It’s hard to argue against the beauty of a US road trip. Drive a couple hours in any direction, and you’re bound to see your surroundings shift dramatically. Whether you’re on the road for 2 hours or 20, the options are pretty much endless for an unforgettable adventure.
We all know the United States’ most famous drives, scenic outlooks, and national parks. It goes without saying that the most popular places – Yellowstone National Park, Route 66, Horseshoe Bend, Pacific Coast Highway… I could go on – already get a lot of love, often seeing upwards of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of visitors a year. Of course, I believe popular places are popular for a reason, and I think you should visit each and every one of these more well-known places to witness them firsthand. But where do you go when you want to discover something less, well, discovered? Somewhere that’s a bit less crowded? A bit more off the beaten path?
Fortunately, the United States isn’t lacking in these, either. There are countless unexpected destinations just waiting to be discovered!
And so, now that you’re inspired to venture off the beaten path, read on for 10 destinations you probably didn’t know existed, but are each incredibly deserving of being on your radar! These road trip ideas were specifically selected by either myself or a fellow travel writer (so you know there’s something very special about each of the places on this list!).
Road trip, anyone?
Unexpected US Road Trip Ideas That Need to Be On Your Radar
1. Point Reyes, California
By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty
You may very well have heard of the United States’ national parks – we have more than 60. But have you ever been to a national seashore? We happen to have ten, and Point Reyes is the only one that exists on the west coast! Sites like Point Reyes are protected areas designated to preserve natural resources (like dunes or marshes) and historic sites (like lighthouses), and like our national parks, there is just so much to explore.
Point Reyes is located just about an hour north of San Francisco, making for a perfect weekend trip. For the most scenic drive, take the Golden Gate Bridge to the famous Highway 1, and you’ll be on your way to some of California’s most unbelievable landscapes. If you’ve ever been to Scotland or Ireland, you might find Point Reyes to be strikingly similar in scenery – rolling green hills and dramatic coastal vistas, crystal blue skies, and small towns to stop at along the way that make for a food- and nature-lover’s paradise.
Stop in Point Reyes Station to eat at a restaurant or stock up for a picnic. Point Reyes is a haven for oyster lovers, with all of the fresh taste and none of the pretense. Or, if you’re more of a cheese and wine kind of person, Cowgirl Creamery has everything you could ever want for a photo-worthy picnic charcuterie. From there, head to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, Cypress Tree Tunnel, and Point Reyes Shipwreck. Spend the afternoon taking in the views with a hike (and a picnic!) on Tomales Point Trail, a 9.4-mile out-and-back trail that, while moderate in difficulty, offers unparalleled views of Tomales Bay and the peninsula. You may even spot some tule elk, elephant seals, and a coyote or two along the way!
Things To Do In and Around Point Reyes:
2. Mississippi River Valley, Iowa
Submitted by Samantha B. – 9 to 5 Nomad
If you’ve never experienced the Mississippi River Valley, then the Great River Road in Eastern Iowa needs to be on your list. You can choose to camp in the many state parks along the way, or stay in a nearby city like Dubuque. Dubuque seems to have something for everyone: there’s an indoor waterpark at the Grand Harbor Resort, a historic downtown area, and the Fenelon Place Elevator, a funicular railroad that takes visitors up to the best view in the city. Additionally, Dubuque is known for its several breweries and local restaurants in the up-and-coming downtown area.
If you prefer to stay in a small town, check out Gutenberg, Iowa. This German-inspired town is 20 minutes downriver from Dubuque and has plenty of cute places to stay as well as fun local businesses including antique shops.
Perhaps the best part of visiting Eastern Iowa is getting there. The rolling hills in the Mississippi River Valley lend to scenic road trips and incredible roadside stops. In the winter, birdwatchers come from around the world to watch the bald eagles hunt near the locks on the river. In spring, travelers can visit Effigy Mounds, a series of animal-shaped mounds created by local indigenous people. A summer road trip could lead you to Pikes Peak State Park and its 13+ miles of trails with views overlooking the river. In the fall, tourists love cruising the country roads and highways to see the trees’ fiery hues.
Things To Do in Mississippi River Valley:
- Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark
- Fenelon Place Elevator
- Effigy Mounds National Monument
- Pikes Peak State Park
3. Finger Lakes and Thousand Islands, New York
Submitted by Robin C. – Once More to the Shore
For the outdoor connoisseur, the northern reaches of New York state provide a number of stellar road trip opportunities, including the Finger Lakes and Thousand Islands.
Start at Watkins Glen, at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, and sample a variety of water sports, like swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, and boating. Don’t leave town without hiking at Watkins Glen State Park, through a series of extraordinary natural gorges and waterfalls.
Then head for the 30 wineries, breweries, cideries, and distilleries of the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Most offer outdoor tastings or leisurely afternoon sipping, with views of verdant vineyards that appear to tumble downhill to the water’s edge.
The ride to the Thousand Islands, on the St. Lawrence River, takes about three hours. More than 1.25 miles wide and nearly 2,000 miles long, the St. Lawrence is the world’s largest inland water channel. It’s also indescribably scenic. And, yes, there really are thousands of islands—1,846, to be exact.
Book a boat tour and island hop, experience the Gilded Age grandeur of Bold Castle and Singer Castle, and see how the 1 percent lives along Millionaire’s Row. Prefer to stick to your land legs? Go for a hike on Wellesley, Grindstone, or Carleton islands. When you’re done, snack on local wine, cheese, and spirits in Clayton, or tour the sweet little shops and historic architecture of Sackets Harbor. Or simply unplug, kick back, and enjoy the phenomenal views.
Things To Do In and Around Finger Lakes and Thousand Islands:
- Watkins Glen State Park
- Seneca Lake Wine Trail
- Boat Tours of Bold Castle and Singer Castle
- Wellesley Island, Grindstone Island, Carleton Island
- Sackets Harbor
4. New Bedford, Massachusetts
Submitted by Kathryn R. – Staying Afloat Blog
With its cobblestone streets and Quaker-style architecture, this quaint, waterfront town screams New England. This is the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, also known as ‘The Whaling City.’ There is so much history in this little town whose waterfront blocks make up a National Historic Park. From the whaling industry and underground railroad, to its commercial fishing history, New Bedford is the perfect town to explore on foot.
“The town itself is perhaps the dearest place to live in, in all New England… all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” ~Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
New Bedford has always been a city of culture, as described by Mr. Melville in his best-known work ‘Moby-Dick.’ Though rich in Portuguese culture, this port city has entertained travelers from all over the world for centuries. Its seafaring residents were well traveled and returned home with stories and inspiration from ports the world over. As a result, the city has always been its own unique ‘melting pot’.
More recently, there has been somewhat of a takeover of the downtown area by local and visiting artists. From permanent murals to temporary installations, there are pieces all over town visitors can enjoy for free.
If you find yourself in the area, definitely make the National Parks Service at 33 William Street your first stop. They offer free historical walking tours daily in the summer season. From there, be sure to venture off on your own to take in some local New Bedford art. And stop in a restaurant or two along the way for a local brew, fresh seafood, and some Portuguese sweets!
Things To Do in New Bedford:
5. Pictured Rocks, Michigan
Submitted by Stephanie L. – Travanie Travels
One of the most beautiful and underrated destinations in the United States is Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan.
Located in a fairly remote area of the UP along Lake Superior, Pictured Rocks is locally famous for its crystal-clear, brilliantly blue waters, pebble beaches, dramatic rocky shoreline, rushing waterfalls, and thick deciduous forest. It’s an all-time favorite destination for local Michiganders looking to camp, hike, kayak, and spend time relaxing at the beach along the lake.
The park’s highlights can be experienced via both land and water through incredible hikes, scenic drives, adventurous kayaking trips, and beautiful boat tours in and around the lakeshore. One of the best day hikes in the park is the 10-mile Chapel Rock Loop that follows the cliff-edged coastline past multiple waterfalls, beaches, and amazing vantage points of Lake Superior. To experience Pictured Rocks from the water, sign up for a guided kayak trip that will allow you to paddle alongside the 200-foot tall cliffs, or hop on a glass-bottom boat tour to see hundred-year-old shipwrecks that are sunken deep below the water’s surface.
As a remote and often overlooked national lakeshore, Pictured Rocks offers up all sorts of natural beauty and adventure for anyone willing to get a little off the beaten path.
Things To Do In and Around Pictured Rocks:
- Chapel Rock
- Munising Falls
- Miners Falls
- Miners Castle Rock
- Glass Bottom Shipwreck Tours
- Pictured Rocks Kayaking
6. Bishop, California
By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty
Many will drive straight past Bishop on their way to neighboring Mammoth Lakes, or Yosemite National Park, but Bishop offers up its own mystic beauty for anyone willing to take a pit stop and explore. Bishop is well-loved by camping, backpacking, and rock climbing communities for its rugged terrain and pristinely blue lakes.
After fueling up at Looney Bean or Schat’s Bakkery, head straight to Lake Sabrina, one of the most scenic, cerulean blue lakes you’ll ever see. Here, you can take in the views and even rent a boat to take out on the water, depending on the time of year. At an elevation of 9,138 feet above sea level, you may think Lake Sabrina is as high as it gets, but you’d be surprised to learn that it merely serves as a base to a whole series of trails and treks leading even higher up the Sierra Nevadas, revealing a network of alpine lakes in varying sizes and altitudes.
You can camp or backpack in the area, or, you can also find a small selection of hotels back in town. From there, depending on the direction you’re headed, plan to stop at Alabama Hills for another incredibly impressive landscape – rounded, cartoon-like rocks, juxtaposed against the Sierra Nevadas in the background. It really is indescribable, so you’ll just have to see for yourself!
Things To Do In and Around Bishop:
7. Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine
Submitted by Lauren Y. – Justin Plus Lauren
The tiny seaside villages of southern Maine are the perfect unexpected US road trip destination. Whether you’re road tripping around New England or planning a pit stop on the way to Portland, take I suggest taking a couple of days to explore these southern Maine beach towns. If you’re seeking lighthouses, there are numerous iconic scenes as you drive up the coast. Nubble Light sits on its own little island just a short distance from the mainland. Be sure to goI also recommend going for a hike at nearby Mount Agamenticus where there are endless amazing views, including Nubble Light in the distance on a clear day!
In the village of Ogunquit, embark on a walk of one of the prettiest coastal paths in the country. From The Marginal Way, you can admire the waves of the Atlantic Ocean as they crash against the rocky shoreline. There are a whopping 39 benches on this short walk, making it the perfect place to relax and absorb the natural beauty. From there, Perkins Cove is an adorable village in Ogunquit at the end of The Marginal Way with little shops, cafes, and a historic drawbridge.
If you want to see more pretty seaside villages, keep driving north until you reach Kennebunkport. It’s a quaint little town with quiet harbors and colorful houses. The main attraction is the village itself where I suggest you simply walk around and soak up your surroundings. However, one of the best ways to experience southern Maine is by taking a scenic flight of the coast. You can fly in a small plane with Southern Maine Aviation for a reasonable fee where you’ll gain a new appreciation for the landscapes of coastal Maine.
Things To Do In and Around Ogunquit and Kennebunkport:
- Nubble Lighthouse
- Mount Agamenticus
- Ogunquit Village
- The Marginal Way
- Perkins Cove
- Southern Maine Aviation
8. Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina
Submitted by Mikkel W. – Sometimes Home
One of the most enjoyable places to get away in North Carolina is Ocracoke Island. You have to be determined when getting to Ocracoke Island, because after you drive the length of the Outer Banks Barrier Islands, you take a ferry for the final stretch to arrive.
Cars are permitted on the island but be sure to fuel up before getting in line for the ferry; your gas station options there, as well as grocery store options, are limited.
There’s a lot of water activities to enjoy on Ocracoke Island, from kayaking, to boating, to fishing excursions. The beaches are beautiful and seafood is always nearby for a great meal.
The island has a few hotels to choose from but even more notable are the many vacation homes available to rent.
Note that this is a largely seasonal destination, most popular from May through August. It’s also a delight during shoulder seasons when crowds may be fewer but everything is still open and operating.
Things To Do In and Around Ocracoke Island:
9. Verde Valley, Arizona
By Rachel F. – Rachel Off Duty
Just about an hour and a half north of Phoenix, Verde Valley is a shining example of the dynamic landscapes Arizona has to offer. From famous red rocks to the verdant, green hills, Verde Valley is a must-visit the next time you’re passing through this beautiful state.
If you’ve never heard of Verde Valley before, you may very well have heard of Sedona – the area’s most famous town, well-loved for its stunning red rock formations and vortexes. But that’s not all Verde Valley has to offer! Head just 30 minutes outside of Sedona to Cottonwood, a smaller town yet one that’s so centrally located, it makes for a perfect home base for Arizona exploration. From Cottonwood, you’re within a 3-hour drive of everything from Sedona, to Dead Horse Ranch State Park, to the Grand Canyon. Before you hit the road, be sure to check out the Verde Valley Wine Trail and Cottonwood’s historic Main Street, and do not leave until you’ve had a meal at Pizzeria Bocce or Merkin Vineyards Osteria!
To head somewhere a bit lesser known but still entirely worthwhile, check out Jerome. This ghost town was once one of the hottest mining civilizations out west, and today it’s a fascinating stop combining history with a bit of hipster eclecticism that can’t be missed.
Things To Do In and Around Verde Valley:
- Verde Valley Wine Trail
- Pizzeria Bocce
- Merkin Vineyards Tasting Room
- Historic Old Town Cottonwood
- Dead Horse Ranch State Park
10. Westcliffe, Colorado
By Hannah R. – Women and the Wilderness
It’s no secret Colorado is a beautiful state. It has a diverse landscape which you’ll notice immediately upon leaving hotspots like Denver and Colorado Springs. From deserts to towering mountains to alpine lakes, there’s a little something for every adventurer.
Instead of heading straight for Rocky Mountain National Park, head to the, less popular, southern part of the state to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Amongst a diverse ecosystem of grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, and tundra are the tallest sand dunes in North America. Here you can hike, sand board, swim in Medano Creek, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the Milky Way Galaxy. Also worth checking out while in the area, Zapata Falls!
On your way back to Colorado Springs or Denver, make a stop at Garden of the Gods. The sandstone rocks in Garden of the Gods are 300 million years old. This paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the Native Americans that once inhabited it. There are 15 miles of trails of varying difficulties each providing you with a beautiful glimpse into how the land once looked, when it was remained untouched.
When visiting the area, base yourself in this cozy glamping spot to explore all things Southern CO!
Things To Do In and Around Westcliffe:
As with any of these epic destinations, be sure to use common sense, plan ahead, respect wildlife, and take out what you bring in (like trash). The appeal of enjoying places like these is that they feel untouched. Let’s do our small part to help leave them that way!
Which of these unexpected US road trip destinations would you be most curious to visit? Tell me below!