Outdoor markets, warmly lit downtowns, cozy restaurants, cheerful locals... there is something special about American…
If you ask me, one of the very best things about living in the United States is the unending list of incredible places to go outdoors. I like to think it’s one aspect of this country that everyone across the board can agree on. Whether you’re looking towards the coasts, climbing up mountains, wandering the desert, or simply enjoying the thoughtfully cultivated gardens and parks laid out by landscape architects of yore, there’s always somewhere full of nature and fresh air within driving distance regardless of location.
While we have plenty of more famous places such as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Pikes’ Peak, and many, many more national parks, below are some more underrated picks that you may just miss if you don’t know where to look!
11 Underrated Places to Go Outdoors
1. The Biltmore Gardens in Asheville, NC
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, The Biltmore Estate is one of the most-visited places in America and its French Renaissance design is recognizable to anyone planning a trip down south. However, how often do you see people discuss the equally impressive gardens that surround George Vanderbilt’s ambitious mountain escape?
To fully appreciate all 8,000 acres, let me preface this by saying that none other than Frederick Law Olmsted himself designed the gardens. As the father of American landscape architecture, Olmsted is responsible for the land in and surrounding some of the most famous landmarks in the country. Think Central Park, the U.S. Capitol building, Washington Park in Chicago, Stanford University in California, and many, many more.
The gardens at Biltmore Estate were his final project and today they are still preserved with the same plants and designs Olmsted created almost a century ago. Escape the floods of visitors crowding through the mansion and opt for one of the hike or bike trails instead. This way you can peacefully enjoy the creations of one of our greatest landscape artists.
See more of the Biltmore Gardens in our “Asheville” episode
2. Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, Key West, FL
You may notice for such a coastal location, Key West doesn’t exactly have much of a beach scene. This isn’t true; it’s just that the beach is a little bit of a local secret. Over on the southern edge of the city sits Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, aka Fort Taylor.
The fort itself is a must-visit for history buffs, especially war history buffs. It currently houses the largest Civil War armament in the entire world and has also seen soldiers through the Spanish-American War, WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. If those red-brick walls could talk…
The beach in question is at the southern end. After you’ve explored Fort Taylor, head over to enjoy some sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, and even scuba diving. A bonus for scuba divers – you can see the new coral reef that Key West is building! Stay until sundown to enjoy one of the most glorious sunsets in Florida.
See more of Fort Zachary Taylor Historic Park in our “Florida Keys” episode
3. Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, AL
While Huntsville is more known for its U.S. Space & Rocket Center, don’t miss the very charming Burritt on the Mountain while here. This 167-acre space overlooks the city and allows you to see what life would have been like for farmers in the 1800s. Explore six different 19th-century homes and live enactors before hitting Burritt’s nature trails. This is a definite must in spring for the wildflowers or autumn for the colorful foliage!
See more of Burritt on the Mountain in our “Huntsville” episode
4. Letchworth & Autism Trail in the Genesee River Valley, NY
This mile-long loop is special as it’s the very first trail ever to be designed for people on the autism spectrum. The founders, with a 17-member panel and consultants like Temple Grandin, created multiple sensory-orientated stations for visitors to practice both balance and motor skills. The trail emphasizes a kind of peace and gentleness that any visitor would enjoy.
Once you check out the rushing waterfalls of Letchworth, make your way to this trail and see which of the stations you like best.
See more of the Letchworth State Park in our “Genesee River Valley” episode
5. Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, TX
With 20 blocks of major art institutions, the Dallas Arts District is one of the largest art areas in the country. Within the district is Klyde Warren Park, a truly unique park as it’s built over a recessed eight-lane highway. Yes, you read that right. Dallas pretty much created something beautiful and enjoyable from something we associate so heavily with stress and burden.
Architect Jim Burnett designed the 5.2-acre park to feel as though you’re moving through “rooms,” so in all, you’ll find 15 major locations with everything from a Butterfly Garden to a Botanical Garden.
See more of Klyde Warren Park in our “Dallas” episode
6. Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest in Louisville, KY
Leave the racetracks and bourbon behind for a weekend afternoon and enjoy the beautiful Bernheim Forest. This giant forest was a gift to the state of Kentucky by Isaac W. Bernheim, who finally found his fortune here in bourbon distilling through the early 20th century. He specifically purchased this land so that people and nature could have a place to renew and restore their bond.
With 35 miles of trails and thoughtful art installations, you can really wander around and get into nature right near Louisville. Two installations you don’t want to miss are the Forest Giants in a Giant Forest by Danish artist Thomas Dambo and the 25-foot tall Spirit Nest by artist Jayson Fann.
See more of Bernheim Forest in our “Louisville” episode
7. The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, NJ
The most obvious answer for what to do at the Jersey Shore is to, well, go to the shore. However, if you find yourself needing a break from the boardwalk and sand, visiting the salt marshes at The Wetlands Institute is one of the best alternative places to go outdoors.
The institute covers over 6,000 acres of wetland and its main mission is to educate visitors on how important the preservation of this area is. You can do everything from strolling along the elevated walkway to riding through the marshes by boat or even trying your hand at paddle boarding and kayaking.
See more of the Wetlands Institute in our “Jersey Shore and More” episode
8. Mount Washington, NH
Pikes Peak and its cog railway over in Colorado Springs is easily one of the most-visited mountains in the entire world, but did you know the first cog railway in the U.S. was actually over in New Hampshire?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was built back in 1868 and brings you up to the highest peak in the northeastern United States. The whole experience, including an hour to enjoy the summit, is around 3 hours and really gives you the history of Mount Washington and the railway. For the best views, go over to the Adams Visitor.
You can, of course, also hike up instead of taking the cog railway. Be warned, though, it’s not for the faint of heart. After all, it’s been called the most dangerous hike in the U.S., the deadliest small mountain in the world, and home to the world’s worst weather. Even in the best of conditions, a hike will take at least 10 hours! If you were to ask me, I’d vote for the cog railway over the hike any day.
See more of Mount Washington in our “Lakes & Mountains of New Hampshire” episode
9. Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ
The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix will prove that there’s more to the dessert than sand and cacti and is easily one of the coolest places to go outdoors. With over 50,000+ desert plants and five different thematic trails, you can truly see just how diverse this arid landscape can be.
The garden began back in 1939 when locals decided they needed to make more of an active effort to both save and preserve their desert environment. For the next eight decades, the community has worked to preserve and expand the garden all in the name of both protecting the land and educating visitors on just how magical the desert can be.
See more of Dessert Botanical Garden in our “Phoenix” episode
10. Fruit and Spice Park near Miami, FL
About 35 miles south of the beaches and clubs of Miami sits the incredible Fruit and Spice Park in Redland. Thanks to Florida’s more humid climate, this 37-acre ethnobotanical garden is able to house over 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs from around the world.
Fruit and Spice Park began when Mary Calkins Heinlein pushed parks director, A.D. Barnes, in 1935 to create a space that showed off Redland’s unique agricultural environment. With the help of landscape architect Lyman Philips, construction began in 1944 and has since grown to be the sprawling tropical paradise you can visit today.
One of the coolest parts about visiting this park is that you can eat any edible fallen fruit as you explore! And if you’re unsure if the fruit is edible, just bring it to the Welcome Center to check.
See more of Fruit and Spice Park in our “Miami” episode
11. Dale Ball Trails in Santa Fe, NM
Just 10 minutes from downtown Sant Fe is what’s known as the Dale Ball Trails system which offers paths for both hiking and biking. Right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, there’s a total of 24.4 miles of trails that offer some of the most stunning views of the city.
See more of the Dale Ball Trails in our “Santa Fe” episode
And there you have it – some truly underrated places to go outdoors all around the United States! I could keep going, but for now, I’ve narrowed it down to these eleven. Anything you’d add to this list?