Must-See under the Radar Small Towns to Seek (Out)

Favorite lesser-known destinations from around America to consider for your next adventure

Across the country, you’ll find plenty of adventure as well as relaxing beaches, lesser-known islands, and tucked away villages where you can avoid the tourist crowds and enjoy the small town life. Whether you’re looking for an exhilarating adventure or simply some quiet time, these 10 small towns are definitely must-see under the radar small towns in America to seek out.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys, Georgia

Located on the easternmost fringes of the Florida-Georgia line, St. Marys is perhaps best-known as the launching point for those visiting Cumberland Island, the largest of Georgia’s seaside isles. Though Cumberland’s sprawling sandy beaches and centuries-old ruins are truly a sight to behold, St. Marys is fully capable of holding its own as a fascinating destination packed full of historic landmarks, museums, and dining venues. The bulk of recreational activities are centered around the city’s namesake: the St. Marys River. 126 miles in length, this waterway stretches from the depths of Okefenokee Swamp into the Atlantic Ocean. Take a leisurely stroll along the St. Marys Waterfront, a charming promenade complete with a gazebo offering a spectacular view of the river.

National D-Day Memorial, Bedford © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bedford, Virginia

Resting at the foot of the Peaks of Otter in the heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and only 9 miles from the Parkway, Bedford is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in Central Virginia. The town is home to several historic landmarks including the National D-Day Memorial, the Elks National Home, and the Avenel Plantation. Nearby, visitors have a wide range of attractions: Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Smith Mountain Lake, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Peaks of Otter, and the Sedalia Center for the Arts. There are a dozen wineries within a short drive out of the town and plenty of antiquing, horseback riding, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor sports.

Wolfeboro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wolfeboro, New Hampshire

This town’s motto is “The Oldest Summer Resort in America” and its prime location on Lake Winnipesaukee proves why. People from all over New Hampshire and Boston vacation here during warm summer months. Incorporated in 1770, it stakes its claim based on an early mansion built by Governor John Wentworth on what eventually became Lake Wentworth, just east of Winnipesaukee.

Helena © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helena, Montana

One and a half centuries ago, Helena became the “Queen City of the Rockies” with the boom brought on by the 1864 gold strike. Helena grew along Last Chance Gulch and in 1875 became the Montana territorial capital. Today the state capital’s grand architecture, numerous museums, and historic sites offer a real glimpse into the rich and deep history of the city. There are 75 miles of nearby trails waiting to be explored or biked – and those are just the ones that start downtown.

Jacksonville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jacksonville, Oregon

Jacksonville is nestled in the Siskyou Mountain foothills along the Rogue River Valley and is easy to fall in love with. The little town is the Heart of Rogue Valley wine country which includes the Applegate Valley Wine Trail. Though sometimes busy the small-town ambiance (population 2,860), gorgeous setting, and beautifully preserved late 1800s architecture combines to make a very attractive town. The little gem of a town is highly walkable and has at least one of everything—except chain stores. Everything from wine to cheese to chocolate, art, and fine dining.

Berea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Berea, Kentucky

In Berea you can celebrate Kentucky crafts by visiting dozens of artist’s studios, galleries, and stores. The Folk Arts and Crafts Capital of Kentucky, Berea is ranked among the top art communities in the U. S. Nestled between the Bluegrass region and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Berea offers visitors over 40 arts and crafts shops featuring everything from handmade dulcimers and homemade chocolate to jewelry stores, art galleries, quilt-makers, and even glassblowing studios. Sculptures of mythical beasts, vibrantly painted open hands, and historic architecture are a few of the delights as one wanders the town and college. Berea is a growing, unique, and creative community—a place where it can indeed be said that the—Arts are Alive!

Billy’s Boudin, Scott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scott, Louisiana

The city of Scott’s motto is “Where the West Begins and Hospitality Never Ends” and that’s pretty fair. Its close proximity to Interstate 10 makes its quaint downtown district accessible to visitors for local shopping, art galleries, and boudin―lots and lots of boudins. The title “Boudin Capital of the World” was awarded to Scott by the state of Louisiana about five years ago. You can find the rice and meat-filled sausage staple at iconic joints like Billy’s Boudin and Cracklin, Don’s Specialty Meats, Best Stop Grocery, and NuNu’s Cajun Market.

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesilla, New Mexico

Home to a mere 2,196 people, the town of Mesilla in Southern New Mexico is a fascinating place to visit. Here you’ll find well-preserved architecture, history worth delving into, and high-quality restaurants. The plaza is the heart of Mesilla and that’s a good place to start exploring. The San Albino Basilica dominates one side of the plaza. This Romanesque church was built in 1906 although its bells are older, dating back to the 1870s and 1880s.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mokelumne Hill, California

Mokelumne Hill which sits on the edge of the beautiful Mokelumne River Canyon is commonly referred to as “Moke Hill” by locals. Well-preserved historical architecture, narrow streets, and its small size, all contribute to the town’s charm. Mokelumne Hill was one of the richest gold mining towns in California. Today, the charming Hotel Léger is the center of the community. Ancestors of current locals are reputed to have played cards in the saloon with the infamous outlaws, Black Bart and Joaquin Murieta. The present hotel is actually three separate buildings, one of which served as the Calaveras County Courthouse from 1855 to 1866 and housed the county jail in the basement.

Swimming with the manatees © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crystal River, Florida

Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Crystal River is centered round its pristine waterway, Kings Bay and is the self-proclaimed “Home of the Manatee”. The small town of approximately 3,200 residents welcomes hundreds of manatees each winter to its many warm springs including the famous Three Sisters Springs. Together with neighboring Homosassa, Crystal River is the site of the largest gathering of manatees in North America. Located along Florida’s “Nature Coast,” the waters of Crystal River have the only legal “swim-with” Manatee program in the Country meaning visitors can passively observe the mammals in their natural habitat. The springs flow at a constant 72 degrees, making the water attractive to all sorts of swimmers.  

Worth Pondering…

This is not another place.

It is THE place.

—Charles Bowden

Sierra Foothills: A Road Trip Waiting To Happen

The wild and scenic Mokelumne River, gold rush history, and quaint historic towns that beckon around every turn and you have a road trip waiting to happen

The Mokelumne River stretches almost 100 miles from its headwaters in the Sierra as it flows west to merge into the Sacramento Delta just west of Lodi. The river is divided into the Upper Mokelumne River which stretches from the high Sierra to Pardee Reservoir in the foothills and the Lower Mokelumne River, the section of the river below Camanche Dam to the Delta. In its lower section, the Mokelumne is heavily employed for irrigation and water for the east Bay Area through the Mokelumne Aqueduct. The river bisects Amador and Calaveras counties especially beautiful this time of year.

Jackson Rancheria RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Conveniently located in the heart of Gold Country, we used Jackson Rancheria RV Resort as our home base to explore this part of the Mother Lode. New in 2008, the RV resort is part of a casino complex. Even if you’re not a fan of the casino scene you’ll love this 5-star resort. Big rig friendly 50/30-amp electric service, water, sewer, and cable TV are centrally located. Wide, paved interior roads with wide concrete sites. Back-in sites over 55 feet with pull-through sites in the 70-75 foot range. Reservations over a weekend are required well in advance.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Jackson Rancheria Casino RV Resort we drove southwest 4.5 miles to Jackson. Jackson is a vibrant old and new town with quaint Main Street preserving gold rush history with a variety of cute shops and eateries.

The early gold rush camp turned city was, like so many other gold rush towns along California Highway 49, destroyed by a raging fire in 1862. The city was rebuilt with as many as forty-two of those Civil War era buildings still standing today on and around Jackson’s Historic Main Street. At the turn of the 19th century Jackson had about 3,000 residents with three churches, three newspapers, four hotels, five boarding houses, two candy factories, cigar and macaroni factories, eight physicians, and two dentists.

Amador County winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once the richest mining area in the Mother Lode, Jackson also has ties to the lumber industry and wineries of Amador County. The area’s rolling foothills are checkered between tall golden grass, oak trees, and thousands of acres of grapevines, and Plymouth close by is now famous as one of California’s favorite places to go for a wine tasting tour.

National Hotel, Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to wine tasting, Jackson is full of unique gift shops, antique shops, restaurants, museums, parks, and historical sites like the Kennedy Gold Mine and the former home of Armstead C. Brown, now the Amador County Museum. Stop at the National Hotel at the south end of Main. Built in 1852 and visited by many noteworthy guests over its history, the hotel was extensively renovated a few years ago.

Kennedy Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the old Kennedy Mine and the historic Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheel #4 north of town on Highway 49 for a quick dose of early mining history. At 5,912 feet, it is one of the world’s deepest gold mines. The Kennedy has approximately 150 miles of underground tunnels, a great deal of surface equipment which once included the famous Jackson Gate elevator wheels and miles of flumes. The total production was $34,280,000. The Kennedy was closed in 1942 by order of the government while in full production.

From Jackson we followed Highway 49 south for 7.5 winding miles to the wonderful old town of Mokelume Hill. Just outside Jackson, you can detour down Middle Bar Road back to the river to find wildflowers. Just before crossing the Mokelume River you’ll detour east on Electra Road along the river for more wildflower sightings.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiding in Calaveras County is a sleepy little Gold Rush town that flies under the radar for most people. Mokelumne Hill is the western-most Gold Rush era town in Calaveras County and boasts a charming, historic Main Street which is accessed off the highway. The village of Mokelumne Hill nestles on a small flat at an elevation of approximately 1,500 feet surrounded by hills and within a few miles of the river. “Moke Hill,” named for the Mokelumne River, sits high above the river with a variety of well-preserved buildings dating to the 1860s.

Few people realize that Mokelumne Hill was actually one of the richest mining towns in the state during the Gold Rush. So much gold was found in the town’s surrounding hills that miners were restricted to claims of just 16 square feet.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Leger Hotel—a portion of the building served as the Calaveras County Courthouse from 1852 to 1866 but when the courthouse was moved to San Andreas, George Leger made it part of his hotel. Fire damaged the building and it was restored in 1879, renamed the Leger Hotel.

The Hotel Léger is one of only two continuously operating Gold Rush era hotels in Calaveras County. At the heart of the town’s culture it serves as friendly, local gathering place and watering hole, restaurant, hotel and event-center, and most-famous haunted building on the west side of the county. Those with the interest and courage are encouraged to pick up a ghost-hunting kit from the front desk for an impromptu ghost-hunt. The Whitewater Grill and Saloon is the premiere restaurant and saloon in town and well-worth a visit for surprisingly inexpensive fine-dining.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mokelumne Hill was known as one of the most violent, bawdy towns in the Mother Lode. As the gold played out, Mokelumne Hill shrunk from a wild and woolly 15,000 to a quiet historic village. Take the time to walk the historic blocks of Moke Hill and you will feel the ghosts of gold rush days.

Tourism has become a new industry to the town. Many of the early homes on the hillsides and the historic buildings downtown have withstood the boom and bust economy of the gold regions of the west.

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer