Best-kept secret travel destinations in North America

Best-kept secret travel destinations in North America

Best-kept secret travel destinations in North America

Dreamstime

Just because they’re lesser-known doesn’t mean a vacation destination is lacking in sights. In fact, under-the-radar locations can make for the perfect trip for people looking for unique experiences with less commercialized attractions, smaller crowds and lower costs.

You don’t have to jet off to another continent to find hidden gem vacation destinations. North America spans from Canada to Panama and from Alaska to the Caribbean. Whether you’re looking for authentic cuisine, arts and culture or adventure opportunities, there’s an off-the-beaten-path destination for you that might not be that far from home. 

Here are 35 North American cities and sights to visit before word gets out about how truly fantastic they are.

1. Culebra, Puerto Rico

1. Culebra, Puerto Rico

Dreamstime

Off the coast of Puerto Rico, the tiny island of Culebra is famous among those in the know as a pristine island escape. It has no big hotels, stores or fast food chains but instead offers serene beaches, such as the gorgeous Flamenco Beach, world-class diving and snorkeling reefs, hiking trails and unpretentious local street food.

2. Burney Falls, California

2. Burney Falls, California

Dreamstime

While Niagara Falls might be the most famous waterfall in North America, California’s McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is home to what President Theodore Roosevelt once described as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Burney Falls is 129 feet tall and its impressive flow is created by the combination of water cascading from the top as well as water bursting out of the face from underground springs. The area can be admired from above thanks to the 1.3-mile trail that encircles the falls. The area is also great for fishing, hiking, canoeing and camping.

3. Upper Peninsula, Michigan

3. Upper Peninsula, Michigan

Dreamstime

This remote section of Michigan beckons outdoor lovers from across the Midwest, but it has a unique feature that many people might assume you can’t find in the U.S. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula borders three Great Lakes (Huron, Superior and Michigan) that have racked up thousands of shipwrecks through the centuries that you can actually explore. Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has almost 200 historic shipwrecks to see. Many of the Great Lakes’ shipwrecks are as shallow as 15 feet down, making them perfect for novice divers as well as visible by glass-bottom boat tours.

4. Asheville, North Carolina

4. Asheville, North Carolina

Dreamstime

No matter what you’re looking for on your vacation, Asheville will have something for you. Word about this haven among the Blue Ridge Mountains has slowly been getting out, but it continues to be an unspoiled escape. Downtown Asheville is known for its food, art, music and brewery scenes, while the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest private home, offers a historical look at Gilded Age opulence. The city lies along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the country’s most breathtaking drives that bursts with colorful wildflowers in the spring and summer and foliage in the fall. Hiking, fly-fishing, birding, foraging and more outdoor activities are all accessible from Asheville as well.

5. Na Pali Coast, Hawaii

5. Na Pali Coast, Hawaii

Dreamstime

Many sojourners to Hawaii stick to the Big Island, but there are plenty of breathtaking sights to behold for the bold who venture off the beaten path. The famous Na Pali Coast, located on Kauai, is a 17-mile coastal national park that encompasses sheer 4,000-foot cliffs, caves, waterfalls, lush river valleys and remote beaches. The area can be explored via kayak, catamaran or raft, while the formidable 11-mile Kalalau foot trail allows for expeditions inland. Some describe it as one of the best hikes in the world because of its unparalleled views.

6. Wallace, Idaho

6. Wallace, Idaho

Dreamstime

While the state of Idaho is known for its potatoes, the city of Wallace is actually the world’s largest silver producer and is the only entire town listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Besides exploring underground mines and learning their history, you can play on 1,000 miles of mining, logging and Forest Service roads that have been turned into the world’s largest mountain bike, ATV and snowmobile trail system.

7. Fredericksburg, Texas

7. Fredericksburg, Texas

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Nestled in Texas Hill County is the small town of Fredericksburg, a town founded by German immigrants that has retained its European charm but mixed in someTexas flair. The town has a quaint shopping area, as well as historical attractions such as the Pioneer Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War. The fruitful region is famous for its peaches and bluebonnets in the summer. Grapes also thrive in Fredericksburg, which has become the second-largest wine tourism area in the country just behind Napa Valley, California.

8. Suchitoto, El Salvador

8. Suchitoto, El Salvador

Dreamstime

While San Salvador might be the capital city of El Salvador, Suchitoto is considered the country’s cultural capital. “Suchi” hosts an arts and food festival every weekend and lies along the country’s Flower Route, a wildflower-lined road linking mountain towns with their own unique personalities. Visitors can stretch their legs on a hike to the striking Los Tercios waterfall, which cascades over hexagonal stone formations.

9. Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

9. Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

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The Apostle Islands are a group of 21 islands on Lake Superior off the coast of Wisconsin. While they’re great for hiking, kayaking and camping in the summer, their true hidden gems are the sea caves tucked along the islands’ coasts. During the winter, the lake freezes solid and you can walk across for a must-see spectacle. The caves are dripping with frozen icicles and waterfalls frozen into ice ripples, columns and curtains.

10. Copper Canyon, Mexico

10. Copper Canyon, Mexico

Dreamstime

While the Grand Canyon might be the most visited canyon in the world, it is not even the largest in North America. Copper Canyon in the Chihuahua region of Mexico is actually a system of six connected canyons that are deeper, longer and span a seven times larger area than the Grand Canyon. Tourism has died down in the region in the last decade because of factors like the global economic crisis and safety concerns, but the area is safe, uncongested and ripe for exploring. The stunning natural scenery can be seen by foot, bike, horse, railway or the world’s longest zip line.

11. La Push, Washington

11. La Push, Washington

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Immortalized as a setting in the smash hit vampire book series “Twilight,” La Push, Washington’s beauty isn’t fictional. Despite its Pacific Northwest location, this community on the Quileute reservation has mild winters and balmy summers, perfect for exploring the area’s two beaches and rugged woodland hiking trails and taking in sights such as massive fallen trees, sea arches and sea stacks, and flocks of seabirds nesting in Quillayute Needles National Wildlife Refuge. Besides natural beauty, visitors can experience Quileute culture and dine on fresh seafood.

12. Taos, New Mexico

12. Taos, New Mexico

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Less known than its neighbors Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Taos is still overflowing with adventure opportunities, stunning natural sights and unique Southwestern charm. Taos is just south of UNESCO World Heritage Site Taos Pueblo and the town’s historic district includes Spanish colonial buildings. When not exploring the small town’s dozens of art galleries or taking a pottery class, visitors can take advantage of the city’s 300 days of sunshine a year by hitting up the nearby hot springs or going skiing, mountain biking, rafting, hot air ballooning and even llama trekking.

13. Dawson City, Canada

13. Dawson City, Canada

Dreamstime

This city at the heart of the Yukon territory’s Klondike Gold Rush and preserves and celebrates its past. You can still pan for gold, slam back a cold one or play a round of poker in a saloon or catch a vaudeville show as you’re transported by the area’s frontier charm. Roughly 170 miles from the Arctic Circle, Dawson City is also a great place to see the Northern Lights.

14. Leon, Nicaragua

14. Leon, Nicaragua

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Despite attracting far fewer tourists than Granada, the city of Leon in Nicaragua, still boasts historical architecture, authentic culture and high-octane adventure. The country’s second-largest city, Leon is the birthplace of Nicaraguan independence and is brimming with national pride. The Leon Cathedral is the largest in Central America, and its rooftop offers amazing views. The city is also in proximity to the can’t-miss Cerro Negro, an active volcano that you can slide down on a sandboard in what is called “volcano surfing.”

15. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

15. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

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Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is home to five dunes in total that stand over 700 feet tall, including Star Dune, America’s tallest dune. These steep hills are ideal for sports such as sand boarding, sand sledding and dune buggying. Because of the park’s elevation and clear skies, it’s also a great place for camping out and stargazing.

16. Fly Geyser, Nevada

16. Fly Geyser, Nevada

Dreamstime

While Old Faithful might be famous worldwide, America is home to another geyser whose otherworldly appearance makes it worth visiting. Located in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Fly Ranch Geyser, known as Fly Geyser for short, was accidentally created by a well-drilling operation in 1964. The geyser’s colorful, amorphous mineral deposit base is currently 5 feet tall but continues to grow as the geyser ejects 200 degree water. Algae also grows along the base, adding additional color and texture to the alien-like mass.

17. Outer Banks, North Carolina

17. Outer Banks, North Carolina

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Off the coast of North Carolina lies a series of islands known as the Outer Banks. With a unique history, a string of open beaches and state parks, and proximity to shipwreck sites for scuba diving, the Outer Banks offer more than your average beach vacation. These mythical islands were where the lost colony of Roanoke disappeared, where the Wright Brothers first took flight from Kitty Hawk, and where herds of feral horses, whose ancestors supposedly survived Spanish shipwrecks, now roam. The area is also known for its fishing and hang-gliding opportunities.

