8 Lesser-Known Tourist Sites to Visit in the United States


There is little in my world more satisfying than planning a trip. I love the research, the note taking, the scrolling through websites and blogs to get ideas as I start to imagine myself in the places I will visit. In this age of instant access to information from virtually anywhere, it has never been easier to figure out the perfect way to spend a few days in a new location. In fact, you can spend hours- maybe days!- reading articles that script out exactly how to hit every major tourist attraction in a limited amount of time.

But what if you want to make your own path? Travel your own road, if you will?

Adam and I often face this dilemma. When you have a limited amount of time in one country, one city, or even one neighborhood, it can be tempting to stick to the highlights so you feel confident you won’t miss anything important. But what about the sites you might see as you make your way from point A to point B? Here’s a list of some of the places we have visited in the U.S. that we’ve discovered on our way to somewhere else- our proof that travelling is so often more about the journey than the destination.

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Mount Rushmore, Keystone, South Dakota

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Wall Drug

In 2008, Adam and I packed up the car and drove from Washington, DC to Portland, Oregon. Before we left we mapped out some of the places we wanted to see on our cross-country road trip, and Mount Rushmore was high on my list. Our drive along I-90 was peppered with signs advertising western souvenirs, jackalopes, homemade pie, and, curiously, free ice water at a drug store. It might have been the advertising, but we got pretty thirsty- so we took a quick detour to Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota.

To call Wall Drug just a drug store would do it a terrible disservice. It’s a kitschy piece of Americana with a history that dates all the way back to the 1930s and America’s Great Depression. The owners tried to drum up business by offering free ice water to travellers who might otherwise pass by their town; it worked, and business has been booming since. These days it’s worth a stop for more than just ice water; the building is enormous and has a café and restaurant, plenty of tourist shopping, and yes, a drug store. We left with cups of ice water, a stuffed jackalope, and the excitement of stumbling across a very unique rest stop.
More Information: WallDrug.com

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Fallingwater

I had visited Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania once before during my college days, but Adam and I detoured off our path to visit it in 2009 while on our way to Pittsburgh.

Fallingwater is the nickname given to a weekend home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The house was so named not because of its view of a waterfall, but because it was built on top of one. That’s right- the home integrates directly into its natural setting. Built in the 1930s, the house is gorgeous to walk through, and we were both amazed by the details. The windows don’t have corners; there are no frames to disrupt the views or the sightlines. The living room has direct access to a stream that flows under the house; rather than disrupt it, the house embraces it.

Fallingwater is a beautiful, peaceful retreat and an incredible example of how creative architecture can be when it combines modern art concepts.
More Information: FallingWater.org

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Portland, Oregon

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Maryhill Stonehenge

Not far from Portland, just on the other side of the Columbia River, I did a double take. “What is that?” I asked Adam. “Stonehenge,” he told me. I sighed. “Have we really been in the car that long?” I asked.

Maryhill Stonehenge in Goldendale, Washington is about 5,000 miles away from where I expected I would see the famous prehistoric rocks, and it serves a very different purpose: it is the first monument in the United States to honor those who died during World War I. Why choose such a famous formation as a war memorial? The man who commissioned it, Sam Hill, wanted to connect the theory that the original Stonehenge was a sacrificial site to his thought that, though war, humanity continues to sacrifice itself.

Considerably less touristy than the original structure in England, we enjoyed a quiet visit full of reflection and beautiful views of Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge before continuing on our way.
More Information: MaryhillMuseum.org

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Jolly Green Giant Statue Park

Much like my first sighting of Maryhill Stonehenge, looking up to see a 55-foot tall giant smiling down at me made me think I might be losing my mind. But in Blue Earth, Minnesota, not too far off I-90, that’s exactly who will greet you as you drive into town.

Lots of Americans grew up eating Green Giant vegetables, which were once canned not far from where the giant stands today. Built as a means to draw tourists to town, the statue was constructed with funds donated from local businesses, but he never found a home particularly close to the highway. Instead, he sits somewhat abandoned (the Green Giant factory isn’t located there anymore). When we drove through in the summer of 2008, we were happy to keep him company while posing for pictures and cooling off in his incredibly long shadow.

It’s more of a roadside attraction than a tourist attraction, but it’s still a fun way to break up a day of driving.
More Information: AtlasObscura.com

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Virginia Beach, Virginia

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Roanoke Island

If you know much about the history of the USA, you have probably heard of the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts- but that wasn’t the country’s first settlement. You would have to sail quite a ways down the eastern seaboard to find Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks to see where the earliest colonists tried to establish a new home.

Adam and I set off for Virginia Beach one cold January day several years ago, but because we had some extra time we drove past the highway exit that would have taken us to our destination and instead wound up in a very different place in history. We ended up visiting the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, home to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Roanoke is home to what became America’s first great mystery. Founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1585, Roanoke was also home to the first English-born child in the New World: Virginia Dare. The first settlers arrived in 1587, and their governor, John White, left later that year to return to England for supplies. When he returned three years later the 120 colonists he had left behind had vanished- there was no trace of anyone living there. The only clue to where they may have gone was the word CROATOAN carved into a post near the settlement. The colonists were never heard from again, and Governor White returned back to England brokenhearted over the loss of the entire colony. We enjoyed walking around the site and learning about a lesser told piece of history- something we would have missed entirely if we hadn’t decided to drive a little further beyond our original destination.
More Information: NPS.gov

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

The Grand Canyon, Arizona

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Four Corners

Have you ever wanted to be in two places at once? How about four? In 2012, Adam, my sister, my brother-in-law, and I set out on a mini-road trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico to see the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, Nevada. We had a few days to get to our destinations, so instead of driving straight to the Grand Canyon on our way to the glitz and glamour of the famous Vegas Strip, we decided to take a more northerly scenic route and found ourselves at Four Corners.

