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.

Wind-sculpted Sand Dunes of Oregon

The southern coast of Oregon hides a secret natural wonder—wind-sculpted sand dunes that tower 500 feet above sea level. Set off Highway 101, west of Eugene, these remarkable formations are part of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Head to the dunes for a week or a weekend of outdoor fun, enjoying hiking, fishing, canoeing, horseback riding, OHV riding, and incredible photography.

The Oregon Dunes NRA extends for forty miles along the coast, roughly from Coos Bay to Florence. This is the largest group of coastal dunes in North America, encompassing a variety of ecosystems like open dunes, marsh-like plains, beaches, and “tree islands.”

Dunes are synonymous with dune buggies—or with OHVs, today’s equivalent. These off-highway vehicles are perfect dune machines, carrying riders up and down the sides of these towering sand piles. Three dedicated OHV areas have been set up in the NRA. You can explore the sand roads between South Jetty and the Siltcoos River, ride the dramatic slopes of the Umpqua Riding Area, and cruise between Spinreel and Horsfall. 4x4s, motorcycles, sand rails, and quad-runner are also welcome. If you want to take a ride but don’t have your own vehicle, just inquire about guided dune tours.

You’ll find plenty of water sports at the Oregon Dunes. With more than thirty lakes and ponds, plus a myriad of streams and rivulets, there are miles of space for sailing, canoeing, swimming, and water skiing. Enjoy scuba diving in the lakes or fishing on Siltcoos or South Tenmile Lake. Anglers flock to this area for the chance to fish for salmon, steelhead, trout, and warm-water species. The warmer, salt-water estuaries are home to salmon, crab, mussels, and rock fish.

Beyond the fringes of the dunes, lush fir and spruce forests roll down to the coast, offering endless opportunities for hiking and mountain biking. Some trails even lead you up and over the tops of the dunes, providing breathtaking views. More than 230 miles of trails lead you through the recreation area, some trailing along lakeshores and creeks, other leading into the heart of the dunes.

The sand that makes up the dunes comes from the Coast Mountain Range, sedimentary rock that uplifted 12 million years ago. As the rock tumbled down rivers, it graded into fine sand. Over time, tides, waves, and coastal winds built up the sand in this inland area, piling it on top of the solid Coos Bay Dune Sheet. This low, rocky sheet is flanked by beaches with steep banks and headlands, so once the sand arrived on the Coos Bay sheet, it was hemmed in from both sides and forced to stay.

The dunes themselves were built by the action of wind and waves. In the winter, winds can reach up to 100 miles per hour here, whipping the sand particles up into hillocks and mounds, much the way it builds snow drifts. Currents, tides, and waves all helped keep new sediment from the rivers close to shore, adding to the mass of the sand dunes.

You’ll find some unique formations at Oregon Dunes, including that staple of old-time adventure stories – quicksand. Because sand absorbs water quickly, the ground here can become saturated during a big rainstorm. If the marshes flood, the sand grains will actually float on top of the water, making quicksand.

The Oregon Dunes have about 32 lakes that were once mountain streams but got stranded by the sand. Others are ocean inlets that got cut off by shifting dunes.

Changes in the wind direction can result in new and strangely formed dunes. Summertime winds often make dunes that lie against the prevailing wind. From time to time, you might come across tree islands, little clusters of old forests that are almost totally buried in the sand. Just think—if sand can bury forest, is there anything it can’t cover up completely?

Ashland, Oregon - Shakespeare & Natural Beauty

Serene Ashland, Oregon is famous for its city parks, superb dining, and world-class theater. This home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a beautiful place to settle back and sink into cultural delights. With its unique shopping opportunities, riverside dining, and the luxurious grasslands of Lithia Park, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this small town.

Theater thrives in Ashland. The Shakespeare Festival takes center stage, offering afternoon and evening plays in three different theaters including the open-air replica of Will Shakespeare’s own Fortune Theatre. This Elizabethan Theatre seats 1,200 in a magical wonderland of Renaissance pomp and circumstance. Arrive early to hear the minstrels sing Elizabethan ballads, then settle back for the opening lines with a glass of white wine or an English toffee.

The Festival puts on at least three of Shakespeare’s plays every year, with two showing in late evening slots in the Elizabethan Theatre. The others—and a variety of contemporary plays—are shown in the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre and the cutting-edge New Theater. There are behind-the-scenes tours available as well as views of the luxurious costumes and the Elizabethan Theatre stage.

After you’ve taken in all of the Festival offerings, you’re ready for the Oregon Cabaret Theatre shows. Ashland’s “other” theater company specializes in musical theater, revues, and comedies, all held in a renovated Baptist church. Once you’ve had your fill of plays and theater, head into Ashland to explore the quaint town center or to read a book near the pond in rambling Lithia Park.

Ashland has a number of excellent bookstores, boutiques, and terrific delis and European-style bistros. Whether you’re seduced by the outdoor BBQ joint or decide to take a picnic to a scenic spot along the river, you can top it all off with an evening of exploring the Ashland streets, admiring the roses and hanging baskets. You’ll find plenty of locally-made jewelry, crafts, pottery, and artwork in the galleries and shops. And be sure not to miss the Children’s Museum and Southern Oregon Historical Society’s original exhibits.

On the first Friday of every month, Ashland hosts an Art Walk sponsored by the Gallery Association. This is a terrific way to explore the art galleries, sipping wine while you view the artwork. In the spring, be sure to visit for the Taste of Ashland, sampling fresh local delicacies. You may also enjoy a walking tour of the town’s Historic Railroad District.

For fun in the great outdoors, make a day trip to the rolling waters of the nearby Rogue, Klamath, Umpqua, and Salmon Rivers. You’ll find superb river floating, inner tubing, kayaking, and thrilling white water rafting. These are also amazing fishing rivers.

Ashland is in the heart of fertile farm country. You’ll find plenty of hobby farms in the city limits and artisans making homemade honey, goat cheese, body lotion, and other herbals. The Rogue Valley is rich with farms and wineries. You can join Ashland Wine Tours and let them drive you through Southern Oregon’s stunning wine country or take a historic tour of the wineries of Jackson County. The area also includes historic orchards, mills, farms, and much more.

Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - Birthplace of Flight

Any student of U.S. history knows that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was the site of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane flight, but many don’t know about the beauty of this seaside town. Charming Kitty Hawk is set in the Outer Banks, a coastal playground that offers miles of sand and fabulous outdoor activities. With historic sights, quaint clapboard cottages, and scores of colorful fishing boats, Kitty Hawk truly takes you back in time.

The sands of the Outer Banks are a delightful place to play like a kid—or to bring the kids, if you’re headed on a family adventure. You can race across the sand dunes, towing your kite behind you, or go sailing in the same waters as Sir Francis Drake and the pirate Blackbeard. The coast offers tremendous sporting opportunities, from sea kayaking and surfing to fishing and shelling along the coast. You can head out on a scuba diving trip, looking at underwater creatures, or do some windsurfing and kite surfing. And of course you’ll find plenty of chances to swim and build sand castles.

Kids can catch a play about the first English colony in the New World or go racing after blue crabs at the beach. You’ll find plenty of space for strolling or biking as well as first-rate restaurants offering everything from delicious seafood to international cuisine.

But of course Kitty Hawk is most famous for its connection to the Wright Brothers. Orville and Wilbur first settled here because this quiet village seemed like the perfect place to test their airplanes in secret. They arrived in the fall of 1900, and by 1903 Orville was telegraphing home with triumphant news. Just four miles from the base of Kill Devil Hill, he and Wilbur had achieved the first powered air flight. Today, visitors can relive this exciting historic moment at the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Visitor Center as well as at the Memorial Pylon that marks the position of the flight.

The origin of Kitty Hawk’s unique name is still under dispute. Some believe it’s an approximation of the Native American phrase meaning “goose hunting grounds.” Others say it’s a local term for dragonflies, or “skeeter hawks,” that in time has turned into “kitty hawk.” Whatever the origin, the area is in fact well known as a hawk-watching location. Hawks, osprey, and other bird of prey cruise along this sandy coast, looking for tasty meals washed up by the sea.

Lovers of nature should be sure to visit the Kitty Hawk Woods, a 1,877-acre wilderness that’s set right in the middle of town. This maritime deciduous swamp, forest, and marsh area is a haven for birds, wildlife, and other critters. With inlets cutting across the Currituck Banks, letting fresh sound waters flow into the salty ocean, this is prime hunting territory for sea birds and marine creatures as well as being an excellent nursery for fish.

A number of wild animals thrive in the Woods. When you visit, you may see everything from muskrats and river otters to swans, foxes, and white-tailed deer. Songbirds flock to the marshlands, and woodpeckers and wood ducks inhabit the forests. Because of the fragility of this special ecosystem, visitors are asked to please remain on the trails and boardwalks.

Kitty Hawk is a dog-friendly town, so long as dogs and their owners both follow certain rules. Dogs must be kept on a leash that’s shorter than twelve feet long. They aren’t allowed in the Kitty Hawk Woods, but dogs are allowed on public beaches so long as the owner cleans up after them.

If you bring your own watercraft to Kitty Hawk, you’ll find plenty of places to put your boat in the water. Kitty Hawk offers a number of public beach access points at streets throughout town. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, lifeguards are on duty to protect beach swimmers.

The Road to Hana, Maui

With its golden beaches, lush tropical landscape, and clean-washed blue skies, Maui is a vacationing wonderland. In this land of superlatives, the little town of Hana offers a get-away that surpasses the imagination. Even locals flock to Hana to escape from it all, get back to nature, and relax. The next time you’re in the rainbow state, head to Maui and explore the beauty of Hana!

Hana is set on Maui’s far eastern peninsula, just north of Haleakala National Park. With its setting far from the larger towns and cities, Hana reminds its visitors of what Maui was like thirty years ago. Stunning natural beauty surrounds you everywhere, from the lava-formed bluffs and rolling waves to the tropical forests and brilliant flowers.

The road to Hana offers just as much joy and beauty as the destination itself. From the Kahului Airport, it’s a 52-mile (or 2-4 hour) trip along the narrow, winding Hana Highway. If you have the time, be sure to stop at the parks and vista points along the way. This road leads you through the only rain forest in Maui that’s accessible by car, so take your time and admire the scenery as well as the exotic birds and wildlife.

The town of Hana hasn’t changed much in the last twenty years. It still retains its small-town feel, as you’ll find when you step into the Hasegawa General Store, a family-run enterprise that’s been in operation since 1910. You’ll find a wide range of galleries and shops in Hana, offering everything from Maui-inspired hot sauces to Hawaiian plants and fruits. Several local artists run their own shops in Hana, featuring hand-made wares. Be sure to take your time exploring the town center, poking into stores and asking questions of the owners. With the easy pace of life in Hana, everyone has a minute to chat.

Hana’s beaches are exquisite and varied. At Hamoa Beach, you’ll see what author James Michener called ‘South Pacific beauty in the North Pacific.’ Koki Beach has a white sandy shore that’s overlooked by Kaiwi O’Pele Hill’s red cinder cliffs. You’ll find a red cinder beach and lovely lagoons at Kaihalulu Beach, and a black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park.

Once you’ve had your fill of beaches, head to the dramatic Wailua Falls, a 95-foot waterfall that’s right off the Hana Highway. You can take a self-guided tour at the Kahanu Garden, checking out the Pi’ilanihali Heiau, the largest such plant in the state of Hawaii. If you take a day trip to Haleakala National Park, you can explore the Ohe’o—or Seven Pools—Gulch. A stop at the rangers station will help you get the most out of your park visit.

To learn more about Maui and Hana’s history, head to the Hana Cultural Center and Museum. Their newly-built Kauhale O Hana is an authentic re-creation of the kind of complex Hawaiians lived in before European contact. Polynesian peoples arrived in Hawaii between 500 and 800 AD. By the 1800s, sugar plantations had boomed in Hana, causing the Hana Highway to be built. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hana grew to a town of 3,500 with two movie theaters, three barber shops, and fifteen different shops.

You’ll find amazing restaurants in Hana, offering everything from espresso to burgers or local favorites. At the Up In Smoke BBQ you can sample baked breadfruit, kalua pig, and grilled local fish. Start your mornings off right with a stop at the Nihiku Café with its baked goods and Maui coffee, then head to the Laulima Farms Organic Fruit Stand for your mid-morning snack. You can create the energy to make your own smoothie by hopping on the bicycle-powered blender!

Activities abound in Hana. You can take a safari ride to see ancient wetlands, tour the coast on horseback, or rent a kayak and explore the coves and shore from sea level. Snorkeling and swimming are popular activities, as are hiking and biking tours. For a wilder experience, try hang gliding or take a self-guided cave tour at Ka’eleku Caverns, Maui’s largest underground lava tube system. There are plenty of charter services that offer deep sea fishing or ocean rafting as well as whale watching or special snorkeling trips. And be sure not to miss the annual East Maui Taro Festival, a celebration of the culture of Kalo.

With its unique history, natural beauty, and mellow attitude, Hana is an ideal vacation destination. Whether you pass the time admiring the glistening waters of the Wai’anapanapa Caves or spend your days exploring the flower farms and lei shops, you’re sure to fall in love with Hawaiian culture. You’ll soon see that it’s true what they say—once you take the road to Hana, you may never want to go back.

Half Moon Bay, California

Not far south of San Francisco lies a quiet coastal community where seagulls soar over sandy beaches, farmers tend their local produce, and quirky town stores sell handmade crafts and cards. Welcome to Half Moon Bay, an 80-mile coastline that’s bursting with natural wonders. This area has some of the richest marine reserves in all of California, making it an outstanding place to enjoy fishing, crabbing, clamming, and beachcombing. And with its array of small working farms, you’ll find plenty of fresh local produce to round out your BBQ or evening meal of wild salmon and albacore tuna.

This section of California’s coast is famous for its wildlife. Just to the south lies the whale watching-center of Monterey, while to the north are the giant redwood forests. Right in Half Moon Bay, you can head to Pillar Point Harbor for a day of fishing at the National Marine Sanctuary. Watch the fishermen unload their day’s catch of squid, crabs, salmon, rockfish, tuna, and halibut and learn about how they bait their traps and mend their gear. In the afternoon, take a kayak class, head out on a whale watching adventure, or spend your time fishing in the quiet surf.

Bird watchers can head to the Princeton Marsh and Seashore or the Pescadero Marsh Bird Refuge. More than 200 species flock to this area every year to hunt and nest in these marshy grasslands. If hiking and mountain biking is what you’re after, pay a visit to the Coastside Trails, a system of trails that links Roosevelt, Dunes, Venice, and Francis beaches. You’ll find stunning views of the coast from the bluffs and lowlands of the trail system.

Kids will love going tide-pooling at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. You can watch for tiny crabs and sea anemones, see hermit crabs go scuttling along with their shells on their backs, or watch tiny fish hide themselves under rocks. In January and March, look for whales along the Grey Whale Cove Trail at McNee Ranch State Park off Highway 1. The miles of trails lead to amazing and surprising views of the beach.

For a bit of history, try a visit to the Moss Beach Distillery, a hotspot for bootlegging and rum running during the Prohibition. “Frank’s Place,” a 1928 speakeasy on the cliffs at Moss Beach was a popular hangout for silent film stars and San Francisco politicians. Rum runners from Canada delivered their goods under the cover of night. Their whiskey was run up the beach and loaded into vehicles that would carry it into San Francisco. Today, Frank’s is the home of a resident ghost called the Blue Lady.

Half Moon Bay is famous for its annual harvest festival. In late October of every year, head that way for the great Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. You and the kids can tromp into the pumpkin patch, enjoying treats like pony rides, train rides, hay rides, petting zoos, haunted houses, and super slides. While the festival just lasts one weekend, the pumpkin fields are usually open until the day after Halloween. The festival includes a juried art show as well as hearty stews made from locally grown produce like artichokes, Brussels sprouts, and of course pumpkins! All of the food and beverages at the festival are sold by local nonprofits, so the proceeds go to a good cause.

History and Wildlife: Venice to Boca Grande, Florida

Take a step back in time on Florida's historic Southwestern coast, an area filled with gorgeous beaches, incredible wildlife, and some of the finest fishing you'll find anywhere. Set in the quiet, undiscovered region around Charlotte Harbor, the coastal towns of Venice and Boca Grande offer old-world charm and modern hospitality. After you tour the beaches and explore the boutiques, take a day trip to the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, one of the best bird-watching spots in the country.

Begin your tour in lovely Venice, a sweet, sleepy resort town that's south of Sarasota and Interstate 75. Venice is made up of five small towns, each with its own unique flavor. In Osprey, Laurel, Nokomis, Venice, and South Venice you'll find distinctive boutiques and unique gift shops, plus plenty of cafes and galleries for window shopping. This is also a hotspot for golfing or for boating and fishing off the golden-sand beaches.

While you're in Venice, be sure to spend an afternoon at the Venetian Waterway Park, a ten-mile waterfront park that covers both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway. Head there for a scenic stroll, a bike ride, roller blading, or to walk your favorite furry friend.

Venice has a lively, active community with a thriving arts center. You'll find symphony performances, theater, and plenty of history at Historic Spanish Point and the Venice Historic Preservation League. On Friday night, you can enjoy the town's free concerts and then get up on Saturday, ready to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farmer's Market.

Once Venice has soothed you into relaxation, head south down Highway 776 to the island attraction of Gasparilla, home of Boca Grande. This charming town celebrates Old World Florida in all its glory with the 104-year old lighthouse and 80-year old Banyan trees. The Gulf side of Gasparilla Island is covered with white-sand beaches that are perfect for swimmers, sunbathers, volley-ball players, and shell collectors. On the bay side, mangroves and wetlands create an ideal ecosystem for fishing. These 750,000 acres of estuary are a haven for ocean fish that love this particular blend of fresh and salt water. Watch for dolphins, osprey, white pelicans, and manatees.

If fishing is what you're after, visit between August and November or during Tarpon season in the spring. You'll find waters filled with grouper, snapper, mackerel, redfish, and kingfish. There are plenty of boat rentals available, as well as boat ramps for getting your own craft into the water.

Beautiful Boca Grande will whet your appetite for more natural wonders and incredible wildlife. So head east through Port Charlotte to the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area. This 102-square mile region is famous for its bird watching, bluegill fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Visit in the spring to see the flatwoods burst into color with wildflowers or keep your binoculars trained on the trees as you watch for woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, hummingbirds, eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. Herons, ibises, and belted kingfishers love exploring these lush wetlands.

Western Florida is an ideal place to head for a romantic weekend or family getaway. With its fabulous weather, sandy beaches, and wildlife, you'll truly find the perfect attraction or activity. Whether it's fishing, beachcombing, or gift shopping you're after, this part of Florida is the place to be.
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