Beyond the Bucket List: My 5 Favourite Underrated U.S. Destinations

The United States, with its sprawling landscapes and vibrant cities, often lures travelers with its iconic landmarks and bustling tourist hubs. However, as a seasoned nomad with an insatiable wanderlust (did you check my last post about traveling in Southeast Asia with kids?), I’ve discovered that some of the most rewarding travel experiences lie off the beaten path. Beyond the well-trodden trails, a treasure trove of underrated destinations awaits, each with its unique allure and authentic charm. So, here is a list of 5 of my personal favourite underrated U.S. destinations, from an Italian guy’s perspective. And if you’re looking for experiences for birthday gifts, consider these destinations for their unique experiences.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas: Where Desert Meets Peaks

In the heart of West Texas, far removed from the stereotypical image of sprawling ranches and oil fields, a few years ago I stumbled upon the Guadalupe Mountains. These rugged peaks rise dramatically from the Chihuahuan Desert, creating a breathtaking wilderness that instantly captivated me. As I ascended Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas, I felt a sense of accomplishment as the trail to the summit is a rewarding, although very strenuous, 8.4 mile round trip hike with a 3,000 foot elevation gain (almost a 1000 metres high).

The first mile is the steepest, but the trail levels out a bit as you ascend through pine forests and rocky terrain. It typically takes 6-8 hours to complete the hike, so be sure to start early, especially during the summer months.

The trail to Guadalupe Peak starts at the Pine Springs Trailhead, located within Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Guadalupe Mountains Texas

To get to the trailhead:

  1. Pine Springs Campground: The closest parking is at the Pine Springs Campground (if there are available spots).
  2. Pine Springs Visitor Center: If the campground lot is full, you can park at the Pine Springs Visitor Center and walk the half-mile to the trailhead.
  3. Overflow Lot: In case both lots are full, there’s an overflow lot further away on Highway 62.

You need to pay a fee to enter the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The entrance fee is currently:

  • $10 per person (ages 16 and older).
  • Free for children 15 and under.

The entrance fee is valid for seven days, allowing you to come and go as you please during that time.

If you plan to visit more national parks within a year, consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass, which grants you access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites for a year.

Where to buy tickets to enter Guadalupe Mountains National Park:

You have a few options to buy your entrance pass for Guadalupe Mountains National Park:

1. In-Person at Pine Springs Visitor Center: This is the main visitor center and the most convenient place to purchase your pass. They accept both cash and credit/debit cards.

2. Other Trailheads and Visitor Centers: You can also purchase passes at the McKittrick Ridge Visitor Center, and at self-pay stations located at the Pine Springs, Frijole Ranch, McKittrick Canyon, Dog Canyon, and Salt Basin Dunes trailheads. These stations accept credit/debit cards only.

3. Online: You can purchase a digital pass online before your visit through Recreation.gov. This allows you to bypass any lines at the visitor center and head straight to your chosen trailhead. Be sure to print the pass or have it readily available on your mobile device for display.

No matter where you purchase your pass, it’s important to display it on your vehicle’s dashboard while you’re in the park.

Door County, Wisconsin: Coastal Charm and Cherry Blossoms

Venturing north to Wisconsin, I discovered the enchanting Door County, a peninsula nestled between Green Bay and Lake Michigan. This picturesque region, dotted with charming villages, lighthouses, and picturesque harbours, exudes a laid-back vibe that instantly put me at ease.

As my visit was during the summer months, I enjoyed swimming, kayaking, fishing, and boating in the crystal-clear waters of Lake Michigan. Hiking through scenic state parks, biking along tranquil roads, and exploring the area’s rich maritime history further enriched my experience.

I recommend to spend at least 7 days in the area, so there is enough time to:

  • Explore towns, state parks, and natural areas.
  • Go kayaking, biking, or hiking.
  • Take a day trip to Washington Island.
  • Indulge in leisurely meals, local breweries, and art galleries.
  • This allows for a more relaxed pace and a chance to truly unwind.
Door County
The rocky coast of Door County, Wisconsin’s Cave Point displays beautiful colors in the light of a stormy sunrise.

Where to stay

Door County is quite spread out, so the best “base” for your visit depends on your interests and travel style. Here’s a breakdown of some popular options:

Sturgeon Bay:

  • Pros: Largest city in Door County, offers a wider range of accommodations, restaurants, and shops. Closer to Green Bay and the southern part of the peninsula.
  • Cons: Not as centrally located for exploring the rest of Door County. Can feel less “quaint” compared to smaller towns.

Egg Harbor:

  • Pros: Centrally located, making it easy to explore both the northern and southern parts of Door County. Offers a good mix of shops, restaurants, and water activities.
  • Cons: Can get a bit crowded during peak season.

Fish Creek:

  • Pros: Popular tourist destination with a lively atmosphere, numerous shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Home to Peninsula State Park, one of the most popular attractions in Door County.
  • Cons: Can be crowded and touristy, especially in the summer.

Sister Bay:

  • Pros: Northernmost village in Door County, known for its Scandinavian heritage, waterfront park, and scenic views. Offers a quieter, more relaxed atmosphere compared to Fish Creek.
  • Cons: Further away from some of the southern attractions, like Sturgeon Bay and Peninsula State Park.

Ephraim:

  • Pros: Charming village with a historic district, beautiful waterfront, and several excellent restaurants. Offers a quieter, more upscale atmosphere compared to Fish Creek.
  • Cons: Smaller selection of shops and activities compared to other towns.

Other Options:

  • Baileys Harbor: Home to a historic lighthouse and Ridges Sanctuary, a unique natural area. Offers a more remote and secluded feel.
  • Ellison Bay: Known for its art galleries, pottery studios, and beautiful natural setting.
  • Washington Island: An island accessible by ferry, offering a different pace and unique attractions like Schoolhouse Beach and Stavkirke (a Norwegian-style church).

Ultimately, the best base for you will depend on your personal preferences and priorities. Consider what kind of atmosphere you’re looking for, what activities you’re interested in, and how much time you have to explore the area.

I hope this helps! Let me know in the comments if you have any other questions.

Taos, New Mexico: A Creative Oasis in the High Desert

Taos, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, beckoned me with its unique blend of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo influences. This vibrant arts community, with its adobe architecture, art galleries, and historic Taos Pueblo, exudes a creative energy that is palpable in the air.

Exploring the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the U.S., I delved into the rich history and traditions of the Native American people. The Harwood Museum of Art offered a glimpse into the region’s artistic heritage, while a scenic drive along the Enchanted Circle revealed breathtaking mountain vistas, serene lakes, and natural hot springs.

Taos Valley

Where to stay

I tend not to recommend places to stay but I really like the resort I stayed at so here it is:

El Monte Sagrado Resort and Spa: This luxury resort is known for its stunning architecture, beautiful grounds, and world-class spa. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a pampering and indulgent experience.

El Monte Sagrado Resort and Spa
El Monte Sagrado Resort and Spa

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado: A Desert Wonderland

The Great Sand Dunes National Park, with its towering dunes of sand rising up to 750 feet against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, left me speechless. This unique landscape, a true desert wonderland, offered a playground for outdoor adventures, from hiking and sandboarding to splashing in Medano Creek when it flows in the spring and early summer.

Camping beneath a canopy of stars, I felt a deep connection to the natural world, and exploring the park’s diverse ecosystems and rich cultural history further deepened my appreciation for this extraordinary place. A full moon hike through the dunes, with their ethereal glow under the moonlight, remains one of my most unforgettable travel experiences.

You do need to pay to enter Great Sand Dunes National Park. The entrance fee is currently $25 per vehicle and is valid for seven days.

However, there are a few ways to save on entrance fees:

  • America the Beautiful Pass: If you plan on visiting multiple national parks within a year, consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass. This pass grants you access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, for a year.
  • Free Entrance Days: The National Park Service offers several free entrance days throughout the year. Check the NPS website for the current schedule.

For the most up-to-date information on fees and passes, you can visit the official NPS website for Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great sand dune national park Colorado

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin: Island Hopping on Lake Superior

Just off the coast of northern Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands beckoned me with their rugged beauty and pristine wilderness. This archipelago of 21 islands, scattered across Lake Superior’s sparkling waters, offers a unique island-hopping adventure unlike any other.

I kayaked through sea caves carved into the sandstone cliffs, hiked through lush forests teeming with wildlife, and camped on secluded beaches under a blanket of stars. Each island boasts its own distinct character, from the historic lighthouses of Raspberry Island and Outer Island to the sea caves and sandstone arches of Devils Island. I spent a total of two weeks in the area which is just enough to scratch the surface of things to do and see.

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore

Where to stay

The best base for exploring the Apostle Islands is the charming town of Bayfield, Wisconsin. Here’s why:

  1. Gateway to the Islands: Bayfield is located on the mainland, directly across from the Apostle Islands, making it the most convenient starting point for your adventures.
  2. Transportation Hub: Ferries and boat tours to the islands depart from Bayfield’s City Dock. Several outfitters also offer kayak rentals and guided tours from this location.
  3. Accommodations and Amenities: Bayfield offers a wide range of lodging options, from cozy bed and breakfasts to waterfront hotels and vacation rentals. You’ll also find numerous restaurants, shops, art galleries, and other amenities within walking distance of the harbor.
  4. Charming Atmosphere: Bayfield exudes a welcoming, small-town vibe with a rich maritime history. Stroll along the waterfront, browse the shops, or enjoy a meal with a view of the harbor.
  5. Other Attractions: While the Apostle Islands are the main draw, Bayfield itself offers attractions like the Bayfield Maritime Museum, orchards for berry picking, and scenic hiking trails along the lakeshore.

While Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands, is accessible by car ferry and offers accommodations and amenities, it’s less convenient for exploring the other islands. Most visitors, like myself, choose to stay in Bayfield and take day trips to Madeline Island and other islands via ferry or boat tour.

Embracing the Road Less Travelled

These five destinations represent just a small fraction of the hidden treasures that await intrepid travelers in the United States. By venturing off the beaten path, you’ll not only escape the crowds but also immerse yourself in authentic local experiences, connect with nature on a deeper level, and create memories that will last a lifetime.

So, as you plan your next adventure, I encourage you to embrace the spirit of exploration and consider venturing beyond the familiar. Discover the hidden corners of this vast and diverse country, and you might just find your new favorite travel destination.

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