The United States is full of hidden gems and you will not find them unless you take a road trip. I will go further and say that road tripping with a home on wheels is even better; it affords you the time to explore unbeaten paths, to seek out those hidden gems that are mostly overlooked and overshadowed by popular iconic gems.
With that, I have sifted through many hidden gems we have encountered and narrowed them down to our top ten with the hope they will inspire you to travel and seek them out.
Starting at #10 – Roadside Art. Or more specifically Carhenge, Porter’s Sculpture Park and the Enchanted Highway, all located within the Great Plains. There are many artworks installed along roads and highways throughout the United States, but these three stand out. It isn’t only the outrageously large size of the sculptures that give them distinction in the relatively flat plains, rather it is the obvious display of an artist’s obsession. Whether or not you appreciate the artistry, these sculptures will give you something to talk about for a very long time. Take the time to pull off the highway and visit them, it will make your exploration of the Great Plains more memorable than you thought possible.
#9 Grand Rapids ArtPrize. Unlike the other nine on this list, ArtPrize is an event rather than a location. However, Grand Rapids is worth a visit when you come to Michigan. The independent international art competition known as ArtPrize occurs every September, a perfect time to visit Michigan. Since it began in 2009, the competition is “open to any creative with an artwork to enter and a venue willing to host it”, which is what makes it so special. We happened to be visiting Grand Rapids and serendipitously came onto ArtPrize which exhibits art work throughout the downtown area. Art was found most anywhere – public parks and museums, galleries and vacant storefronts, bars, restaurants, hotels and on bridges. This made our visit to Grand Rapids stand out among so many other cities we have enjoyed getting to know while traveling. We stayed at Steamboat RV Campground on the Grand River just outside of Grand Rapids.
#8 Natchitoches, LA. If you know how to pronounce it, you’re halfway there. Natchitoches (Nag-i-tish or Nack-i-tish, take your pick) is the oldest settlement in Louisiana and the location for the film Steel Magnolias. Most people that visit Louisiana rarely get past New Orleans and the coast. But if you find yourself heading north of Lafayette on I-49, Natchitoches is worth a visit. The little town charmed us and we loved learning its history. The historical downtown with magnolia trees lining the sidewalks along the Cane River is worth spending a day. But, if you love history as we do, the surrounding area has plenty of places to keep you occupied for another day or two. We stayed at a lovely campground newly opened called Grand Ecore RV Park about 6 miles from Natchitoches.
#7 Arabia Steamboat Museum. Describing it as a “Walmart from the 1800s”, our fulltime RVer friends Lorraine and Spencer highly recommended this museum. So we had to see it for ourselves! Located in downtown Kansas City, it is a very large museum packed with artifacts recovered from the Arabia Steamboat that sunk in the Missouri River in 1856. The story of how the boat was located and contents recovered is a fascinating one on its own, but the contents of the Arabia Steamboat offers quite a history lesson. If you are the least bit interested in American history, you must include this on your itinerary. The museum alone is enough reason to drive a 21-ft full ton into downtown Kansas City, and quite possibly, enough reason to visit Kansas! We stayed at the Topeka KOA, which was convenient and the only reason to camp there. If you do visit Kansas City, there must be other RV parks better than that one.
#6 Iowa State Capitol Building. When we began traveling by RV, American history became a focal point in a way we never imagined. Eventually, we realized the potential of state capitol buildings for adding depth to our history lessons while satiating our interest in architecture and design. Our first state capitol building visited was in Salt Lake City. We doubted it could be outclassed, but Iowa’s pretty much did just that. Not only was the interior of the building a force to be reckoned, the capitol plaza contained an exceptional display of sculptures and monuments. Once again, we discovered a hidden gem in a Great Plains state that is often never explored beyond Interstate 80. We stayed at Prairie Flower Army Corp of Engineers campground outside of Des Moines and on Saylorville Lake.
#5 Goblin Valley State Park. Somewhere along the drive between two of Utah’s five National Parks is a strange land called Goblin Valley. Located there is a state park containing a dry campground that gives desert explorers an opportunity to spend quality time among the hoodoos, and that’s exactly what we did during the hottest month of the year. We cut our visit short one day, but the two days we did have made the discomfort of heat and dusty wind worthwhile. If you enjoy Utah for its stunning natural landscapes, Goblin Valley will provide you a unique experience among dozens of unique experiences that make Utah what it is for most RV travelers.
#4 Georgia O’Keeffe’s Place. Correction – there are actually three places within northern New Mexico – The Ghost Ranch, The White Place (Plaza Blanca) and the Black Place (Lybrook Badlands). Being an O’Keeffe admirer for quite some time, I was thrilled to include those places in our RV travels through New Mexico. Photographing in the same locations where O’Keeffe created her work and called home was a remarkable experience. But once you experience these places first hand, it becomes obvious where her inspiration came from. Even if O’Keeffe’s art is not on your radar screen, this area of the Land of Enchantment should not be missed. We camped a short distance from the Ghost Ranch and the White Place at Riana Army Corp of Engineers campground on Abiqui Lake. The Black Place is much further away along Highway 550 a few miles south of Nageezi. We were camped further north at Moore’s RV Park in Bloomfield, NM.
#3 Valley of the Gods. You may have picked up on a few themes from our hidden gems – art, history and natural landscapes. Coming in at number 3 is yet another landscape. We were so taken with Valley of the Gods in southern Utah that we left the comforts of the RV to spend a night under the stars among the gods. After being ensured by the campground owners (Coral Sands RV Park in Bluff) that our RV would be OK, we drove about 15 miles to the entrance of the valley and then a few more miles on a primitive gravel road to a camp spot that gave us a 360 degree view of the valley. It was a magical experience. You can do the same if you have the right camper for the rough road, or at the least you can camp somewhere else and drive the 17-mile scenic loop to view the notable and named rock formations such as Setting Hen or Rooster rocks. Valley of the Gods is not far from Monument Valley and easily accessed from Highway 163.
#2 Driftless Area. Never heard of it? Neither did we until we started RV traveling and Vivian took an interest in fly fishing. Welcome to southwestern Wisconsin, or northwestern Illinois, or northeastern Iowa, or southeastern Minnesota, depending on which part of the driftless area you want to see. We’ve come to the driftless area a few times, once while staying in Elkader, Iowa, once while staying at Illinois’ Palisades State Park and again while staying near Viroqua, Wisconsin at what became our favorite campground. We love the area for its less traveled country roads, bucolic farm lands, breathtaking cliff formations and lots and lots of trout streams – and not to mention the Mississippi River. It’s beautiful country and worth visiting, even if you don’t fly fish.
#1 Capitol Reef National Park. Not easy to imagine a National Park as a hidden gem, but given that the U.S. has 63 of them, you can see where most parks get overlooked given that a small handful of them- Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, Zion, Yosemite, Acadia, and Yellowstone are very difficult to top. Even more interesting, if you’re like most people, you can’t identify the five national parks within the state of Utah and this is likely because you never heard of Capitol Reef. I have to admit, it was only when I began researching Utah in preparation for our 2021 travels that I learned about it. So glad I did, because it has become one of our favorites. We stayed one week at Sandcreek RV Park in nearby Torrey, giving us an easy short drive into the park, which we visited most days and still did not see all we wanted.
And there you have it! I hope this inspires you to visit these places and find your own hidden gems along the way. We have many more miles ahead of us, so no doubt, there will be more hidden gems, perhaps enough to replace these top ten.
RV TIPS (are back!)
Recently, I wrote a blog about our top 11 tools for RV traveling. Drawing from that and this blog’s theme, I’d like to introduce you to an essential tool that is a hidden gem, something we never heard of until we needed one. It’s called a ‘nipple extractor’. Sounds painful, but read on, because if you own an RV, you likely have a water heater. And if you have a water heater, you likely need to drain it occasionally. We learned the hard way that the plastic drain plug breaks easily, leaving the threaded piece inside. Getting it out without a special tool is next to impossible and can result in damage to the threads (ask me how I know). Because Vivian drains our water heater every few months or so, we don’t leave home without our nipple extractor and extra drain plugs. What am I saying, we never leave home! At any rate, get yourself the following by clicking on the links, and thank me later.
One thought on “Looking Back – Top Ten Hidden Gems”
Thanks for the mention! We LOVED the steam boat Arabia. It is a remarkable time-capsule of the 1850’s. You’ve given us some wonderful sights to put on our bucket list. I wasn’t familiar with Goblin Valley SP and look forward to visiting it along with Natchitoches!