Too often, major cities across the United States—from New York to Los Angeles—snag tourists' attention, but to skip these rural destinations would be a mistake.
Many foreign and domestic travelers in the United States are enchanted by the country’s cities, which prove vibrant and exciting. From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, these major metropolises are brimming with entertainment and world-class restaurants, often eclipsing the beauty of other smaller-town destinations. From the mountains of Colorado to the rivers of Tennessee, some of the most gorgeous scenery in the United States is found far from the skyscrapers and the taxi-filled avenues of major cities.
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A medium-sized city in its own right, Chattanooga sits nestled in the foot of Appalachia where the Tennessee River winds through the rolling hills. The area is abundant in natural beauty and offers plenty of opportunities for beginning cavers to explore sites like the underground waterfall at Ruby Falls, or explore the Crystal Palace at Raccoon Mountain Caverns. Water fans can enjoy 25 miles of parkland stretching along the riverfront from the Chickamauga Dam to Lookout Mountain, the site of the eponymous Civil War battle.
Nestled in southcentral Oklahoma lies Chickasaw Country, on the lands of the Chickasaw Nation. Visitors can learn about the fascinating heritage of the Chickasaw and their forced removal to Oklahoma from the Southeast, watch dancers perform in dress adorned with deer toe and turtle shell, and explore a replica village. Culture-seekers can also head to Tishomingo to see the historic Chickasaw Nation capitol and outdoor lovers can zipline over Turner Falls or take in the waters of the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.
Many parts of Hawai’i qualify as “rural” but the entire island of Molokai is like a throwback to another time. So small there aren’t even stoplights, this small island community is known in times historic and contemporary for canoe paddling and as the birthplace of hula. Stay at the island’s one midcentury modern hotel or a vacation rental and take in the island’s natural beauty, from the sea cliffs to a guided tour and cultural talk to the lush Halawa Valley. Cap the day off with a late-night visit to the island’s worst kept secret—Hot Bread served out of a bakery window slathered with all manner of decadent toppings.
The Matanuska-Susitna Valley
Known locally as “MatSu” or “The Valley”, this is where Alaskans and adventure-seeking visitors from “Outside” come to partake in recreation. The annual State Fair is a top draw, attracting visitors to gawk at monster-sized vegetables (winning cabbages routinely weigh in at over a thousand pounds), while each season brings different adventures, from hiking Hatcher Pass or guided trekking on the Matanuska Glacier to taking watercraft or snowmachines (“snowmobile” is not a used word here) out on the many lakes and trails throughout the region. The many rivers crisscrossing the Valley are also a boon to sports fishing—some even have picture-perfect views of Denali on a clear day.
WHERE: Washington State
Whether dining on fresh produce from inland farms or the fresh catch from the nearby Salish Sea, visitors to Bellingham and the surrounding communities have no shortage of natural beauty to take in. Take a weekend retreat at a seaside resort in Blaine, hugged up against the Canadian border with Mount Baker as a scenic backdrop, or go kayaking in the bays that hug the coast. For a European flavor, head inland to Lynden, a Dutch-American enclave complete with Dutch-style storefronts and bakeries.
The mountains of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas are a prime spot for rural recreation. Table Rock Lake draws visitors for boating and fishing, particularly to the nearby Big Cedar Lodge, founded by a conservationist who also founded Bass Pro Shops. With marinas dotting the winding mountain lake and outdoor attractions like golf, hiking, and just enjoying the crisp mountain air, these mid-continent mountains are more than just a regional tourism draw.
Glacier National Park is a nearby draw, and for those not staying in the park the small-town feel of Whitefish’s storefronts and restaurants can be infectious. Winter visitors can take to the slopes at the Whitefish Mountain Resort, while summer recreation may include activities as involved as canoeing or paddle boarding on Whitefish Lake, or sipping cocktails at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.
Yes, you can still pan for gold in Mariposa County, at the gates of Yosemite National Park. You can’t pan for gold in the park, but visitors wanting to explore California’s Gold Rush history can the California State Mining and Mineral Museum or take a gold panning course before heading out to the Merced River to attempt it for themselves before heading in to take in the natural beauty of the National Park.
Convenient to both Portland and Bangor, Maine’s Central Coast is the destination for all things stereotypically Maine: lobster boils, charming seaside towns with quiet local general stores, and secluded coves for beach picnics. The best way to get out on the water and see the scenery is on a multi-night windjammer cruise with the Maine Windjammer Association onboard one of their historic windjammers (the oldest is over 150 years old!)
In the winter, it’s a ski resort like many others in the Colorado Rockies. In the summer, the town of Hayden has sunshine and cool weather made for outdoor dining and lazy mornings exploring street fairs and small-town shopping. Nearby, outdoor recreation abounds with hikes to Fish Creek Falls, summer concerts at Yampa River Botanic Park, or dips in Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs.