My ever-growing list of Extraordinary Places will help take your road-trip planning to the next level. Hand-picked, I promise that each one is worth the detour.
Please note: This article is a continuation of Extraordinary Places for Your Next Road Trip from the Fall 2022 issue.
What is an Extraordinary Place?
Extraordinary Places are the places that stay with you long after visiting. They are the places that fill you with wonder. They are epic natural wonders, weird roadside attractions and deeply meaningful locations. Simply put, Extraordinary Places turn a great road trip into an unforgettable adventure.
Explore my list and start planning your next road trip today.
Hoover Dam, Nevada/Arizona
Hoover Dam, once known as Boulder Dam, is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River on the border between Arizona and Nevada. It was constructed between 1931 and 1936 during the Great Depression and was dedicated on September 30, 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. Its construction was the result of a massive effort involving thousands of workers and cost more than one hundred lives. The dam was controversially named in honour of President Herbert Hoover.
Hoover Dam impounds Lake Mead and is located near Boulder City, Nevada, a municipality originally constructed for workers on the construction project about 40 km southeast of Las Vegas. The dam’s generators provide power for public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona and California. Hoover Dam is a major tourist attraction, with nearly a million people touring the dam each year. Heavily travelled U.S. 93 ran along the dam’s crest until October 2010, when the Hoover Dam Bypass opened.
Gulf State Park, Alabama
Gulf State Park has three kilometres of beaches, a spacious campground with 496 full-hookup sites and a brand-new lodge. The Lakeside Cabins and Eagle Cottages are also available for overnight stays. Longleaf pines and the local palmetto forest surround the four “woods cabins.” Remaining “lakeside cabins” along Lake Shelby offer swimming, fishing and sunrise walks right outside your front door.
There’s gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls and a variety of activities, but there is more than sand and surf to sink your toes into.
The park features 45 kilometres of paved trails or boardwalks, including seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex that encourage visitors to explore its nine distinct ecosystems. Enjoy the serenity of Gulf Oak Ridge trail as you stroll underneath live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Take a bike ride on Rosemary Dunes. If you’re hoping to see an alligator, explore Gopher Tortoise trail along the edge of Lake Shelby. A majority of the trails are suitable for walking, running and biking.
The park’s close proximity to Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Foley, Fairhope and Mobile provides Gulf State Park with numerous retail and restaurant options. The Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, Weeks Bay Reserve, The USS Alabama and Meaher State Park are all within driving distance.
A short trip to this smoke-flavoured town should be on any food-lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations anywhere. While you could make it a day trip, you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it.
Your itinerary includes the Big Three: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (established in 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). You’ll be consuming a lot of meat, so be sure to stop for breaks. Proceed in any order you please.
Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978). There’s a drive-through and BBQ sandwiches if you so please, but you can also head inside for a full-plate lunch packed with smoked turkey, sausage links and moist brisket with such sides as mac and cheese, hash browns and broccoli salad – because you should probably get some greens.
But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. This “little city with a big heart” – as the town slogan goes – retains much of its wild cowboy roots and will show you an entirely different perspective on Texas. Check out the Jail Museum for its take on Norman castellated architecture (a popular style for jails during the time period; it was built in the mid-1800s). Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course, which also has RV camping, an on-site swimming pool and a fishing hole.
General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California
The General Sherman Tree is the world’s largest tree, measured by volume. It stands 83.8 m tall and is 11.1 m in maximum diameter at the base. Sequoia trunks remain wide high up. At 4.3 m above the base, the Sherman Tree is 4.3 m in diameter. A fence protects the shallow roots of the Sherman Tree. Help protect the tree by staying on the paved trail.
Two trails lead to the Sherman Tree. Parking for the Main Trail is off Wolverton Road (between the Sherman Tree and Lodgepole); just follow the signs. The 0.3 km trail has a few stairs and is paved. As you walk, you’ll enter the Giant Forest sequoia grove. Exhibits along the trail explain the natural history of giant sequoias.
Hundreds of sequoias grow in the Giant Forest sequoia grove. The Congress Trail, a paved 1.2 m loop that begins near the Sherman Tree, offers excellent opportunities to see notable trees. Big Trees Trail, a 0.6 km loop around a lush meadow, has interpretive exhibits about the natural history of giant sequoias. For a longer walk, explore the many trails in the area. Beyond the Giant Forest, more sequoia groves await.
