8 Exotic Destinations That Are Part of the U.S.

Paradise at your doorstep

Photo: Laura Beauregard/USFWS [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

America has some of the most famous natural attractions on Earth. Millions of would-be travelers dream about looking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon or watching Old Faithful erupt from the grounds of Yellowstone.

No one would deny that these popular places boast a great deal of natural beauty. But there are some other spots in the far-flung corners of the United States that have mostly escaped notice. For example, the often-overlooked U.S. territories — the “non-states,” you might call them — are filled with beautiful attractions that may seem completely exotic even though they are part of the same country as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

Here are eight surprising and beautiful “secret” destinations (like Palmyra Atoll, pictured here) that are part of the United States. (Text: Josh Lew)

Saipan

wizdata/Shutterstock.

Saipan is much closer to the Philippines and Japan than to the United States mainland. In fact, this American island, which sits in the region known as Micronesia, is more familiar to Japanese tourists than to travelers from the 50 states. By some accounts, Saipan is touristy, with beaches, resorts and shops all catering to free-spending visitors from East Asia.

But if you step away from the main hotel areas and the popular beaches on the south and west coasts of this 14-mile long island, you can avoid the tourist scrum. Residents here often speak Chamorro (the local tongue) as their first language, holding on to a traditional way of life. Everyone also speaks English. The rugged interior of Saipan hides some wonderful tropical scenery and naturally restricts access to some of the best beaches on the island. As with many of the country's outlying territories, you need to bring your U.S. passport to Saipan as proof of citizenship.

Aleutian Islands

Mandy Lindeberg/NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC.

Alaska is dominated by nature, and the Aleutian Islands, which trail out to the west of the mainland, are among the most remote spots in the state. Wildlife thrives on these islands amidst harsh weather, active volcanoes and unpredictable seas. Though the outlying territories on this list are further from the United States mainland, nowhere feels more remote than the Aleutians.

A few settlements are found on some of the larger islands in the chain. Spots like the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge draw hunters and trekkers. Proper equipment and guides are all but required in most parts of the Aleutians. There are few roads, even on the more populated islands, so getting around requires bush planes or trips on the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry service that connects the islands of the Eastern Aleutians.

American Samoa

Allan Grey/Flickr.

This unincorporated United States territory is a part of the same South Pacific archipelago as the independent nation of Samoa. The traditional way of life is still important here, with many people living by customs and cultural norms that are more closely related to Polynesian village-based governing systems than to U.S. laws. The islands of American Samoa have a remote and exotic feel compared to more touristy Pacific destinations like Hawaii or Tahiti.

Away from the main city of Pago Pago, you will encounter little to suggest that you are in a territory of the U.S. The high mountain ridges offer spectacular inland views, while the virtually untouched beaches on the outlying islands of Ofu, Olosega and Ta'u (about 60 miles from the main island of Tutuila) boast clear waters, teeming coral reefs, and a complete absence of other tourists. Like other outlying U.S. territories, a passport is required to prove U.S. citizenship. American Samoa also requires visitors to have a valid return ticket.

Culebra

ARENA Creative/Shutterstock.

Situated 17 miles from the main island of Puerto Rico, Culebra has been discovered by a few tourists, but its lack of large hotels, chain restaurants, nightlife, and shopping makes it a decidedly off-the-beaten-path destination. This 7-mile long land mass has a few thousand permanent residents, many of whom have moved from the United States mainland seeking a quiet place to live away from Puerto Rico's thriving tourism scene.

Seabirds, leatherback turtles, and the giant Culebra anole are among the animals that call this out-of-the-way island home. Along with neighboring Vieques, Culebra is a great place to see bioluminescent organisms, which light up some of the coastal waters at nighttime. Quirky, independently owned boutiques and restaurants, some of which are hard to find, serve up an interesting mix of local atmosphere and fresh foods. All the nature and the super-laid-back, non-commercial culture combine to create a unique atmosphere.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Ron Cogswell/Flickr.

One of the most unique landscapes in the United States is found right in the heart of the Lower 48. Look at a photo of the sands of Great Sand Dunes National Park and you might think of the Sahara or the Gobi. But these unique landforms, the tallest dunes in the U.S., sit in southern Colorado near the New Mexico border.

The dunes were formed over thousands of years by deposits from the Rio Grande and its tributaries. The 30-square mile dune-land is open to park visitors, who can explore on their own or take a ranger-guided hike. There are even areas where sand-boarding and sand-sledding are possible. The high winds in this part of Colorado continually shift the sands, wiping away any traces of past visitors. The tallest dunes are over 700 feet in height, from base to top. Those who are able to hike to the top will be rewarded with panoramic views of the entire dune-field.

Guam

J'nel/Shutterstock.

Guam is a large island in the Mariana Archipelago. Much more cosmopolitan than neighboring Saipan, this island has a large United States military presence. The U.S. military ties with Guam lead back to World War II. Battlefields that saw heavy fighting during the Pacific Campaign can be visited at the War in the Pacific National Historical Park.

The capital city of Hagåtña is very modern, and resorts dominate some of the northern parts of Guam. The southern part of the island, in contrast, is very rural. Traditional villages sit in-between volcanic mountain ranges, overlooking lush valleys and towering waterfalls. There are plenty of well-kept hiking trails on Guam, making it possible to reach remote beaches, panoramic mountain overlooks and cascading waterfalls with relative ease. Like elsewhere in the region of Micronesia, the waters around Guam are very clear, so conditions are ideal for snorkeling and diving.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Steven Chase/USFWS/Flickr.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, often shortened to ANWR, features some of the most unforgiving conditions of any destination on our list. The 19.6-million acre park is sometimes referred to as “America's last wilderness.” And a wilderness it certainly is. You are more likely to see polar bears, caribou herds, musk oxen, and grizzlies than other people.

Winter lasts for nine months here, with snow covering the peaks of the Brooks Range year-round and below-freezing temps even possible during summer nights. Because of the sheer remoteness of this land, travel can be dangerous and guided expeditions are the best way to go for all but the most experienced trekkers. Several outfitters lead polar bear viewing trips and nature hikes into ANWR regularly.

Palmyra Atoll

Kydd Pollock/USFWS-Pacific Region/Flickr.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a base on Palmyra Atoll, a remote island in the middle of the Pacific. Palmyra can be visited as part of a research program or as a member or volunteer working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With prior permission, however, it is also possible to visit this nature-rich atoll by sailing from Hawaii (a multi-day trip).

Its lack of public access makes this the most remote destination, in terms of travel time, on our list. Restrictions on the number of people who can be on the island enhance the feeling of remoteness on Palmyra. The high amount of rainfall on the atoll has lead to a lush landscape that is teeming with wildlife.