After what felt like a decade of stay-at-home orders and travel advisories (and one cold, protracted winter), there is finally light at the end of this exasperating tunnel. Not to jinx things before we cross the finish line, but: Optimism is in the air.
With that renewed sense of optimism comes the familiar feeling of wanderlust. It’s time to shake off the cobwebs, take the travel clothes out of storage and see the wide world again. Are we saying it’s time to charter a flight across the globe? Due to changes with travel, maybe not quite yet. But it will be a banner summer for road trips, as we break out of our long hibernation to explore the riches at our North American doorstep.
There’s one catch in all this. It’s possible that everyone will have the same idea. It’s possible that tourists will be clambering over one another in the coming months to see the fall foliage in Central Park, ride the breezy trams in San Francisco, sample the poutine in Montreal and hit the beaches at Cancún.
For many of us, this type of competitive travel (vying with throngs of other travellers at a prized location) is more stress-inducing than fun. It cheapens the travel experience, makes us feel like we’re simply ticking off boxes on a list of “places we’ve seen.” To avoid this – and to help you avoid it too – we have compiled the following list.
In this post, you’ll find 14 of our favourite off-the-beaten-path locales in North America. We have included a mix of places: quirky small towns, majestic national parks, culturally significant regions, fishing villages, artsy enclaves and easy-to-access islands. Hopefully, you can find something nearby where you live here.
Get the oil in your car checked, unfold that analog map and grab some travel clothing made from merino wool – we’re mapping the road less travelled.
The US is massive, and densely packed with pockets of interest. Creating an exhaustive list of the charming towns and natural wonders would take a full-sized book (even then, the Lonely Planets and Rough Guides of the world only scratch the surface). Therefore, our task here is less about being completist, and more about being curatorial.
Among the many highlights the US has to offer, here are six of our top choices.
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Tucked away in Humboldt County, a half-hour south of Eureka, this Northern California town has a population of just over 1,300 people. At one time, the city was flush with milk money – in the late 1800s, it was a prosperous town settled by German and Danish dairymen.
That prosperity is on display still. The main street is lined with well-preserved Victorian storefronts called Butterfat Palaces (because they were paid for by dairy riches). The place looks unreal, like an elaborate movie set, and charming stores still inhabit the old Victorian buildings.
A short drive from Ferndale, you’ll find California’s Lost Coast, an undeveloped stretch of gorgeous NorCal coastline.
If you’ve seen the movies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or City Slickers, you’ve seen Durango. It’s often used as a Wild West backdrop for Hollywood because, well, it looks ripped from the Wild West. Its rugged mesas and mountains, valleys and rivers evoke a past America traversed by lone horsemen and guns for hire.
But you won’t just find a bygone era there. Durango has fantastic ski hills, equestrian centres for horseback riding, a still-operating heritage railroad, numerous hiking trails and – depending on the time of year – several festivals.
This mountain town in Northeastern Georgia flanks Unicoi State Park roughly an hour and a half north of Atlanta. The Georgia tourism board dubs Helen “Little Bavaria,” and it’s easy to see why. The town is a near-perfect recreation of a Bavarian Alpine village, featuring colourful wood structures, lush promenades, German taverns and beer gardens.
When you can’t board a plane to Munich, Helen might be the next best thing. As a bonus, nearby Unicoi is a natural attraction in itself: it has beaches, trails, campgrounds, ziplining and archery. Summers in Georgia are infamously sweltering, so be sure to pack a pair of our new merino wool shorts to stay cool.
West of the Pecos River, in the high desert of Texas, lies a total anomaly. Marfa Texas is a city of contradictions (and “city” is being generous – it has a permanent population of under 2,000 people). In some ways, it’s a quintessential small Texas city, coalescing around a classic town square and domed courthouse.
But it’s also a haven for experimental artists, and boasts minimalist sculptures, contemporary installations and chic modern art galleries. It hosts several artists’ residencies for visual artists, writers and musicians. And it is home to the Marfa Ghost Lights – mysterious orbs of light on Highway 90 that, depending on who you ask, might be mirages, reflected headlights from a nearby highway, or UFOs.
As we mentioned up top, we aren’t just counting down off-the-beaten-path towns. We’re also looking at regions underrepresented on the tourist circuit. In that category, we think Acadiana qualifies. It’s not like no one goes to Acadiana; it’s just that not enough people go there.
Acadiana is the French Louisiana region from which many local Acadians (now often called Cajuns and Creoles) descend. The region is rich in history and culture. Visit larger popular centres like Lafayette or Terrebonne Parish, or check out even more remote towns like Plaquemine, Breaux Bridge or Rayne (the so-called “Frog Capital of the World”).
If you’re looking for a tucked-away town you can reach from New York City, you can do a lot worse than Beacon. On the bank of the Hudson River across from Washington Heights, Beacon was once known for its industrial decay and disrepair. Since, the community has become a beacon for artists, leading to a commercial and cultural rebirth.
In the town itself, peruse art galleries, vintage markets and glass-blowing studios. Then head to nearby Hudson Highlands for hikes along the Breakneck Trail (which sounds scarier than it is).
Canada handily earns its international reputation as a place for dramatic, diverse natural settings. But all of that attention tends to focus on a handful of places: Whistler, Banff, Algonquin, and maybe Mont-Tremblant and the Cape Breton Highlands too.
