cast for 86 fish species that inhabit the lake, while divers have scores of historic shipwrecks to explore. For those who just want to glide through, half a dozen major cruise lines include Superior in their Great Lakes itineraries.
A state that many people fly over and drive right through, Oklahoma is one of those underrated places you should visit sooner rather than later.
Oklahoma City boasts a surprisingly rich and varied food scene, especially the eclectic Paseo, Plaza, and Uptown 23rd neighborhoods and the Asian district.
The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and Oklahoma City National Memorial are both must-see spots. For the outdoor inclined, Riversport OKC offers whitewater rafting, tubing, ziplines, dog parks and sky trails in the city center.
Oklahoma’s long stretch of Historic Route 66 is strewn with old-fashioned diners, museums, and roadside oddities. Tulsa showcases local hero Woody Guthrie, the new Bob Dylan Center, and classic Art Deco architecture, while Medicine Park village and the nearby Wichita Mountains offer a taste of Wild West days.
15. Badlands of North Dakota
South Dakota’s badlands may be more famous (especially since they featured in the Oscar-winning movie “Nomadland”). However, the badlands of neighboring North Dakota played a more significant role in American history.
This is where a young Teddy Roosevelt lived the cowboy lifestyle in the 1880s, an experience that shaped his conservation philosophy and his resilient presidential persona.
The region’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, inspired by America’s 26th president, protects his modest log cabin and a pristine section of the northern mixed grass prairie, home to species Roosevelt would have encountered, including bison, prairie dogs, and wild horses.
The gateway to the park, Medora, offers its own Wild West relics such as Chateau de Mores, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and a summertime outdoor musical inspired by Roosevelt’s badlands days.
16. North Park, Colorado
Thanks to the irreverent TV show, just about everyone’s heard of South Park. But did you know that there’s a North Park in Colorado?
Located about a three-hour drive northwest of Denver, this broad highland valley is nestled between the snow-capped peaks of the Medicine Bow Mountains and Park Range in one of the state’s least populated corners.
The Continental Divide Trail wraps around two sides of North Park, while the valley’s waterways provide a pristine habitat for trout, migratory birds, and plenty of moose.
17. White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Like a scene from a sci-fi movie, White Sands feels like visiting an alien planet. That’s how surreal it is to explore the world’s largest gypsum dune field.
Visitors can hike across or sled down the bright-white dunes. If you didn’t bring your own toboggan, the visitor center gift shop sells/rents plastic discs. Overnight backpack camping is available along a sandy wilderness trail.
18. Flagstaff, Arizona
Even though it’s Arizona’s third-largest metro area, Flagstaff tends to be a place that travelers pass through on their way to the Grand Canyon or Sedona or following Route 66. But it definitely deserves a look-see.
During the school year, the 28,000 students of Northern Arizona University fill the city with a youthful energy that infuses the restaurants and bars of the historic downtown district.
Come summer, Flagstaff’s lofty altitude (6,900 feet) brings much cooler temperatures than the rest of Arizona and almost ideal weather for hiking the nearby San Francisco Peaks and Coconino National Forest. The elevation also brings winter snow and awesome skiing and snowboarding at Arizona Snowbowl.
The city’s Lowell Observatory offers a variety of family-friendly astronomy programs. Just a short drive from Flagstaff is Bearizona wildlife park, Meteor Crater, and three national monuments — Sunset Crater Volcano, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki.
19. West Texas
In frontier days, Texas west of the Pecos River was the epitome of the Wild West. An image that was later bolstered by classic movies like “The Searchers,” “Giant,” and “No Country For Old Men.”
The vast region is still sparsely populated, home to wide-open spaces and a couple of the nation’s wildest national parks: Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains. Terlingua ghost town hosts a huge annual chili cookoff, Fort Davis preserves a historic US Cavalry post, while Marfa offers Hollywood history, offbeat art, and the mysterious “Marfa Lights” of UFO lore.
20. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
The most expansive national monument in the Lower 48, Grand Staircase-Escalante (GSE) stretches across nearly 1.9 million acres of mostly roadless wilderness in the heart of south-central Utah.
The park is named after the remote Escalante Canyons and a series of massive plateaus that descend like a colossal staircase between Bryce Canyon and Zion. Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, GSE offers ample opportunities for wilderness hiking, camping, and mountain biking.
In addition to primitive camping, Grand Staircase-Escalante also features luxury glamping spots like Yonder Escalante near the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center in the town of Escalante, and Under Canvas near Lake Powell.
21. Tacoma, Washington
While Seattle may garner most of the attention (and tourists), Tacoma can certainly compete when it comes to remarkable attractions, thanks to the stunning glass art of local artist Dale Chihuly, one of the country’s best collections of classic cars, and exceptional seafood.
The great outdoors also calls: Tacoma is closer than Seattle to Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, as well as fantastic cold-water scuba diving in the Hood Canal.
22. Channel Islands National Park, California
A glimpse into old California, this five-island park preserves paleolithic archaeological sites, frontier-era ranches, and remnants of Spanish exploration.
But its strength lies in its unspoiled nature. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, and sea otters play in the waters surrounding the park, while the islands provide a terrestrial habitat for extremely rare species like the Torrey Pine and Island Fox.
Only around 30,000 people visit the islands each year. For those who make the ferry crossing from Ventura Harbor, there’s scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, and backpacking – often in complete solitude.
23. San Luis Obispo, California
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California’s scenic Highway 101, San Luis Obispo has only recently emerged as a legitimate tourism destination.
Two factors contributed to the turnaround: the development of world-class wine regions in nearby Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley, and the transformation of downtown SLO into a vibrant social and shopping hub for the 22,000 students at Cal Poly SLO university.
Craft breweries, affordable restaurants, and unique boutiques are all the rage in a city that also offers a historic Spanish mission, Coastal Range hiking and biking, and the seaside at Morro Bay and Avila Beach within a short drive.
24. Kaʻū District, Hawaii
Likely the first place that Polynesians landed in the Hawaiian Islands over 1,000 years ago, Kaʻū is the southernmost part of the big Island of Hawaii.
Virtually untouched by modern tourism, the district is known for its dramatic black and green sand beaches, tropical fruit and coffee farms, and the popular Punalu’u Bake Shop.
Hikers and mountain bikers can explore the remote Kahuku Unit or Ka’u Desert in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, while Kealakekua Bay offers fantastic kayaking, snorkeling, and Hawaiian history at the district’s northwest corner.
25. Matanuska Valley, Alaska
Just an hour’s drive from Anchorage, this long river valley offers the kind of outdoor experiences that usually require much more time and effort to reach.
Get up close and personal with furry Arctic animals at the valley’s Musk Ox Farm and learn about the lives of frontier-era gold miners and their families at Independence ghost town.
In conclusion, the United States is a treasure trove of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. From the serene beaches of Rhode Island to the rugged wilderness of Alaska, these lesser-known locales offer a refreshing alternative to the usual tourist hotspots.
They provide an authentic and immersive experience, allowing you to connect with the heart and soul of America beyond the well-trodden paths. So, why not veer off the beaten track on your next trip and explore these underrated destinations? You might just find your new favorite spot. Happy traveling!