Some sites are called tourist traps for an obvious reason: they are.
In my experience, the more signs you see advertising a must-see marvel, the more likely it will be a site of little interest and less authenticity next to a shop selling T-shirts, fudge, and coffee mugs: a classic tourist trap.
A friend and I once stopped at a cave acclaimed by numerous gaudy highway signs as an outlaw refuge in days of yore. We stood behind a chain-link fence to peer into a smoke-blackened cave and read a list of bad guys “thought to have spent time” there. Exit arrows then led us to a souvenir-and-sugar-rich store where bathrooms lurked behind signs designating them for customer use only.
Other sites attract tourists for an equally straightforward reason: they’re worth seeing.
“Why go to Yosemite?” a friend with opinions asked. “All you’ll see is tourists gawking, pointing, and littering. They’re like flies.”
The next summer, ignoring her advice, I traveled to Yosemite where I looked beyond the slow-moving traffic and crowded campgrounds to a splendor of trees, sky, water, and stone. I then hiked beneath massive granite domes to the noise of waterfalls, exchanging greetings and “Isn’t this awesome?” with fellow flies.
A few sites, less well known, surprise and captivate.
Though Joel and I drove I-70 through Missouri to Illinois regularly, we never paid much attention to the Show Me state beyond its rolling green hills, wild turkeys, and billboards urging motorists to stop at Passion’s Adult Store.
Then, when Joel wanted to revisit his childhood by fishing at Reel Foot, Tennessee, we consulted our scenic-road-trip book and selected a route that meandered through the springs of Missouri.
We’d never heard of the churning pools with no-nonsense names: Alley Spring, Round Spring, Blue Spring, Big Spring; springs located beneath limestone bluffs standing guard over vast basins with rough edges, where turquoise waters bubbled up to flow into streams that drifted by caves and natural bridges.
One morning, we walked through a heavy rain without getting wet on a path protected by overhanging trees and found a spring of deep, rolling water that shimmered with shades of indigo. At Big Spring, we felt the force of water drained from a seventy-mile radius before gushing from the ground at a rate of 277 million gallons a day. Accustomed to the dryer landscapes of the intermountain west, our eyes soaked up the abundant water and lush greenness of this beautiful state.
When I moved to Colorado, I was equally surprised and fulfilled when Joel suggested we visit the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Though I’d lived in western states my entire life, I’d never heard of the canyon and had little interest in making its acquaintance.
But when we stopped at the first viewpoint along the Black Canyon’s rim, I looked in amazement at the dramatic slash in the surface of the earth with its shadowed walls falling straight to a distant river: a canyon so narrow and steep it defied the sun and dwelled in darkness. At every stop, I held on to the guardrail: looking down at the Black Canyon made me feel vulnerable and insignificant.
I’d found another site worthy of the term, tourist attraction. I hope you’ve found several as well.