It's not about the final destination, it's about the experiences along the way.
There are millions of amazing places to see in the United States that the vast majority of us will never experience (or even know existed). From man-made attractions that were built to bring visitors, to natural wonders that the earth has been generous enough to provide us, there are places for everyone to enjoy.
Sometimes, a nice long road trip can be just what the soul needs to rejuvenate. A trip up and down the east coast provides no shortage of beautiful views and interesting places to enhance the experience, and it can be overwhelming trying to find the best places to make stops. But here are 15 destinations along the way, from Maine to Florida, that are worth leaving the highway to experience.
Bar Harbor, ME
Bar Harbor is a town located on Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine, at the mouth of the Gulf of Maine. Bar Harbor is a popular destination because of its prime location that provides views of the surrounding islands, Atlantic Ocean, and Acadia National Park. The area is a haven for people who appreciate the outdoors and natural beauty, as well as picturesque coastal small town in New England. There is a little something for just about everyone around Bar Harbor. Stay at a cozy bed and breakfast, hike one of the many trails in Acadia National Park, kayak in the bay, enjoy food and drinks at one of the many waterfront restaurants, shop at one of the local shops for unique handmade gifts, or enjoy one of the museums or walking tours to learn about the local area’s history. Visit the Bar Harbor tourism site to see all of the things you can see and do in and around town: visitbarharbor.com.
Castle in the Clouds (Lucknow Estate), Moultonborough, NH
The Castle in the Clouds was first built in the early 1900’s as a private estate by Thomas Plant, a New England businessman who made his fortune in shoe manufacturing. The estate featured a mansion, stable, car garage, gatehouses, greenhouse, tennis court, golf course, man-made lake, and trails on 6,300 acres. Originally called the Lucknow Estate, the property has changed hands multiple times and was rebranded as the Castle in the Clouds in the 1950’s, given its location atop the Ossipee Mountains. It has been home to a brewery and bottling plant, before becoming its current state as a tourist attraction and event space. Visitors can take self-guided tours to see the well-preserved early 20th century architecture and lifestyle, as well as enjoy the numerous trails throughout the estate. More information about admission and things to do at the Castle in the Clouds can be found on the property’s website: castleintheclouds.org.
Walden Pond, Concord, MA
Walden Pond was made famous by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1800’s. And to this day, the natural beauty of the property can transport you back in time to understand why it had a profound effect on the writers. Today, Walden Pond, is a popular secluded destination for swimming, boating, hiking, picnics, and fishing. Parts of the shoreline are lined with small beaches, while others are lined with steep drops from trails that surround the water. There is even a replica of Thoreau’s cabin that visitors can explore, although it is just a small single room cabin. By visiting the Massachusetts government website, you can find downloadable and printable trail maps, self-guided tours, and informational brochures to plan your visit: mass.gov/locations/walden-pond-state-reservation.
Newport Cliff Walk, Newport, RI
Although Rhode Island may be one of the U.S.’s smallest states, it provides some of the most spectacular oceanfront scenery in the country… and not just views of the ocean. The Cliff Walk is a 3.5-mile walkway that follows the southern coastline of Rhode Island. As the name implies, the walkway is separated from the ocean by rocky cliffs that reach dozens of feet high. While walking the path, you will see stunning views of the ocean, beaches, islands, and the famous centuries old Newport mansions. For those interested in seeing the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous, some of the mansions located just off the walkway offer guided tours. Most of the Cliff Walk is easy walking. However, parts of the southern portion do have moderately difficult uneven terrain that requires mild rock climbing. For more information about the best areas to focus your Cliff Walk experience, you can visit the Newport tourism website: discovernewport.org/things-to-do/cliff-walk.
Mystic, Stonington, CT
Some may be familiar with Mystic from the 80’s Julia Roberts movie, “Mystic Pizza.” However, Mystic has been around for much longer and provides a destination for quintessential coastal New England town charm. Originally a prominent shipbuilding town, these days, Mystic has developed into a more prominent destination for the Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Seaport. The Mystic Aquarium is home to thousands of marine animals, including some unique mammals that can only be found in Mystic without traveling thousands of miles. The aquarium has been open for over 50 years, and continues to be an entertaining and educational experience for both kids and adults. The Mystic Seaport Museum is the largest maritime museum in the United States and includes an extensive collection of sail boats and ships, as well as a recreated 19th century seafront village to explore. For those visitors who are not interested in the history of the area of sea life, the local area is also rife with restaurants, classic New England architecture, wineries and breweries, and shops that offer handmade crafts and unique gifts. Visitors can find more information about visiting Mystic through the tourism website: thisismystic.com.
