The Underrated States of America
The ’90s called and it wants its New Jersey jokes back.
Some states need no introduction: Texas, California, New York. Others sell themselves: Hawai‘i with its beaches, Colorado with mountains, Louisiana with New Orleans. But what about those in-between states—the ones rendered one-dimensionally on the national stage or, worse, simply ignored?
When my husband and I set out on a 16-month road trip across America to decide where to live after a year traveling Asia and a decade in Brooklyn, we wanted to weigh as many options as possible. We visited 229 cities in 40 states (a dozen of which I’d lived in previously) and eventually settled on Minneapolis. The move prompted a deluge of questions from bewildered East and West Coast friends, mostly to the tune of “Huh?” and “Why?”and “Don’t you know how cold it is there?!”
Yes, we got the memo. We also experienced the diversity of Minnesota’s cultural offerings, saw the kindness of its people, and immersed ourselves in the beauty of its varied landscapes. Since transplanting in 2018, we’ve become two of the North Star State’s biggest cheerleaders, launching a website (Minnevangelist) and Instagram account (@minnevangelist) dedicated to trumpeting its greatness—as well as other underrated destinations in the Upper Midwest.
Minnesota is hardly the only state to suffer a short shrift. What follows are mini-odes to six underestimated states—all of which deserve a second look, especially from travelers who tout open-mindedness as a core value.
Americans love poking fun at New Jersey, aka Dirty Jerz, aka the Armpit of America, aka fill-in-the-blank other rude nickname. The irony, of course, is that half of those jokes are cracked by New Jerseyans themselves (exhibit A: the state’s wildly attitudinal Twitter account).
Chris Christie’s big mouth and the “cabs-erh-yeah!” antics of Jersey Shore aside (which, it should be noted, starred a bunch of outta towners), the state has a lot going for it: Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, and Bon Jovi; 44 strollable beaches, historic lighthouses, and appealing seaside towns like Cape May and Point Pleasant; a giant mall with America’s only indoor ski resort and a viral new burger joint from YouTuber MrBeast; King Spa in Palisades Park, the largest jjimjilbang, or Korean-style spa and sauna on the East Coast; and more chromed-out diners than anywhere else in the nation. (Summit Diner, with its classic train car look, opened in 1928 and was frequented by Ernest Hemingway once upon a time.)
Newsflash for anyone who thinks of Jersey as little more than a turnpike with smokestacks: They call it the Garden State for a reason. The Appalachian Trail cuts through the northernmost corner, but you can find hiking routes, waterways to canoe, and brilliant fall foliage in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Cheesequake State Park in Matawan, near the spring-fed Lake Wawayanda in Hewitt, and beyond. Inspired by the High Line in Manhattan, the state also has big plans to convert the defunct Boonton Line from Norfolk Southern Railway into an 8.6-mile park. Once it is complete, the Greenway will feature 130 acres of new green space and link two of New Jersey’s biggest metropolises, Newark and Jersey City, with some of its toniest suburbs.
Agritourism is booming, too. The Hunterdon 579 Trail runs from hilly Bethlehem Township to the Delaware River Valley, spotlighting wineries, farmers’ markets, restaurants, and U-pick farms along the way. Even the big cities have underrated food scenes: Ferry Street in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood, for instance, is a hub for Portuguese, Spanish, and Brazilian restaurants. The pastéis de nata, or Portuguese custard tarts, at Teixeira’s Bakery, are not to be missed; ditto the merguez sausage ragu with loosely coiled gramigna at rustic Italian haunt Corto in Jersey City.
While you’re there, take a moment to appreciate New Jersey’s rich Black history. The Harriet Tubman Museum, which opened in Cape May in 2021, honors the abolitionist and New Jersey’s role in the Underground Railroad. Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, original home of Baseball Hall of Famer Larry Doby and one of the country’s last surviving Negro League venues, is undergoing a long-overdue renovation. And just last month, Governor Phil Murphy green-lit a million-dollar project to create a Black heritage trail with physical markers commemorating sites of artistic, cultural, social, political, or military importance across the state.
How many tourists travel to Las Vegas and never get off the Strip, let alone leave city limits? Those who do might make it to Red Rock Canyon, Death Valley National Park, Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, or the surreal Valley of Fire State Park. All worthwhile destinations for sure, but Nevada is the seventh-largest state in the nation, covering some 110,000 square miles. There’s a lot to see here.
Let’s start with Reno and its unsung food scene. Perenn Bakery is a go-to for breakfast plates (try the egg soufflé with bacon jam on a housemade croissant); Estella for mezcal and street tacos piled high with regionally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients; and Rice Box Kitchen for Thai staples like khao soi gai (a coconut-curry egg noodle soup popular in the North) and an all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu experience. The best way to close out a DIY food tour is with an inventive cocktail at the Emerson. The Stardew, ginned up with Japanese Roku, yuzu liqueur, and Junmai Ginjo sake, makes a swell nightcap.
If you’ve ever glimpsed what goes down in the Black Rock Desert during Burning Man, you know Nevada does weird very well. The 470-mile Extraterrestrial Highway zips past the Nevada Test and Training Range and top-secret Area 51, the Alien Research Center in Alamo, and the Martian-themed restaurant Little A’Le’Inn in Rachel. Other offbeat attractions include the International Car Forest of the Last Church, an open-air art gallery in Goldfield with more than 40 spray paint–covered jalopies jammed in the ground; Thunder Mountain in Imlay, a roadside shrine and folk art monument largely constructed from highway trash; the as-creepy-as-it-sounds Clown Motel in Tonopah; and Tom Devlin’s Monster Museum in Boulder City, stuffed with props and costumes from the golden age of B-list movies.
Silver State stargazing is equally out of this world. Massacre Rim, a remote area in northwest Nevada encompassing two volcanic plateaus, is one of only seven designated Dark Sky Sanctuaries on the planet. Great Basin National Park, which offers year-round programming in a new Astronomy Amphitheater in addition to its popular Great Basin Astronomy Festival, has been officially designated an International Dark Sky Park. Not only is it one of the darkest spots around, but it’s also one of the quietest—exactly what you don’t expect from the home state of Las Vegas.
You haven’t lived until you’ve wandered down a carnival midway with an alligator meat corn dog in one hand and a deep-fried queso burger in the other. Both happened to be new offerings at this year’s Iowa State Fair—one of the best in the country if, for no other reason, its coup de grâce is a cow sculpted in butter.
Foods on a stick aside, the Hawkeye State rakes in the superlatives. Iowa is home to RAGBRAI, the oldest, largest, and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next July. The “rolling festival” lasts eight days, spinning approximately 462 miles from Sergeant Bluff to Lansing, with plenty of music and food stops along the way. The Iowa 80 Trucking Museum in Walcott has a 1903 Eldridge, thought to be the first truck ever built in America. Snowstar Extreme Sports in Andalusia boasts one of the longest dual ziplines in the Midwest. And the state’s architectural marvels include the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Surety Hotel in Des Moines, which embraces the Beaux Arts classicism of the old Iowa Loan & Trust Company it inhabits.
Wright’s Alsop House in Oskaloosa will open as a gallery in fall 2023, while Cedar Rapids is getting a new and improved African American Museum of Iowa. Other fascinating museums to help you get your steps in: John Hauberg Indian Museum at Black Hawk Park in Cedar Falls, known for dioramas that illustrate the experiences of the Sauk and Meskwaki people; the Buffalo Bill Museum in LeClaire, which features a full-size replica of a one-room schoolhouse from the 1920s; and the Bix Beiderbecke Museum & Archive in Davenport. (That last one counts the first cornet and performance tuxedo of the jazz great among its collection.) Needless to say, there is no shortage of ways to close your rings outdoors, too—from biking the 25-mile High Trestle Trail, a decommissioned railroad line turned multiuse route bridging five towns in four counties, to kayaking alongside the towering limestone bluffs of the bucolic Upper Iowa River.
West Virginians have heard all of your tired old coal miner stereotypes and think it’s time you get some new material. The Mountain State is more than the hills-and-hollers’ clichés fanned by reductive shows like MTV’s Buckwild, although the short-lived hit did get one thing right: Locals do love nature.
West Virginia is home to 35 state parks, more than 1,500 miles of hiking trails, and upward of 4,000 rock climbing routes. A recently unveiled Waterfall Trail maps 29 cascades around the state. Monongahela National Forest has the imposing 900-foot-tall Seneca Rocks, while Canaan Valley Resort State Park and Blackwater Falls State Park in the painterly Allegheny Mountains could go head to head with the landscapes immortalized by the Hudson River School.
The Lodge at Blackwater Falls State Park recently wrapped up a multimillion-dollar renovation, while earlier this year the Schoolhouse Hotel in White Sulphur Springs became the world’s first fully accessible boutique inn, offering everything from synthetic grass for guide animals to hydraulic body lifts in select bathtubs.
Another notch on its belt: West Virginia can lay claim to the United States’ newest national park. The New River Gorge National Park & Preserve is a 70,000-acre playground that draws campers, hikers, zipliners, and white-water rafters. Even base jumpers get their thrills here when Fayetteville hosts its annual Bridge Day event, with daredevils leaping 876 feet from the New River Gorge Bridge, the second-highest vehicular bridge on Earth and the world’s third-longest single-span arch bridge.
Yes, Bill Clinton was born here. Ditto Scottie Pippen and Johnny Cash. And yes, we’ve seen Ozarks. What other trivia can you rattle off? If all you hear are crickets, it’s time to get wise to the Natural State’s myriad attractions.
For art lovers, there’s no beating the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, founded by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. The sprawling grounds are home to one of the finest art collections anywhere in the country, not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House, a prime example of his midcentury Usonian style. Its newish satellite art space, the Momentary, in downtown Bentonville, is also worth a look; the former Kraft cheese factory turned multidisciplinary gallery space stages immersive exhibitions that touch on everything from ’90s nostalgia to social justice in the South. For fashionistas, the Esse Purse Museum in Little Rock goes deep on 20th-century handbags. And for rockhounds, there’s the Wegner Quartz Crystal Mines in Mount Ida and Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro. Both let you dig for bling, but the latter dangles a shinier carrot: More than 75,000 diamonds have been found here since 1906, including a 4.38-carat yellow diamond discovered by a Northern California couple in 2021.
Travelers can also see some of the country’s finest thoroughbreds gearing up for the Triple Crown at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs; stroll among the stalagmites and stalactites at Blanchard Springs Caverns in Fifty-Six; take a self-guided tour of the 450-acre Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in North America; or ogle the Ozark woodlands from within the soaring glass walls of Thorncrown Chapel, designed by Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones.
Getting on or in the water is another popular pastime. Raft down the Buffalo National River, fish for trout on the White River, get rocked to sleep on a gently bobbing houseboat on Lake Ouachita, learn about Arkansas’s unique bathhouse history at the Ozark Bathhouse Cultural Center in Hot Springs National Park, or root for your favorite captain at the World Championship Cardboard Boat Races on Greers Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, 60 miles north of Little Rock.
The Cornhusker State has been the de facto poster child for Flyover Territory since flight itself. (Even Kansans and Oklahomans make that gag—lest some snarky East Coaster make it about them first.) But what people who’ve never been to Nebraska don’t realize is how therapeutic all that open space can be. Ranches, farms, and prairieland as far as the eye can see give this Midwestern state a Big Sky Country feel—minus the Big Sky Country prices.
Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, host of the annual Nebraska Star Party, earned Nebraska its first official International Dark Sky designation in September. That’s just one of more than a dozen stops on the state’s new Astronomy Trail; others include the pro-grade public telescopes at Hyde Memorial Observatory in Lincoln, the Fred G. Dale Planetarium in Wayne, and primo stargazing in the vast Sandhills region, home to the largest vegetated sand dunes in North America.
Know who else appreciates those sweeping hillocks? Sandhill cranes. Visit in March to witness the world’s largest sandhill crane migration, with some 600,000-plus birds taking flight.
For an even wilder Midwest experience, lock in a stay at Our Heritage Guest Ranch in the Pine Ridge foothills of northwestern Nebraska. Here, guests fill their days with fossil hunting in the White River Badlands, horseback riding through the Oglala National Grasslands, and stagecoach journeys in an original 1860s M&M Overland Coach.
If campfire cookouts are too cowboy for your blood, head to Omaha—where you can stuff yourself silly on iconic Nebraskan treats, such as butter brickle (a toffee-studded ice cream found at eCreamery and Coneflower Creamery) and Reuben sandwiches (invented at the Blackstone Hotel in the early 1900s and now found on the Orléans Room menu at the swanky Kimpton Cottonwood Hotel—so take that, New York City).