The sun is shining, the kids are out from school, and it’s time to use those well-earned vacation days (more than ever) to hit the road and explore the country! With the prevalence of Yelp reviews, TripAdvisor reports, and your cousin’s never-ending social media feed, it can be hard to find any unturned rock left in the States – just a bit of the map that has yet to be filled in.
However, there are still lesser-known treasures to be found within some of America’s most well-known summer destinations. Below is our Top Ten List of the Hidden Gems of Summer Travel – and although our full list could fill an entire mine of gems stalactite to stalagmite – this should be a great start to get you and your family through Summer 2019.
The Saint Louis Zoo
The Saint Louis Zoo is regularly regarded as the best zoo in the nation by Zagat, TripAdvisor, and has been similarly-ranked in USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. Home to more than 600 species of animals, many of them rare and endangered, the Zoo houses more than 17,000 animals across 90 scenic acres. But did you know that this Zoo Gem of America is free? Nestled within St. Louis’s Forest Park, created for the 1904 World’s Fair, one-third of the Zoo’s funding comes from St. Louis City and County property taxes; one third from food service, gift shops, and parking; and a third from private donations.
SeaWorld’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin
For some, SeaWorld is a land of roller coasters, and for others a land of aquatic discovery filled with habitats and pools brimming with life. For others, the park is home to a robust rescue and rehabilitation program, while for some it’s a starting point for a record-setting neighboring waterpark – Aquatica.
However, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin combines nearly all these aspects (except for the water slides), mixing a dark ride with innovative omni-mover technology, following Puck the Penguin on a below-the-ice cinematic adventure with practical effects at every twist and turn. As the ride ends, guests leave their vehicles and are welcomed to come nose-to-beak with the largest penguin colony outside of Antarctica. An incredible animal encounter – and a great way to cool off in the summer heat!
Summer heat can be brutal, especially adding the humidity found throughout the Midwest and Southeastern United States. Some of our ancestors often retreated to shaded grottos and cool caves to beat the heat; and they always say, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!”
Ruby Falls is home to America’s deepest commercial cave and tallest underground waterfall (145’) open for public viewing. The site has grown over the decades – with plans for even more expansion – offering countless activities to fill an entire day – or weekend with their other Lookout Mountain attractions!
The Biltmore Estate’s Antler Hill Village
If you’re seeking a taste of The Great Gatsby or Downton Abbey this summer, The Biltmore Estate serves as one of the finest examples of the Gilded Age – an era of economic success (and excess) following the American Civil War. Completed in 1985, the Estate comprises 8,000 acres set in the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains, full of exquisitely-kept gardens, a two-story library, 70,000-gallon pool, and more.
What many first-time guests don’t know about is Antler Hill Village. Designed to reflect Edith Vanderbilt’s fame as a gracious host, this portion of the Biltmore property offers a village green with live entertainment, thematic dining and shopping, and allocations for revolving exhibits and an outdoor adventure center. Neighboring Biltmore’s Winery, it’s a family getaway weekend in a single package.
Audubon Zoo’s Louisiana Swamp
Playing host to both 2019’s American Alliance of Museums and Association of Zoo and Aquariums conferences, the 501(c)3 Audubon Nature Institute “Celebrates the Wonders of Nature” by overseeing the Audubon Zoo, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Wilderness Park, Butterfly Garden, and numerous other properties.
Certainly famous (and notorious) for its swamps and “The Bayou,” riverbank Louisiana conjures visions of thick, green water, the buzzing of mosquitoes, and eyes sitting just atop the waters’ surface – looking back. It should be no surprise then that the Audubon Zoo has a highly-thematic and award-winning Swamp exhibit; however, it is the only zoo in America with such an exhibit. If you’d like to visit the swamp without packing the calamine lotion, this is the zoo for you!
Niagara Falls is one of, if not the, most famous waterfall in North America. The thrilling site of the Battle for Electricity, the natural wonder is open year-round, whether guests want to visit in the thick summer to be cooled in the cleansing mist and thunderous roar of the falls, or meditate in the tranquil stillness of the frozen water of winter.
Within the site’s visitors center – The Table Rock Welcome Centre – lies Niagara’s Fury. To experience the creation of the falls, its evolution through the millennia, and its state-of-being year-round, this attraction can’t be missed. Inside The Fury, up to 100 guests take their positions on a tilting and rising floor after donning their ponchos, and are then immersed – and sometimes doused – on a 4D adventure through time and tectonic shifts that tells the story of the falls, from its first water drop to its 167’ drop today.
SeaWorld’s Discovery Point
Orlando’s Discovery Cove is world-renown for its immersive beach-resort design, world-class service, and exclusive interactions with dolphins and coral reef adventures. Recipient of TripAdvisor’s Best Attraction in America, as well as Zagat’s Top Waterpark, the resort welcomes only 1,300 guests per day to preserve the intimacy of the park and the health of its animals.
Beginning in 2016, SeaWorld has replicated the success of this Florida destination adjacent to its San Antonio property. Welcoming the same comfort, care, and exclusivity of its sister park, Discovery Point is a saltwater oasis in the Great State of Texas, and offers up close and personal interactions with its resident dolphins.
Louisville Zoo’s Glacier Run
To beat the summer heat, what sounds better than something with “Glacier” in its name? You don’t have to travel to Churchill, Alaska, the inspiration for this attraction, to experience everything it has to offer though – just visit Kentucky’s heartland of Louisville.
For an educational experience that can inspire you to take essential conservation action, Glacier Run is themed as a town on the edge of Alaska’s wilderness. As climate change continues its drastic and irreversible effects, polar bears, seals, sea lions, grizzly bears, and more leave their natural habitats and “explore the town” within thematic environments. Families get up-close interactions with these animals in need of our conscientious help, and learn what they can do in their daily lives to help protect these snowy environments.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Heart of Africa
With your summer travels, you may want to visit places notorious for extreme heat, without having to avoid dehydration, heat stroke, and sunburn. Made famous with the television stardom of Jack Hanna, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium brings the wonders of Africa to central Ohio with Heart of Africa.
This incredibly thematic and immersive region of the Zoo welcomes guests first through a retail space reminiscent of African street markets, lining villages across the continent. Once inside the massive 43-acre zone, guests can observe a sprawling savannah, apparently seamlessly blending giraffe, lions, gazelles, impalas, zebras, and more. Rotational yards allow for new animals to be discovered in the same space throughout the day, and a Beach Model-18 airplane, harkening back to the days of independent pilots adventuring throughout Africa, sits partially “landed” in the lions’ habitat, offering animal enrichment and dynamic views for guests.
Looking for Lincoln
From Kentucky to Indiana, and Illinois to the White House, America’s 16th president made his mark across the country before bearing one of the greatest challenges our leadership has ever faced. Each state and town celebrates Abraham Lincoln’s mark on their part of America, but there’s one place you can visit that collaborates to bring together the greatest number of individual milestones to occur outside of Washington D.C.
Lincoln lived in the Illinois’ Capitol for nearly half his life, practicing law, wedding Mary Todd, starting his family, and campaigning for the Presidency. The Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition is a consortium of Illinois communities and sites that connect these key stories and landmarks through engaging interpretive programming. A road trip rich in history, this walking and driving tour offers the unique opportunity to see scenic rural farmland, visit intimate sites of Lincoln’s life, and meet passionate experts on the President’s stories and legacy.