In a world saturated with cookie-cutter travel packages and mass tourism, U.S. travelers are starting to seek authentic getaways.
Recent research reveals that a staggering 92% of Americans prefer experiences over traditional gifts during the holiday season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, under these circumstances, slow travel is gaining immense popularity. With the ecotourism market now at $25.6 billion and a quarter of adults willing to invest more in eco-friendly adventures, it seems that the ‘joy of missing out’ on crowded destinations has become the new travel mantra.
Are you seeking a way to avoid the crowds yourself? Join us as we explore five unique vacation ideas, steering away from the ordinary and embracing purposeful, sustainable adventures across the United States.
Table of contents
- Explore U.S. astrotourism destinations for a holiday written in the stars
- Let the beauty of waterfalls ignite your wanderlust
- Explore intriguing historical sites without leaving the U.S.
- Embark on a serene journey with meditation retreats across the U.S.
- Pick up birdwatching to spend time outdoors and reconnect with nature
1. Explore U.S. astrotourism destinations for a holiday written in the stars
Ever considered that the darkest corners of the United States could offer the most captivating entertainment? For stargazers, these are the most sought-after destinations in the country, where constellations shine the brightest. Planets, twinkling stars and meteor showers are just a glimpse of the cosmic wonders awaiting those who cast their eyes upward.
Yet, amid the light pollution produced by urban living and an increasing population, finding the ideal spot for stargazing has become more of a challenge. Fortunately, states are stepping up to preserve their night skies for future generations.
A quick exploration of the DarkSky International website reveals an impressive 133 dark sky destinations in the United States, each promising a mesmerizing night spectacle. Here are some of the top destinations for astrotourism, where the cosmos takes center stage.
Visit Flagstaff, AZ, the world’s first International Dark Sky City
Renowned as one of the world’s premier spots for astronomical observation, this city boasts an unwavering commitment to preserving its dark skies through rigorous light pollution control. Prepare to be awestruck by the cosmic wonders that unfold in Flagstaff’s night sky.
Not only is Flagstaff an attraction for stargazers, but it also played a pivotal role in space exploration, serving as the training ground for Apollo astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin. Here, you can immerse yourself in astronomical history at the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto made its debut in the 1930s. For an even closer encounter with the stars, visit the Giovale Open Deck Observatory, home to an array of advanced telescopes that offer closer views of the cosmos.
Observe the breathtaking celestial sights in Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park
Amazing celestial sights can be seen from the park’s Morefield Campground and Far View Lodge, where visitors are treated to one of the darkest skies in the country. Far View Lodge plays host to ranger-led evening programs. One such program delves into the fascinating ways in which the ancestral Pueblo people relied on the nighttime skies for planting, harvesting crops and tracking wildlife patterns.
Dark skies can also be admired from various overlooks within the park, each providing a unique perspective. From the Geologic and Mancos Valley overlooks to the Montezuma Valley overlooks, these vantage points offer an unparalleled view of the celestial canvas above.
Witness the stars in a desert atmosphere in Canyonlands National Park, UT
Cradling a striking terrain of steep canyons, mesas and buttes sculpted by the Colorado and Green rivers, Utah’s Canyonlands National Park stands as a testament to nature’s artistic prowess. The park unfolds across four unique districts—the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the two rivers—each sharing a desert ambiance with unique geological features.
Beyond its worldly landscapes, Canyonlands takes pride in possessing one of America’s darkest skies, earning the prestigious title of a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park. Under this pitch-black sky, a wealth of stars unfurls above, visible to the naked eye.
Essential gear for stargazers
First and foremost, a high-quality telescope is essential for conducting detailed observations of planets, stars and other celestial wonders. Additionally, portable binoculars can enhance wide-field viewing, providing enthusiasts with a broader perspective of the night sky.
Preserving night vision is essential, and a red LED flashlight is recommended for this purpose. Additionally, sky maps, available in both print and digital formats, can be incredibly handy for locating specific celestial objects. As stargazing can last for hours, ensuring comfort during extended sessions is important, so make sure to bring a reclining chair or blanket. As temperatures may drop during the night, wearing layers of warm clothing is also a good idea.
For documenting observations, enthusiasts can use a notebook and pen to capture details such as dates, times and unique phenomena witnessed. Technology comes into play with apps or software like Stellarium and SkyView, which assist in identifying stars and planets.
Finally, for those with a penchant for astrophotography, a camera and stable tripod become indispensable tools for capturing the enchanting magic of the night sky.
2. Let the beauty of waterfalls ignite your wanderlust
From the tall and dramatic to the short and broad, waterfalls are fascinating for several reasons. These vertical rivers stand as testaments to nature’s beauty, reminding us that a breathtaking show awaits those who have the spirit of adventure.
Across the country, myriad waterfalls await discovery, nestled in natural parks, mountain ranges or discreetly hidden from well-trodden paths, bridges and roadways. Below, you will find three of the most magnificent waterfalls in the United States:
Multnomah Falls, OR
Nestled in the heart of Oregon, this slender, two-drop cascade stands as the state’s loftiest waterfall and a premier attraction. A picturesque viewing bridge spans the middle, offering a perfect viewing point to take in the breathtaking scenery. Soaring to an impressive height of 620 feet, this natural wonder draws visitors of all ages and preferences. Its allure lies in its accessibility, featuring wheelchair-friendly viewing platforms and rugged hiking trails that ascend to the summit.
Fueled by the continuous flow of rainwater and snowmelt, the falls maintain their beauty year-round. The cascade experiences its highest volume during the winter and spring, occasionally showcasing a partially frozen spectacle in the depths of winter. Situated in the Columbia River Gorge, Multnomah Falls is not only a natural wonder but also houses a nationally registered historic lodge with public facilities. This makes it an ideal rest stop for those embarking on the rewarding 700-foot hike to the top. Easily accessible, this enchanting destination is a mere 30-minute drive east of Portland.
Havasu Falls, AZ
A coveted destination for waterfall enthusiasts in Arizona, the breathtaking Havasu Falls graces the Grand Canyon within the territory of the Havasupai Tribe. If you plan to visit this natural wonder, make sure to obtain a permit from the tribe and secure accommodations at either the campground or lodge in Supai Village. Permit availability typically opens on February 1 for the upcoming travel season, spanning from February to November. From June to August the falls access is closed due to flooding and extreme heat.
Embarking on an eight-mile descent from the canyon’s edge at Hualapai Hilltop to Supai Village, where the lodge is situated, marks the initial leg of the journey. Another two miles separate the campground and the enchanting Havasu Falls. Beyond setting up camp, explorations await, including the opportunity to discover nearby wonders like Beaver Falls.
Undoubtedly challenging, the hike promises the rewarding chance to swim in the cool, turquoise pool beneath the Havasu Falls, making the trek well worth the effort.
Snoqualmie Falls, WA
A brief drive from Seattle unveils a breathtaking natural waterfall, familiar to fans of Twin Peaks. En route, you’ll be treated to the picturesque scenery of charming towns and verdant forests, culminating in an easy trail leading to a viewing platform showcasing the Snoqualmie Falls. Plummeting nearly 50 stories, the water creates a memorable visual and auditory experience.
Enjoy a home-packed meal at the outdoor picnic tables or indulge in a scenic dinner at the nearby Salish Lodge & Spa. For those seeking an extended adventure, don’t forget your hiking shoes. Follow the steep path to the lower observation area, where yet another incredible view of the falls awaits.
How to equip yourself for cascade exploration
Embarking on a hiking adventure to explore cascades demands careful preparation and the right gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. First and foremost, invest in a sturdy and comfortable pair of hiking boots with proper ankle support to navigate varied terrains. A durable backpack is a must for carrying essentials like water, snacks, a first-aid kit and additional layers of clothing. Opt for moisture-wicking and quick-drying clothing to stay comfortable during the trek.
Don’t forget to pack a reliable water bottle and a water purification system if you’re venturing into remote areas. A hat, sunglasses and sunscreen provide protection against the sun’s rays. Lastly, a quality pair of binoculars adds to your exploration, allowing you to appreciate the details of the cascades and the surrounding natural beauty.
3. Explore intriguing historical sites without leaving the U.S.
If you have a passion for history, there’s no need to venture overseas to unravel captivating tales. The United States offers a wealth of enthralling historical sites that have significantly shaped the nation’s narrative. These sites stand as living testaments to pivotal moments in American history, inviting you on a journey through time within the borders of your own country.
Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States, is not merely a federal district but a living repository of invaluable American history. Its wide boulevards, with marbled buildings and iconic monuments, create a distinctive atmosphere that beckons history aficionados. This city, drawing around 20 million visitors annually, stands as an ideal destination for those eager to immerse themselves in the nation’s past.
Here, you can learn more about American democracy with tours of iconic landmarks such as the White House, the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court. The towering Washington Monument and the expansive National Mall stand as undeniable highlights of any trip to this historical haven.
Don’t miss the chance to pay homage to two of the nation’s greatest presidents at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials or reflect at the solemn Arlington National Cemetery.
For a deeper dive into American history, explore the Smithsonian museums, each a treasure trove of artifacts and knowledge. As a true history enthusiast, a visit to the National Archives Building is a must to witness the preservation of the original Declaration of Independence.
Founded by English colonists in 1632, Williamsburg served as the capital of the Virginia Colony until 1780 and played a pivotal role in shaping events that led to the American Revolution. Today, it stands as a magnetic draw for history enthusiasts, particularly within the historic district, famously known as Colonial Williamsburg.
Situated within the Historic Triangle alongside Yorktown and Jamestown, this city welcomes millions of visitors annually. Colonial Williamsburg, restored to its 18th-century glory, serves as a captivating time machine, transporting you back to the founding days of America. Wander through several hundred restored and reconstructed buildings from the 1700s, stroll down accurate street recreations and encounter costumed historical interpreters at every turn.
Beyond the visual allure, Colonial Williamsburg offers an immersive experience with authentic musical performances and cottage industry demonstrations, allowing visitors to step into the shoes of those who lived centuries ago. This living museum stands as an extraordinary testament to daily life in America during its formative years, making it an absolute must-visit destination for those curious about the past.
Established in 1625, Boston is ranked among the oldest European settlements in the country. With a rich portfolio of historic firsts, this city has played a pivotal role in shaping the narrative of the United States. Home to the first subway system, the inaugural public school and library and even the pioneering public park, Boston holds a unique position in American history.
At the heart of significant events during the American Revolution, Boston witnessed crucial moments such as the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill, all leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s foundation. For history-loving tourists, a visit to “Beantown” is akin to stepping into a historical heaven.
Must-visit sites include the iconic Faneuil Hall, the historic Paul Revere House and the charming neighborhood of Beacon Hill. However, even a stroll through downtown and Boston’s residential areas promises a continuous stream of historical discoveries.
Ensure you’re equipped with comfortable walking shoes to navigate cobblestone streets and historic pathways. A compact and versatile backpack will come in handy for carrying essentials like a reusable water bottle, a guidebook and a camera to capture architectural marvels. In addition, consider bringing a portable phone charger to stay connected and well informed during your explorations.
With these essentials in tow, you’ll be well prepared to unravel the rich tapestry of history woven into these iconic American cities.
4. Embark on a serene getaway with meditation retreats across the U.S.
Embarking on a journey to find tranquility and escape the stresses of daily life doesn’t necessarily require a passport or a long-haul flight. You don’t have to scale the heights of a mountaintop monastery in Thailand or seek solace in an ashram in India to discover the transformative power of meditation. Right within the borders of the United States, a long list of meditation and Zen centers awaits, offering a sanctuary for those seeking inner peace and mindfulness.
Here are some of the most popular meditation spots in the country:
Esalen Institute, CA
The Esalen Institute has stood as the West Coast mecca for enthusiasts of yoga, meditation, organic cuisine and spiritual exploration since its inception in the early 1960s. With panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean, this resort is conveniently located just three hours from San Francisco and a scenic five-hour drive from Los Angeles.
While Esalen’s retreats often delve into specific meditation practices, such as Buddhist and tantric approaches, the institute offers much more. Throughout the year, it hosts workshops spanning a diverse spectrum of topics—from dance, yoga and leadership to permaculture and science. Accommodation choices cater to varied preferences, offering premium rooms with ocean views, bunk beds or the option to roll out a sleeping bag in one of the common areas.
Drala Mountain Center, CO
Located two hours outside of Denver amid the majestic Rocky Mountains, the Drala Mountain Center is enveloped by the serene embrace of pine and aspen forests. Established in 1971 by a Tibetan meditation master, the center is both a physical sanctuary and the birthplace of a meditation practice that goes beyond religious boundaries, inviting individuals from all faiths and backgrounds to join the community.
Hosting over 100 programs annually, the Drala Mountain Center offers a diverse array of experiences. Choose from introductory sessions to meditation and immersive explorations of various practices to multidisciplinary programs that weave in Indigenous wisdom traditions, body awareness practices and arts.
Insight Meditation Society, MA
Set in the peaceful central Massachusetts countryside about 90 minutes from Boston, the Insight Meditation Society teaches awareness and compassion through meditation. The wooded campus consists of two facilities—the Retreat Center, which offers more than 30 courses that generally last seven to nine days, and the Forest Refuge, which welcomes experienced meditators on longer retreats.
Guests spend their days on these silent courses, alternating sitting and walking meditations, enjoying vegetarian meals and sleeping in simple single rooms.
What to bring to a meditation retreat
As you prepare for a soul-nurturing experience, consider packing essentials that enhance your mindfulness practice. A comfortable meditation cushion or mat will provide the perfect perch for moments of reflection. Pack cozy layers for varied temperatures, ensuring you stay warm during early morning sessions or cool during outdoor meditations. A journal and pen are invaluable for capturing insights that may arise.
Don’t forget to include any meditation accessories you find personally meaningful, whether it’s a mala, incense or a favorite meditation app. With these essentials, you’ll be well prepared to fully enjoy your meditation retreat.
5. Pick up birdwatching to spend time outdoors and reconnect with nature
Whether you’re an experienced birder or new to the hobby, birdwatching is a rewarding and fulfilling experience you can enjoy anytime. You just need to slow down, be quiet, and look around to start observing the wonderful world of birds present all around you.
If observing feathered friends and immersing yourself in the outdoors sounds like a delightful pastime, you’ll be pleased to know that birding spots abound across the United States.
This hobby not only provides opportunities to make new friends but also encourages spending more time in nature, enhancing focus and concentration skills. As a bonus, being in natural outdoor spaces contributes positively to overall well-being and mental health.
Here are some prime U.S. locations for birding:
The Sky Islands Region in southeastern Arizona becomes an avian haven during fall migration. Named for elevated mountains amid desert lowlands, this region has diverse habitats, drawing various bird species, including warblers and tanagers, on their journey to winter retreats. Lush canyons, grasslands and forests provide an ideal setting for birdwatching against the backdrop of breathtaking landscapes. With a mild climate and stunning views, the Sky Islands Region beckons bird enthusiasts, desert explorers and mountain hikers alike.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can embark on a birding adventure in Izembek Lagoon, in the stunning landscape of southwestern Alaska. During fall migration, this lagoon becomes a vital pitstop for numerous bird species, including sandpipers, ducks and geese, en route to their winter havens. The expansive wetlands and tundra in the area create a distinctive habitat, establishing it as a prime destination for bird enthusiasts.
Venture further north in Alaska for an encounter with unique avian residents. Explore the wetlands near Juneau’s airport, where a one-mile trail unveils the diverse birdlife calling this northernmost state home from spring to summer. Keep your senses sharp for the rufous hummingbird, and watch out for the pine siskin, alder flycatcher, arctic tern and glaucous-winged gull.
A birding paradise awaits at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida. This haven in the Western Everglades offers a front-row seat to a spectacle of diverse bird species, from the majestic wood stork and osprey to the vibrant hummingbirds and painted buntings, as they journey to winter retreats. Also nestled within the unique landscape of the Florida Everglades is a national park that stands out as one of the best birdwatching destinations in the country.
Also nicknamed the “River of Grass,” the Everglades promises encounters with wading and woodland birds like the wood stork, black-whiskered vireo, snail kite and short-tailed hawk.
Gear you will need to improve your birdwatching experience
Embarking on birdwatching? A crucial upgrade is a quality pair of binoculars, ranging from $100 to $2,000 depending on your budget and preferences. Augment your birding experience with guides and apps to learn about bird species and connect with fellow enthusiasts. These tools not only enhance your knowledge but also help identify the birds you encounter. To keep your hobby local, set up feeders in your backyard to attract and observe nearby birds.
Safely store your travel gear in a storage unit
Picture the freedom of seizing spontaneous adventures, whether it’s immersing yourself in stargazing beneath the night sky, exploring captivating waterfalls, strolling through historical sites or indulging in the tranquility of meditation retreats.
Having access to a self storage facility means you can keep your travel gear safe without sacrificing your hobbies or making your home cluttered. You can store your telescope, binoculars, and comfy blankets for stargazing nights, while also having your hiking boots, rain gear, and a sturdy backpack ready for your waterfall adventures.
For historical city visits, neatly organize your travel guides, comfortable walking shoes and a camera to capture iconic moments. Conceal your cushions, yoga mat and calming accessories for meditation retreats.
Lastly, store binoculars, bird guides and outdoor wear for birdwatching excursions. A self storage facility ensures that, regardless of your wanderlust’s direction, your gear stands ready to transform each journey into a memorable adventure.
Are you sold on any of these ideas? May your journey be filled with joy and discovery, no matter where life’s adventures take you!