Canada is so much more. Not only does it boast copious national parks and scenic areas, but it's also home to some genuinely idiosyncratic cities and towns. Here are six of the finest spots just left of the tourist trail.
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In truth, we could have picked any of the Gulf Islands: Galiano, Pender, Saturna, etc. They all share a laid-back, salt-of-the-earth and, for lack of a better word, “hippy” vibe.
But we’re going with Gabriola. It isn’t the most populous nor most visited of the Gulf Islands (that honour goes to Saltspring), but it’s certainly one of the coolest. Right off the coast of Nanaimo, Gabriola is easy to reach, even if you’re coming from Vancouver. Its summer schedule is packed with art festivals, music festivals, food festivals… a lot of festivals. When you tire of the festivals, simply sit back on the beach and revel in the Strait of Georgia.
Banff gets the lion’s share of tourists, but if you head just three hours north, you find Banff's lesser-known sibling: Jasper.
Jasper is essentially everything Banff is, but with a fraction of the out-of-towners. It’s a picturesque alpine town surrounded by amazing ski hills. It’s also surrounded by a namesake national park. And in whatever direction you look, you see something wildly beautiful. Granted, it isn’t as far off the beaten path as some on this list, but it’s still underrepresented on Canadian road trips.
Because of the position among the Northern Rockies, it isn’t uncommon for Jasper’s nighttime temperatures to drop below freezing in the summer. Our advice: pack a warm 100% merino wool sweater and jacket, even in July.
This entry will appeal to some and absolutely repel others. It’s a gamble you have to take when compiling secluded destinations.
Narcisse Snake Dens, part of the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area, is exactly as it sounds. In the winter, the dens are home to tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes. In spring, they emerge from their dens in droves – tangles of them, as far as the eye can see. From Winnipeg, the Narcisse Snake Dens are just an hour and a half drive (though you should call ahead to confirm they are open).
If you let the snakes crawl on you (as many visitors do), you may want to revisit our guide on how to wash merino wool!
Ask a Torontonian where cottage country is, and they'll point you to Muskoka. Yes, Muskoka is beautiful, but it’s also jam-packed with weekenders.
However, if you drive west rather than north, you’ll hit the southern arm of Lake Huron. Here, you will find a collection of quaint lakeside towns with cottages for rent. Among the towns, we're singling out Kincardine, a Bruce County town with outstanding restaurants, old-fashioned pubs, an 1800s lighthouse and several great beaches. If you squint during the summer, you could mistake Lake Huron for the Caribbean – that’s how emerald blue it is.
Like Acadiana above, Bas-Saint-Laurent is a region, not a single spot. On the Saint Lawrence River’s south shore, nestled among the Appalachian Mountains, the area is rich with wildlife. The culture, too, is pure backcountry Quebec. You’ll find sugar shacks, artisan cheese and charcuterie makers, log cabin lodgings, fishing spots, and moose-watching outlooks.
Bas-Saint-Laurent isn't off the beaten path for resident Quebecers, many of whom like to spend summer stretches there. But it’s relatively unknown to the rest of Canada. Before you go, be sure to brush up on that grade-school French or download a good translating app.
As early as the 1700s, Irish fishers started to outnumber the British in Witless Bay. That proud Irish heritage – now a proud Newfoundland identity – is still on full display.
You can find rocky Atlantic coastline anywhere in Newfoundland; what makes Witless Bay so special is its unique Ecological Reserve. Home to colourful Atlantic Puffin and massive humpback whales, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is a prime spot for scoping unusual wildlife.
If you’re in the “Maritime bubble,” or the bubble bursts sometime this summer, add Witless Bay to your St. John’s trip. To keep your body dry and feet warm, check out Unbound Merino’s collection of merino wool ankle socks and merino wool shirts for travellers.
If you're lucky enough to live in Mexico or lucky enough that you can drive down safely, you’re all set for the summer. There are literally thousands of destinations, from oceanside fishing villages to inland colonial towns, from which to choose.
Here, we’re highlighting just two of many.
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Nearby Puerto Vallarta sees scores of international tourists piling in daily. Puerto Vallarta is still gorgeous, but, depending on who you ask, it doesn’t really feel like Mexico anymore; blocks of American-owned hotel chains catering to visitors have changed the fundamental makeup of the city.
No problem. An hour drive north of PV, in the neighbouring Nayarit state, you will find San Francisco (sometimes called San Pancho). Once a quaint fishing village, San Francisco is now a vibrant town where the ratio of tourists and locals feels a little more balanced (and many of the tourists are, themselves, Mexican).
To blend in with the relaxed locals, pick up our new merino wool polo – it’s perfect for keeping you cool (in more ways than one) during a day at the beach.
In the state of Querétaro, right in the heart of the country, you’ll find Bernal, a colourful small town situated next to one of the world’s tallest natural monoliths.
For its spectacular views of the Peña de Bernal monolith, and the vibrant buildings lining Independencia Street, the Mexico Tourism Board named Bernal a Pueblo Mágico, or “magical town.” If you’re in Mexico City, the drive is only three hours.
These are just 14 of the presumably thousands of under-the-radar attractions in North America. If you have recommendations (and are willing to share the secret with others), comment below to let us know. We’re entering another “Summer of the Road Trip” – what will your first destination be?