The 11 Best Underrated Hiking Destinations in the USA
Hiking in the United States means trekking across a multitude of varying landscapes. From the red clay hills of Sedona to the lush mossy forests in Oregon – you’ve probably seen daydream-worthy places all over Instagram! What you might not know? There are a ton of underrated hiking destinations that aren’t near as crowded & closer than you might think!
Instead of driving to the far-flung east or west coasts, think of a short drive through the midwest and the South? From the lush forests of the Ozarks to spectacular views at Red River Gorge, you’ll find there are so many gorgeous places. Many you might not have known existed!
The best part about visiting many of these underrated national parks and state parks? They are ridiculously cheap vacations in the US. You can plan for your best family budget vacations by hitting the road and camping out! (And if you’re not the camping type – take a look at our post on the 14 Prettiest Southern Hotels!) Cue the Pochahontas ‘Colors of The Wind’ song. We’ll have the wind sweeping through your hair somewhere epic in no time!
#1 The Wild Hills of Oklahoma
Oklahoma is truly one of the most underrated vacation spots for traveling in the US. It’s not a typical road trip pass through and most people just know it for the BBQ. (Which is really good btw!) As a crossover between the Midwest and the South, Oklahoma is home to gently rolling hills, tumbling waterfalls, and far-reaching mountain views!
- Broken Bow: For a spectacular display of colorful wildflowers, the novice hiker can hike the four-mile Lakeview Lodge Trail at Broken Bow. As you hike through the shady pines, prepare to be mesmerized by the sparkling quartz that litters the ground all the way to Broken Bow Lake.
- Turner Falls Park: Home to castle ruins, the stunning Turner falls, and a few caves! If you’re looking for a perfect summer hike in Oklahoma or the prettiest hike in Oklahoma – this is the park for you! The main 3.5-mile loop will take you to the best parts of the park. This stop is also only 5 minutes from Interstate-35 which runs from San Antonio, Texas, through Oklahoma City, up to Minneapolis, Minnesota. As far as road trip stops go – it’s a perfect stretch-your-legs stop!
- Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: Try the Elk Mountain Summit Trail for panoramic views of the Wichita Mountains and Charon Garden Wilderness! At 2,770-feet – this is a serious elevation change for your more seasoned hiker.
#2 Down South in Missouri
After sampling the BBQ and hikes in Oklahoma, head sightly northeast for more peacefully underrated hiking destinations in Missouri. When most people think of Missouri – they think of the iconic Gateway Arch in St.Louis. (I (Shelbs) think of Jennifer Hudson as Louise from St.Louis from the Sex and The City movie? Love her!) Missouri is a state that people typically pass through, but interestingly enough – it’s also an awesome destination for hikers in the USA.
From the majestic views in the St. Francois Mountain Range, and the piney forests of the Mark Twain National Forest, hikers can enjoy Missouri all throughout the year. Our Missouri bucket list hikes include:
- Mina Sauk Falls Trail – In the Bell Mountain Wilderness, Taum Sauk Mountain is the tallest point in Missouri and can be reached by this trail! The other awesome part about Mina Sauk Falls Trail is the waterfall. At 132-feet, Mina Sauk Falls is the tallest waterfall in Missouri!
- Pickle Springs Natural Area – If you’re in the mood to go waterfall chasing after Mina Sauk Falls, try Pickle Springs. With tumbling streams and gorgeous wildflowers all through the spring, it’s hard to beat! (Next door is a harder trail but equally beautiful if you have time after Pickle Springs! Whispering Pines Trail takes you through 6.3 miles of the Mark Twain National Forest!)
- River Scenic Loop at Castlewood State Park – Overlooking the Meramec River, this 3.1-mile trail would be particularly stunning in the fall! Considering Missouri is a mountainous and rainy state, it’s one of the best places to catch fall colors.
Fall is our favorite time to hike, and every year in October we plan a trip and getaway to a little cabin. Sometime in the next few years, we’re planning on Missouri for our anniversary!!
#3 Underneath the Texas Sky
More than cowboys and rolling tumbleweeds, Texas is one of our favorite underrated USA hiking destinations!
Starting with Big Bend, this underrated national park is a vast desert that comes alive every spring. Luring hikers looking for true isolation – you’ll experience vibrant wildflowers, stunning painted sunset skies, crystal clear stargazing, and hundreds of migratory bird species. It’s one of the quietest places left in the USA.
If you’re looking for a way to cool off after hiking through the desert – the Rio Grande Wild Scenic River in Texas is a great way to keep adventuring! 196 miles of the might Rio Grande River snake through some of the most remote regions of the Texas wilderness.
THE BEST TIME TO GO HIKING IN TEXAS
Temperatures can rise to dangerous levels in the summer, and with the heat index, hikers are advised to stay off the trails in the afternoons. If we were planning a hiking trip in the summer – we would opt to hike in the mornings and then float the Santa Elena Canyon near Big Bend National Park in the afternoon! Typically, Texas stays so warm – spring and fall will be the best times to go hiking.
