Hidden Gems Out Here
These lesser-known destinations can make for a memorable summer road trip
By Erin Brereton
W

ith warm weather, a break from school, and miles of open road that await, summer is the perfect time to head out and explore the scenic sites the U.S. has to offer.

While popular destinations like Yosemite National Park and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial are well worth the ride, if you’re looking to avoid the big crowds and get off the beaten path, reaching the destinations below can be an adventure—without the traffic or long lines.

Head out and Explore
Susan Pease
Susan Pease / Alamy Stock Photo
GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK IN EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT
Designed by actor William Gillette, this unusual structure—which was built to look like a stone castle in ruin from the outside—was purchased after Gillette’s death and opened to the public in 1944 as a museum and state park.

“People are drawn to the castle for all sorts of reasons,” says Paul Schiller, a seasonal interpretive guide at Gillette Castle for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “They see it on a travel blog or search for things to do in the area; many will just notice a sign for the castle on the highway and decide to take a look.”

Visitors can see quirky elements, such as the castle’s 47 unique hand-carved oak doors—each of which has a different mechanism and latch—during daily tours.

Admission to the park is free, but tickets must be purchased for the tour.

Don Smetzer
Don Smetzer / Alamy Stock Photo
OZARK FOLK CENTER STATE PARK IN MOUNTAIN VIEW, ARKANSAS
It isn’t unusual to hear fiddles, banjos, and other instruments in this arts-centric park, which sits on roughly 600 acres of land a few miles south of the Ozark National Forest. During the day, guests can tour the park’s Heritage Herb Garden, or visit the Crafts Village where artisans create and sell one-of-a-kind items, such as stained glass and homemade brooms. There are on-site rental cabins if you’d like to make your visit an overnight stay. Visitors can also dine in the park’s Southern-style restaurant, which features views of the adjacent butterfly garden.

Admission to the park is free, though visitors must purchase tickets to access the Crafts Village and Heritage Herb Garden.

Don Smetzer
Don Smetzer / Alamy Stock Photo
“The visitors who come back time and time again fall in love with the heritage crafts, herb gardens, and folk music here.”
-Keith Symanowitz, program director for Ozark Folk Center State Park
Don Smetzer
Image courtesy of the Grotto of the Redemption
THE GROTTO OF THE REDEMPTION IN WEST BEND, IOWA
More than 250 types of semiprecious stones were gathered, purchased, or donated from locations ranging from North Dakota coal mines to Belgium to create the religious scenes depicted in this city block-long series of manmade caves. Andy Milam, the shrine’s marketing coordinator, estimates about half of the guests visit for religious reasons. Many are also interested in the geological and architectural features. The grotto’s creator, Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein, constructed it without blueprints. During the guided tour, guests learn about the history of the grotto—open to the public since 1912—and Father Paul’s building process.
“We’re considered to be one of the wonders of Iowa,” Andy says
“Everybody is amazed by what they see because it’s so completely different than anything they’ve ever come across.”

Admission to the shrine is free, though donations are accepted.

Marengo Cave
Image courtesy of Marengo Cave
MARENGO CAVE IN MARENGO, INDIANA
This U.S. National Natural Landmark offers visitors a variety of activities, from walking tours to gemstone mining to cave exploring.

“We’ve been in the hospitality/tourism business since [the cave’s] discovery in 1883,” says Guest Services Manager Amie Wilson. “Our park is family-friendly and offers something for all ages.”

Visitors looking for an overnight adventure can choose from different packages, including one that allows younger guests to explore the cave during the day and sleep in it at night.

Visitors must purchase tickets for a tour or other activity to access the cave.

Tad Denson
Image by: Tad Denson
MOBILE BAY, ALABAMA
Travelers can partake in a number of aquatic activities just minutes from Mobile, Alabama’s city center, including pontoon boat tours and alligator-viewing kayaking trips. The region is also a popular birdwatching destination, according to Meredith Guzy Turncliff, digital marketing manager at Visit Mobile. “We’re on the second largest river delta in the country,” Meredith says. “The biodiversity our delta system encompasses has earned us the title America’s Amazon.”

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, which showcases the area’s military and naval history, is a popular indoor attraction for sweltering summer days. Because Mobile Bay is an industrial port, it’s not much of a swimming destination, according to Meredith, but if you want to add beach time to your road trip, head to nearby Dauphin Island.

Admission to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is charged, and rates for other area activities vary.

Travelers can partake in a number of aquatic activities just minutes from Mobile, Alabama’s city center, including pontoon boat tours and alligator-viewing kayaking trips. The region is also a popular birdwatching destination, according to Meredith Guzy Turncliff, digital marketing manager at Visit Mobile. “We’re on the second largest river delta in the country,” Meredith says. “The biodiversity our delta system encompasses has earned us the title America’s Amazon.”

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, which showcases the area’s military and naval history, is a popular indoor attraction for sweltering summer days. Because Mobile Bay is an industrial port, it’s not much of a swimming destination, according to Meredith, but if you want to add beach time to your road trip, head to nearby Dauphin Island.

Admission to the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is charged, and rates for other area activities vary.

Ready for a road trip, but need to limit it to a weekend? Visit the websites of your and neighboring states’ tourism boards and local travel organizations for ideas.
About the Writer

Articles about travel, business, and other topics by freelance writer Erin Brereton have been published in more than 75 magazines, newspapers, and other publications.

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