The best hidden vacation spots in the US for gay explorers

Hunting down off-the-beaten-track gems is one of the many joys of a good US road trip. And while you may not be ready to strike the Grand Canyon off your trip itinerary just yet, we’re here to woo you with some equally worthy, lesser-known alternatives. Free from the crowds and the hiked-up prices of some of the more popular attractions, here is our rundown of the best hidden vacation spots in the US, from the remote reservations of Arizona to the glittering glaciers of Alaska.

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Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming | Photo: Mike Goad

1. Apostle Islands, Wisconsin

Travelling upwards to northern Wisconsin and off the edge into Lake Superior, we eventually meet the archipelago known as the Apostle Islands. As many as 21 islands can be found within reach of Bayfield City, known collectively for their natural scenery of forests, sea caves and sandstone cliffs. Though the historic city and Lake Superior come more populated, it’s the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that lures us with its tranquillity and wildlife watching opportunities. Cruise between the islands by ferry from Bayfield to take in each of the island’s distinct features, counting nine lighthouses and over 240 migratory bird species in total.

Better than most, Lake Superior can be forgiven for its self-importance as the largest freshwater lake in the world. While the Apostles aren’t the only landmasses to be found floating in its waters, they are a particularly worthy sight during winter when the cliffs become encrusted with icicles and the caves turn to ice. Wild all year round, the Apostle Islands are great for kayaking around or hiking and camping within, particularly in warmer months. The Stockton Islands are a highlight with their singing sands, while Madeline Island off to the side of the main park is a popular day-trip and camping destination. If camping doesn’t quite cut it, however, hilly Bayfield can always act as your base, filled as it is with wholesome restaurants and Victorian-era architecture, moments from apple orchards easily reachable on an afternoon bike ride.

Apostle Islands | Photo: David Hamilton

2. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Sometimes snubbed in favour of its big name neighbours such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, Grand Teton is your lovable underdog. Spread across 310,000 acres, Grand Teton boasts all the elements of Yellowstone – alpine lakes, valley hiking trails and all of the wildlife – with little of the hype or crowds. Start your trip in Jackson Hole or Teton Village, two rustic villages offering a distinct Wyoming welcome.

The park’s human history spans over 11,000 years and includes exploration and settlements from nomadic Indian and American Indian tribes before early Americans even touched base. Discover all this history and more on guide-led tours through the park, stopping at points of interest such as Mormon Row and the Moulton Barns. Those who want to make their own way can get a permit to backpack and camp in the park, reserving a campsite or lodging ahead of time to avoid disappointment. As well as hiking, Grand Teton also offers boating, kayaking or paddle-boarding on Jackson or Jenny Lake, as well as rock climbing and wildlife tours, most notably at Willow Flats when grizzly bears congregate to hunt in the summer months. For an atmospheric end to the day after hiking to Cascade Creek (or any number of hidden waterfalls!), wind up at Schwabacher Landing for mountainous sunset views over the shores of Snake River.

Photo: Roman Odintsov

Grand Teton National Park | Photo: Huper by Joshua Earle

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Spread across 310,000 acres, Grand Teton boasts all the elements of Yellowstone – alpine lakes, valley hiking trails and all of the wildlife – with little of the hype or crowds

3. Supai, Arizona

Inhabited since 1300AD by the Havasupai tribe, America’s smallest Native American tribe, Supai Village is an offbeat alternative to its overbearing neighbour, the Grand Canyon, charming its relatively few visitors with its old-world ways. The last place in the US to receive mail by mule, Supai is just a little out of the way, accessible via a steep 10-kilometre trek down from Hualapai Hilltop. Alternative options are to ride down on horseback or fly in by helicopter to find the decidedly chill 185,000-acre Havasupai Reservation, laid out amongst a series of five spring-fed waterfalls that merge in the aquamarine pools of Havasu Creek and eventually flow into the Colorado River. Of Supai’s natural attractions, Havasu Canyon is easily the most impressive spot (3 kilometres from the village) serving as a popular place to camp out beneath the stars before taking a refreshing morning dip in the remote Mooney Falls.

Supai, Arizona | Photo: Jeremy Bishop

Havasu Falls | Photo: Tom Gainor

4. Jekyll Island, Georgia

Based just off the coast of Georgia and impressed with over 4000 years of history is the barrier island of Jekyll, once an exclusive retreat for 19th and 20th century millionaires. Today the island maintains a touch of class with its many golf courses, historic buildings and uncrowded upscale districts, but really it’s the nature that draws visitors to its shores. Only 35% of the land here has been developed, leaving the rest of the island as a haven for outdoors activities and raw natural scenery. Marvel at the high-society residences of Vanderbilt and Rockefeller within the historic district, before tracking 32 kilometres of biking trails and endless stretches of beachfront towards the east coast marshlands. Though the main town has a variety of modern hotels (with car rentals available), stay at any of the huge campgrounds about the island (with horses for riding) for a more modest and laid-back approach to island life.

Jekyll Island | Photo: Philip Arambula

5. Hamilton Pool Preserve, Texas

Just an hour west from the offbeat city of Austin, Hamilton Pool Preserve brings a touch of cerulean blue to the dry desert plains of Texas. Formed over a thousand years ago when an underground river channel collapsed to create an impressive 50-foot waterfall, this limestone cenote lies hidden within a 30,428-acre reserve, a site also known for its endangered birdlife, including the gold-cheeked warbler. To protect this idyllic spot, visitors are limited each day, meaning that those who arrive early enough can have space to fully enjoy the turquoise pools and the upstream Pedernales River in utmost tranquillity.

6. Leavenworth, Washington

Bavarian culture is alive and well in America if Leavenworth, Washington, is anything to go by. A mountain town known for its alpine activities – including biking, hiking and climbing – Leavenworth is the Pacific Northwest’s answer to the Alps. Besides kitschy German-inspired storefronts decorated in wildflowers during spring and summer, Leavenworth lies within reach of myriad natural attractions, including the 1,500-square-kilometre Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area which boasts mountain views and glacial valley scenery as well as upwards of 700 azure lakes. Consider camping a night or so in the region to make the most of the hiking here, though advance permits to do this are scarce, meaning you should book in mid-March for the summer season. Otherwise, for day trips in the area, pick up a self-issued permit at the trailhead, accessing the looping Icicle Gorge Trail or the steep Dirtyface Trail.

As well as backpacking and trekking in warmer months, Leavenworth is also a base for adventure sports such as river rafting and tubing on the Wenatchee River, or more downbeat options of golfing, wagon riding and fly fishing. In the winter months then, Leavenworth transforms into a snow-capped wonderland, offering cross-country skiing, sledding and snowshoeing nearby to an array of Christmas markets and seasonal festivals celebrating everything Germanic, from Brattwurst to lederhosen.

Skyline Lake Trail, Leavenworth | Photo: Michael Bennett

Leavenworth | Photo: Don White

7. Half Moon Bay, California

The Californian coast is never short of offerings but, lying in plain sight along Highway 1, is another of our favourite hidden gems in the US you simply must stop at. Just south of San Francisco between the Golden Coast and the Santa Cruz Mountains, Half Moon Bay has both a view and a welcoming community, allowing visitors to indulge in kayaking, surfing and paddle-boarding, even taking part in The Mavericks annual surf contest if so inclined. The Pacific may be filled with action all year round, but the bay’s beachfront lodgings are as peaceful as they come, humbly allowing for seafood feasts and epic sea views any time of year. Originally settled on by the native Ohlone people before the Spanish missionaries of the late 1700s, Half Moon Bay has much interesting history, best uncovered at the park’s visitor centre before cycling the Coastside Trail towards Pillar Point Harbor. For extended hidden getaways, the bay’s north neighbour of Ross Cove Beach and the onwards city of Moss Beach are two more places to uncover, closely linked to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

Half Moon Bay | Photo: Colin Maynard

8. St. Augustine, Florida 

Our list of unexplored places in USA goes now to the Sunshine State for a cultured alternative to Miami Beach. Though often overlooked in favour of Disneyland and Florida’s countless amusements, St. Augustine is a worthy addition to your trip, as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America (founded in 1565). To explore history in action, visit the National Historic Landmark District which runs 144 blocks through charming cobbled streets and sees locals dress in period costume and horse-drawn carriages pass by. Though some parts of St. Augustine may verge on tacky, the town’s authenticity is cemented in its centuries-old architecture, countless monuments and atmospheric pubs serving up hearty fare.

An 80-kilometre drive from Jacksonville, this time-honoured Spanish settlement also celebrates its Native American heritage as well as Black American colonial history at Fort Mose, the first free Black town in the US. As well as a number of museums and art galleries across the Old Town and Winery areas, the city can keep visitors busy with its historical theme parks and the natural attractions of Guana Tolomata Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve all within reach of cosy B&Bs and lively beaches.

St. Augustine | Photo: Paul Brennan

9. Door County, Wisconsin

Painted through with lake vistas and picturesque 19th century villages, Door Country is a winner for outdoors lovers and history buffs alike looking for a few days upon the Lake Michigan peninsula northeast of Wisconsin. Anyone looking for cool places in US can do worse than to head to the Midwest, and Door County itself has every outdoor interest covered, with the 3776-acre Peninsula State Park offering endless biking trails, wildlife watching tours and a choice of four camping grounds. Upon the county’s rocky shores, quaint lighthouses keep watch over Lake Michigan’s placid waters while back towards land, within the wood-fronted hamlets of Egg Harbor, Fish Creek or Ephraim, the quiet life takes precedent. Spend your days moseying from café to art gallery before finding the energy for slightly more action-oriented pursuits around Green Bay, Jacksonport and Bailey’s Harbor, notably shopping, fusion dining and lakeside action.

Door County, WI | Photo: Dave Hoefler

Door County, WI | Photo: Jack O Rourke

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Mendenhall feels like a world all of its own, surrounded by lakes and dense forests out of which black and brown bears regularly emerge to catch salmon in the streams

10. Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

The last in our list of hidden vacation spots US lies on the extremities of the country’s West Coast, bordering British Colombia and providing a rather different mode of American living. This is Alaska, home of the majestic Mendenhall Glacier which runs 20 kilometres across with waterfalls channelling deep underground to form epic ice caves that glint like crystal. Sadly due to global warming, the ice has shrunk to one-third of its original size and exploring the caves comes with ever-increasing risk, but, by and large, human impact is less obvious in Alaska, thanks to the sparse population and the pristine landscapes on offer. Though not far from the state capital of Juneau, Mendenhall feels like a world all of its own, surrounded by lakes and dense forests out of which black and brown bears regularly emerge to catch salmon in the streams.

Get your bearings at the educational visitor centre, finding glaciology exhibits and telescopes for goat spotting, before navigating out to kayak on Mendenhall Lake or hike one or more of the area’s walking trails. Besides the popular Photo-Overlook Trail, other impressive walks include Nugget Falls Trail and Steep Creek Trail, the latter offering the most diverse views. For something a little more high-octane, attach your crampons and grab your pick axe for guided glacier trekking over ice over 1,000 years old.

Mendenhall Glacier | Photo: Sonny Mauricio

Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska | Photo: Patty Blue Hayes

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Grand Teton National Park | Photo: Barbara Sheldrake

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