30 Places So Surreal You Won’t Believe They’re in the U.S.
Those who've "seen it all" clearly missed the fire waterfall.
From the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest to the jagged coastlines of Maine, the United States is home to some of the most enchanting landscapes in the entire world. Take, for example, the sublime artist structure tucked away in a dense urban environment. Or think about the many forests that look like they’ve been out of a Stephen King novel. Or—perhaps best of all—the waterfall that’s practically made of fire. Yes, in the good-ole U.S. of A., you’ll find all these surreal destinations and more. They may leave you speechless, but you needn’t worry: we managed to find a few words to convey our appreciation. And for more on the most titanically transcendent places within a stone’s throw (or quick flight), take a look at the 50 Destinations So Magical You Won’t Believe They’re in the U.S.
Horsetail Fall; Yosemite National Park, California
Where to fly: Fresno-Yosemite International Airport
Visitors can only spot this “firefall” effect from mid-to-late February—and, despite the short window of time, this attraction gets an immense amount of attention—so plan accordingly. The Horsetail Fall flows over the edge of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and during most sunsets in February, the waterfall actually appears to glow orange, almost resembling a lava flow. To make this trek, you can either purchase a parking permit or hike to the fall, though, since you are arriving at sunset, the walk back will likely be dark and icy, so be prepared for those conditions.
Pro tip: For those who prefer a more rustic traveling experience, a stay in the Half Dome Village in Yosemite lets nature do the talking—instead of your wallet.
And for more awe-inspiring waterways, check out these 15 Waterfalls So Magical You Won’t Believe They’re in the U.S.
Mono Lake; Mono County, California
Where to fly: Mammoth Yosemite Airport
This shallow saline soda lake in Mono County, California, not only boasts some of the best sunsets in the state but has maintained a productive ecosystem for centuries. As pictured above, the landscape of this lake is made completely unique and unmistakeable with these scenic limestone formations, known as tufa towers, rising from out of the water. If you’re making more than just a quick pit-stop, then visitors should indulge in one of the naturalist-led walks intended to educate others about the wildlife and beautiful structures along Mono Lake.
Pro tip: After a day experiencing all that Mono Lake had to offer, take some time to experience all that the luxurious Heidelberg Inn has to offer—from your own personal sauna nestled atop the mountains.
Glass Beach; Fort Bragg, California
Where to fly: Sacramento International Airport
Fort Bragg, California, is home to one of the most unique beaches in the entire country: Glass Beach, which, like its name implies, is comprised of sea glass formed by decades of trash dumped along its coastline. There are actually three of these glass beaches in Fort Bragg, and they’re all easily accessible by foot. Visitors can search for sapphire gems left by apothecary bottles strewn about these former dump sites, now serving as a testament to the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Pro tip: Take a trip into California’s past with a meal at Jenny’s Giant Burger, a retro burger joint located along the coastline.
And for more ideas for your next sun-soaked adventure, check out The 30 Best Beaches in America.
Bonneville Salt Flats; Tooele County, Utah
Where to fly: Salt Lake City International Airport
These expansive salt flats, located west of the Great Salt Lake, were formed when the Lake Bonneville dried up, leaving a large land mass of salt stretching in every direction. Tourists are provided easy access to this area via a rest stop located just outside of the flats. Walk across the salt, or simply take in the majestic beauty of this area, surrounded by mountains and Utah desert.
Pro tip: Take a trip just over the border, and try your luck at Nevada’s Montego Bay Resort—a posh hotel offering many kinds of gaming fun.
Smoky Mountains; North Carolina/Tennessee
Where to fly: Knoxville McGee-Tyson Airport
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, offering endless panoramic views of the mountains and forests of the region. Aside from the abundance of black bear sightings, visitors will also get a chance to better understand Southern Appalachian mountain culture via historic homes and churches.
