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The United States is a dream destination for travelers from all walks of life, all wanting to chase that ‘American Dream.’ But when it comes to actually planning a trip to the states, choosing cool places to visit in USA is not an easy task.
With a country that has 50 states, over 400 national parks, vibrant cities, charming small towns, and endless festivals and warm locals who love to share their culture with travelers, so how do you narrow it down to just a handful?
That’s where we come in.
There are hundreds of places that could have made this list, and there are hundreds of more places in the USA that we haven’t traveled to yet that may find their way on this list in the future!
However, this list of cool places to visit in the US is based on our own personal travel experiences and recommendations, so you can plan an itinerary that combines all the best parts of America.
This list is not about conventional attractions, so you won’t find typical tourist destinations such as Miami Florida, and theme parks like Universal Studios or Walt Disney World on this list. Instead, we’ve focused on small town charm, cultural uniqueness, and stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures you’ll be talking about forever.
Of course, there will be some iconic landmarks in the USA on this list, but we’ve tried to keep it as authentic as possible.
We’ve created this list of US destinations in collaboration with our sponsor, Allianz Travel, who wants you to have a GREAT vacation and let them take care of your precious investment!
- How We Chose Cool Places to Visit in the US
- Best Cities and Small Towns to Visit in the US
- Cool Places to Visit in the US: National Parks and Beaches
- 11. Sedona, Arizona
- 12. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
- 13. Lake Lure, North Carolina
- 14. Redfish Lake, Idaho
- 15. Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, Utah
- 16. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- 17. Smith Rock State Park, Oregon
- 18. Big Island of Hawaii
- 19. Sand Hollow State Park, Utah
- 20. Channel Islands National Park, California
- 21. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Before You Go
- More Useful USA Travel Tips
How We Chose Cool Places to Visit in the US
We mentioned before how we want to steer away from the places you’d typically explore in America like New York and its Central Park, or San Francisco and its Golden Gate Bridge.
We haven’t even included Washington DC and its White House, Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, or even its world-class museums like the Smithsonian. We also skipped the Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park.
Why? We don’t need to. Every traveler has heard of these epic bucket list attractions in the US and we highly recommend you visit them too, but we wanted to focus more on the hidden gems in this list.
You’ll find some of these places close to big-name attractions so you can easily add them to your US road trip itineraries. Others are perfect for weekend getaways or longer, more relaxing trips.
We’ve decided to organize this list by cities and small towns, and then national parks and beaches. This means you can pick places based on your travel preferences with ease.
Best Cities and Small Towns to Visit in the US
We’ll begin this list with the small towns and cities. These places we felt really give an authentic American experience to travelers and have unique and fascinating cultures.
1. Leavenworth, Washington
Let’s begin our list with one of America’s hidden gems. I was a little worried coming into Leavenworth that it was going to be kitschy Bavarian imitation tragedy.
But I was pleasantly surprised with Leavenworth.
It’s a tastefully done tourist attraction with a lot of soul and a little taste of Bavaria. And of course a few pretzels, bratwurst, and steins – you are welcome to wear lederhosen while doing so.
Leavenworth was once a thriving logging village. When that took a turn for the worst, instead of letting it die, the community decided to turn to use its beautiful setting to turn it into mini-Bavaria.
It’s now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington, especially for nearby Seattleites. (Seattle is only 117 miles west of Leavenworth)
In the town, you’ll find Bavarian-style architecture that houses restaurants, bars, breweries, cideries, and local retail stores.
Its location at the base of the Cascade Mountains and on the Wenatchee River means it’s also a hotspot for outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, whitewater rafting, or gentle tube floating.
Winter is meant to be an unforgettable experience here with their “Village of Lights” when the village is transformed with over 500,000 Christmas lights, live music, Santa Claus visit, and usually a blanketing of snow.
- Where to stay: The Blue Elk Inn is a beautiful bed and breakfast in Leavenworth that offers rural cabin vibes despite being a short walk from the town. See reviews and prices here.
Need more inspiration for places to visit in Washington State? Check out these guides…
2. Gruene, Texas
It may only be a three-street town, but Gruene Texas oozes historic charm, boot-scooting fun, and is one of the best small towns in America.
The center of community life – back when it was a thriving cotton industry town, and now, that it has been lovingly restored – is the Gruene dance hall.
Since 1878, Gruene Hall has been putting on live music and dance gatherings. Legends such as George Strait, Hal Ketchum, Willie Nelson, and Lyle Lovett have played, and even current superstars like Maren Morris.
There is nothing fancy about this place, which is what makes it one of the coolest places in the US to visit. Bring your copyboy hat and boots, let your hair down, mingle with the locals, and have fun.
You can sit down and listen, dance up the back, or even hang outside in the beer garden. Kids will love the space to play cornhole or climb some trees.
While in Gruene, be sure to explore more of the Texas Hill Country including:
- Climb to the top of Enchanted Rock.
- River tubing the Guadalupe or Comal River
- Guitar picking and country music under a 500-year-old oak tree in Luckenbach.
- Visit the wineries! Texas Hill is wine country, and there are more than 30 wineries off-the-beaten-path between Johnson City and Fredericksburg. I definitely want to come back for that sans kids. Here is a wine tour you may enjoy!
The streets are filled with boutique and antique stores in old homes, a general store with a soda and ice cream bar, and restaurants.
Watching the colors light up behind the water tower and sunset from your fire pit seat in the Grapevine Winery outdoor garden is something special to enjoy. Even better if there is live music in the background, which in Gruene, is a certainty.
- Where to stay: The Gruene Mansion Inn is a great bed and breakfast in Gruene. It’s full of rustic Victorian elegance and B&B style. See reviews and prices here.
Need more inspiration about Gruene, Texas? Check out these guides:
3. Raleigh, North Carolina
Long-term followers of our travel blog for the past few years will not be surprised to see the inclusion of Raleigh on a list of cool places to visit in the US.
If you are a new reader, out of all the places in the world we could choose to live, we chose Raleigh. Yes, it’s that cool.
It’s called the City of Oaks for obvious reasons – an urban landscape in the forest filled with trees, parks, and lakes.
Over the last few years there has been an explosion of growth, and with that, a cool influx of modern and local restaurants, breweries, bars, and retail stores (many of which have received national recognition!!)
Some of the best chefs in the country have moved here and restaurants such as Heirloom Brewshop and Benchwarmer Bagels were included in the best restaurants in America 2019, and Brewery Bhavana was named one of the world’s most beautiful breweries.
I would say that Bida Manda, the Laotian restaurant next door owned by the same Brewery Bhavana family, has the best food I’ve eaten in the USA.
Raleigh is only going to get better, and it’s the gateway to some of North Carolina’s stunning nature sites. It’s certainly worth a stop on an East Coast road trip.
- Where to stay: For us, there are two places that stick out for where to stay in Raleigh. We love the forested location of the StateView Hotel. The Residence Inn Downtown Raleigh have an amazing rooftop bar.
Need more inspiration about Raleigh? Check out these guides:
4. Savannah, Georgia
With its streets and squares draped in Spanish Moss, its cobblestone riverfront walk, Southern fusion cuisine, elegant and refined homes, and dark haunted history, Savannah Georgia would have to be one of the coolest small cities in the USA to visit.
It oozes Southern Charm and hospitality and has received the title of the world’s friendliest city. This USA town is all about relaxation, diving into the mysteries, and appreciating art and culture.
You’ll find abandoned properties reborn into craft breweries and contemporary art museums and cool, local shops and restaurants that can be explored with a drink in your hand, thanks to the city’s open container policies.
Yep. Grab your go-cup of alcohol and off you go.
And, if you ever get sick of wandering its squares and streets, there is even the gorgeous and equally charming Tybee island nearby.
- Where to stay: The Drayton Hotel is located in downtown Savannah which is the best place to stay for first-time visitors. It’s modern and contemporary design makes for a really comfortable stay. See reviews and prices here.
Need more inspiration on Savannah and surrounding areas? Check out these resources…
5. Boston, Massachusetts
Another well-known city in the USA, Boston offers a much different experience to big hitters like New York City and LA.
Boston has historical charm and a fascinating history leading to the US’s independence. The locals here talk funny, are friendly and are sports mad!
One of the coolest things to do in Boston and the US is to attend a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park. That is an iconic American cultural experience you will not forget. Head to the Bleacher Bar if you want to catch some of the game for free.
