I’ll admit it, when it comes to traveling, far-flung places and unknown lands have always sparked my wanderlust. But with the pandemic, the world changed and so did our collective perspective on travel. Suddenly thirst grew for exploring our own backyard, supporting local travel, and immersing ourselves in the wildly beautiful landscapes and hidden gems right outside our door. And while the world has opened up again, there are still plenty of places to visit right here domestically. For a sneak peek at how to experience the U.S. as a modern explorer, here are 20 places you won’t believe are in the U.S. — that you should set your sights on immediately.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Rising from the heart of New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, glistening white-sand mounds made from rare gypsum crystals appear like a sparkling mirage and vanish for miles into the horizon at White Sands National Park. Approximately 12,000 years ago, the area was filled with large lakes, streams, grasslands, and Ice Age mammals, until the climate warmed and caused the water to evaporate into selenite crystals that have slowly turned into fine sand from the desert winds. Today, it is the largest gypsum field of its kind on earth and truly a rare beauty. The park is a popular stop for road trippers who tow sleds to slide down the near 60-foot white-sand dunes, however the most beautiful time to be there is at sunrise and sunset as the wind is calm and the desert sky creates a vibrant gradient among the pearly-white sands.
Our society has always been fascinated with flying cars and space missions, but what if we were more fixated on living in a world that’s more in harmony with nature. That’s what architect Paolo Soleri set out to do in the 1970s when he built an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona, seventy miles from Phoenix. In Arcosanti the seamless blend of architecture and ecology was designed to utilize the external elements and benefit from nature, resulting in completely solar-powered structures and domed communal areas inspired by Romanesque cathedrals. For more than 50 years, around 8,000 volunteers have helped contribute to the project to keep the dream of a futuristic utopia alive, fostering a community that lives without roads and is nourished by the bountiful onsite garden. The structures are built to work with the elements, they each face south to allow for shade in the high-sun summer months, and to trap heat during the winter as the sun lingers above the horizon. To truly experience the Arcosanti philosophy, there are also onsite private suites with panoramic views of the desert and eco elements throughout.
The smallest, strangest, middle-of-nowhere town in Texas happens to be the epicenter of America’s coolest art scene. Seemingly miles from civilization, Marfa is found between the hill-country mountains, sprawling ranches, and dusty drive-throughs of far west Texas. While you’d assume a population of 1,800 would be a sleepy, rancher town, the city is in fact buzzing with amazing restaurants, bars, and shops run by cool artists, chefs, and entrepreneurs who flock to Marfa’s thriving creative hub from all over the world. El Cosmico, a hotel, and campground designed for nomads who call colorful trailers and yurts home is the best way to experience the town and its unique charm. The outdoor showers will ground you right in the middle of nowhere and if you’re lucky, you’ll experience the “Marfa Lights,” magical, mystical, and mysterious glowing orbs that hover, twinkle, and disappear unexpectedly in the mystifying dark night sky.
Pando Aspen Grove, Richfield, Utah
In the Fishlake National Forest, a gentle giant has been quietly growing for over 80,000 years. The Trembling Giant or Pando (which translates as “I spread” in Latin) is the most massive living organism on earth with over 47,0000 aspen trees that grow from one central root system. During the early fall, the leaves change and Aspen Grove becomes one giant forest of bright, vibrant trees that seemingly glow from within. There are several campsites within the park to spend a night beneath the ancient trees and allow the gentle shake of the fragile leaves to soothe you to sleep.