18. Squamish, Canada

18. Squamish, Canada

Dreamstime

Squamish is an adventure playground in the Canadian province of British Columbia known as the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada.” Part of its appeal is that the area spans both ocean and mountains, which you can traverse in just 10 minutes on the Sea to Sky Gondola that takes you up 3,000 feet. Visitors from around the world flock here to windsurf, kayak, whitewater raft, rock climb, hike and mountain bike.

19. Tikal, Guatemala

19. Tikal, Guatemala

Dreamstime

While Mexico’s Chichen Itza might be the most famous Mayan ruins, the ancient city of Tikal in Guatemala was actually the ceremonial center of the ancient Maya civilization. Tikal National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site chock full of marvelous temples, monuments and palaces as well as ball-game courts and squares for the roughly 100,000 former residents. After the fall of the Mayan empire at the end of the ninth century, the city was lost to the jungle until being rediscovered in 1848 and finally excavated and restored in the 1950s.

20. Cache River State Natural Area, Illinois

20. Cache River State Natural Area, Illinois

Dreamstime

You don’t have to travel to the Florida Everglades to visit a Southern swamp -- there’s actually one tucked away in the Midwest. Illinois’ Cache River State Natural Area spans four distinct ecological regions. It’s home to 1,000-year-old massive cypress trees as well as hundreds of endangered species of plants and animals, which you can see up close on extensive hiking, biking, canoeing and kayaking trails. This little-known, serene state park also has fishing and seasonal hunting programs.

21. Big Sur, California

21. Big Sur, California

Dreamstime

Known as “the American Riviera,” the Big Sur region of California’s coast stretches from Carmel to San Simeon along Highway 1. The undeveloped, untouched seaside landscape makes for a gorgeous bucket list road trip. Sights along the way include the striking Bixby Bridge, endangered California condors, the purple-tinged sand of Pfeiffer Beach, majestic redwoods, and the cinematic 80-foot McWay Falls.

22. Camden, Maine

22. Camden, Maine

Dreamstime

Camden is known as “where the mountains meet the sea,” meaning it’s an ideal New England destination for both land and water activities. This picturesque, underrated seaside town features historic buildings as well as access to Penobscot Bay, which has calm waters perfect for boating or kayaking. Wildlife enthusiasts can embark on whale and puffin watching cruises, while those seeking to experience the legendary New England turning of the leaves can see eye-popping fall foliage along the Mt. Battie Auto Road.

23. The Ozarks, Arkansas and Missouri

23. The Ozarks, Arkansas and Missouri

Dreamstime

This region of America often gets overlooked, but it’s a natural wonderland as well as one of the best places to drive, hike or bike in the country. It has natural beauty, quaint charming towns, rich history and cultural attractions, such as one of America’s greatest modern museums, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Float along 150 miles on Buffalo River, America’s first national river, which also has rapids for rafting as well as world-class fishing. The region is also famous for its amazing ancient underground cave systems.

24. Jekyll Island, Georgia

24. Jekyll Island, Georgia

Dreamstime

Once the retreat of American high rollers such as J.P. Morgan and William Vanderbilt, Jekyll Island, Georgia’s smallest barrier island in the Atlantic, was privately owned until the state purchased it in 1947. It’s now an accessible destination for families, history buffs and nature lovers alike. The entire island is a state park, so its miles of white-sand beaches, salt marshes and scenic beauty are protected. The Jekyll Island Historic District is also preserved as a National Historic Landmark.

25. Manitoulin Island, Canada

25. Manitoulin Island, Canada

Dreamstime

Located in Canada’s Lake Huron, Manitoulin Island is the world’s largest freshwater island. This island within a lake also has lakes within it as well, some of which have their own islands. It’s also home to a swimming hole at the base of the 35-foot waterfall. Altogether, Manitoulin is a unique, pristine rural retreat perfect for hiking, fishing, hunting, curling, skiing, snowshoeing and more outdoor activities year-round.

