VACATION IDEAS

America's 10 Most Beautiful Hidden Gems

From Yosemite to the Everglades, the U.S. boasts world-famous landmarks. But we're also a land of virtually undiscovered stretches of parkland and inviting towns smack in the middle of paradise. Here, Budget Travel presents some of the most gorgeous parks and small towns you've never heard of.

Where to stay: Confederate jasmine and animal topiaries frame the Langdon House B&B (135 Craven St., langdonhouse.com, doubles from $108). 

Ludington State Park

Michigan

Snug between Lake Michigan and Hamlin Lake, this nearly 5,300-acre park has seven miles of sandy, dune-strewn beaches, a historic lighthouse you can climb, more than 20 miles of hiking trails (plus paths for biking and cross-country skiing), and the shallow, clear Big Sable River, which is perfect for drifting down in an inner tube. No wonder Ludington has been a Great Lakes-area favorite since it was established 76 years ago.

Where to stay: Ludington's four campgrounds fill up quickly; reserve campsites six months in advance or cabins and yurts one year out, when openings are posted (midnrreservations.com, camping from $16). You can also try the Lamplighter Bed & Breakfast, an 1892 home with an original oak banister, leaded-glass windows, and a porcelain-tiled fireplace (ludington-michigan.com, doubles from $115).

Hammondsport

New York

Hammondsport, N.Y., may well be the recycling capital of America. Not garbage recycling (though they do that, too). We're talking about the vintage seaplanes restored and flown by the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum (8419 State Rte. 54, glennhcurtissmuseum.org, admission $8.50). The birdhouses made of scrap wood in front of the Aroma Coffee Art Gallery (60 Shethar St., 607/569-3047, birdhouses from $40). Even the cypress paneling in the Bully Hill Vineyard's lower dining room came from old wine barrels (8843 Greyton H. Taylor Memorial Dr., bullyhill.com, smoked pulled pork sandwich $13). "When my husband and I came back to live here, the first thing he did was start restoring old boats," says Nancy Wightman, whose husband, Ed, grew up in the Finger Lakes region. "It's not just about loving history. You get the sense that's who the people here are." It's tempting to say that there's something in the water, but Hammondsport's passion for the past really comes via the wine. The Pleasant Valley Wine Company, opened in 1860, was the first in the Finger Lakes region (8260 Pleasant Valley Rd., pleasantvalleywine.com, bottles from $6). In 1962, a Ukrainian viticulturist further transformed the local wine industry at his Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars by successfully planting European grapes in the colder New York climate (9749 Middle Rd., drfrankwines.com, bottles from $9). Today, both those wineries—and several more—are mainstays of the landscape. That's literally true of Dr. Frank's, which sits on an impossibly green piece of land overlooking its vineyards and sparkling, Y-shaped Keuka Lake. The vineyard is run by Fred Frank, Konstantin's grandson. "I enjoy hearing stories about children sitting on my grandfather's knee 40 years ago," says Fred. "That's very rewarding." Also rewarding: After all these years, tastings at Dr. Frank's are still free. In fact, many of the best things in Hammondsport are. Sunbathing on condo-less Keuka Lake, kicking back on the town square for outdoor summer concerts on Thursday nights, jam sessions in the basement of the Union Block Italian Bistro—spring for one of the plus-size meals, such as linguini and clam sauce (31 Shethar St., unionblockitalian.com, linguini with clam sauce $19). "We're pretty darn proud of what we've built here," says Mayor Emery Cummings, who has lived in Hammondsport for every one of his 54 years, "and we're hoping to keep it the way it's always been."

Where to stay: You'll find a spiral staircase, crown moldings, and bits of vintage wallpaper in the octagonal 1859 home that has been converted into the Black Sheep Inn (8329 Pleasant Valley Rd., stayblacksheepinn.com, doubles from $149). 

Cache River State Natural Area

Illinois

There are more famous swamps than the one in Cache River State Natural Area, a nearly 15,000-acre Illinois state park 30 miles from the Kentucky border. The Everglades, say, or Okefenokee. But who wants a crowd along? One of the northernmost examples of a true Southern swamp, the delightfully under-the-radar Cache River park gets only about 200,000 annual visitors—that's about one visitor per acre per month. Other life forms aren't nearly so scarce here: The park's wetlands, floodplains, forests, and limestone barrens harbor more than 100 threatened or endangered species. It's best explored by canoe, along six miles of paddling trails that bring you face-to-face with massive tupelo and cypress trunks. There are also 20 miles of foot trails in the park and a floating boardwalk that leads to the center of Heron Pond, which is carpeted in summer with a bright-green layer of floating duckweed. BYO boat, or rent one from White Crane Canoe and Pirogue Rentals in Ullin, Ill., about 12 miles west (whitecranerentals.com, canoe rental $15 per person per day).

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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