Portsmouth, New Hampshire, bait shacks on the Piscataqua River.

7 Most Overlooked Towns in the Northern United States

Heading from west to east – Pacific to Atlantic – the northern United States combines the grandeur of the Cascades and Rockies, the wide open golden prairies, the world-renowned Great Lakes, and the splendid enclave of New England. All along the way, road-trippers can expect to find scores of small towns, each with a head-turning aesthetic, and soul of its own. Some are well-known, but many are sadly overlooked. These seven northern US towns will introduce Americans to new and exciting sides of their homeland, and give international visitors a favorable first impression of this multifaceted nation.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

Coast Guard Station of North Superior at Grand Marais, Minnesota on Lake Superior.
Coast Guard Station of North Superior at Grand Marais, Minnesota on Lake Superior.

Positioned between the northwest shore of Lake Superior (the largest and wildest of the Great Lakes) and the Sawtooth Mountains, Minnesota's Grand Marais is both remote and inviting. This small harborside city is the seat of Cook County and home to the state's oldest art colony. Local painters perch themselves at the head of the whale-tale-shaped peninsula (a spot known as "Artist Point") to sketch the sailboats, sunrise, lighthouse, and immensity of Superior.

In town, craftspeople sell their traditional works in local boutiques and galleries (there are 16 of them), but also offer public classes at the North House Folk School and Grand Marais Art Colony, for anyone wishing to awaken their creative side. Those hoping to connect with the expansive wilderness of The North Star State can explore the massive Pincushion Mountain Trail System, or cruise the 57-mile Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway, which starts in town and goes all the way to Saganaga Lake on the Ontario border (an area known as the Boundary Waters).

Stanley, Idaho

The gorgeous town of Stanley, Idaho.
The gorgeous town of Stanley, Idaho.

Smack dab in the center of The Gem State, within the jaw-dropping Sawtooth Valley, Idaho's small town of Stanley is easy to overlook, but once visited, impossible to forget. This Custer County community sits along the western shore of Salmon River, which, as one might expect, is an abundant waterway for anglers. Inevitably, the Sawtooth Mountains will call out to adventurers. Thankfully, there are two million acres of the Sawtooth National Forest to keep you busy.

Set forth on foot, or join a horseback riding tour. Just don't spend all your time lost in the woods, for the residents of Stanley love to entertain. Street dances take over downtown on Thursday nights, as does the "Music on the Front Lawn" concert series. And since this region is a designated Dark Sky Reserve, when all is said and done, tilt your head back and marvel at the unobscured cosmos before retiring to your guest ranch, cabin, or campsite.

Homer, Alaska

Halibut Cove across Katchemak Bay from Homer, Alaska.
Halibut Cove across Katchemak Bay from Homer, Alaska.

The Last Frontier is consistently overlooked because of its massive, remote and underdeveloped landscape. Many of the least-visited national parks in the United States are found in Alaska, and underrated, one-of-a-kind towns are everywhere. One of the standouts is Homer, a quaint community plopped at the terminus of the Sterling Highway (200 miles south of Anchorage), on the mouth of Kachemak Bay, where it opens into Cook Inlet.

Known as the "Halibut Fishing Capital of the World," Homer is a great place to cast a line or join a fishing tour amongst unbeatable mountain scenery, or to sit down to a meal of freshly-caught seafood at a wholesome waterfront restaurant. Homer is also a hub for huge outdoor adventures. Consider catching a floatplane to Lake Clark and/or Katmai National Park and Preserve on the west side of the inlet, to observe thriving populations of Alaskan brown bears, or take a water taxi/ferry tour east to Kachemak Bay State Park (Alaska's first state park).

Watkins Glen, New York

The Seneca Lake pier at Watkins Glen, New York.
The Seneca Lake pier at Watkins Glen, New York.

New York's Watkins Glen is a beautiful and fun-loving village based around the south shore of Seneca Lake. Owing to the copious amounts of long and slender bodies of water, this region of The Empire State is known as the Finger Lakes. There are many magnetic small towns in this part of Upstate New York, but I don't think most Americans are aware of the natural attractions surrounding Watkins Glen. To compliment the lake, there are countless chattering waterfalls in the vicinity of this Schuyler County community.

Check off 19 of them by descending between the sheer cliffs of Gorge Trail in Watkins Glen State Park (which presses up against the west side of town). Next, delve into the dense and verdant (in the summer), or mosaic (come fall) woods of Sugar Hill State Forest (to the west) or Finger Lakes National Forest (to the east). Switching gears, these shores constitute one of the top cool-climate wine regions on the planet, with 60+ wineries surrounding Seneca Lake. Finally, car racing fans will be in for a surprise at the Watkins Glen International, a 3.4-mile course that hosts all sorts of high-octane professional events from spring until fall.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Aerial View Over Cannon Beach Pacific Ocean Coast Oregon
Cannon Beach, Pacific Ocean Coast, Oregon.

Bring your Canon camera to Cannon Beach, for this Oregonian resort city is about as picturesque as it gets. Situated in the northwest corner of The Beaver State, this coastal community is blessed with long, wide, and sandy beaches, and stark rock formations that jut out of the Pacific Ocean. The centerpiece attraction is Haystack Rock, which at low tide, can nearly be reached from the town's namesake beach.

While out there, chances are you will also see horseback riders (feel free to join a tour), migrating gray whales, nesting tufted puffins, and/or a sunset for the ages. Cannon Beach builds on its organic splendor with elegant clifftop parks/trails, romantic lodging, classy restaurants, boutique shops, a glassblowing workshop, and 15 galleries (as well as multiple annual art events, including a sandcastle contest!).

Saugatuck, Michigan

Shops and galleries line Butler Street in Saugatuck, Michigan.
Shops and galleries line Butler Street in Saugatuck, Michigan. Image credit Kenneth Sponsler via Shutterstock.com

Another great Great Lake town that doesn't see as much traffic as the nearby beach towns is Michigan's Saugatuck. This charming community developed on The Wolverine State's Lower Peninsula, pinched between the shore of Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo Lake/the Kalamazoo River. It possesses award-winning beaches, grassy sand dunes (if you scoot slightly north to Saugatuck Dunes State Park), and a walkable, waterfront downtown core (known as the "Social District) filled with coffee shops, pubs, farm-to-table eateries, boat and jet ski rental companies, and plenty more.

This part of Lake Michigan (from Saugatuck to South Haven) has been dubbed the "Art Coast." So keep your eyes out for the various public installations, and pop by the local studios, galleries, and rotating exhibitions at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts to see what the resident creatives have been cooking up.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, harbor with pink skies.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire, harbor.

No tour of the northern United States would be complete without a stopover in New England. New Hampshire's colorful and vibrant Portsmouth is, first and foremost, a working seaport. Positioned at the mouth of the Piscataqua River and a sliver of the Gulf of Maine known as the Seacoast, this Granite State gem is ideal for sailing, paddling, swimming, diving deep into America's early maritime history (European settlement occurred in 1630), and all things water-related.

At the same time, Portsmouth has a pedestrian-friendly historic downtown that is lined with stately, red-brick buildings, tap rooms, top-tier seafood restaurants (many of which also boast bountiful brunches), and other nightlife attractions. While there are many events to look forward to, Portsmouth's premier attraction has to be the Seacoast Beer Week when craft breweries from both New Hampshire and Maine strut their best suds.

Heading north always evokes a sense of adventure. This half of the United States is four-season territory, and therefore paints a different picture, one that pairs with varying activities, whenever it is visited. Whether you fancy sky-piercing mountain ranges, enormous coastlines and lakes, or the small-scale, yet engaging social/art scenes of an inspired, tight-knit community, these seven small towns have something amazing to offer. So don't delay. Follow that compass (or, I suppose, GPS…but compasses are so much more romantic) toward the big N.

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