Pro tip: For the best scenic drive in the country, be sure to pay a visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which meanders for 469 miles along the rugged crags of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Wave; Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Arizona
Where to fly: McCarren International Airport
This magnificently-colored sandstone, stretching across regions of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona, is without a doubt one of the most photogenic picks on this list. No matter the season, the rich colors of its walls, which were created by deposits of iron, cast a glow across the canyons. Since the average hike to and from the Wave is around six hours, it is recommended that hikers pack for a full day hike, and use caution in the heat. Since only ten walk-in hikers are allowed per day, those interested in seeing the Wave up close will need to apply through an online lottery system.
Pro tip: For some of the best views of the desert, stay at the Page Boy Motel in Page, Arizona, to relax after your strenuous hike.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Where to fly: Rapid City Regional Airport
The beauty encapsulated in this national park attracts thousands of visitors per year, each with a desire to stroll through the striking rugged land created by vast geologic deposits. Whether you’re hiking through the badlands or enjoying a perfect view of the Milky Way, this national park boasts some of the best fun to be had out west.
Pro tip: Travel deeper into the plains of South Dakota with a stay at the Triangle Ranch Bed and Breakfast—where old western history and hospitality intersect to give you the best experience in the Badlands.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Where to fly: Idaho Falls Regional Airport
Grand Teton National Park captures the most beautiful parts of rugged Wyoming within its borders—from a wide array of interesting wildlife to pristine lakes and alpine terrain. With over 200 miles of hiking trails, this park is perfect for the avid outdoor adventurer. For those in your group that may not want to partake in the hiking itinerary, the nearby town of Jackson Hole can provide indoor entertainment like browsing through the Old West shopfronts and indulging in the local art at National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Pro tip: For a truly authentic jaunt into the mountains, book your room at the Snake River Lodge and Spa, which comes with an indoor spa and the chicest amenities the Old West has to offer.
Adirondack Mountains, New York
Where to fly: Burlington International Airport
When looking for the best cozy weekend getaway, there is no better place than the Adirondack Mountains, where the wild and pristine vistas make their presence known throughout every small town in this breathtaking region of upstate New York. While you’re there, take in the panoramic views at the newly reopened Wild Walk, a trail towering above the treetops, or go kayaking on Lake George, nestled between expansive mountain ranges.
Pro tip: With just one step outside their room, guests staying at The Mirror Lake Inn, located on Lake Placid, can take in the sweeping views of the mountains reflected over the calm waters of the lake.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Where to fly: Hilo International Airport
With a peak of 13,802 feet above sea level, this dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii is the highest point in the state. It’s also, according to United States Geological Survey, the tallest mountain in the world. (Yes, even though Everest stands at 29,035 feet, Mauna Kea extends below sea level for an additional 19,700.) For those who wish to visit the summit, due to the threat of altitude sickness, it is recommended that no expectant mothers or anyone under the age of 13 climb past the visitor’s center (9,200 feet). Though the peak is easily accessible by car, visitors are encouraged to stop and rest in order to get their bodies acclimated to the decrease in oxygen. After your trek up to the peak, stop down to the visitor’s center for an unparalleled view of the Milky Way.
Pro tip: Readjust to ground-level-living with a stay at the luxurious Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, which offers legendary views of Hawaii and to-die-for meals.
Kings Canyon National Park, California
Where to fly: Fresno Yosemite International Airport
Resting just on the other side of Sequoia National Park, this California treasure is home to some of the biggest trees in the entire world. The park was named after its most defining feature—Kings Canyon, the rugged valley carved out by a glacier, leaving an almost mile-deep ridge through the mountains. While you’re in the park, be sure you don’t miss a chance to visit Grant Grove, the once-upon-a-time home to General Ulysses S. Grant and the current home to second largest tree in the entire world.
Pro tip: With one of the nation’s best national parks just next door, you’d be remiss for leaving the area without paying a visit to the enchanting hiking trails at Sequoia National Park.
Zion National Park, Utah
Where to fly: McCarren International Airport
Follow in the footsteps of the ancient settlers who once called this rugged part of the Utah desert their home. Hike through the narrow slot canyons, or experience the various careening canyon passageways on horseback—no matter what route you take at Zion National Park, you can feel the magic and greatness contained in every sloping rock formation.
Pro tip: To fully experience all that the park has to offer, stay at the Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens for panoramic views and hoppin’ happy hours.
Balboa Park Botanical Building; San Diego, California
Where to fly: San Diego International Airport
For more surreal destinations of the man-made variety, the Balboa Park Botanical Garden in San Diego brings the outside indoors with an elegant display of nearly every variety of plants. After thoroughly exploring the cycads, ferns, orchids, and palms inside, be sure to meander outdoors to the Lily Pond and Lagoon—the perfect area for a truly romantic and magical evening spent amongst the flowers.
Pro tip: To keep with the romantic theme, make a reservation at Prado, located right in Balboa Park, for candle-lit Californian cuisine.
And for more amore, learn the 50 Easy Ways to Be a (Much) More Romantic Man.
Salton Sea; Colorado Desert Imperial and Riverside Counties, California
Where to fly: Palm Springs International Airport
This shallow lake is located directly on top of the San Andreas Fault in California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys. The Salton Sea was created in the first decade of the 20th-century when the Colorado River burst through poorly-built irrigation controls just south of Yuma, Arizona. Now, due to the agricultural waste streaming into the lake, scientists speculate that, along with rising salt levels, it is set to kill nearly all of the animals dwelling within its shallow waters. For now, visitors can enjoy all that the salty lake has to offer with a trip around its coastline for a chance to catch the water glistening at sunset.
Pro tip: While you’re in the area, pay a visit to one of the best RV parks in the entire country (that is, if you’re lucky enough to be experiencing the west in one of these posh hotel rooms on wheels). The Fountain of Youth Resort is nearly a gated community with its tennis courts, spas, bike paths along dusty palm trees, and many other chic desert amenities.
Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch; Oro Grande, California
Where to fly: Ontario International Airport (in Ontario, California)
For another foray into excellent artistic expression, pay a visit to Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch, located along the famed Route 66 in the heart of the California desert. Artist Elmer Long created this forest of bottles almost a decade ago and has since drawn visitors from all over the world to pay their respects to this heroic salute to recycling.
Pro tip: While you’re on Route 66, book a room at the Aztec Hotel, which was established in 1925 and prompted a short-lived boom in Mayan architecture.
Prince William Sound, Alaska
Where to fly: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport
Located along the east side of the Kenai Peninsula, the Prince William Sound in Alaska contains some of the most breathtaking views in all of the state with its fjords, glaciers, waterfalls, and bays. For optimal viewing, book a boat tour of the sound to see the rising peaks and ice-filled bays up close.
Pro tip: Make the hour-long trip back to Anchorage for a stay at The Lakefront Anchorage, which has two restaurants, a floatplane dock, and other luxury amenities situated right on the water.
Valley of Fire State; Moapa Valley, Nevada
Where to fly: McCarren International Airport
The Valley of Fire State Park in Moapa Valley, Nevada, contains nearly 40,000 acres of bright red Aztec sandstone, gleaming brightly against the forest of ancient petrified trees and petroglyphs dating back more than 2,000 years. Tourists can hike along the rocky spine of the park, or perhaps even choose to participate in the Annual Atlatl Competition—a contest where participants get to test their knowledge of ancient spears.
Pro tip: Pamper yourself with a stay at Highland Estates Resort and Hotel, which offers two pools, a hot tub, a fitness center, a tennis court, shuffleboard courts, a BBQ area, a library, a meeting room, and a complimentary coffee bar.
Mossbrae Falls; Dunsmuir, California
Where to fly: Sacramento International Airport
Mossbrae Falls, a waterfall that flows into the Sacramento River in Dunsmuir, California, almost appears to be right out of a fairytale. To get to the falls, visitors must walk along a mile-long portion of the historic Union-Pacific Railroad. The best time to visit the falls is during, well, the fall, when the colors of changing leaves complement the majestic flow of water.
Pro tip: Since the official city slogan of Dunsmuir, California is “Home of the best water on Earth,” tourists should make the trek to another beautiful water-based excursion—on Castle Lake, a glacial lake located in the Trinity Mountains.
Racetrack Playa; Death Valley National Park, California
Where to fly: McCarren International Airport
For years, the Racetrack Playa has been an enduring mystery within Death Valley National Park. In this remote valley between the Cottonwood and Last Chance Ranges, rocks seem to move freely on a dry lakebed, leaving behind very clear marks of where they have slid across over time. Getting to this part of the park can be tricky since standard vehicles can’t handle the rough conditions of the roads, leaving only those vehicles with high clearance and good tires driving the winding path to the Racetrack Playa.
Pro tip: If you’re planning a trip during the colder seasons (temperatures in Death Valley often climb to over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer), be sure to pick out the best views of the night sky enveloped by desert on each side with a camping site at Death Valley National Park. The more rugged, the better—the stars are waiting.
Crater Lake; Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Where to fly: Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport
The awe-inspiring Crater Lake sits atop the Cascade Mountain Range in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. This lake, cited as the deepest in the country, charms visitors each time with its captivating blue waters surrounded by white and green mountain peaks. Experienced hikers and cyclists can ride the trail winding around the lake for some of the best aerial views—while others not up to the challenge can simply view the lake from the comfort of their vehicle.
Pro tip: After your hike around Crater Lake, put your feet up at Prospect Historic Hotel, which was built in 1890 and visited by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt.
Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
Where to fly: San Francisco International Airport
At 53,000 acres, Humboldt State Park is about twice the size of San Francisco. And of that area, about one-third is old-growth redwood forest—which pans out to be the largest collection of old-growth redwoods in the entire world. Whether or not you’d enjoy a hike through the sky-grazing redwoods, this park offers a 32-mile-long road called Avenue of the Giants (pictured above) that allows guests to view the beauty of the trees from their cars.
Pro tip: For some of the best Cajun cuisine in the country, refuel at Cecil’s New Orleans Bistro, located just a few miles away in Garberville.
Mammoth Hot Springs; Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Where to fly: Jackson Hole Airport
Yellowstone National Park boasts some of the most beautiful and bountiful natural wonders in the entire country—and the Mammoth Hot Springs are a prime example of the park’s enduring popularity. This attraction is also easily accessible by hikers and cyclists alike. A foray into the hot springs is a must on any given day of the year.
Pro tip: Impeccable architecture and stellar views meet to create the landmark experience that awaits visitors at Old Faithful Inn, located inside Yellowstone National Park.
Hoh Rain Forest; Olympic National Park, Washington
Where to fly: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
The moss and the lush greenery enveloping this forest in the Olympic National Park is a result of the heavy precipitation the area sees throughout the winter season. The beautiful mosses and ferns that blanket nearly every natural thing in the Hoh Rain Forest make it one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Pacific Northwest and is accessible by car.
Pro tip: While you’re in the park, pay a visit to one of its many stunning tidepools, like Ruby Beach, where the wildlife and rugged coastlines create the image of tranquillity.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Where to fly: Louisville International Airport
The Mammoth Cave National Park actively preserves the longest known cave system in the entire world, with over 400 miles of underground caves explored. Visitors will get a first-hand look at the caves that have been described as “grand, gloomy and peculiar” by early cave guide Stephen Bishop. Each tour of the vast cave system promises a different experience, whether participants crave a more historical analysis or prefer a few creepy detours.
Pro tip: After your descent underground, it might be nice to revel in the beauty of Kentucky far above the vast cave systems that make this state so famous by booking your room at the Serenity Hill Bed and Breakfast.
