Camping Gems

Camping Gems

Find those fun and funky “special” places across the country. Hit the road and discover all the odd roadside attractions that make getting there more than half the fun. Road tripping gives you an excuse to search out hidden gems along your route. Look inside for suggested trips and inspiration to plan your own camping gem journey.

Legendary St. Joseph, Missouri

Jesse James, the Pony Express, and the pioneer spirit are more than just the stuff of legend in St. Joseph, Missouri. As the old entry point to the Wild West, St. Joseph has seen its share of covered wagons, prospectors, and men on horseback. This is the birthplace of the Pony Express, and it's also where Jesse James met his end in 1882. And in present day it's a fabulous place for golfing, fishing, horseback riding, and hiking along the 26 miles of local trails.

Set on Missouri's western edge on the banks of the Missouri River, St. Joseph served as a natural outpost throughout the 1800s. The town, once called Saint Michael's Prairie, has been an expedition camp, a trading post, and the center for the Pony Express. In the spring of 1860, this relay of overland riders carried mail and news of the impending war to the west. Each rider covered 250 miles in a 24-hour period and was paid $50 for his efforts. It took about ten days for news to travel the 2000 miles of trail. You can learn all about this fascinating bit of American history at the St. Jo. Pony Express Museum.

St. Joseph is known for terrific Missouri River water-sports like river rafting, floating, water skiing, and bird watching. The surrounding hills are filled with hiking trails, lakes, streams, and forested scenic areas that are perfect for hiking and mountain biking. You can join the boys of summer at a St. Joe Blacksnakes minor league baseball game or head to Missouri Western State University for sporting events like gymnastics, boxing, basketball, and volleyball.

Take a family tour of the Jesse James Home Museum, the place where Jesse James lived and where he was shot by Bob Ford in April 1882. Just imagine America's most famous bank robber sitting down with his family in this formal parlor, living off his ill-gotten gains. The house is filled with memorabilia, artifacts, photos of Jesse and his family, and documents relating to the James family.

The area near St. Joseph just begs to be explored. Just a short drive away, you'll find all the bright lights and attractions of Kansas City and NASCAR's Kansas Speedway. You can visit nearby Savannah to explore the antique shops, boutiques, gift shops, and fabulous restaurants. And for further historical sites in St. Jo, take a tour of the famous Patee House Museum, the Robidoux Row Museum, or find great gaming and nightlife at the Terrible's St Jo Casino.

Bavaria Southern Style - Helen, Georgia

Escape into a magical world in Helen, Georgia, a charming Bavarian-style village that’s just a few hours from Atlanta. This Blue Ridge Mountain town echoes the charm of the Alps, complete with gingerbread-decorated buildings, mountain views, and pastoral scenes with cows and goats. Set on the rolling Chattahoochee River, Helen serves up its old-world charm with plenty of modern amenities.

Spend your days wandering down the cobblestone alleys, admiring the German architecture while you enjoy fresh-made treats from the Hofer’s of Helen Bakery or get ready for a hearty lunch of brats and beer. You and your sweetheart can take a romantic buggy ride or pay a visit to Anna Ruby falls to admire the beauty of the splashing water. Helen has a number of unique shops and artist’s workshops to visit such as the Glassblowing Shop, Willows Pottery, Scarlett’s Secret, and the Hansel and Gretchen Candy Kitchen. This is a terrific place to buy a year’s worth of gifts for the whole family!

You’ll find more artwork at the Glass Mountain Gallery and the Folk Pottery Museum of Northeastern Georgia, both set right here in Helen. But if outdoor sports are more to your taste, never fear – Helen has plenty for you as well. With a number of outfitting shops in town, you’ll have all the gear you need for a day of rafting or tubing on the Chattahoochee, horseback riding through the mountains, or golfing. The town is home to a number of stables, making it easy to head out on a trail ride. And you’ll also find miles of hiking trails through the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains.

Explore fun eateries with names like Kaffe und Kutchen, Ma Gooche’s Restaurant, the Alt Heidelberg Lounge, and Stovall House. You can relax at the Troll Tavern or sip your coffee at Miss Katherine’s Café. And you certainly won’t want to miss a trip to the Habersham Winery for wine tasting and a tour, or the shopping at Windmill Dutch Imports or the Scandinavian Import Company.