Kykuit, Sleepy Hollow, NY
One of the best kept secrets in Westchester County, north of New York City, is an intentionally hidden gem that sits atop the hills that line the Hudson River. Kykuit is an extensive estate owned by the infamous Rockefeller family. Designed to blend into the natural landscape, Kykuit is invisible to the outside world, perched atop its nest on the side of a mountain. But the panoramic views from the property are unmatched, looking over the Hudson River and extensive Hudson Valley. The historic private estate can only be visited via a scheduled tour, which starts at a visitor center in Sleepy Hollow and takes you up to the estate via a bus. Kykuit’s centerpiece is the large 19th century mansion, consisting of 40 rooms and gardens, as well as a surprising extensive art collection with very well-known artists and pieces of art. The estate also has its own private golf course, which occasionally hosts members of the Rockefeller family and their guests. Information about the estate and tickets can be found on the Hudson Valley tourism website: hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/kykuit-the-rockefeller-estate.
Sterling Hill Mining Museum, Ogdensburg, NJ
A former zinc mine dating all the way back to the 1600’s, the Sterling Hill Mine in Ogdensburg was the last working mine in New Jersey before it closed in the 1980’s. Now known as the Sterling Hill Mining Museum, the mine has become a destination for tourists to see how an underground mine functioned. Though the lower levels are now flooded, according to the museum’s website, the mine reached a depth of 2,675 feet and consisted of 35 miles of tunnels. Today, tours are guided through the upper levels and include a fascinating display when the guide turns of the lights and turns on a blacklight. Note, however, that tours currently only occur at 1:00 PM on weekends. More information about the mine and tours can be found on the museum website: sterlinghillminingmuseum.org.
Cape Henlopen, Lewes, DE
Cape Henlopen sits on the coastline, located on a small peninsula at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, between Delaware and New Jersey. The state park is comprised of over 5,000 acres and includes over six miles of waterfront property. Cape Henlopen provides a destination for visitors looking to enjoy fishing, swimming, boating, walking, biking, a nature center, and historical museum. During World War II, Cape Henlopen was a coastal defense site. Visitors can now view an artillery battery and climb to the top of the Observation Tower, as well as visit Fort Miles, which is located within Cape Henlopen State Park. For nature lovers, Cape Henlopen provides picturesque views of where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay, filled with a wide variety of birds and aquatic animals. A bonus experience also located in Lewes, if time permits, is the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. The Lewes Ferry Terminal contains beautiful views, a shop, restaurant, and bar for commuters traveling between Delaware and New Jersey. The 75-vehicle capacity ferry accepts pedestrian travelers as well, with one-way trips lasting approximately 85 minutes, according to the ferry website. There is a fee to enter state parks in Delaware ($5 for state residents, $10 for out-of-state residents). More information about Cape Henlopen State Park can be found at the Delaware State Parks website: destateparks.com.
Located a short 30-minute drive from the popular beachfront tourism of Virginia Beach, Norfolk is an eclectic small city destination with plenty of character on its own. The city consists of an interesting mix of historic and modern architecture, and has developed into a canvas for street art and murals. While walking through the streets of Norfolk, you will be amazed by the stunning graffiti and commissioned murals that adorn buildings, sidewalks, and alleys. Norfolk is also home to bustling shipping terminals and the Naval Station Norfolk for those interested in maritime activities. Stroll along the Waterside District to catch views of massive commercial and military ships, see what fish anglers are reeling in from the docks, and enjoy waterfront restaurants and bars. More ideas for activities and sites in Norfolk can be found on the city’s tourism website: visitnorfolk.com.
Corolla Wild Horses, Corolla, NC
Not just a car model, Corolla is also a must-visit destination for horse lovers and beach lovers alike. Corolla, North Carolina is home to the infamous Corolla Wild Horses; Spanish Mustangs that have been roaming the land and beaches of Corolla for centuries. There are guided truck and kayak tours that will take visitors to the popular roaming areas of the horses. Though, you can venture out to see the mustangs on your own. Note, however, that the horses are wild and should be admired from a distance. More information about the Corolla Wild Horses can be found at the website for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which is the only official nonprofit that protects and cares for the horses: corollawildhorses.com.
Craggy Gardens, Black Mountain, NC
A short distance from Asheville, NC, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, at an elevation of 5,500 feet, sits an area affectionately known as Craggy Gardens. Although the name may not be so attractive, the trails and views of the surrounding Appalachian Mountains are stunning! Any time during the late spring, summer, or fall are great for visiting Craggy Gardens for a picnic and light hike through the trails. But the most popular time to visit is in June, which is the prime time for seeing the rhododendron blooms that blanket the area. However, if you miss the peak time, there is no shortage of other gorgeous wildflowers that call the trails home. For more adventurous and experienced hikers, a strenuous 4-mile hike along the Douglas Falls Trails will take you to the 70-foot Douglas Creek Falls, which are worth the 8-mile round trip. More information about visiting Craggy Gardens can be found at the National Park Service website: nps.gov/blri/planyourvisit/craggy-gardens-trail.
Historic Charleston, SC
Walking through Charleston, South Carolina, you can’t help but feel transported back in time as you gaze upon well-preserved colonial homes, buildings, and cobblestone streets. To really transport yourself back in time, take a ride on a horse-drawn carriage for a historical tour. Charleston is rife with history, dating back to the 1600’s, but is probably best known for its place in Civil War history. The city sits on the Charleston Harbor, where Fort Sumter also sits; the place of the first shots of the Civil War. But for those not as interested in history, Charleston is also a destination for lovers of the beach, food, nature, and crafts. If visiting at the right time, you will find gorgeous displays of blooming wisteria lining the streets. The historic Charleston City Market is also filled with hundreds of street vendors, making it easy to find something for just about anyone. More ideas about what to see and do in Charleston can be found at the Charleston tourism website: Charleston.com.
A relatively short distance down the Atlantic coast, you will find another historic city filled with southern charm: Savannah, Georgia. Similar to Charleston, Savannah is filled with history, period architecture, boutique shops, art, museums, tours, and more. Take a walk along the Savannah River, where you will find a number of shops, restaurants, and bars with live music. Or take a stroll through the historic or Victorian districts to see stunning historical architecture. Savannah is a very walkable city. For those who prefer the ocean, head east through the city and out to Tybee Island, a small community known for its wide beaches, recreation, and entertainment that can be found in just about every restaurant and bar. For more information about visiting Savannah, go to the tourism website: visitsavannah.com.
Manatee Springs, Chiefland, FL
Located on the west coast of Florida, near Gainesville, sits a relaxing destination amongst a cypress forest: the Manatee Springs. As the state park website says: “Manatee Springs State Park proves boardwalks aren’t only for the beach.” Visitors are invited to walk along an 800-foot boardwalk through the cypress forest, overlooking a 10,000+ year-old natural spring. For those that bring their swimsuits, swimming is permitted in designated areas. In the cooler months, visitors can see the namesake of the park, enjoying the cool water being pumped up from the earth, but birds, fish, and other mammals can be found enjoying natural springs year-round. In addition to the springs, there are 8.5 miles of walking trails and designated campsites that can be reserved ahead of time. For more information about the springs, park, camping, and other experiences, visit the Florida State Parks website: floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/manatee-springs-state-park.
Clam Pass Beach Park, Naples, FL
Naples, Florida is well-known as a year-round tourist destination for high-end shopping, golf courses, beaches, and fishing. There is no shortage of things to do around Naples. But a bit of a hidden gem in Naples is Clam Pass Beach Park. After parking in the public lot, you will walk onto a path that will make you feel like you are walking into the forest. The Clam Pass boardwalk path is approximately a half mile through a mangrove forest, which can be walked or traveled via trams. Along the way, you will see a variety of local marine life, birds, and butterflies, before reaching the clearing where you will come upon a beachfront restaurant, beautiful white sand beaches, and the Gulf of Mexico. As the name suggests, Clam Pass Park is an area where you will find loads of clams, and the beach can be a goldmine for shell collectors. For more information and suggestions about visiting Clam Pass Beach Park, visit the Collier County Parks website: collierparks.com/collier_park/clam-pass-park, or other local tourist websites.