Synchronous fireflies; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Where to fly: McGhee Tyson Airport
This firefly phenomenon is caused by the flashing colors that the synchronous fireflies, one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in the park, give off to attract a mate. This au natural light show lasts for about two weeks from late May to mid June. Any visitor looking to witness this incredibly rare event firsthand must apply for the parking pass lottery, as only a limited number of people are allowed to see this special event every year.
Pro tip: After late night escapades in the park, settle into your room at the Bearskin Lodge, just a short jaunt down the road from downtown Gatlinburg.
Lost Sea; Sweetwater, Tennessee
Where to fly: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
Located in the Craighead Caverns in Tennessee, the Lost Sea is the United States’ largest and the world’s second largest non-subglacial underground lake. Before the caves were open to the public, the Cherokee Indians used these underground hideaways as a meeting place, and then, in the years that followed, Confederate soldiers mined the caves for saltpeter, an ingredient necessary to the manufacturing of gunpowder. Now, tourists can revel in the beauty of this underground sea on an unforgettable boat ride and tour, chock full of information about one of Tennessee’s most hidden jewels.
Pro tip: Make the most of your Tennessee adventures with a stay at Whitestone Country Inn—a lakefront bed and breakfast with all of the country fixings.
Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area, New Mexico
Where to fly: Albuquerque International Sunport
This rolling landscape offers some of the most unique miles of desert in the Four Corners region. The hiking trails in the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area cover around 60 square miles of remote badlands—meaning that a solitary desert hike isn’t out of the question for most venturing across the ancient rock formations. Before you set out on your hiking adventures, be sure to notice that the trails are not marked, so travelers unfamiliar with this area will need to keep track of their steps.
Pro tip: After your hike through the desert, cool off with the chic offerings at the Casa Blanca Inn in nearby Farmington, complete with lush gardens and enchanting southwestern architecture.
Whitaker Point; Deer, Arkansas
Where to fly: Springfield-Branson National Airport
This Arkansas favorite, often mentioned in “best places to be kissed” lists, Whitaker Point takes the cake for providing one of the best views of the Arkansas wilderness in the entire state. Located along the Buffalo River, this incredibly popular tourist destination is only accessible by a trail that is somewhat difficult and dangerous—in fact, many advise that this trail is best suited for adults only. The best time to visit Whitaker Point is in April and early May when the wildflowers are in bloom, cascading over the mountains.
Pro tip: Grab a quick taste of Arkansas cuisine at Ozark Cafe, which offers burgers and shakes in an Americana-themed restaurant with great live music.
And for more vacation ideas off the beaten path, check out these 30 Enchanting Hideaways in the U.S. You’ve Never Heard of.
Devils Tower; Crook County, Wyoming
Where to fly: Rapid City Regional Airport
This impressive geologic feature—and star of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians and other indigenous people still living in northern Wyoming. Due to the parallel cracks splitting every side of Devils Tower, it has become of the best areas in the country for traditional crack climbing. To get to Devils Tower, one simply has to hike the 1.3-mile loop that surrounds the base of the tower.
Pro tip: Watch the sunset over Devils Tower from your own private deck at A Quiet Canyon at Devils Tower.
The Heidelberg Art Project; Detroit, Michigan
Where to fly: Detroit Metro Airport
The Heidelberg Art Project is an outdoor art experience in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood on the Detroit’s east side. “Armed with a paintbrush,” artist Tyree Guyton sought to improve the lives of those living in one of Detroit’s toughest neighborhoods through artistic expression. Now, decades after its inception, this garden of repurposed materials and original art is one of Detroit’s best and brightest hidden gems.
Pro tip: After your artistic adventures come to a close, dig into prime Detroit-style pizza at Cloverleaf Bar and Restaurant.
And if you’d rather skip the trail and hit the dance floor instead, check out The 25 Most Exclusive Clubs On The Planet.
To discover more amazing secrets about living your best life, click here to sign up for our FREE daily newsletter!