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Even once the current health crisis subsides, I expect having to jump through a lot of hoops for travel. As I consider future trips, I wonder if countries will allow me entry (or worse, that I’ll be quarantined there or upon re-entry to the USA).
I know I’m not the only one wondering about this. You can see it already: people are canceling travel plans and hesitating to book future trips.
But you know me. I still have mega-wanderlust and the thought of not traveling for several months is absurd to me. It’s just the logistics of border crossings that’s slowing me down — which is precisely why I’m looking for inspiration in the USA. There are so many amazing things to see and do without packing a passport and without the restrictions or quarantines I expect to see internationally. At some point — hopefully by summer! — travel in the USA will be safe and welcome again.
Narrowing down the whole country to a reasonable list was challenging. After all, almost everywhere I’ve been was fabulous for one reason or another. But sharing a list of literally everywhere I’ve visited in the USA is not helpful to you. Trust me, I know information overload can be crippling: too many options means I end up not making a decision whatsoever. So even though it was outrageously hard, I’ve done my best to prioritize the entire United States to the top spots to consider this year.
And, once businesses open up again, I don’t expect any travel restrictions associated with the novel coronavirus while traveling within the USA (although that’s subject to change).
Arizona makes the list first, not because it’s necessarily the absolute best, although it’s indeed great (it has to be, to make this list). It’s top of my my mind since I just got back from four days in Tempe, an overlooked city outside Phoenix — in fact, it took me watching my husband go there 12 or 15 times before I went there myself. Total facepalm moment.
Realistically, it’s not just Tempe that’s great to visit. The entire state of Arizona is incredible and I’ve heard too many people assume it’s home to the Grand Canyon and nothing more.
If I was looking for a one week getaway, this is one of my favorites. Spend two days each in Tempe/Phoenix, Sedona, and Tucson and then spend those last 24 hours at the Grand Canyon. Yes that’s right — I’d spend more time in the cities than at the world wonder because once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. And if you have 10 days, throw in Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell, too.
BONUS IDEA: Pick up a super cheap one-way rental car in Arizona this spring (e.g. Tucson) and after you finish my Tucson -> Tempe -> Sedona -> Grand Canyon route, drop off the car in Las Vegas instead of backtracking through Arizona. You might save a ton of money on that rental car.
Next up is Cape Charles, Virginia…my happy place. I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about it a handful of times because it’s one of those places that instantly clicked with me. It’s a small town, and at first glance you could think that you could see the whole thing in half a day (technically you could, by driving by everything, but that would be missing the entire point).
The residents of Cape Charles wrap you up in this warm hug of hospitality. It’s so genuine and surprising that you’ll find yourself wanting to throw away all of your ambitious plans to just follow all their unexpected recommendations and see where the wind takes you. As a bonafide Type A travel planner, it takes a lot for me to say this!
Read More: Shh…Don’t Share My Secret
This next one is going to throw you for a loop because I haven’t talked about it in a very long time. But Memphis, Tennessee is way cooler than most people realize and (like me) tends to end up forgotten. Really, what do you think of when you think of Memphis? Probably just Graceland and barbecue, but that’s just the start!
The National Civil Rights Museum is world-class and it’s hard not to end up emotionally invested. Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum has an unusual presentation compared to museums, and that’s exactly why it’s so insightful.
And oh…I know Gus’s fried chicken has franchised to other cities since I went to Memphis years ago, but my mouth still waters thinking about the spicy fried chicken and chess pie.
Read More: There’s More to Memphis Than the Blues
Now for one that’s way farther away and way more remote. Alaska captured my heart the very first time I went…so much so that now I’ve gone three times and still want to return for a few more visits. The wilderness never seems to end and the scenery just seems to get better and better on every trip (for the most beautiful mountains, don’t miss the drive to Valdez).
I’ve got three amazing spots to see wildlife in Alaska, although seeing all of them in a single trip would be quite a feat since they’re pretty spread out. Don’t let that be a deterrent: you can stop in many worthy places along the route for even more wildlife sighting or outdoor adventures.
If you’re okay with a destination that’s a little remote — and sometime’s a little bit backcountry — Alaska is worth it for the mountains, the glaciers, and the wildlife. I love the solitude that’s so easy to find and how I don’t have to choose between mountains, sea, forests, or glaciers.
Read More: Two Weeks in Alaska by Cruise and Land
For a long time, I wondered if my love for the Finger Lakes was because I’m super biased. I’ve visited countless times, got engaged there, and have seen more hidden corners of the region than the average visitor. However, every time someone goes for the first time and comes back raving about it, I’m reminded that the Finger Lakes are legitimately special and not just a sentimental favorite.
If you haven’t been, the Finger Lakes spans a pretty broad area, with several lakes each dotted by multiple towns. You’re spoiled for choice, but generally speaking my three favorite lakes are Seneca, Keuka, and Cayuga (in that order) and always on the southern tip of the lakes. The area earned its fame for its wineries — rieslings, gewurtztraminers, and ice wines being particularly well-made — but these days you’ll also find breweries, distilleries, and cideries.
Assuming you don’t want to spend your entire visit day drinking, I’d recommend you explore the national forests, take a boat ride on any of the lakes, photograph one of the dozen gorges, and day trip to the Corning Museum of Glass. There are lots of ways to get here, but if you fly into Rochester (a logical gateway), you should add a visit to the Susan B. Anthony House and then stop along the way at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls. This year is the centennial of women receiving the right to vote, so there’s never been a better time to go.
Read More: Cheers to Keuka Lake
I finally have a big city for you. People who know me know that I tend to prefer smaller towns, or especially outdoor areas, compared to major metropolitan areas but this one stands out as an exception.
