15 Best Off-The-Beaten-Path Vacation Destinations in the U.S.
K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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While they’re certainly worthy of a visit, places like Yellowstone National Park, Los Angeles, and New York City are often jam-packed with tourists. For those who want to avoid the masses, fortunately, there are still plenty of hidden gems that manage to fly beneath the radar. As the type of traveler who almost always prefers going off-the-beaten path, I’ve scoped out many of them over the years. For your next trip, consider an escape to one of my favorite destinations, from lesser-known national parks to small towns with an interesting history and a wealth of outdoor adventure nearby.
White Sands National Park is one of the newest national parks in the country, designated as such in December 2019. It’s worth putting on your list with its snow-white dunes covering the landscape like waves, engulfing 275 square miles in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. One of the world’s greatest natural wonders, the fine sand is composed of gypsum which makes it feel incredibly soft to walk on with your bare feet. If you walk 10 minutes from the road in any direction, you’ll be surrounded by an endless expanse of the dunes that can rise as high as 60 feet, with picturesque mountains and often a brilliant blue sky in the backdrop. There are Ranger-guided walks, and the park gift shop sells sand sleds so you can take part in the most popular activity here, whizzing down the dunes.
While Budget Travel named Baker City one of the “Coolest Towns in America” in 2016, it still remains well off the beaten path for most, nestled in a valley between the Elkhorn and Wallowa Mountains. The surrounding area of this charming small town in Oregon offers a long list of possibilities for recreational activities, with parts of the Oregon Trail, Hells Canyon, and Snake River here. A ride on a vintage, narrow-gauge train is possible too, thanks to the Sumpter Valley Railroad, traveling through the heart of gold country between nearby McEwen and the historic mining town of Sumpter. But there’s plenty to do in town as well, with over 100 historic buildings like the 1889 Geiser Grand Hotel, which is worth popping into even if you don’t stay the night, with mahogany woodwork, crystal chandeliers, and a stained-glass skylight. The Baker Heritage Museum and Alder House Museum offer the chance to learn more about the local history.
Baxter State Park is a hidden treasure for hikers and one of the best state parks in Maine. It’s home to Mount Katahdin, the state’s tallest peak at 5,268 feet and is the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail. Drawing many adventure seekers, climbing the granite giant provides a strenuous and sometimes technical challenge with an elevation gain of around 4,000 feet while taking an average of eight to 12 hours to complete. There are miles of trails offering gentler walks too, while the many sparkling lakes are popular for paddling with kayaks and canoes available for rent at the park’s pondside campgrounds. It’s easy to find solitude here and wildlife sightings are common, including white-tailed deer, black bear, and moose.
Located at the northeastern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Port Townsend is surrounded by water on three sides while soaring mountains can be seen in nearly every direction, including the Olympics and the Cascades, with both Mount Baker and Mount Rainier making appearances on a clear day. The downtown area of this charming small town in Washington State is filled with beautiful Victorian buildings, many of which now house galleries, eclectic shops, coffee houses, pubs, and restaurants. Learn more about its history in multiple museums, from the Jefferson Museum of Art and History and the Northwest Maritime Center to the beautiful 19th-century Rothschild House that was left as the family remembered it from its early years. Just a couple miles away, you’ll find Fort Worden State Park, which offers long, sandy beaches, a lighthouse, hiking trails, and kayak rentals for paddling around Admiralty Bay.
With less than 20 miles of coastline, few people think about New Hampshire for a beach getaway, but that just makes it more enjoyable for those who do. Hampton Beach is the largest stretch and one of the prettiest beaches on the East Coast, perfect for tossing down a beach blanket to soak up the summer sun, sandcastle building, and kite-flying in between refreshing dips. There’s a lively boardwalk with ice cream parlors, pizzerias, souvenir shops, and arcades too, while the Ocean World Oceanarium offers a touch tank and biologist-led tours. Plus, the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom frequently hosts well-known comedians and big-name touring bands.
While places like Orlando, Palm Beach, and Miami get plenty of attention, the small town of Tarpon Springs is ideal for escaping the crowds, just 20 minutes north of Clearwater. The downtown area of this charming Florida town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places with its brick streets, specialty shops, antique stores, and art galleries housed in 19th-century buildings. The “Sponge Capital of the World,” the opportunities for sponge diving drew many Greeks here and today, it has the largest Greek American population in the country with lots of Greek influence seen throughout, including the many restaurants at the Sponge Docks for trying authentic dishes like souvlaki. Some eateries offer Greek music and dancing too.
Pinnacles is just a two-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, but it’s the least-explored national park in California. It offers a little of what many of the more famous parks are known for, including the soaring granite domes of Yosemite, the massive trees of Redwood National and State Parks, the ancient volcanoes of Lassen, and the Dr. Seuss-like vegetation of Joshua Tree National Park. There are numerous trails for exploring, but you’ll want to avoid the hot summer months. The best time to come is from February and June, with March and May arguably the best, with colorful wildflowers dotted across the landscape.
Voyageurs National Park is the ultimate place for paddlers who want to explore without the crowds. This 218,000-acre park is 40 percent water, with no roads – making it one of the most remote national parks in the country. It includes more than 30 lakes and interconnected waterways, with visitors getting around on everything from canoes and kayaks to houseboats. There are 655 miles of unspoiled shoreline and over 500 islands to explore. Swimming, fishing, and wildlife watching are all popular. Those who camp here are practically guaranteed epic stargazing that includes lots of shooting stars and the Milky Way. In the winter, cross-country skiing on six miles of groomed trails is popular, and you might even spot the northern lights.
The Old West town of Ely was birthed thanks to copper mining in the area that started in 1906. While this small Nevada town only has a population of around 4,000, you will find lots of things to see and do. Learn more about its history through historical reenactments, eight period homes, a general store, an art studio, and a barn at Renaissance Village, or take an old-fashioned ride on a steam locomotive train which offers special themed rides like the Haunted Ghost Train and the Polar Express. There’s a railway museum, gun-fighting demonstrations in the streets, and an 11-block art walk that highlights sculptures and paintings that tell the tale of the town’s history. Just an hour’s drive southeast will bring you to a wealth of hiking trails and the Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park.
The historic town of Buffalo is nestled in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains with scenery that rivals its sister range, the Rockies, yet doesn’t attract the crowds. This is a perfect base for a wide range of outdoor adventures like hiking, horseback riding, and fly-fishing, while the downtown district is filled with impressive buildings like the Occidental Hotel, which opened in 1880. Over the decades, it’s hosted many notable guests, including Buffalo Bill Cody, Butch Cassidy, President Teddy Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway, some of whom are said to still linger. The Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum displays over 15,000 artifacts from the American Old West, and you’ll find some impressive shops and galleries to explore too.
The small town of Vernal has lots to offer in eastern Utah, just minutes from the Colorado border. You’ll be greeted by a giant pink dinosaur which reveals the reason many visit. It’s home to the outstanding Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum, which features a Diplodocus skeleton along with a variety of dinosaur and fossils exhibits. Nearby in Dinosaur National Monument at the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers is the world’s largest quarry of Jurassic Period dinosaur bones ever discovered. There are nearly 1,500 visible dinosaur fossils and multiple interactive exhibits, while the surrounding land is marked by multiple petroglyphs providing a fascinating glimpse into early cultures. Hiking, river rafting, guided tours, and campsites are all available.
Just about everyone has heard of South Park, thanks to the long-running TV series, but few know that there is also a North Park. Nestled between the snowcapped peaks of the Park Range and the Medicine Bow Mountains about three hours northwest of Denver, it’s in one of the most remote corners of Colorado. The drive to get here along the Cache la Poudre-North Park Scenic Byway is part of the fun itself as one of the state’s premier scenic highways, passing cliffs, rock formations, and the river that flows through rugged Poudre Canyon. This is the perfect place to hike, fish, float, and camp while watching for wildlife. In fact, it’s the Moose Viewing Capital of Colorado.
For mountain scenery and outdoor adventure without the hordes of visitors, the small town of McCall is ideal. Set along the southern shore of Payette Lake in the Payette National Forest with stunning views of the Salmon River Mountains; visitors can enjoy everything from swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding to float trips on the Payette River. Hiking and huckleberry picking are also popular, and when the landscapes of this magical winter wonderland are blanketed in snow, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and downhill skiing at Brundage Mountain are available too. The outdoors steals the spotlight, but downtown McCall also offers museums, art galleries, live music, theater, and plenty of tasty eats.
Most outside of California don’t know much about San Luis Obispo, which has only recently emerged as a tourist destination. Located slightly inland from the Central Coast, it’s often overlooked for places like Morro Bay and Pismo Beach, but it makes the perfect base for exploring world-class wine country in the Santa Ynez Valley while offering lots to do in the charming downtown area. Visit the 18th-century Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa and the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, shop the unique boutiques, and don’t miss the Thursday night farmer’s market. There are craft breweries and many outstanding eateries with outdoor tables for taking advantage of the year-round sunshine, while the seaside is just minutes away.
Set along the shores of Lake Superior on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the university city of Houghton is surrounded by natural beauty while offering rich history and lots of things to see and do. It’s known for its copper mining past, which visitors can explore on a Quincy Mine tour as well as in the Carnegie Museum of the Keweenaw, focused on the region’s cultural and natural history. Along College Avenue, marvel at the Colonial Revival architecture. During the warmer months, a myriad of water sports can be enjoyed along with world-class hiking and biking. In the winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular. You’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants too – don’t miss the chance to sample the area’s rare delicacy, the thimbleberry, with thimbleberry jellies and jams readily available.