Psst. Can you keep a secret? If you're looking for a world-class vacation minus the crowds, Budget Travel has got a hot tip. Well, actually we've got 10 of them. Over the past year we've visited some of America's most amazing parklands and unique small towns. Stretching across the U.S., our list of beautiful hidden gems includes ocean spray, lapping lakeshores, forests, mountains, and some of the nicest hosts you'll ever meet. What all these places have in common is that you might have never heard of them without BT's spilling the beans. Enjoy!
1. VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK
One of the state's best-loved parks is the Valley of Fire, 42,000 arid acres about an hour's drive northeast from Las Vegas. The park delivers its own kind of high-stakes drama, trading neon and nightclubs for 150-million-year-old sandstone formations and 3,000-year-old petroglyphs (images carved in rock). You could even say it has star quality: The surreal, burnt-sienna landscape stood in for Mars in the 1990 movie Total Recall. If you're embarking on your own photo safari or DIY sci-fi flick in Nevada's largest state park, don't miss Arch Rock, Elephant Rock, or the Beehives, all of which are essentially solid-stone versions of exactly what they sound like. And be sure to take snapshots with and without people in the frame—the structures are even more outstanding when you can get a sense of their scale. Most important of all: Bring lots of water with you. There are few facilities within the park, and the sandy stretches of some hikes make them more strenuous than you'd think, particularly in the summer, when Mojave Desert temperatures top 120 degrees. Best to come in spring or fall for a more comfortable trip.
Where to stay: The park contains 72 campsites, including RV spots with water and electrical hookups (campsites cost $20 per night plus $10 for hookups; There is a $2 discount for Nevada residents). If that's not your speed, the family-run North Shore Inn has a pool, in-room fridges, and powerful air conditioning (northshoreinnatlakemead.com, doubles from $85).
Captain Horatio Sinbad is what you might call a friendly pirate. He's got six cannons on his 54-foot brigantine, the Meka II, but he's also got Wi-Fi. He's got a gold tooth and a gold hoop in his left ear, but his mate lovingly wears the matching earring on a chain around her neck (and brings him coffee on deck). He makes his living as a pirate, sailing the East Coast to lead mock invasions—"historical entertainments," as he calls them—then dutifully returns to Beaufort, N.C., every chance he gets. "The water is clean, the fishing is great, and the people are friendly," he says. "This is home port for me." If you'd just dropped into Beaufort, you might be surprised to find that a pirate has weighed anchor there. Perched on an especially serene stretch of the North Carolina coast, the town has an air of Southern gentility about it, with restored 17th- and 18th-century buildings that flank the local historical society. Feeling a shiver in your timbers? A cup of rich gumbo and a slice of salty, pillow-soft French bread at the Beaufort Grocery restaurant and bakery will warm you up nicely (117 Queen St., beaufortgrocery.com, cup of gumbo $4.25). There's even a thriving health-food store, the Coastal Community Market (606 Broad St., coastalcommunitymarket.com, locally made hummus $4). And yet Beaufort's got a wild side, starting with the undomesticated horses you'll see roaming just across Taylors Creek. Blackbeard himself sailed those waters, and his spirit pops up at the North Carolina Maritime Museum (315 Front St., ncmaritimemuseums.com, admission free), the Queen Anne's Revenge restaurant (510 Front St., qarbeaufort.com, crab-stuffed shrimp $15), and beyond. If he were alive, you'd almost certainly find him on a stool at the Backstreet Pub, a dive-bar-like joint that also serves as a live-music venue and a lending library for sailors. Owner Liz Kopf likes to call her place the funkiest bar from Maine to Venezuela: "I always say there are more characters per capita in here than anywhere in the state" (124 Middle Lane, historicbeaufort.com, beer $2 on Mondays and Tuesdays).
Where to stay: Confederate jasmine and animal topiaries frame the Langdon House B&B (135 Craven St., langdonhouse.com, doubles from $108).
3. LUDINGTON STATE PARK
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, 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).
5. CACHE RIVER STATE NATURAL AREA
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).
Where to stay: A half-hour drive west of the park, Anna, Ill., has a handful
of antiques shops, a pottery museum, and the Davie School Inn, an 11-room, all-suite B&B in a converted 1910 schoolhouse (davieschoolinn.com, doubles from $100).
You expect certain trappings in any Gold Rush town. A saloon, a main street, maybe a hitching post. Also a 138-year-old working Chinese temple. No? You'll find one in Weaverville, where the Joss House State Historic Park is a testament to the town's unsung history of tolerance (630 Main St., parks.ca.gov, admission $4). Chinese immigrants, facing discrimination in ports such as San Francisco, were welcomed here and ultimately accounted for up to 25 percent of the Rush-era population. "Some of our staff looks at this place as a museum piece you just have to keep clean and take care of," says guide Jack Frost. "But Chinese people who work in the parks system say it's a national treasure." Maybe it's the mining connection, but Weaverville is a place where you often strike it rich in unexpected places. The 1854 drugstore and bank are now home to the La Grange Cafe, which features a wildly creative menu of boar, rabbit, and buffalo-as well as an impressive wine cellar in the old bank vault (520 Main St., 530/623-5325, buffalo burger $11). Mamma Llama Eatery & Cafe hosts a surprisingly funky roster of live musicians: Gypsy jazz, junkyard percussion, even didgeridoo (490 Main St., mammallama.com, hoagie $5.75).
