It’s been almost a year since Steve and I set out from Vancouver across the United States, and more than seven since our rusty, faithful-but-not-very reliable junker of a van landed, flat tire and all, in my parents’ driveway in Philadelphia, and our road trip is still something I think about every single day. As I’ve said before—and as everyone I’ve told about it has said—it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one of the most amazing opportunities of my life.
I’ve shared tons of photos on here, facebook, and instagram, and I’ve talked about plenty of the incredible things we saw, but I want to get specific about a few of my favourite locations for visual inspiration. However, let’s take a look at the ones that are a bit further off the beaten path—you don’t need me to tell you to go take photos at the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge. Here are five locations where I had a ton of fun taking photos and that I would recommend for anyone looking to explore.
Cumberland Falls State Park
I love waterfalls. Big small, wide, narrow–whether it’s the rushing cascades of Niagara or little more than a ripple in the stream, they’re one of my favourite features in nature. Cumberland Falls is not the largest or most awe-inspiring waterfall you’ll ever see, even if it does call itself the Niagara of the South, but there’s something charming about it. Tucked away in a state park in a rural area of the state—the most notable town nearby is Corbin, known for being the birthplace of KFC—it’s a peaceful, relaxing place to hike and enjoy nature.
Cumberland Falls is also the home of an amazing natural phenomenon: the moonbow. Similar to when sunlight passes through water and create a rainbow, a moonbow occurs when moonlight passes through water and creates an arc of light. While a moonbow can happen anywhere, there are only two waterfalls in the world where the angle and location are just right for the moonbow’s occurrences to be tracked. One is Victoria Falls in location, and the other is Cumberland Falls. We were lucky enough to be there for a full moon, when the moonbow was most likely to be visible. Although the early summer’s long daylight hours meant that the moonbow was incredibly low and faint, it was still an amazing thing to experience.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Okay, so Bryce Canyon is hardly an unknown entity. It’s incredible rock structures, called hoodoos, and amazing red hues attract visitors from around the world. However, compared to nearby national parks it is still definitely an underrated destination. In 2016 Bryce Canyon NP received some 2.4 million visitors compared to Zion NP’s 4.3 million and Grand Canyon NP’s 6 million. While it clearly deserves more acclaim, its relative obscurity means that your visit will not be mobbed with other tourists when you’re hiking the myriad of trails through the canyon or looking out over the rim.
The hoodoos, which form through uneven erosion of soft and hard rock, stretch endlessly across the depth and breadth of the canyon, creating formations that make you feel like you’re in another world. There are also natural arches and bridges that enhance the fantastical feel of the park. If you’re not much of a hiker, or if you’re traveling with someone who is less mobile, Bryce Canyon is also a great choice thanks to its rim road free shuttle that drops you off at all the best vantage points.
Garden of the Gods
We didn’t spend much time in Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs because we were on the move to beat an oncoming snowstorm out of the state (at the end of April, I might add). However, I remembered visiting it when I was younger and I made sure that we had a quick stop. The park is small but full of fascinating rock formations including balanced rock. As the name implies, it’s a massive boulder perched atop a much smaller pedestal, creating an eye-catching natural sculpture.
The other best thing to see in Garden of the Gods is the view. Pikes Peak is the highest summit in the Rocky Mountains at 14,115 feet. The sight from its top inspired Katharine Lee Bates to write ‘America the Beautiful,’ but for a panorama of the mountain itself the Garden of the Gods is a great location. The visitors center in particular has a viewing platform on its upper level that lets you look out over the Garden of the Gods and to the powerful mountain in the distance, perfect for amazing landscape photography.
It’s nearly impossible to scroll through instagram without seeing a few photos of the Pacific Northwest, and for good reason. The craggy coastlines and foggy forests are some of my favourite places in America. However, I can’t understand why the opposite side of the country doesn’t seem to receive half as much attention when it’s equally as wonderful. If you like the rocks and shores of Olympic National Park or Cannon Beach, then the Maine coast is a must-visit. Plus, lobster rolls.
My favourite section of Maine is Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. This historic lighthouse at Pemaquid Neck is well worth the two-hour drive from Portland to see its classic design and isolated but beautiful location. You can even climb to the top and look out. Plus, on the way back you can stop for those aforementioned lobster rolls at Red’s Eats. I also love Ogunquit’s marginal way, a mile-long walk along the coast. I recommend going in the off season, when parking isn’t exorbitantly expensive and the beaches are quiet, enhancing the desolate beauty of the region.
Tyler State Park, Pennsylvania
You’ve probably never heard of Tyler State Park. That’s okay, I’m not actually suggesting you go there—although it is a lovely park if you happen to be in southeastern PA. The reason I’m putting it on this list is because I grew up there, and by the time we reached the end of our road trip it had been two years since I’d last seen it (and four since I’d last seen it in the summertime). You’d think that after seeing the Grand Canyon and the California coast and Arches National Park and so many of the other amazing things the USA has to offer that I’d be pretty underwhelmed by the dinky little park I grew up beside, but I was actually really happy to see it again.
Although nothing beats the thrill of traveling somewhere new and seeing something incredible, I think it’s nice to enjoy familiar things as well, especially if you take the time to explore it and see a new perspective or look at it with fresh eyes. Whether it’s the park behind your back yard, the street on which you grew up, or a location you vacationed as a child, there’s always something new to see. Plus, unless you grew up on the rim of Horseshoe Bend, your local favourite probably isn’t mobbed with people taking selfies. It can be your very own adventure.