26. Valladolid, Mexico

26. Valladolid, Mexico

Dreamstime

Most visitors flock to the coast of the Yucatan state of Mexico, but there’s a wealth of sights in the region’s interior. Just two hours from Cancun is the colorful colonial town of Valladolid. The city hosts a market with vendors and music performances in the central plaza every weekend. It’s also home to some of the most beautiful of the region’s famous sinkholes, or cenotes. Zaci Cenote and swimming hole is in the middle of downtown, while Cenote X'Kekén and Samulá might be the most photographed cenotes because of its underground crystal-blue waters with a natural hole in the ceiling that makes a stunning natural skylight. Just outside the city sits the little-visited Ek Balam Mayan ruins, which has a pyramid taller than the biggest in Chichen Itza.

27. Mackinac Island, Michigan

27. Mackinac Island, Michigan

Dreamstime

Ever since the Civil War, Mackinac Island, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsula in Lake Huron, has served as a waterfront retreat for those unable to travel all the way to the ocean. A National Historic Landmark, the island doesn’t allow cars or chain hotels and has preserved its historical architecture and charm, making a visit feel like traveling back to a simpler time. Work up an appetite for the island’s famous fudge by enjoying watersports and other outdoor activities.

28. Gros Morne National Park, Canada

28. Gros Morne National Park, Canada

Dreamstime

On the west coast of the Canadian island province of Newfoundland and Labrador sits the area’s crown jewel: Gros Morne National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is a living example of millions of years of plate tectonics, which resulted in varied, dramatic scenery including glacial fjords, valleys, sheer cliffs, waterfalls, beaches and sea stacks. With the largest concentration of humpback whales on the planet, the area is also a mecca for whale watching.

29. Berlin, Maryland

29. Berlin, Maryland

Dreamstime

Considered one of the best small towns in America, Berlin, Maryland, might not be a household name, but people around the world might recognize it as the charming backdrop for the films “Runaway Bride” and “Tuck Everlasting.” The scenic town is home to almost 50 buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places that represent nearly two centuries of architectural styles. Relax at the beach or discover new outdoor activities at the nearby Assateague Island National Seashore, such as shellfishing or surf fishing.

30. St. Augustine, Florida

30. St. Augustine, Florida

Dreamstime

America’s oldest city, St. Augustine often gets overlooked compared to other Florida destinations but it has sun, surf and 42 miles of sand as well as a rich history to explore. Take in the city’s Spanish architecture while strolling cobblestone streets and visit landmarks such as landmarks including the Castillo de San Marcos, Lightner Museum, Fort Matanzas and Ponce de Leon's "Fountain of Youth.”

31. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

31. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Dreamstime

Named the 2017 Best City in the World by Travel + Leisure, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, also earned the honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its vibrant Spanish colonial architecture and role in the Mexican War of Independence. Home to a cosmopolitan art scene and authentic markets and restaurants, the city is also close to the Otomi pyramid and archaeological site Cañada de la Virgen.

32. Caye Caulker, Belize

32. Caye Caulker, Belize

Dreamstime

With no cars and no hustle and bustle, Caye Caulker island in Belize is all about soaking up and playing in the natural environment. At just 5 miles long, the island packs in plenty to do, with prime spots for fishing, windsurfing, snorkeling and scuba diving, including the magnificent

Great Blue Hole. You can also take a manatee tour at the Swallow Caye manatee preservation site.

33. Hammondsport, New York

33. Hammondsport, New York

See1,Do1,Teach1/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

This cozy village in the Finger Lakes is overflowing with vintage, European charm and laid-back vibes, earning it the mantle of "Coolest Small Town in America," according to readers of Budget Travel. The area has a thriving winery scene as grapes are able to thrive in the New York climate. The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum restores and flies vintage seaplanes, which you can watch take off and land on picturesque Keuka Lake, one of the few Y-shaped lakes in the world, which is also great for fishing, sailing, kayaking and more.

34. Gulf Shores, Alabama

34. Gulf Shores, Alabama

Dreamstime

Enjoy an affordable beach retreat along the sugar-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in Gulf Shores, Alabama. This lesser-known vacation destination has calm waters and tides that don’t change very much, as well as three main public beaches with lifeguards on duty, according to TripAdvisor, making it an extremely family-friendly spot.

 

35. Cape May, New Jersey

35. Cape May, New Jersey

Dreamstime

Cape May is a posh East Coast retreat along the Jersey Shore. As America’s oldest seaside resort, the entire city is a historic district thanks to its 600 Victorian gingerbread mansions and buildings. Take a carriage ride and enjoy the town’s burgeoning food and wine scene after a day spent surfing, whale- and dolphin-watching or parasailing.