Anytime I want a big city getaway, Chicago is where instantly comes to mind. I love walking along the grid-like streets where everything feels wide open instead of claustrophobic. I love the ethnic neighborhoods and not having to walk through smelly alleys or ride dank subways to gt there. And, unlike cities on either coast, my money stretches a lot farther in Chicago for the same quality hotel and restaurants.
Chicago also doesn’t feel generic to me — there’s some pretty epic sightDOING and festivals/events that are actually fun. I stay busy on every trip, without repeating activities, and that’s saying something considering I’ve never even visited in spring or summer when the weather’s actually nice. Maybe this will be the year…
Read More: The SightDOING Guide to Chicago
Orange Beach, Alabama
When people think of foodie destinations, I’m pretty sure absolutely no one has ever said Orange Beach Alabama. Seriously, this touristy town, and it’s neighbor Gulf Shores a few miles away, probably don’t top any gourmet lists. But for finger-licking, easy-eating, no-weird-ingredients, just plain yummy food, this is one of my favorite foodie destinations.
Of course, you have to like seafood to eat here on the Gulf Coast. Start with the crawfish; it’s everywhere and even the hole-in-the-walls (especially the hole-in-the-walls) know how to cook it. A good spice mix and some lemon is all you’ll need. Then, move onto the Royal Red shrimp, which tastes more like lobster. When you’re hungry again, have some fried oysters, then grouper, snapper, crab. And if you get bored, you can switch to biscuits, barbecue, or even bread pudding.
Oh, and in between all of that eating, there is a ton of stuff to do too. Some of it is activities you’d expect in a beach town — boating and swimming, for example — but there’s a lot of surprising things to add to your agenda, too.
Read More: The Girls Getaway Guide to Orange Beach
Monterey / Carmel
Way on the other side of the country is Monterey County, California. It’s been a ridiculously long time since I last went there and I really need to change that. But even though it’s been so long since I went there, I still remember it as one of the greatest blends of city amenities and outdoor scenery that exists.
My favorite memories are kayaking through Elkhorn Slough and seeing so many otters that eventually I stopped counting. Point Lobos has to be a top 3 state park nationwide — the coastal scenery is just phenomenal and it’s practically right in Carmel.
What I love about here is you get so many experiences all from one base. Within about an hour of Monterey, you have Carmel by the Sea, Carmel Valley, Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, Ano Nuevo State Park, Santa Cruz, and more. That’ll fill a week without even trying for the ultimate seven-in-one vacation.
Black Hills, SD
I’m a little disappointed with myself that it took me so long to visit the Black Hills. It was an instant hit for me and I wish I had discovered the region earlier.
What surprised me about this part of South Dakota was how fun it was to drive. I’m not usually a driver — I’d rather be on my own two feet — but there are so many excuses to explore from the comfort of your vehicle and I never expected that. There are a few scenic byways within Custer State Park and you should drive every mile of Badlands National Park. Add in drives to Spearfish Canyon and up to Devil’s Tower (Wyoming) for good measure.
Since you can see so much from your car, from bison to hilly landscapes to Mount Rushmore, you could really go any time of year and enjoy yourself. Of course, if you want to be more active, my mid-September visit was just about perfect.
Read More: How to Spend One Day in Custer State Park
Calling all beach lovers! This is just your friendly reminder that you don’t need a passport to go to Puerto Rico. Because of this, flying to or from the island should be just as easy as heading anywhere else in the USA. All of the Caribbean awesomeness and none of the hassle (and a fraction of the cost of Hawaii).
San Juan is the obvious destination here and it’s worth a day or three of your time. I like strolling Old San Juan, especially if you can find a day without cruise ships in port, and there are some wonderful resorts in Condado (my preference) and Isla Verde.
The best parts of the island, if you ask me, are outside San Juan. On my most recent trip, we explored the mountains and forest between Arecibo and Utuado, which ended up being a beautiful part of Puerto Rico (I preferred it to El Yunque). And our side trip to Vieques was worth every minute getting there, if only for the amazing chance to witness bioluminescence up close and personal.
One downside to Puerto Rico, if there is a downside, is that you can’t pack your schedule too tightly. Time to pack your “I’m on vacation” attitude and enjoy.
Read More: Vieques’ Biobay is Amazing
Last but certainly not least is the one you never saw coming: West Virginia. I know this state is on the wrong end of some jokes, and it has a bad reputation that it doesn’t really deserve, but it’s also an adventurer’s paradise. The whitewater rafting in West Virginia is second to none and a weekend on the Gauley is so much fun I’ve done it four times.
The desolate landscape of Dolly Sods is eerily beautiful. The weather’s never good here, so you have to prep accordingly, but if you’re ready for mud or wind or rain, you’re in for a real treat. The landscape has been shaped by these extreme elements — the wind, primarily — and leaves me breathless from its stark beauty. (Not into hardcore hiking? There are plenty of friendlier spots in WV as well).
West Virginia won’t be on your list if you’re looking for great museums or food or luxury spas. Yeah, they’ve got some bright spots here or there, but that’s not what the state does best. This is all about being outside, all the time. If that’s what you’re looking for, you can’t beat it.
Read More: My Favorite Part of West Virginia
In general, I don’t think avoiding travel is going to make any difference in an outbreak. COVID-19 is coming whether you want it to or not…but whatever the medical reality is, there are still probable restrictions with international travel.
Personally, I’m knee-deep in researching ideas for a central states roadtrip. I’ve never been to Oklahoma or Arkansas, and it’s been decades (!) since I was last in Missouri. It’s time to change that and I’m zeroing on specifics. But assuming I can’t bring all of you to join me on that trip, these other places in the USA are equally worthy of a visit without the limitations that might come from entering or visiting certain other countries.