Four Corners is the only place in America where four states meet in one location. Visitors can stand in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico at the same time. The monument itself is maintained by two Native American tribes- the Navajo and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Although there isn’t much to do there aside from photograph the plaque on the ground in the location where a corner from each state meets, it’s a very unique spot to visit- and we love being among the small group of people who can say they were in more than one place at once!

As a bonus destination, don’t miss Monument Valley, which is only 90 minutes away. It’s one of the most iconic “wild west” locations in the United States. It’s been used as the backdrop for dozens of movies and the drive through Monument Valley has some of the most spectacular scenery we have ever seen.
More Information: NavajoNationParks.org

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Las Vegas, Nevada

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Badwater Basin, Death Valley

After indulging in the aforementioned glitz and glamour on the Vegas Strip, Adam and I had an extra day in the American Southwest before our flight home. We rented a car and set out for the California border, and it was just about two hours into our trip that we made it to Death Valley National Park.

It’s really hot in Death Valley, and it was really, really hot there when we visited in August 2012. We parked our rental car at Badwater Basin, the lowest point on the North American continent, and set out for a quick walk to explore the area. Sitting at 282ft (86m) below sea level, the salt flats are an incredible sight to see, but wow was it hot! There are warning signs all over the area reminding tourists not to wander too far from their cars or from marked areas in case dehydration sets in. Getting disoriented out there could result in a terrible tragedy.

We didn’t stay for long, but when we started our drive back it was clear we weren’t a moment too soon- the thermometer in the car read 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the “check engine” light was flashing at us. All systems were back to normal once we got to a cooler location- yet another sign that heat like we experienced is nothing to take lightly. Badwater Basin was a very interesting place to visit- but try stopping by during one of the cooler months!
More Information: NPS.gov

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Newport, Rhode Island

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

The Newport Tower

We spend many holidays visiting my family in New England, and the close proximity to so many attractions means we always have a day trip or two planned when we’re in the Northeast. We visited the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island during one trip, and as we wound our way through the city back toward the highway we felt compelled to stop and explore a giant stone tower that loomed not too far in the distance.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until we left Newport and did some research that we found out what the tower was- there’s no signage to tell you the significance of the impressive structure sitting in Touro Park. Believed to date back to the 1650s, the Newport Tower is likely one of the oldest standing structures in the United States. Evidence suggests that it was originally a windmill that would have been visible from Narragansett Bay, though other theories still exist- some even suggesting that it dates back to Pre-Columbian times. There have been TV shows dedicated to the mysterious origins of the tower and nobody knows for sure who actually built the structure- some even suggest it has ties to the Vikings or even the Knights Templar. While carbon dating has disproven most of the Pre-Columbian theories, it’s still worth a stop to look around and admire a structure that has stirred so much debate and has likely stood since the earliest settlers arrived in the New World.
More Information: Wikipedia.org

And here is one bonus unlikely tourist stop from outside the United States…

WHERE WE WERE GOING:

Prague, Czech Republic

WHAT WE FOUND ON THE WAY:

Sedlec Ossuary, Kutna Hora

I didn’t know a whole lot about Sedlec Ossuary before we left to visit Prague a few years ago, and if I had I might have skipped the visit. Our visit to the “Bone Church” was part of a more extended tour through the Czech Republic countryside, which is how we found ourselves standing in a church surrounded by human bones.

Yes, human bones.

By the 1400s, tens of thousands of people had been buried in the graveyard outside of the Church of All Saints in Sedlec, but they were running low on space. The approved solution was to exhume the graves of those who had been buried in the centuries before to make room for new bodies to be laid to rest. Hundreds of years later, a carpenter was hired to organize the remains of those who had lost their final resting spot; the result was the macabre décor that exists today. Chandeliers, wall decorations, and even a coat of arms made from the bones of between 40,000 and 70,000 people adorn the church’s interior. It’s not as eerie as it sounds; really, the final product is almost beautiful in its design, and it remains a fairly popular tourist spot as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a fascinating place to visit… and a definite surprise on the roads outside of Prague.
More Information: Ossuary.eu

 

It’s tempting when you’re travelling to stay the course between Point A and Point B- but we’ve found some of the most interesting and compelling attractions just slightly off the prescribed tourist path. If you’re planning to take a trip to somewhere new- or even somewhere familiar- keep your eyes open for the unexpected, the unusual, and the surprising. Some of your favorite memories might just be made at the stops you weren’t planning to make!

 
Lesser-known tourist sites in the USA

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Part-time world traveler. Full-time learning technologist and e-learning strategist. Check out the About Us page for more info!