We loved the hilarious and informative Boston Freedom Trail walking tour. It’s a fantastic way to learn about the history of the city and America. Also, don’t forget cannolis and coffee in Little Italy!
- Where to stay: A stay at the Liberty Hotel in Boston should be on everyone’s bucketlist. It’s a luxury five-star hotel with all the bells and whistles. See prices and reviews here.
Need more inspiration about Boston and beyond? Then you’ll enjoy reading these other guides…
6. Franklin, Tennessee
I adored our one-day visit to Franklin, Tennessee.
So easy to do considering it is only about 30-minutes from our favorite city in the USA – Nashville! Next time we visit, I think we’ll extend our visit to the charming Franklin for at least an overnight stay.
If you like history, boutique shopping on Main street that looks like it’s stepped out of the Instagram feed of the 1800s. You know what I mean – gorgeous old Southern buildings draped in modern couture.
It’s so gorgeous it is known as having one of the best-preserved downtowns in North America.
Not too far from Franklin, is the tiny one dusty road town of Leipers Fork.
This is the place to come for legendary music nights at Puckett’s Grocery. You never know, considering this is the area many famous Country musicians live, you may just see one of them jump on stage for open mic night.
God, I love this Nashville, Tennessee region.
- Where to stay: The Harpeth Hotel is in downtown Franklin and its a pretty swish boutique hotel by Curio Hilton. Check prices here. Another great option is Alfred at the James. This is a fantastic affordable apartment option in The Gulch area of Nashville. We loved our stay here. Check more reviews and current prices here.
Think Franklin sounds interesting? Read more about it in these helpful guides:
- 6 Captivating Things to do in Franklin TN (Day Trip From Nashville)
- 5 Outstanding Live Music Experiences in Nashville, TN
You can also learn about nearby Memphis and Nashville here:
7. New Orleans, Louisiana
This is probably the most well known place on our list.
When you’re talking of cool bucket list places to visit in the US, you can’t ignore New Orleans, otherwise known as The Big Easy because of its laid-back spirit. It’s possibly the most unique, lively and delicious city in the United States.
New Orleans has culture and soul, incredible food and music, history, charm, festival after festival, and all-around great people.
Top tip: Be sure to grab a New Orleans Sightseeing Pass to save money on attractions. Read more information on our in-depth New Orleans Sightseeing Pass review.
You can discover most of it just by wandering around the historic French Quarter, or the charming Garden District. A little further out takes you to the bayous and alligator country and the elegant plantation homes.
You can even learn more about the history on a Plantation tour, which we highly recommend for those who want to learn more about black history in America.
Another reason why New Orleans is one of the best places to visit in the US is its food. With its French, creole, and cajun influence, the food will blow your tastebuds away!
New Orleans has plenty of cool festivals to keep you coming back for more. The most famous being Mardi Gras, and yes we proved you can enjoy that with kids! Christmas is also a great time in NOLA and may offer warm weather.
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the US.
- Where to stay: The Whitney Hotel is an affordable, spacious accommodation option within walking distance to many places in New Orleans. We enjoyed our stay at this hotel. Check room rates here.
Get some more inspiration about New Orleans from these other resources:
Although Chicago is a huge metropolis, it’s one of the most incredible places to visit in the US for those who want to see big cities. While New York can often feel overwhelming, and Los Angeles can tear a hole in your wallet, Chicago is neither of those things.
Chicago is big on art, architecture, and design. It’s a pretty city in the states, especially on St Patrick’s Day when they turn the river green (don’t worry, it doesn’t harm the environment).
Top tip: You can save on attractions in Chicago by getting a City Pass or a Go Explorer Pass before you go.
The Space Needle and Art Institute of Chicago are two such examples of the city’s embrace of the arts. The Museum houses some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, from world-famous painters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, and is where the original The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai is held.
The Space Needle is an architectural masterpiece with a revolving restaurant on the top floor, so you have views of every inch of the city.
‘The Bean’ in Millennium Park is also a popular artistic sculpture that attracts many visitors to Chicago.
For those looking for unique experiences in the US, then Chicago is one place to pin on the map.
- Where to stay: For a great place to stay, you can never go wrong with a Four Seasons. This is a luxury hotel in the best area of Chicago, perfect for exploring. See prices and reviews here.
Not sure what to do in Chicago? Don’t worry, we have a few resources for you to check out:
10. San Francisco – Alcatraz Island
San Francisco is another vibrant and unique city in the US and is most well known for its Golden Gate Bridge, steep roads and tramways and colorful buildings. But it’s also home to another unique attractions, Alcatraz Island Prison (otherwise known as The Rock).
Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison that resides 2km off the coast of San Francisco. It’s remote location in the ocean meant it would be hard for prisoners to escape, since they would need to swim a long distance through often stormy seas.
While the prison closed in 1963 (ironically because it was too expensive to run), the island is still a hotspot tourist destination. You can see where more than 300 inmates were kept. Conditions were grim, which was kinda the point, as no prisoner wants to be sent there.
Aside from the prison quarters, you can see the ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club, the Gardens of Alcatraz, Recreation Yard and the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the USA.
It’s a good idea to book your Alcatraz Ticket before you go to avoid long queues.
- Where to stay: The Hotel Boheme is a fun and quirky place to stay in San Francisco near to Italian restaurants and Lombard Street. See prices and reviews on Booking.com.
Want to explore more of San Francisco? Check out these other resources:
- 23 Hidden Gems in San Francisco the Locals Love
- 8 Must Do San Francisco Tourist Attractions
- Tips for San Francisco, California
- 33+ Top Kid’s Activities in San Francisco
- 14 Things To Do in The Presidio San Francisco – A Nature Escape in the Middle of an Urban Jungle
- Where to Stay in San Francisco – 26 Best Hotels for 2022 (Budget to luxury)
- Neighborhood Guide: 12 Places to Go in San Francisco (plus where to eat & stay)
Cool Places to Visit in the US: National Parks and Beaches
If you love outdoor spaces and breathtaking nature, then these are the best places to visit in the US for nature lovers.
11. Sedona, Arizona
Sedona Arizona is possibly my favorite place in the USA. It has a beauty and magnetic pull that only a few places in the world possess.
When you drive into Sedona and see majestic red rock formations rising up from a green carpeted valley floor you are instantly bought into the present moment and feel alive. I doubt your troubled mind will bother you until you leave again.
The best way to experience Sedona is to walk amongst its incredible scenery. Alternatively, if you don’t like walking, you can explore the area on a Sedona Jeep Tour.
Take on the challenge of climbing up some of the rock faces for extraordinary views and to bring in the spiritual power and energy from the Sedona Vortexes. There are said to be four main vortex sites here, which largely contributes to its unique feel-good vibe.
You will feel on top of the world in Sedona and like you have entered the gates of heaven, where everything outside seems to fade away from existence.
- Where to stay: Best Western Plus Arroyo Roble Hotel & Creekside Villas is situated in uptown Sedona. The location is perfect and the Creekside Villas will only enhance your Sedona vacation. Check current prices here.
Read these posts for more helpful information on Sedona:
12. Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Those who insist on making Las Vegas a stop on their US road trip, will love the Valley of Fire State Park. It’s an easy day trip from Vegas and will give you that much-needed natural respite from the City of Sin.
The Valley of Fire is also small enough to explore in a day with a few short walks and a stunning scenic drive through rainbow-colored landscapes and red, pink, and white wavy rocks. The most famous (see picture above) can be explored on the Fire Wave Trail.
If you’re planning on visiting Vegas and need a break from casinos, then we recommend a guided tour to Valley of Fire where you can also tick off the California Mojave Desert.
We also recommend driving in via the North in the Lake Mead Recreational Area. It’s one of the most spectacular drives in the USA.
- Where to stay: You can camp at Valley of Fire state Park or Lake Mead. Otherwise, we recommmend Harrahs in Vegas as a good mid-range hotel with ideal location on The Strip. Check current prices here.
Read these guides for more helpful information on Valley of Fire State Park and surrounding attractions:
13. Lake Lure, North Carolina
Lake Lure sits in the Hickory Nut Gorge, surrounded by lush mountain tops and sheer granite cliffs.
In the distance are the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Hickory Nut Gorge with names like Buffalo Head and Sleeping lady.
It’s ancient. Timeless. Connected.
I feel like I’ve lived many lives here and it’s not long after arriving that I slip into Lake Time.
It moves slowly and rhythmically like the oars on my stand up paddle board moving across the lake.
Lake Lure in North Carolina is my happy place. My dream is to one day have a lake home here and spend my summers swimming, supping, and enjoying the serenity of a quiet life. It’s the place that can draw me away from travel for good.
Dirty Dancing fans will be happy to know parts of the movie were filmed here (the lake lift scene) and there is an annual Dirty Dancing festival there.
Grab your partner and attempt the lift in the lake for trophy glory. Or, just be like me and carry a watermelon in a short sprint race.
I also LOVE exploring Chimney Rock State Park.
- Where to stay: My favorite place to stay is the Lodge on Lake Lure – you cannot beat those views and having a room amongst the trees. Read reviews and check current prices here.
Read these posts for more helpful information on Lake Lure:
14. Redfish Lake, Idaho
Coming in after Lake Lure, as my favorite lake in the US, is Redfish Lake in Stanley Idaho. Most people choose to visit Lake Michigan which is one of the five great lakes in the US, but we promised you hidden gems.
Odds are you haven’t heard of it, but also great, as it means you’ll be adventuring to a true gem without it being spoiled by flocks of tourists.
The views of the Sawtooth range framing the spectacular clear waters made from the nearby glaciers are amazing. This five-mile-long lake is the perfect place to relax on the beach, go swimming, supping, or kayaking. We took a guided commentary tour around the lake to learn more about its unique flora and fauna.
You can hike five miles down to the other end of Redfish Lake (where no cars can go) and then catch the boat shuttle back. If you don’t like hiking, you might enjoy horse riding through the Sawtooth Mountains instead.
On the main beach area of the lake, you’ll find Redfish Lodge which offers full-service dining, or their Lakeside Grill, which offers burgers and beverages with outside seating next to the lake.
The marina offers motorized and non-motorized rentals, lake tours, fuel, and a shuttle service to the popular trailheads at the far end of the lake.
Speaking of cool, Stanley is said to be the coldest place in the USA outside of Alaska. Make Redfish Lake, Idaho your summer vacation.
- Where to stay: The Redfish Riverside Inn features accommodation with private terraces in a beautiful location on the Salmon River in Stanley. Check current prices and reviews here.
Need more inspiration? Check out these other guides to Idaho…
15. Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument, Utah
I have no doubt on your Utah road trip, you are checking off the state’s big 4. That is the four spectacular national parks in this state full of colorful wows.
You will be passing through Grand Staircase-Escalante, which may not have top-level national park status, but it does offer serious wow competition. It is a national monument, and I’m still figuring out the difference.
Welcome 4×4 scenic drives, hidden waterfalls, undulating waves of colorful rocks, and adventurous hikes through narrow slot canyons, endless slick rock, and rainbow-colored valleys.
The spectacular All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12 runs through here as well as the more rugged Burr Trail.
Two of my favorite hikes on our US road trip were found here: Lower Creek Calf Falls and Spooky and Peek-a-Boo slot Canyon.
Lower Creek Falls are hidden deep in a sandy canyon and the slot spooky canyons offer a thrilling adventure of climbing, crawling and inching through 12 inch narrow spaces.
- Where to stay: A great place to stay nearby is the Slot Canyons Inn Bed and Breakfast. It’s affordable, cozy and well located for those who like hiking. Check here for current prices.
For more inspiration, read these helpful guides:
16. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Okay, so a popular place to visit in the USA that cannot be left off this list as Yellowstone National Park. It’s possibly the coolest place to visit in the entire world.
And nearby is Jackson Hole and the stunning Grand Teton National Park, so if you’re a nature lover you will love exploring the most beautiful places in the United States all within a short distance of each other.
This area was the last place we visited on our USA road trip and we felt we finished our trip with once of the best American experiences. Saving the best for last, as they say.
I can’t even find the words to describe Yellowstone.
Bubbling hot mud pits, steaming sulfur holes, multi-colored hot springs, geysers shooting off randomly and perfectly timed, grand canyons filled with waterfalls, hot springs you can actually sit in by the side of the river, and an abundance of wildlife roaming around this volatile yet spectacular landscape.