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Utah
If you venture beyond the Grand Canyon’s postcard-perfect vistas, you’ll discover the little-known hidden gem known as the Havasu Falls. Located in the Canyon’s North Rim in Supai Village, home to the Havasupai tribe, these five cascading waterfalls have been guarded and protected for centuries. Only a few visitors are allowed each year by permit and if you’re lucky enough to get access, your journey begins with a 10-mile strenuous hike deep into the canyon’s valley to reach this enchanted beauty where 100-foot falls cascade over the orange rock into a large turquoise pool. It’s not an easy venture to experience the falls, but once you do, you’ll be forever in awe of one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Allerton Garden, Kauai, HI
The entire island of Kauai is a tropical paradise, however, Allerton Garden, a remote protected garden on the South Shore is an oasis of Hawaiian flora and fauna. Here towering rainforest trees with tall curved roots meet groves of swaying golden bamboo, and tropical coconut, mango, and passionfruit trees line the pristine oceanfront. Cared for by an artist-and-architect couple, you can take a two-hour tour of the property to see how they’ve enhanced the garden with exotic water features, mermaid bronze sculptures, and outdoor dining rooms. If some of the trees start to look familiar, that’s because the massive Moreton Bay figs have played a starring role in blockbusters Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Shou Sugi Ban House, Watermill, NY
A sense of peace immediately washes over you upon arrival at Shou Sugi Ban House, a secluded sanctuary and spa sanctuary set among lush evergreen trees and tall grasses in the Hamptons of New York. The entire property is meant to replicate a Japanese bathhouse with meditative stone pathways that connect the property, guestrooms, fitness area, and spa with a zen-inducing list of amenities including daily yoga, meditation, and therapeutic sessions. The airy spaces promote an even deeper connection and grounding with nature, while the holistic programs provide a lens to healing the body inside and out.
The Golden Isles, Georgia
Once you catch a glimpse of the sunrise over the Atlantic or the sunset beneath the gentle lapping wetlands, you’ll understand why The Golden Isles of Georgia are indeed golden. The picturesque town of Brunswick is the main hub that will give you access to each of the five isles — Little St. Simon’s, St. Simon’s, Jekyll, and Sea Island — by a short 20-minute boat or car ride. Each has its own unique charm with grand 19th-century homes, quaint cobblestone streets, and historic lighthouses. Whether you opt for land or sea activities, each island is a relaxing oasis to recharge without any hint of crowds.
Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
There are nearly three million lakes in Alaska, but unique to the Kenai Peninsula, the Ice Age stands still at Kenai Fjords National Park. Here around 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield where wildlife thrives in its icy waters and lush forests grow in the expansive sheets of ice. Aside from marveling at the arctic wonderland, you can enjoy water sports, including kayaking through the icy fjords, dog mushing and ice skating in the winter, and hiking to the glacier peaks for panoramic views.
Thor’s Well, Oregon
In the world’s oceans, there are a few mysteries that have remained unsolved for centuries. One of these is Thor’s Well, a powerful geyser on the edge of the coast of Cape Perpetua in Oregon’s Siuslaw National Forest that forms during high tide when a whirlpool of seawater rushes into a deep, seemingly bottomless sinkhole and then violently erupts onto the shore. Ocean researchers are stumped as to what actually causes the phenomenon, but that doesn’t stop travelers that continue to flock here to witness this dramatic 20-foot hole with their own eyes and marvel at its natural beauty. The best time to spot the geyser is an hour before high tide when water begins to rush in and build before the eruptions begin.
Los Alamos, CA
The wild, wild west lives on in Los Alamos, a little town along California’s Highway 101, between Santa Barbara and Monterey, where historical western facades of old-school saloons and stagecoaches will transform you to a bygone era. What used to be known as a drive-by between Santa Barbara and Monterey has recently earned its place on the map thanks to a slew of cool new restaurants led by LA chefs and the wine-and-whiskey tasting rooms popping up in old-school saloons. Here the accommodations have also been given a chic modern make-over while preserving their quintessential Old West charm. Skyview Los Alamos, a former roadside motel, is now a mid-century modern desert oasis where Western textures such as cowhide rugs and retro stereos promise to get you in the cowboy mood.
Catskill Mountains, New York
Taking refuge from the hustle and bustle of New York City can be a pretty spectacular thing. For those seeking fresh air and solitude, look no further than the Catskills, located on the southeastern range of the Appalachian mountains where preserved forests can be viewed from the panoramic peaks high above the tree canopies. This area is also home to the historic towns of Phoenicia and Woodstock, a summertime haven for artists and musicians to reground and find inspiration in nature. To soak up the mountain stillness, book an A-frame cabin at Eastwind, where a cozy platform bed is perfectly positioned below the window to rise with the sun and watch the stars at night.
