The Grand Canyon. The Statue of Liberty. Mount Rushmore. These iconic tourist attractions are definitely on everyone’s must-see list, but there are also a number of hidden gems throughout the country that often go unnoticed. From a ride through the mountains of Nevada on a railway dating back 100 years, to a mosaic sculpture garden in Philadelphia, the next time you’re touring the country, be sure to venture off the beaten path to these under-the-radar attractions.
By Annie Bruce
Rock City, Georgia
WHERE: Lookout Mountain, Georgia
Just six miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee, this 200-million-year-old rock formation holds plenty of exciting adventures, including a 90-foot waterfall, suspended bridge, gardens, Fairyland Caverns for the kids, and a 1,000-ton balanced rock. Once you’ve finished exploring the trails that wind through these attractions and the more than 400 species of plants and trees, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views at the top of Lookout Mountain, where you can see seven different states. Depending on when you visit, there are plenty of special events to add even more excitement to your trip, including the Enchanted Garden of Lights during the holiday season, the Southern Blooms Festival, and Summer Music Weekends.
Insider Tip: While you’re in the area, you should also visit Ruby Falls. Located 1,120 feet below Lookout Mountain, it’s the world’s tallest and deepest waterfall.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Georgia Travel Guide
Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan
WHERE: Empire, Michigan
Located along Lake Michigan, the dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes is just five miles from Empire, Michigan. The two-thousand-year-old dune was formed by wind that took sand from the Lake Michigan bluff and used to stand more than 234 feet high. Once you arrive, enjoy the challenging, but fun, climb up the dune, stunning views, and the even more enjoyable trip back down. After you’re done, walk or bike along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail to take in the scenery.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Michigan Travel Guide
Magic Gardens, Philadelphia
WHERE: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Award-winning mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar spent 14 years sculpting, tiling, excavating, and grouting to create the Magic Gardens display in Philadelphia. Located in the city’s South Street neighborhood, the Magic Gardens are spread throughout the 3,000-square foot space (about half a city block) and include indoor galleries and an outdoor sculpture garden, filled with mosaic tiles and a random assortment of objects (bicycle tires, bottles, you name it) transformed into art.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Philadelphia Travel Guide
Lewis and Clark Caverns, Montana
WHERE: Jefferson County, Montana
From May through September, visitors can explore one of the largest limestone caverns in the Northwest at Montana’s oldest state park. The Lewis & Clark Caverns are filled with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, and columns that make up one of the most beautiful underground areas in the country. Visitors travel about two miles throughout the two-hour guided tour and can also bike, fish, camp, and canoe in the State Park area.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Montana Travel Guide
The Wave, Arizona
WHERE: North Coyote Buttes, Arizona
The Wave is a stunning sandstone formation in the North Coyote Buttes region of the Paria Canyon Wilderness, near the Arizona and Utah border. While it’s difficult to obtain a permit to visit the structure (apply online through a reservation and lottery system), once you do, it’ll be well worth the trouble. Visitors can hike along the six- to eight-mile beautifully colored trails on The Wave, which dates back 160 to 180 million years.
Insider Tip: The route through The Wave can be confusing. Once you’re granted a permit, look into guided tour options, so you can enjoy the view without worrying about getting lost.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Arizona Travel Guide
Storybook Homes, Los Angeles
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
Named “Storybook” for a style of architecture that took off in Los Angeles during the 1920s and 1930s, these whimsical houses are spread throughout the city and definitely worth a visit. The eight European-inspired Snow White Cottages, located on Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Angeles, were created in 1931 and may have inspired the cottages in their namesake’s movie, as several animators from Disney lived in them at the time. The Witch’s House, located on Walden Drive in Beverly Hills, features tiny windows, a moat, bridge, and garden. Created by director Harry Oliver in 1921, the house was originally an office building before it was moved to Beverly Hills to function as a private home. The Hobbit House, located on Dunn Drive in Culver City, features a pond with turtles and was constructed between 1946 and 1970 by Disney artist Joseph Lawrence.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Los Angeles Travel Guide
Nevada Northern Railway Ride
WHERE: Ely, Nevada
Hop aboard this National Historic Landmark and take a 90-minute train ride through the mountains of Central Nevada. Known as one of the country's last and best-preserved railroad facilities of its kind, the Nevada Northern Railway was built more than 100 years ago to serve the area’s copper mining region. Following you’re trip, guests can tour the surrounding shops and grounds. During certain times of the year, the railway gives themed tours, such as the Haunted Ghost Train of Old Ely or the Polar Express Train. While you’re in the area, visitors can choose to spend the night in a caboose or bunkhouse for an all-immersive experience. You can also make a reservation to “be the engineer” for the day and drive the train yourself.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Nevada Travel Guide
American Gothic House Center, Iowa
WHERE: Eldon, Iowa
Grab a pair of overalls, an apron, and, of course, a hayfork, and pose for a picture in front of the iconic house from Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting. Wood originally visited the house in 1930 and took notice of its unique windows (which he later described as “pretentious”) and pulled over on the side of the road to sketch on a used envelope. The house itself dates back to the early 1880s and its now recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the State of Iowa. The American Gothic House Center includes the house that inspired the famous painting and the nearby center, which contains information about Wood’s life and the history of American Gothic. And there are props on hand, so guests can complete their visit with a photo shoot.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Iowa Travel Guide
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park
WHERE: Two Harbors, Minnesota
Perched over Lake Superior, the Split Rock Lighthouse lit the lake’s North Shore from 1910 until 1969. Today, it hosts visitors from around the world, who can tour the lighthouse and the surrounding 25 acres. Named on the National Register of Historic Places, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park contains the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, two campgrounds, and gorgeous lakeside views. Visitors can skip rocks alongside the water, admire the Split Rock River waterfalls, and hike, cross-country ski, or bike their way across the trails.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Minnesota Travel Guide
Gillette Castle, Connecticut
WHERE: East Haddam, Connecticut
Built between 1914 and 1919, this beautiful castle was created by actor William Gillette, known for starring in the stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Located along the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle is now part of the Gillette Castle State Park, which includes trails and a now-closed three-mile railroad. Designed to look like castles in the Rhineland, the mansion itself, built on the 184-acre property, features 24 rooms, built-in couches, and woodcarvings. Guests can tour the inside of the castle and the surrounding area throughout the year.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley Travel Guide