Helen’s history is tightly tied to the Cherokee Indians who once lived in this area. Before 1800, Cherokee villages were scattered all throughout the Helen valley. In 1813, the Cherokee followed the tragic “Trail of Tears” out of the valley toward Hiawassee, and were were soon replaced by white settlers who took up gold and timber mining. The German theme was developed in 1968, when a local artist returned from a long stay in Germany. With its mountain setting, Helen proved to be the perfect choice for a little Bavaria in Georgia.

It’s only natural that such a unique town should host fun festivals and events. Head to Helen for the annual hot air balloon race, Winefest, and the Volksmarch walking event. The town puts on spectacular Christmas parades during Alpenfest and fireworks at the Fourth of July. And all the guests in town enjoy the Bavarian Nights of Summer.

The highlight of the annual calendar is Helen’s Oktoberfest, the longest Oktoberfest in the South. Running from mid-September through October, this lively harvest festival has fun for the whole family. Come get to know the German spirit in Helen, Georgia!

Family Friendly Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Set in the high mountains of northwestern Colorado, Steamboat Springs offers amazing opportunities for outdoor recreation. From skiing down the slopes of Mount Werner to fly fishing along the Elk and Yampa Rivers, Steamboat truly has it all. This family-friendly town has stunning alpine views, dozens of hiking trails, and a charming main street that’s filled with specialty shops and boutiques.

Long ago, during its time as a fur trapping and ranching area, Steamboat Springs took its name from a spring along the Yampa River that chugged like a churning steamboat. Development has silenced the spring, but it still flows, emanating a slight sulfur smell on the northern side of town.

Today, Steamboat is famous for its skiing, snowboarding, and ski jumps. The town is just three hours west of Denver, far enough to escape the large crowds, but close enough for a pleasant drive. Skiers can visit the many runs on Mount Werner, or head to the runs on the other side of the Yampa, where you’ll find Olympic-level ski jumps and specialty courses. Emerald Mountain is also well known as a cross-country and skate-skiing hotspot, with many groomed trails to choose from.

As the snow melts, the town shifts gears from snow sports to hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing. Right in town you’ll find the wooded Spring Creek Trail that heads uphill from the High School. Many locals bring their dogs to walk on this trail every day, so it’s a great place for canine socializing. Just behind the Post Office on Oak Street, you’ll find the road that leads to Fish Creek Falls, a dramatic sheet of tumbling water. Take the trail to the base of the falls, or hike above it to the viewing platform.

For a longer day hike, the Mad Creek Trail follows a tributary of the Elk River, a waterway that’s known as one of the best fishing spots in all of Colorado. Anglers love the Elk River for its un-crowded conditions, clear-flowing waters, and abundance of trout. Mountain biking is popular on Emerald Mountain and as a summertime activity on Mount Werner, where the views of the valley below are absolutely breathtaking.

For a short day trip, you can head to the Zirkels mountain wilderness or take a high-summer jaunt into the Flat Top Mountains, hailed by many as the most incredible mountain range in the state. About two hours to the west, you’ll find Dinosaur National Monument, a rugged canyon-scape at the convergence of the Yampa and the Green Rivers. If you enjoy 4-wheeling, be sure to take the Echo Park Road from the ridge top to the Yampa riverbank. Driving this road gives you the rare chance to travel by car through a canyon, passing down through layers of red clay and pale sandstone. Be on the lookout for petroglyphs throughout the monument, especially on the Echo Park Road.

In addition to rugged outdoor sports, Steamboat Springs also offers a number of luxurious attractions. You can soak in a natural hot spring at Strawberry Park, surrounded by green mountains, or wander through town, exploring the women’s clothing boutiques. Even the soothing pool at the town recreation center is fueled by natural springs! You’ll find a number of deluxe spas at the foot of Mount Werner, and amazing culinary delights at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Fiesta Jalisco, and Blue Sage Pizza.

This corner of Colorado is filled with wildlife, some of which you might spot from the highway during your drive to and from Steamboat Springs. Watch for bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, elk herds, and mule deer. Furry marmots might scamper across the hillside, past prairie dogs and tiny pikas. Bird lovers can watch for colorful western tanagers, golden eagles, ospreys, and brilliant hummingbirds.

Solvang, California - A taste of Denmark in the Heart of Southern California?

It may not be what you’d expect, but you’ll find that the pairing makes a happy harmony in Solvang, California. Set in the gentle rolling hills north of Santa Barbara, Solvang is easy to reach – just take Highway 101 (El Camino Real) to Highway 246 east, and you’ll step into this old world wonderland. Enter the quaint downtown and stroll along cobblestone streets, wandering past the windmill and half-timbered shops, wine-tasting cellars, and traditional bakeries.

You can admire the statue of the Little Mermaid (a replica of the one in Copenhagen), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, or wander past one of the gurgling water fountains. In Danish, “solvang” means “sunny fields,” a fitting name for a southern California town where the sun shines warm and bright. Only 5,000 people make Solvang their home, so the town always retains its quiet charm.

Storks are a theme throughout the town. If you keep your eyes raised to the rooftops, you’ll spot many storks on the thatched roofs of the shops. Windmills are another feature of the town—five are easy to find, but there may be as many as seven. The town is filled with Danish bakeries, traditional ice cream shops, smorgasbord restaurants, museums, and plenty of Danish charm. Take a ride down First Street or through Hans Christian Andersen Park in a horse-drawn carriage or get the kids together for a family bike ride around town. You’ll find plenty of excellent golfing in the local area as well as wineries, Scandinavian craft and gift shops, antiques, and the Solvang Mall.

There are a number of fun annual events going on in Solvang, from the weekly Farmer’s Markets to the jazz concerts and Scandinavian Folk Dancing nights. The kids can take part in the annual Easter Egg Hunt in Hans Christian Andersen Park or the festive Independence Day parade. Throughout the summer, enjoy Movies in the Park – family-friendly films that are shown in Solvang Park for free. And in September, be sure not to miss Danish Days, a treasured celebration of Solvang’s rich Danish heritage. The good life and simple pleasures are remembered with Old World customs and costumes, Danish folk dancing, music, parades, food, and entertainment all weekend.

For a fun day trip near Solvang, take a tour of the Santa Barbara County vineyards or explore local towns like Ballard, Los Olivos, and Santa Ynez. You can head to Santa Barbara for a day on the waterfront or a hike at El Presidio de Santa Barbara, or visit Gaviota State Park, set right on the coast near Solvang. A little farther a field, you’ll find the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area, a great place to enjoy fishing, hiking, swimming, boating, and mini golf. The area also includes playgrounds for the kids and a nature center. To the south, off the California coast, lies Channel Islands National Park, a stunning coastal zone that includes five craggy islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara. These isolated islands have animals and plants that are found nowhere else on earth! You’ll find terrific hiking, kayaking, bird watching, snorkeling, swimming, and relaxation on these amazing islands.

Superstition Mountain & Tombstone, Arizona

Prepare yourself for a dose of the chills when you encounter the ghostly past of these southern Arizona sights. Set near Phoenix and Tucson, these two destinations have enough hauntings for any visitor.

Superstition Mountain
Superstition Mountain, just east of Phoenix and Apache Junction, is a 3,000-foot tall bastion of ghosts and legends. The Pima Indians called the mountain Ka-Katak-Tami, or "The Crooked-Top Mountain." It is said that they feared the mountain, believing it to be the sacred grounds of the Apache and their Thunder God. Other legends say that the Apaches killed many visitors to the mountain, giving the Pima very good reason to avoid it. The modern name probably comes from local farmers who considered the Pimas’ fear to be superstitious.

The Mountain is the setting for many legends about lost gold, the best know of which is the Lost Dutchman Mine. This so-called Dutchman was actually German settler Jacob Waltz who was born in 1910. Jacob claimed that he struck gold in the mountain sometime between 1868 and 1886. When he died in 1891, Jacob left only this series of clues to direct future generations to his mine:

From my mine you can see the military trail, but from the military trail you can not see my mine. The rays of the setting sun shine into the entrance of my mine. There is a trick in the trail to my mine. My mine is located in a north-trending canyon. There is a rock face on the trail to my mine.

While some people believe the Dutchman’s Mine is the very wealthy (and long-since discovered) Peraltas Cache, others feel that it’s still hidden in the mountain canyons. Aside from looking for the mine yourself, you can pay a visit to the Superstition Mountain Museum, tour the ghost town, and enjoy hiking among the giant Saguaro cacti and desert wildflowers.

Boaters will enjoy floating and paddling with scenic canyon views at nearby Verde River and Canyon and Saguaro lakes. You’ll also find a gorgeous scenic drive by following the Apache Trail toward Apache Lake and Roosevelt Lake.

Set southeast of Tucson, Tombstone is Arizona’s best known mining and Old West town. Known as “The Town Too Tough to Die,” Tombstone enjoyed a rough beginning that was marked by lawlessness and violence. Lawmen struggled to maintain order in the face of gun battles, raids, and strong-arm tactics. Everything came to a head during the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral, when the infamous Wyatt Earp battled Clanton in 1881. After the shootout, the town went on to produce millions of dollars worth of silver and gold from its mines.

Today, visitors are entertained with regular gunfight shows, live music and dancing in the saloons, and stagecoach and wagon tours of town. You can visit the Boot Hill Graveyard and Gift Shop, picking up mementos from your visit and exploring the gravestones. Tombstone’s City Park is a great place to enjoy a stroll or a picnic lunch. Many guests enjoy a tour of the 1882 Tombstone Courthouse, including the jail gallows, and old-fashioned courtroom.

Be sure to swing by the Crystal Palace Saloon, for an old-timey experience of gaming, girls, and drinking – and a bite to eat. Fans of art and artists will want to visit the OK Corral art gallery and the Tombstone Art Gallery to see works by local artists. And the kids are sure to love a visit to Halldorado Town amusement park.

To delve a little deeper into Tombstone’s past, head to the Schieffelin Monument, about two miles outside of town. Schieffelin was a life-long miner who prospected in Tombstone, in Alaska (during the 1882 gold rush), and in the Pacific Northwest. He died in 1897 at the age of 49 and was returned to Tombstone for burial.

Civil War Discovery Trail

The Civil War marked the height of the most divisive time in our nation’s history. This bloodiest of all U.S. battles was not only fought on American soil, it also often pitted brother against brother and neighbor against neighbor. With flashes of military genius and dark moments of disaster, the story of the Civil War battles is worth remembering again and again.

Today, Civil War buffs can visit the more than 600 historic sites along the Civil War Discovery Trail, uncovering rare bits of 19th-century history. More than thirty-one states – and the District of Columbia – have Discovery Trail sites, some of which are as famous as Ford’s Theatre, the Antietam National Battlefield (site of the bloodiest day in American history), and splendid antebellum mansions like the Carnton Plantation of Tennessee. You can visit Port Hudson, Louisiana, where hundreds of African American soldiers fought valiantly, or tour the homes on the Underground Railroad.

With so many important sites along the trail, it’s easy to design a camping vacation around the ones you want to visit. Maybe you’re heading to Florida already on a family vacation. You might as well plan a side trip to the Olustee Battlefield State Historic Park or to Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park. Florida alone has more than twenty Discovery Trail sites, so there’s sure to be one near your destination.

You can use the Discovery Trail website to plan a route around Virginia’s seventy-two historic sites, stopping at the Appomattox Court House, the Cedar Creek Battlefield, and the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. You might even catch a reenactment at one of these battlefields. This is a great way to bring history to life, as you watch one side take aim at the other, displaying the cold brutality of war.

The Discovery Trail sites also help you learn more about what life was like for civilians at the time of the Civil War. You’ll see restored homes like the Lee Hall Mansion or the Belle Boyd Cottage. Pay a visit to Christ Church, Virginia or tour Rector House at the John Mosby Heritage Area.

With locations in such varied locales as New Mexico, Minnesota, and Maine, the Discovery Trail encompasses a majority of the states in the nation. The Trail even includes sites in the United Kingdom, France, and Bermuda. Are you curious about Wisconsin’s role in the Civil War? How about Kansas’s or California’s? From north to south, you’ll find battlefields, homes of important military leaders, and the sites that marked turning points in the war’s outcome.
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