#4 The Highly underrated Trails of Arkansas
Known for its abundant Ozark National Forests, Arkansas is where the Midwest meets the South. Sitting on the Mississippi River – there are many streams and rivers throughout the mountains here. What we love about this underrated state is that this kind of terrain is prime waterfall territory!
If you’re like us and you enjoy hiking for the destination, there are over 20 epic waterfalls within a short drive of each other in Northern Arkansas!
After hiking through the mountains and experiencing epic views like a Hawksbill point, your muscles may be pretty sore? Another incredible way to enjoy the wilds of Arkansas is by taking a dip in the hot springs.
Arkansas is home to Hot Springs National Park. With 48 natural hot springs in the vicinity, you can enjoy a therapeutic bath at Buckstaff Baths or Quapaw Bathhouse! (Waters are usually too hot for humans to safely enjoy directly at the source. The historic bathhouses provide a great way to enjoy these healing sulfurous waters.)
#5 North Georgia mountains
In the north Georgia Mountains, you’ll find a perfect romantic mountain weekend getaway in wine country. (Wine country in Georgia surprised us too!) In the Spring of 2021 – we took a long 5 day weekend. After hiking countless waterfalls, epic sunrises, and spectacular front porch sunsets, we discovered just how beautiful this region of the Blue Ridge Mountains is.
Some of our favorite hikes of the region are:
- Raven Cliffs Falls Trail – Located in the Raven Cliffs Wilderness, this trail is best on a weekday to avoid the crowds. This stunning hike through groves of rhododendrons actually takes you past 5 different waterfalls before the end! What’s also great about this trail is that there are plenty of places to camp along the way. Surprisingly – the end of this trail is not the prettiest of the waterfalls, it’s just the endpoint.
- Amicalola State Park: A great option for families with varying levels of hiker capabilities. Amicalola Falls is the biggest waterfall in Georgia at 734 feet! If you’re a serious hiker, take the Mount Laurel 10+ mile loop to the very top of the falls for the best views.
- Helton Creek Falls – well worth the out of the way drive, don’t be worried when you’re traveling on a gravel road for two miles. Once you see the signs, Helton Creek Falls is only a short 10-minute walk with around 100 stairs to the bottom. (These aren’t hard stairs to climb either!) The viewing platform is about 0.3 miles down and well-worth taking a moment to soak in the incredible views!!
#6 Kentucky’s Lush Forests
Few know the beauty of Kentucky’s mountainous and lush wilderness. As Kentuckians ourselves, we have to tell you it’s really a shame! With five seriously underrated national parks and more lakes and rivers than we can count, Kentucky is a hiker’s paradise. What makes it one of the most enjoyable hiking destinations in the USA is how few people really know about it. It’s not necessarily an Instagram bombed place so the trails are relatively uncrowded.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Kentucky’s Red River Gorge is the #2 rock climbing destination in the US? There are even places around the Gorge to learn the art of rock climbing and plenty of amazing campsites to take full advantage of your time in the forest.
Starting with Daniel Boone National Forest, hiking in Red River Gorge is a must-do in the spring. The Mountain Laurel and Rhododendrons bloom around April every year. This vibrant bloom along with heavy rains produces stunning displays at hundreds of waterfalls around the state! Find our post here for 12 awesome Kentucky summer hikes including some of our favorite Kentucky waterfalls!
After you’re done exploring the epic views at Red River Gorge – don’t forget to head south and explore Big South Fork. With miles of pristine trails, this area is where the true hiker finds their groove. You’ll find arches, waterfalls, and epic lookouts all around his region. (We highly recommend taking at least 2 days here!)
#7 Ohio’s Hocking Hills
When you think of Ohio, you probably think of the Rhinegeist Brewery tucked away in Cincinnati, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Cleveland Browns NFL team. What Instagram has probably not shown you though are the incredible hiking trails of Hocking Hills.
Hocking Hills State Park is home to caves, gorgeous rivers, and Lord of The Rings-worthy waterfall scenes. (If you know you know friends!) Hikers can enjoy fully guided eco-tours or navigate on their own through miles of trails. The most popular trails take you to the massive Ash Cave, and a cave-like tunnel called the Rock House.
#8 The Rugged Hills of West Virginia
All of West Virginia is vastly underrated in the hiking community. From the epic views in the Monongahela National Forest to Blackwaterfalls State Park, and Dolly Sods glowing red sunsets? There is more than you can possibly imagine if you’re a true backcountry hiker. It’s also a great choice when looking for cheap vacations in the US, which for us is a big plus!
WEST VIRGINIA TRAVEL TIP
West Virginia is one of those hiking trips where a handheld GPS satellite would be your best bet for navigation! Cell service is notoriously spotty in West Virginia and we’ve definitely been grateful for it a time or two out in the backwoods. The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is the best we’ve found for a mid-level hand-held hiker’s GPS.
For thrill-seekers, hiking at Nrocks or Seneca Rocks are musts on your hiking bucket list. NRocks is a privately owned preserve. Hikers can enjoy via-Ferrata climbs, one of the USA’s longest swinging bridges, The Iron Way, and plenty of new trails!
Last but not least: West Virginia is home to a newly designated national park! New River Gorge National Park and Preserve was dedicated to preserving the mountains and New River Gorge of the Appalachian mountains. After hiking through the 70,000-acre park’s mountainous terrain, be sure to take advantage of the white water rafting on New River!
#9 The Adirondacks of New York
You’ve probably heard of the famous Niagara Falls in upstate New York, and know of New York City, but New York is so much more than that! New York State is an untapped hikers’ paradise, with more underrated national parks. Waterfalls, lakes, and other natural features don’t get as much attention as the pretty New York City, so you might never have heard of these!
- The ADK 46 – A challenge many hikers have taken to complete summiting all 46 of the Adirondack Mountain peaks in New York. Regarded as one of the best places to hike in the US, the most popular trail is Cascade Mountain at just under a 5-miles round trip.
- Watkins Glen – Another park straight out of a Lord of The Rings movie! Multiple pools form wells and waterfalls between mossy green cavernous walls. The resulting effect is a mesmerizing fairy-tale scene you could sit and enjoy for hours!
- Kaaterskill Waterfall – A lesser-known, but challenging, hike with an awesome 231-foot waterfall in Katerskill Wild Forest. The best part about Kaaterskill is that if it’s hot – you can also take a dip in the sparkling pool at the base of the falls!
What we love about a hiking trip to New York is that when you’re done – you can enjoy all that the state of New York has to offer. From the Riesling vineyards in the winery belt to the glitzy New York City – you’ll have a great trip including a little bit of everything!
#10 The Foothills In Alabama
We have family in Alabama so all year long we’re exploring and finding awesome hikes. After spending quite a few weekends while visiting, we’ve found destinations that have blown our minds! There are so many natural wonders that go unnoticed by Instagram here, making it one of the most underrated and best hiking vacations in the US.
- Lost Sink Falls – A spectacular find in the middle of basically nowhere? Hikers can find this hike by traveling South from Hunstville for about an hour. The trial is only 3 miles total – but strenuous!
- Stephens’s Gap Cave & Waterfall– Have you ever seen the pictures of people down in a cave on basically a pedestal with a waterfall falling above them? It’s Stephen’s Gap Cave!
#11 South Carolina’s Cypress Swamps
If you’re thinking, “Ev..Shelbs..the Blue Ridge Mountains are famous? Why did you need to add South Carolina to this underrated hiking destinations guide?” The answer: There are more places in South Carolina than the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. We’ll even admit we didn’t know it at first either. South Carolina is on our list of underrated hiking spots for Congaree National Park.
What makes this USA hiking destination so special? Congaree is the largest USA preserve of old-growth hardwood forests! Being able to hike in these marshy forests along very diverse trails is an incredible experience.
The best trails in Congaree National Park are the Boardwalk Loop Trail and Oakridge Trail. The Boardwalk Loop Trail is particularly special because the 2-mile long boardwalk winds through the forest at 6 feet above the forest floor! Oakridge Trail is definitely a more difficult trail at 6.3 miles roundtrip. Even with a 6.3-mile trail distance, it’s still considered easy and you’ll get to see wild hogs, otters, and herons all throughout the marsh!
Bonus Destination: National Park of American Samoa
Not officially a US State, the American Samoa National Park is a protected chain of ecologically diverse islands. Created by a now dormant volcano, these islands are surrounded by a striking array of coral reefs. With over 250 unique species of coral and other marine wildlife, it’s easy to understand why American Samoa is so precious! What we love about this underrated national park, is that although rich in outdoor activities – the islands remain largely unknown to the Instagram crowd. This means there are very few people hiking the trails making it one of the greatest hiking destinations in the USA!
In order to visit the National Park of American Samoa, visitors will need to coordinate with tourAmericanSamoa.com. There are limited resources available for planning on your own – but it’s worth the adventure! These pristine and non-commercialized islands are a 2.5-hour flight from Hawaii and can only be reached by Hawaii Airlines. (Hawaii Airlines only flies into the American Samoa Pago Pago airline twice a week!) Make sure you do your due diligence and really plan this trip out. You don’t want to miss all of the best that American Samoa has to offer!
Leave No Trace
With any hiking destinations, you’ll want to do your part to make sure that you leave no trace. A few easy principles will help guide you on your hikes:
- Stay on marked trails. This allows the forests to stay preserved, and ecologically sensitive areas to remain open for future hikers.
- If you pack it in – pack it out. Don’t leave any trash behind and if you need to use the restroom, make sure what you leave behind is bio-degradable!
For more information on how to protect our national parks, state parks, and other hiking destinations, please visit REI’s Leave No Trace Guide.
Pin This Post On Pinterest
Until next time friends,