We spent four days and it wasn’t nearly enough to soak everything in. We recommend spending at least 7 days in Yellowstone to see it all.
You’ve probably heard a lot about this supervolcano sitting under the earth’s surface, but you will not understand how cool it is until you are up close and experiencing this geothermal land. There really is no place like it.
Another cool sight to see in Yellowstone is the soaring cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome, which is a popular rock climbing spot for adventurous climbers.
- Where to stay: To really experience Yellowstone, we recommend staying in the national park. There are plenty of campsites, but make sure to reserve in advance. Or, for more upmarket lodging, historic Inn on the Creek Hotel, and is centrally located to most of the park, and very charming. See Booking.com reviews here.
For more helpful information about Yellowstone, check these out:
17. Smith Rock State Park, Oregon
Majestic rock spires, the result of hardened ash, lava and debris rise above the winding Crooked River in the high desert.
This is Smith Rock State Park, about 30 minutes north of Bend in Central Oregon.
It’s a destination renowned globally for rock climbing. You’ll enjoy watching the pros scale up the frighteningly steep Monkey Face outcropping. Be warned, the views here will distract you.
With the meandering river and lush green valley below it was one of the prettiest views I’ve seen in America.
There are 12 official hiking trails at Smith Rock State Park, but none are as well known (or all encompassing) like the 5.5 mile Misery Ridge Loop Trail. It’s only the first 30 minute steep climb up the Smith Rock Tuft that could be deemed miserable.
But, switchbacks will support you and those views make it all okay!
Nearby Bend is also cool with its volcanic history, river for tubing and whitewater surfing, and numerous outstanding breweries.
- Where to stay: You can camp at Smith Rock State Park. Walk in tent camping only. The boutique eco-friendly Oxford Hotel in downtown Bend provides a free airport transfer service to Redmond Municipal Airport.
Learn more about Bend and other areas in Oregon from these helpful guides:
18. Big Island of Hawaii
I know Waikiki and the North Shore get a lot of Hawaii airtime, but for me, the cool island to visit was the Big Island of Hawaii.
It may not have the spectacular swimming beaches you’ll find in Oahu, or the relaxed vacation vibe of Maui, but it has volcanoes active with bubbling lava, beautiful waterfalls in the middle of the jungle, green colored beaches and the chance to swim with manta rays in the night!
Does it get much cooler than that?
The island is brimming with traditional Hawaiian culture and unique natural landscapes you won’t ever find anywhere else. You’ll find lava caves (caves formed by lava) and lava forests (forests that have been fossilized by lava) and black sand beaches.
Basically, everything about this island has been sculpted by volcanoes, and it’s one of the most incredible places to visit in Hawaii for this reason.
- Where to stay: Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa was a great place to stay. We love the location of this hotel right on the edge of the water in popular, Kona. They have a beautiful pool with sunset views and a fantastic restaurant. Rooms were spacious. Check current prices here.
Need more inspiration on Hawaii and the Big Island? Check out these other resources…
19. Sand Hollow State Park, Utah
Sand Hollow is a new state park in Utah and it will completely blow your mind.
It’s racing up to the top of the cool places to visit in the USA list due to its stunning kaleidoscope-colored scenery and action adventures.
This is one of the best places in the country to go quad bike and ATV driving across miles of sand dunes.
The surrounding scenery of red dirt, snow-covered peaks, and a brilliant blue lake is as satisfying as eating a decadent slice of black forest mud cake. There is just no comparison.
Sand Hollow State Park is just outside the town of St George and can easily be fit in on a Southwest road trip to Zion National Park.
- Where to stay: The Desert Garden Inn offers free WIFI, parking, a pool with a view and a hot breakfast. It’s great for families and they allow pets.
Learn more about St George, Utah, and surrounding areas with these helpful guides:
20. Channel Islands National Park, California
When people think of rural, stunning outdoor locations in California, they are probably thinking of Napa Valley or the Sierra Mountains, but if you want to visit somewhere off the beaten path, check out the Channel Islands.
Channel Islands National Park is located off the coastline of Ventura California, which is about 70 miles north of Los Angeles up the Pacific Coast Highway.
This is the least visited of the National Parks in California, and in a state as popular as California, that’s a pretty epic title and adventure lying in wait.
Expect to find nothing but beautiful beaches, cliff faces, valleys and canyons for hiking, sea caves to explore on kayaks, plenty of sea lions popping their heads up, snorkeling through the kelp forests to snorkel through, and tiny island foxes.
The Channel Islands National Park is made up of five islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara.
The easiest island to visit, and perfect for a one-day trip is Santa Cruz. We highly recommend you do the Island Packers Boat tour to Santa Cruz Island and pack yourself a picnic lunch to enjoy while soaking up the beautiful scenery once you have finished.
It’s not quite the rugged coastline you get of the Big Sur and Carmel-by-the-Sea Beach, but it’s a lot more peaceful. This is a side of California you never knew was possible.
- Where to stay: We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach Hotel. As one of the Ventura Beach hotels, it has prime beachfront location and some of the rooms have ocean views.
Think the Channel Islands sound interesting? Here are some more guides to the Channel Islands and surrounding areas you may find useful:
- Day Trip to Visit Channel Islands National Park, California (it’s magic!)
- 17 Amazing Things to do in Ventura County California With Kids
- 10 Day Itinerary – Places to Visit in Southern California (beyond Disneyland)
- 30 Incredible Places to Visit in California For Your California Bucket List
- 5 Incredible National Parks in California To Set Foot In
- 20 Fun Things to Do in Los Angeles with Kids (adult’s love these too)
21. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We conclude this list of the best places to visit in the US with the most iconic nature spot in the country. For nature lovers, you cannot skip the mysterious lands of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The mountain range spans two states, Tennessee and North Carolina. They get their name from the neverending fog that seems to be present here.
They have some of the most rich diversity of its plant and animal life in the country, and is home to the USA’s largest salamander, the hellbender salamander, though you would be extremely lucky to see one as their numbers are declining.
The beauty of these mountains are difficult to describe – you have to see it to believe it.
If you’re a fan of hiking, you’ll find more than 150 official trails, including the iconic Appalachian trail. If you’re not into hiking, don’t worry, you can take a self-guided driving tour of the national park.
- Where to stay: We stayed at Old Creek Lodge in Gatlinburg. It was comfortable and clean, but basic. I was drawn to the views of the river/creek from the small balcony, plus it’s affordable for the area. You can check them out here.
Want to learn more about the Smokies? Then check out these guides:
- Cades Cove bike ride, Great Smoky Mountains National Park – we saw bears!
- Grandfather Mountain & Linville Falls: A Day Trip On The Blue Ridge Parkway
- Things to Do in Bryson City for the Holiday Season (includes the Polar Express & Smokies)
- Top Places To Go in the North Carolina Mountains (Western NC)
- 49 Unique + Fun Things to Do in North Carolina Bucket List
- Climb 499 Steps To The Top of Chimney Rock, NC for Incredible Views!
Before You Go
So there you have it, 21 of the best places to visit in the US. As you can see, there’s a lot of hidden gems in the country that you probably hadn’t thought to add to your list!
I hope that you found a few places that pique your interest and that this guide helped you map out your itinerary.
More Useful USA Travel Tips
Before you head out on your American Dream adventure, be sure to check out these guides for more travel in USA tips:
- 11 Steps – How to Plan Your Dream USA Trip
- 19 essential things to know before you visit the USA
- 10 Things Australians Should Know When Planning a USA Road Trip
- Tipping in USA – A Guide on How Much to Tip in USA and When
- 10 Exciting Winter Vacations for Families in the USA
- 7 Extraordinary National Parks in the United States you don’t want to miss
- 7 Fantastic US National Parks you may not have heard of
- A 4 week Dallas to Boston Road Trip Itinerary
- 22 of the best scenic drives in the USA
Car and RV Rentals
Need to get a car to help you get from one place to the next? Here are some car and RV rentals we would recommend.
- Rental Cars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Avis, Hertz, Dollar etc.
- RVShare is an option for renting a motorhome, caravan or camper on your US road trip – See what RV rentals are available
This post is sponsored by our partner Allianz Travel (AGA Service Company) and we have received financial compensation as ambassadors.
What would you add to the list of cool places to visit in the US for 2020?