Pipiwai Trail, Maui
Each turn of Pipiwai Trail, a four-mile round trip that reveals a string of majestic pools and waterfalls framed within the vibrant lush tropical rainforest is idyllic and mind-blowing. The trail rises and falls in elevation as it becomes a walking meditation through an immersive zen bamboo forest that leads to a 400-foot waterfall cascading down a sheer cliff of black lava rock. It can be a slippery walk to reach the pool beneath the falls, but with caution, it is well worth the cleansing swim beneath this beauty.
Grand Staircase Escalante, Utah
While many road trippers and adventure enthusiasts typically flock to Moab and Arches National Park for their dramatic sandstone arches and rock formations, Utah’s Grand Staircase Escalante is a national monument that offers the same magnificent scenery, minus the crowds. Short or long hikes lead to unspoiled cliffs, slot canyons, and breathtaking plateaus where sprawling no man’s landscapes show off. And once your legs are sore and dusty, you can retreat to nearby Yonder Escalante, a stylish new camp-style retreat with A-frame cabins, vintage Airstreams, and a drive-in theater with classic cars to watch movies under the stars.
The Integratron, Landers, California
Built, in the 1950s, the man-made geological phenomenon The Integratron was designed by aircraft mechanic and ufologist George Van Tassel to unleash profound healing powers to prolong human life, rejuvenate the spirit, and even perform anti-gravity time travel in the heart of California’s Mojave desert. While his vision never became a reality, the structurally sound wooden structure which has unique surround-sound properties now houses meditative sonic-healing sound baths sessions, where you can lie down in the main chamber and immerse yourself in harmonic sounds produced by quartz crystal bowls. It might sound woo-woo, but the experience is so soothing, you’ll feel like you’re actually bathing in sound and emerge feeling recalibrated and with an overwhelming sense of calm.
Hamilton Pool Preserve, Texas
It’s no secret Mexico gets all the praise for its abundance of beautiful cenotes: deep sinkholes within the earth that fill up with salt or freshwater making a crystal-clear swimming pool. However, it’s an insiders’ best-kept secret that Hamilton Pool Preserve, a rare 50-foot waterfall and pool that formed thousands of years ago when an underground river collapsed, leaving behind a giant circular rock formation with a deep-water natural jade pool, exists just west of Austin. On a hot Texas day, the cool water is heavenly, making it so easy to spend an afternoon on one’s back floating while staring up at the juniper and oak uplands surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley, Washington
Olympic National Park already blows most parks out of the water with its rainforests, glacier mountains, and the longest stretch of undisturbed wild coastline in the US. Add in Sequim-Dungeness Valley fragrant, sprawling fields of wild lavender that look just like Provence, and it’s an incredibly pretty, beautifully scented place. remarkable place. Head here in July when the annual Lavender Weekend takes place to frolic in the fields, pick your own lavender, and stock up on eye pillows and all manner of lavender-infused treats to keep you smelling fresh and feeling zen.
Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, Louisiana
If you thought you had to sail down the Amazon for an epic jungle adventure, think again. Exploring the 6,000-acre Lake Fausse Pointe State Park in southern Louisiana with its intricate labyrinth of waterways and wildlife is a unique experience that rarely makes it on the map of the best destinations in the US. Also on the experience list; fishing, canoeing, campsites, and hiking just a stone’s throw from the shore.
Grand Portage State Park, Minnesota
Minnesota gets its fame from the largest mall in America, land of 10,000 (often frozen) lakes, great hockey, and a beloved 10-day state fair. What is little known about the northern state is its bounty of uncharted wilderness and raw beauty, especially where the tippity-top of the state meets Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake) in the gorgeous Grand Portage State Park. Several cascading waterfalls are reachable within one-or-four mile hikes in the park, while the naturally jagged Hollow Rock arch off the shores of Grand Portage will make you feel like you’re at the end of the world.
Headlands Dark Sky Park, Michigan
Depending on where you live in the world, the concept of a completely dark night sky with an unobstructed view of the galaxy might be hard to imagine. Headlands Dark Sky Park, a 50-acre expanse on the undeveloped shores of Lake Michigan makes your star gazing fantasies a reality. The dark-sky observatory also has an ideal low-latitude location to spot the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) during the fall and winter. There’s technically no camping allowed, however, the park never closes so there are plenty of places to hide out under the stars and watch the nightly illumination dance in the sky.