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The 9 Best-Kept Travel Gems America has to Offer

Tourist attractions are popular for good reason, but be sure to take time on your travels to seek out hidden local gems like these.

prairievia floridastateparks.org

Florida

You’ve heard about Disney World, but you should really see Paynes Prairie Preserve. That’s 22,000 acres overrun with alligators, bison, horses, and more than 270 species of birds. Set out on one of nine trails for hiking, horseback riding, and biking, or visit the 50-foot observation tower for a breathtaking panoramic view of the prairie. Don’t miss these gorgeous photos of America’s last wild places.

mcdonald observatoryvia mcdonaldobservatory.org

Texas

You’ve heard about the Alamo, but you should really see McDonald Observatory. Do some serious stargazing atop a 7,000-foot-tall mountain near Fort Davis. More than 150 miles from the nearest major city, the secluded observatory features daytime tours, live solar monitoring events, and evening “star parties.” These nighttime gatherings give visitors a chance to use the observatory’s larger telescopes for an even closer look at stars. Check the observatory schedule for special viewing nights, when you can enjoy a moonlit dinner, talk to a professional astronomer, and see the night sky through the observatory’s biggest telescope.

wilson whirligig parkvia wilsonwhirligigpark.org

North Carolina

You’ve heard about the Biltmore mansion, but you should really see Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs. See supersize spinning pinwheels, also called whirligigs, at Windmill Farm, an installation that features 30 revolving works of art created by former machinist Vollis Simpson. These are the best fairs and festivals in every state.

santa rosa blue holevia santarosabluehole.org

New Mexico

You’ve heard about the Aztec ruins, but you should really see Blue Hole. Visit the crystal-clear artesian spring and scuba-diving site located on old Route 66. The swimming spot offers a year-round water temperature of 64°F and visibility up to 80 feet in optimal conditions, and it houses various fish species within its colorful limestone walls.

bishop castlevia bishopcastle.com

Colorado

You’ve heard about the Rocky Mountains, but you should really see Bishop Castle. Explore this 160-foot-tall Gothic castle nestled in the foothills of the San Isabel National Forest and feel as if you’ve stepped onto a set for Lord of the Rings. The medieval-looking masterpiece features intricate wrought-iron bridges, colorful stained glass windows, and a metallic dragon’s head that shoots fire from its maw and puffs smoke from its nostrils. Check out the towering platforms high in the rafters, and wind through the maze’s stone staircases. For nearly 40 years, Jim Bishop has gathered and set thousands of stones to create his castle, and he’s not finished yet. These are the 30 places in America you need to take your kids before they fly the coop.

AZ state parks cavevia azstateparks.com

Arizona

You’ve heard about the Grand Canyon, but you should really see Kartchner Caverns State Park. Walk through this amazing underworld, and marvel at its glittery quartz formations. The caves are known for their prehistoric past, thanks to an impressive 80,000-year-old Shasta ground sloth fossil.

Vintage furniture and other staff at entry to shop at Jaffa flea market district in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel.InnaFelker/Shutterstock

Maine

You’ve heard about Freeport Mall, but you should really see Vintage Bargain Barns. Big barns dotting the scenic coast don’t house just pigs anymore. Antique flea markets disguised as farmhouses offer vintage finds at great prices and are located off the main road that runs from Bar Harbor to Portland. For a list of barn shops, visit the Maine Antique Dealers website. These veteran antiquers reveal 9 secrets to scoring the best deals.

heidelbergvia heidelberg.org

Michigan

You’ve heard about the Penobscot Building, but you should really see The Heidelberg Project. Stop by the guerrilla-art installations in Detroit, where abandoned houses are covered in polka dots or lotto numbers or are completely decked out with stuffed animals.

hudson river parkvia hudsonriverpark.org

New York

You’ve heard about the Empire State Building, but you should really see Hudson River Park. To take a bite out of the Big Apple, visit the ports, piers, and parks along the Hudson River. Step onto World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid, and stick around for a sunset-lit outdoor movie next to the water. Once you hit these attractions, you’ll want to check off these bucket list items for each of the 50 states.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest