We've seen the legendary photos of the spectacular valleys of Zion and Yosemite, and the fiery red rivers of Yellowstone. These are the iconic images that make us stare out the windows of our offices and yearn to see these incredible places for ourselves. But besides the 62 National Parks, there's a whole hidden world of state parks and secret spots scattered around the USA that are guaranteed to blow your mind just as much as visiting their more well known big-brothers.
1. BISTI BADLANDS, NEW MEXICO
The Bisti Badlands are perfect for the true adventurer! Towering hoodoos, abstract desert spires, and some of the most bizarre alien landscapes await those who are willing to travel to one of New Mexico's most remote sectors. Don't be mistaken though, the Bisti Badlands is a TRUE wilderness area. That means there are no trails, definitely no facilities, and no roads to lead you to the extraordinary sights. If you plan on visiting, use extreme caution because you're on your own.
However, if the though of unbridled exploration unmarred by crowds, paths, and tours excites the hell out of you, then this is the place to go! Pack plenty of water, wear durable hiking shoes, and be cautious of high desert temperatures and weather. The best Bisti access point is off State Highway 371 at Road 7297, about 40 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. Follow the graveled Road 7297 east for about 2 miles to a T-intersections and turn left. Drive almost one mile to the Bisti Access Parking Area. This parking area is just south of a broad wash on the east side of the road. There is another, smaller parking area 1/4 mile further north. Please note that Road 7297 does not pass through the wilderness as is marked on some maps. This turnoff is between mile marker 70 and 71. Four-wheel drive or a high clearance vehicle is not needed.
This is the type of place where you think "there can't possibly be anything out here" but I guarantee if you explore hard enough, you'll come across a truly fantastic landscape that rivals that of some National Parks. Most of the Bisti Badlands lies on BLM land which is public land, free and open to camp on. I highly recommended making an overnight trip out of it for a real backcountry experience. Not only is watching the golden, desert, sunset light illuminating the hoodoos of this fantasy world a sight in itself, but stay out after dark and you're in for a truly dazzling display of shooting stars while the Milky Way curls across the sky.
2. SAMUEL BOARDMAN STATE PARK, OREGON
A lesser known state park in Oregon that holds remarkable coastal beauty. Samuel Boardman State Park is an astounding 12 mile stretch of the Southern Oregon Coast. This is the kind of spot you'll want to spend a few hours in just to explore. There are dozens of trails and hidden paths, each one leading to a new secret spot. So bring your hammock, explore to your heart's content, and find a remote place to laze in the coastal mist and fall asleep to the sounds of crashing waves. Go in the early morning, and you're likely to enter a foggy dreamland, where sun rays peak through the thicket of pines.
This classic coastal landscape is located between Brookings and Gold Beach along Highway 101. There's a parking lot near the natural bridge which is usually the spot that everyone wants to see first. For good reason too! If traveling in Northern California or Oregon, this spot is 100% worth a side trip for.
3. CATHEDRAL SPIRES, SOUTH DAKOTA
Perhaps best known for Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills of South Dakota offer some other remarkable geological wonders to explore. What stands out most of all is the Cathedral Spires. This short trail will lead you through a spectacular alleyway of towering granite monoliths that feel like a world from Lord of the Rings. There's plenty of exhilarating opportunities for both hiking and climbing. For an all day excursion, combine Cathedral Spires with Black Elk Peak for a 7 mile day hike.
Be sure to also keep an eye out for mountain goats while driving along Needles Highway! The primary range where mountain goats are found is from Highway 385 at Crazy Horse east to Mount Rushmore and from Highway 244 near Harney Peak south to the Needles area in the Black Hills.
Mountain goats typically occupy granite outcroppings habitat ranging in elevation from 4,000 - 7,242 ft.
4. EAST JESUS, & SALVATION MOUNTAIN, CALIFORNIA
Lovers of art and all things weird will rejoice for this spot! Part of the infamous, off-the-grid community known as Slab City. Visitors to Joshua Tree National Park should highly consider making a pit stop at this nearby collection of oddities. Technically, East Jesus is an outdoor public art gallery filled with dozens of whacky, bizarre, and some downright creepy sculptures made from found objects. Visitors to East Jesus should bear in mind that Slab City is a self-sustaining community of squatters who happily live and thrive in an alternative lifestyle. Just be respectful, and you're unlikely to encounter problems. If obscure road trip pit stops are your thing, this one is a must see!
Salvation Mountain is another noteworthy spot in Slab City with a growing reputation! Leonard Knight, the artist behind this remarkable interactive art installation, lovingly created this brilliant masterpiece that displays a message for love and peace. Its 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth is made totally of local adobe clay and donated paint.
5. KASHA-KATUWE, NEW MEXICO
Located 40 miles southwest of Santa Fe, near Cochiti Pueblo. This BLM managed site features incredible rock spires shaped like cones that can be upwards of 90 ft tall. A hiking trail in a the site allows for some slot canyon action as well as a climb up to a truly remarkable viewpoint.
Entry into the Monument is between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Closing procedures begin at 3:30pm to clear the Monument by 5pm. Visitors must be out of the fee booth gated area by closing time. There's a $5 fee, but it's well worth it to see this totally unique landmark.