Where to stay: One place that hews to a more period Old West experience is the 132-year-old Weaverville Hotel, which features four-poster beds, clawfoot tubs, and a peaceful Victorian library (481 Main St., weavervillehotel.com, doubles from $99).
7. BLACKWATER FALLS STATE PARK
Blackwater Falls's namesake cascade isn't just the most picturesque spot in this 2,456-acre park—it's also one of the most photographed places in the state. The area is equally eye-catching when it's dressed in the bright greens of spring, the Crayola-box colors of autumn, or silvery winter, when parts of the falls freeze into man-size icicles. The falls themselves—more brown than black—get their distinctive hue from tannic acid that leaches into the river from hemlock and red spruce needles upstream.
Where to stay: Outdoorsy types can pitch a tent at 65 campsites, or upgrade to one of 26 deluxe cabins with full kitchens, private bathrooms, and fireplaces—but not A/C. For that creature comfort, you'll need to book a night in the 54-room lodge, which also has a game room and an indoor pool (blackwaterfalls.com, camping from $20, lodge rooms from $84).
If you decide to drive to Damascus, you'll likely be in the minority. This is hiking and cycling heaven, where seven major trails intersect, including the undulating Virginia Creeper and the granddaddy of them all: the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. In a nifty bit of irony, six of the seven trails converge in a parking lot, at Mojoes Trailside Coffee House (331 Douglas Dr., mojoestrailsidecoffee.com, lattes from $3.50), where most mornings you'll find a clutch of locals and through-hikers chatting about travel plans. Breakfast is the big meal in town, and the more energy-boosting calories the better. Yet the carbo-loading, hard-core trekkers you'll find in Damascus don't always look as you'd expect. "Mamaw B." (her adopted trail name) was in town beginning her usual 15- to 18-mile hike. She's 71 and has been backpacking for 31 years. "The secret to good health is to remain active and to always have something to look forward to," she says, as she sets off from Mojoes toward-where, exactly? She just smiles and points north.
Where to stay: The Lazy Fox Inn is famous less for its trailside location than for its legendary country breakfast that includes cheese grits, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy, and sausage (133 Imboden St., lazyfoxinn.com, doubles with private bath from $85).
9. KATY TRAIL STATE PARK
The largest rails-to-trails conversion in America, the 240-mile Katy Trail spans Missouri's midsection, from Clinton in the west to Machens in the east, along the former track of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT) Railroad (a.k.a. the Katy). The mostly flat path is open to hikers and cyclists—and in some sections, horseback riders—and traverses historic railroad bridges, tunnels, forests, valleys, and open fields. In spots, it skirts the edge of the Missouri River. Some hardy souls tackle the whole trail (a roughly five-day undertaking for an experienced cyclist). Those who prefer a more leisurely trek should consider a day-trip between Rocheport and Boonville, two early-19th-century towns (the latter established by Daniel Boone's offspring) separated by 12 miles of nature preserves, vineyards, and river views.
Where to stay: There are no campgrounds in the park, but you can have your pick of small-town inns along the route. Some cater to cyclists with extras such as free laundry service, double-size whirlpool tubs, and free bike storage and tune-up tools. Rocheport's School House Bed & Breakfast, in a three-story brick schoolhouse from 1914, sweetens the deal with fresh-baked cookies at check-in (schoolhousebb.com, doubles from $149).
10. OHIOPYLE STATE PARK
If ever there were an all-purpose park, southwestern Pennsylvania's Ohiopyle State Park is it. Looking for waterfalls? It has four (including the one in our slide show above, which seems as if it must have inspired Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house, just five miles away). Trails? Hikers get 79 miles of them—plus 27 miles for cyclists, 11 for folks on horseback, and nearly 40 for cross-country skiers. And why not throw in a natural water slide or two? The lifeblood of the 20,000-acre park, however, is the Youghiogheny River Gorge—a.k.a. the Yough. The Middle Yough, which flows to Ohiopyle from Confluence, Pa., is the gentler section, with Class I and II rapids for rafters and kayakers; the Lower Yough, downstream, gets up to Class IV whitewater. Combined, they attract a good chunk of the 1 million people who visit the park every year.
Where to stay: The quietest campsites in Ohiopyle's Kentuck campground are the walk-in sites numbered 51-64 and 103-115; however, some folks have found the camp's firm 9 p.m. quiet hours a little too restrictive. If your brood tends to get livelier as the night wears on, consider a vacation rental in Hidden Valley, Pa., or Seven Springs, Pa., both less than 30 miles to the northeast; these two ski towns have solid selections of rental condos and homes that can be deeply discounted in the off-season (vrbo.com).