Forsyth Park, Savannah, Georgia
Forsyth Park is a large city park that occupies 12 ha in the historic district of Savannah. The park is bordered by Gaston Street on the north, Drayton Street on the east, Park Avenue on the south, and Whitaker Street on the west.
The park contains walking paths, a café, a children’s play area, a Fragrant Garden for the blind, a large fountain, tennis courts, basketball courts, areas for soccer and Frisbee, and is the home field for Savannah Shamrocks Rugby Club. From time to time, concerts are held at Forsyth Park.
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park is immense – nearly 324,000 ha – and is infinitely variable. This is a land shaped by strong winds, sudden torrents of rain and climatic extremes. Rainfall is sparse and unpredictable. Streambeds are usually dry and waterholes are few.
Two deserts, two large ecosystems primarily determined by elevation come together in the park. Few places more vividly illustrate the contrast between “high” and “low” desert. Below 900 m, the Colorado Desert (part of the Sonoran Desert) occupying the eastern half of the park is dominated by the abundant creosote bush. Adding interest to this arid land are small stands of spidery ocotillo and cholla cactus.
The higher, slightly cooler and wetter Mojave Desert is the special habitat of the undisciplined Joshua tree, extensive stands of which occur throughout the western half of the park. According to legend, Mormon pioneers considered the limbs of the Joshua trees to resemble the upstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the “promised land.” Others were not as visionary. Early explorer John Fremont described them as “…the most repulsive trees in the vegetable Kingdom.”
USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park, Mobile, Alabama
At Mobile’s Battleship Memorial Park, you don’t have to look far to find heroes. From the Battleship USS Alabama to the Submarine USS Drum and more than 25 aircraft, the spirit of military pride is here. History meets heroism from the Second World War to Iraqi Freedom at one of America’s finest military parks.
At Battleship Memorial Park, you’ll walk the decks of a mighty battleship, go below in a Second World War submarine and view cockpits of combat aircraft. You’ll also see tanks, a Vietnam River patrol boat and a plane like the one flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s all here, all waiting to be discovered by you! This ship was also featured in Under Siege, the cheesy 90s Steven Segal action movie.
Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe, New Mexico
When the Loretto Chapel was completed in 1878, there was no way to access the choir loft 22 feet above. Carpenters were called in to address the problem, but they all concluded that access to the loft would have to be via ladder, as a staircase would interfere with the interior space of the small chapel.
Legend says that to find a solution to the seating problem, the sisters of the chapel made a novena (devotional prayer) to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. Months later, the elegant circular staircase was completed and the carpenter disappeared without pay or thanks. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that he was St. Joseph himself having come in answer to the sisters’ prayers.
The stairway’s carpenter, whoever he was, built a magnificent structure. The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today. The staircase has two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support. Also, it is said that the staircase was built without nails – only wooden pegs. Questions also surround the number of stair risers relative to the height of the choir loft and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway’s construction.
Over the years, many have flocked to the Loretto Chapel to see the Miraculous Staircase. The staircase has been the subject of many articles, TV specials and movies, including Unsolved Mysteries and the television movie titled The Staircase.
The nearby Cathedral of St. Francis is also worth a stop, as are the Spanish Mission attractions.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Waters from the Congaree and Wateree Rivers sweep through the floodplain, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate this ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees. Prehistoric foragers hunted the area and fished its waters.
Attempts to make the land suitable for both planting and grazing continued through 1860. The floodplain’s minor changes in elevation and consequent flooding stifled agricultural activity, but the intermittent flooding allowed for soil nutrient renewal and enabled the area’s trees to thrive.
Bald Cypress, in particular, became a target for logging. By 1905, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company owned by Francis Beidler had acquired much of the land. Poor accessibility by land confined logging to tracts near waterways, so that logs could be floated down river. In the perpetual dampness, however, many of the cut trees remained too green to float. Operations were suspended within 10 years, leaving the floodplain basically untouched.
The Boardwalk Loop is a must when visiting Congaree. It is 3.8 km right through the swamps and jungle-like forests.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Rising from the heart of the Tularosa Basin is one of the world’s great natural wonders – the glistening white sands of New Mexico. Here, dunes have engulfed more than 71,000 ha of desert, creating the world’s largest gypsum dune field. It’s a truly awesome place which makes you feel as if you are in another world.
Unlike dunes made of quartz-based sand crystals, the gypsum does not readily convert the sun’s energy into heat and can therefore be walked upon safely with bare feet, even in the hottest summer months. In areas accessible by car, children frequently use the dunes for downhill sledding.
Fun fact: Three species of lizards, one pocket mouse and numerous species of insects have evolved a white coloration for survival in the white sands.
The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas
Originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo served as home to missionaries and their Indian converts for nearly 70 years. Construction began on the present site in 1724. In 1793, Spanish officials secularized San Antonio’s five missions and distributed their lands to remaining Indian residents.
More than 2.5 million people a year visit the 1.7 ha complex known worldwide as “The Alamo.” Most come to see the old mission, where a small band of Texans held out for 13 days against the Centralist army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. Although the Alamo fell in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, the death of the Alamo defenders has come to symbolize courage and sacrifice for the cause of liberty.
Peachoid, Gaffney, South Carolina
The Peachoid is a 41 m-tall water tower in Gaffney that resembles a peach. The water tower holds one million gallons of water and is located off of Peachoid Road by Interstate 85 between exits 90 and 92 (near the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway). Usually referred to by locals as The Peach and by passing motorists as Mr. Peach or The Moon over Gaffney, the water tank is visible for several miles around these exits. An example of novelty architecture, the Peachoid is one of the most recognizable landmarks for travellers along I-85 between Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.
According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.” Without a doubt, it’s the best-known, most-photographed water tank in America. It is painted to match the kind of peaches grown in the area, using 20 colours and 190 litres of paint.
San Antonio River Walk, San Antonio, Texas
The San Antonio River Walk, or Paseo del Rio is a public park, open 365 days a year. It is a network of walkways along the banks of the San Antonio River one storey beneath approximately 24 km of downtown San Antonio. Explore by foot along the river’s walking path or jump aboard a river barge for a ride and a guided tour. Lined by bars, shops and restaurants, the River Walk is an important part of the city’s urban fabric and a tourist attraction in its own right.
The River Walk winds and loops under bridges as two parallel sidewalks, lined with restaurants, shops, hotels and more. It connects the major tourist draws from the Alamo to Rivercenter Mall, Arneson River Theatre and La Villita, the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Pearl Brewery.
Or shop local favourites along the river’s Museum Reach at the historic Pearl. While at Pearl, dine and drink al fresco at The Food Hall at Bottling Department. Further south, immerse yourself in history at the UNESCO World Heritage Site San Antonio Missions National Historical Park along the Mission Reach.
Zion National Park, Utah
When it comes to standing in awe of nature’s magnificence, it’s hard to beat the Grand Circle Tour – especially the northern arc that carves across southern Utah and encompasses Zion National Park at the western edge and Arches National Park to the east. Of them all, it is Zion that offers outdoor enthusiasts the most varied, seemingly otherworldly terrain. Zion is relatively small by national park standards; the park’s most memorable features are found in easily accessible Zion Canyon.
Zion was carved out of the Markagunt Plateau by the Virgin River, which carved down a half-mile into the sandstone as it rushed to meet the Colorado River, exposing rock layers from the middle periods of the earth’s geological history.
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by shuttle bus only from March 15 to October 25 and on weekends in November. Take time to drive the beautiful Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. This 16-km length of scenic highway sports a series of switchbacks and the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel en route to Checkerboard Mesa and the park’s eastern entrance.
Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Padre Island National Seashore protects the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world, with 112 km of protected coastline including a coastal prairie, a dynamic dune system and wind tidal flats teeming with life. It’s a sanctuary and nesting grounds for the endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and a haven for 380 species of birds which, impressively, represent roughly half of all the documented bird species in North America.
From the beach to the bay, Padre Island National Seashore offers countless opportunities to discover and enjoy the amazing recreation and resources of the park. Take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico or build a sandcastle. Swim in the recreation area at Bird Island Basin or in the Gulf of Mexico.
I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.
—Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel