Why America’s Least-Visited States Deserve a Spot on Your Bucket List

a small boat in a body of water © Heath Korvola/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we'll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.Even the most well-traveled American has inevitable gaps on their "where I've been" map. It's a big country out there, and clocking all 50 states is a fairly universal bucket list accomplishment. Still, some of the less "glamorous" states are inevitably passed over -- which is a shame. Now more than ever, we're daydreaming about hitting the U.S. Interstate in search of wide open spaces, desert expanses, serene beaches, stunning mountain vistas, and near-empty trails.

After crunching the most recently available tourism information -- spreadsheets were involved! -- we identified the 20 least-visited states in the country. We drilled deep to find out what makes each a destination in its own right: small-town charm, surprising food, fantastic beer, and sweeping landscapes. If you're feeling cooped up and stir-crazy, make a plan to visit these roads less traveled. a group of people in front of a building © Peter Unger/Lonely Planet Images/Getty

20. Maine Annual visitors: 36.7 million

Why you should visit: That the number of visitors so incredibly dwarfs the actual population of Maine -- 1.33 million -- is absolutely astounding, and proof that our easternmost state is becoming a serious worldwide destination. In all likelihood, Portland will be your first stop. The state's largest city offers a glimpse of old converging with new, a bustling little city whose incredible food and drink scene meshes beautifully with its classic Northeast, making it one our essential 20 Best Places for a Big Trip.  If the flannel-wearing brewers and top-notch restaurants don't make you fall in love, the cobblestone streets, friendly locals, and crisp seaside air certainly will.

But the largest city isn't all Maine has to offer. Venture north or south and you'll quickly realize that every view is postcard-worthy. You can visit rustic towns in the woods and spend your time hiking a mountain or swimming in a lake; or head to a lesser-known city like Lewiston, Camden, or Rockport where the art, antiques, music, and food is all starting to rival Portland's scene. There are plenty of beaches perfect for sprawling out on the sand with lobster rolls in tow, or you can opt to bounce around the islands off the coast. There are 3,000 of them, but if you only hit one, make it Mount Desert: It's home to one of the top national parks in the country and a mountain where you can be the first in the country to see the sun rise.

MORE: Take a perfect three-day road trip through Maine a rocky cliff with water and a mountain in the background © Mona Makela Photography/Getty Images

19. New Mexico Annual visitors: 36.6 million

Why you should visit: Every time you saw Breaking Bad you thought to yourself, "Hm, that looks like a really pretty place to hole up in an RV and eat unsliced pizza!" And you're right! The Land of Enchantment boasts some ridiculously gorgeous desert escapes. Ghost Ranch, the terrain made famous by Georgia O'Keeffe, is full of crimson and gold cliffs and big blue sky. White Sands National Monument has a mind-boggling 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes set in the shadow of the mountains. And we'd be remiss to leave out Carlsbad Caverns, a collection of over 100 caves and one of the state's top attractions.

The cities are no slouches either. Santa Fe is one of America's great art destinations, and not just because of the turquoise and silver, or the artist galleries downtown, but also because of Meow Wolf, a Tim Burton-esque immersive art experience. Think of it as an all-ages psychedelic funhouse, located in an enormous former bowling alley. Santa Fe also has an awesome under-the-radar food scene, where modern Southwestern cuisine meets ancient recipes and ingredients. Then there's the fantastic skiing in Taos, the only place in the state one might describe as bougie, but which is still way cheaper than Park City or Aspen. 

MORE: Check out some of the most beautiful sights in New Mexico a large body of water © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

18. Kansas Annual visitors: 35.4 million

Why you should visit: For starters, to scope out the territory, Kansas will pay you to move there. Relocate to one of its rural areas and the state will cover your income tax for the next five years. This is not a bad deal, because Kansas' rural areas are -- and this truly does not get said enough -- stunning. 

Few things beat a solitary morning spent among the state's quiet fishing lakes, or its protected marshes filled with migratory birds. But don't get it into your head that the best reasons to visit (or, like, buy a home in) Kansas are only about having quiet time in nature. Wichita is home to celebrated breweries, art galleries, urban murals, exciting new food trucks, and botanical gardens throwing live music shows when the weather's nice. Kansas is in that rare sweet spot; it's got everything you need.   a yellow boat sitting on top of a mountain © Patrick Orton/Getty Images

17. Idaho Annual visitors: 34.3 million

Why you should go: Many years ago I took a bike trip through Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. As we sat resting by Redfish Lake, admiring the snow-capped peaks reflecting in the clear blue water with nary a tourist in sight, my dad said, "You know, if this place was in California it would be wall-to-wall people." This is why Idaho is perfect.

It's got all the jagged mountains, wild whitewater, and pristine lakes of places like Colorado, Utah, or California, but it doesn't pack in the ungodly numbers of tourists. While everyone else is clogging up Jackson Hole, an easy jaunt over the Tetons and the Wyoming state line will drop you by the two best small towns in the state, Driggs and Victor. Spots like Stanley and Coeur d'Alene are also cool resort towns that don't feel too cool for you, with friendly people and spectacular scenery. And of course, there's brewery-packed Boise, an outdoorsy Denver/Portland hybrid at a fraction of the cost that's one of the most underrated places to live in these United States.

MORE: This Idaho state park is the right way to be outside right now a close up of a hillside next to a lush green forest © Brandon Alms/Shutterstock.com

16. Arkansas Annual visitors: 32 million

Why you should visit: Historic Helena on the Mississippi Delta was occupied by Union soldiers and was the site of an 1863 battle; it was also a safe haven for people fleeing slavery. Little Rock High School was home to the first public-school integration in 1957. There's a lot of complex history to be had across the state.

But since Arkansas is the Natural State, the biggest reason to visit is the outdoors. Hot Springs National Park is one of the 20 most visited in the country and home to Bathhouse Row, where you can get your aromatherapy on in a natural hot spring. Past that, there's America's first national river, the Buffalo, where you can whitewater raft through limestone bluffs, as well as the caverns at Devil's Den and Blanchard Springs.

MORE: The curious cultural rise of the town that gave us Walmart a group of people standing next to a fence © Courtesy of Flora-Bama

15. Alabama Annual visitors: 26.6 million

Why you should visit: There are plenty of good reasons to visit the Iron State besides SEC football. For instance, you can drink in two states at once at the Flora-Bama bar near Orange Beach. Or participate in its famous annual mullet toss (fish, not hair). If you're not into throwing fish and/or drinking on the beach, you can explore 35 miles of gorgeous coastline, most notably, Gulf Shores -- it's the prettiest place in the state and home to the annual Hangout Music Festival.

There are landmark historical sites from the Civil Rights movement all across the state, including the Civil Rights Institute and the famous 16th St Baptist Church in Birmingham, plus the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma. There's also baseball history -- the oldest stadium in America is Rickwood Field in Birmingham.

Finally, any idea where the largest space museum in America is? Cape Canaveral, Houston, Washington, DC? Nope! It's in Huntsville! The U.S. Space & Rocket Center, home to the famous space camp, is the best attraction in the state.

MORE: Why visiting Birmingham, Alabama needs to be on your to-do list a boat is docked next to a body of water © Providence Warwick CVB

14. Rhode Island Annual visitors: 24.8 million

Why you should visit: Get some inspiration for your plan to bring down the 1% by taking the cliff walk through Newport's historic mansions. During the summer you can ironically dress up like F. Scott Fitzgerald and tailgate at the weekly polo matches. If you want. Seriously. It's a scene.

Rhode Island boasts 400 miles of coastline (it's not called the Ocean State for nothing), and some of the warmest water in New England. If you're still hanging in Newport, Second Beach is your move for a day on the water.

To round things out, you've got the Pawtucket Red Sox (or Pawsox) -- a fun minor-league alternative to Fenway -- 17 breweries and distilleries (remember, it's the smallest state), and a burgeoning, underrated restaurant scene in Providence. Oh yeah, and Del's Frozen Lemonade. Do NOT leave without trying a Del's Frozen Lemonade. a wooden pier next to a body of water © Donovan Reese/Photodisc/Getty

13. Mississippi Annual visitors:  24.7 million

Why you should visit: Let's start with Elvis' birthplace, also in Tupelo. From there, you can walk up three different music trails -- through cotton fields, churches, train depots, and nightclubs -- to learn about the roots of blues and country music. Mississippi is also home to three of the five driving trails on the Americana Music Triangle, a 1,500-mile highway route through five states with historical stops related to countless types of music from the region, including blues, jazz, country, rock & roll, R&B/soul, gospel, Southern gospel, Cajun/zydeco, and bluegrass.

When you can't talk about Buddy Guy anymore, there are also 26 miles of pristine water and white sand beaches here, without anywhere near the number of tourists or tacky T-shirt shops you'd find in Florida. And -- unlike other beach towns on the Gulf -- Biloxi and Gulfport have casinos. While you're there, hit the Beau Rivage for the best nightlife in the state, or head to the Walter Anderson Art Museum in nearby Ocean Springs.

MORE: Biloxi is one of the best cities in America for a long weekend getaway a group of people in a harbor next to a body of water © FotoRequest/Shutterstock.com

12. Massachusetts Annual visitors: 24.2 million

Why you should visit: There's sports to be watched, history to be learned, and great food to be had in Boston, but it's the boatloads (puns!) of quaint seaside towns that make shockingly under-touristed Massachusetts such a gem.

Amble around little Cape Ann fishing villages like Rockport, where you can hang with lobstermen and chow down on some fresh, fresh seafood. Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard are the more well-known escapes, with spectacular seal- and shark-watching opportunities along the National Seashore. Maybe you can't afford to drink rosé and slurp oysters all day with New England's boat-shoed bourgeoisie, but you might be able to cover the train ride from Hyannis to Buzzards Bay on the Cape Cod Central Railroad ($22-$47). It's one of the most beautiful in the country, an oceanside journey that ambles through cool little towns and cranberry bogs.

In the fall, the colors in the Berkshires are the stuff of romantic weekend fantasies; cute B&Bs, apple picking, and top-notch hiking trails make it one of New England's most scenic destinations. The town of Salem is extra fun to visit around Halloween; history nerds should also visit Plimoth Plantation or Old Sturbridge Village, two living museums from the colonial era.

MORE: Check out the best leaf-peeping spots in New England a herd of cattle walking across a grass covered field © Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

11. North Dakota Annual visitors: 22.6 million

Why you should visit: While most of the visitors to North Dakota these days are in the oil industry, 120 years ago the state had one very important guest: Theodore Roosevelt. And he loved his time on the badlands so much he: a) bought a ranch and moved there, and b) was inspired to grow our national park system by signing the Antiquities Act. Eventually, his property became part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Today, North Dakota has 63 national wildlife refuges and 13 state parks, and offers visitors the chance to see not only an albino buffalo, but the world's largest buffalo in general -- Dakota Thunder -- at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown.

But it's not all rural and Bull Moose. Long famous for tailgating and its affiliation with a Coen Brothers movie that isn't even set there, Fargo's one of America's most underrated cities tucked into an overlooked state. In its insanely walkable landscape, you'll find a food scene that goes beyond hot dish (though gastropub Boiler Room does magical things with signature Midwest tater-tot casserole) and into fine dining and international fare. There's an bonafide beer boom happening, started by pioneering Fargo Brewing and including genuine beer-destination Drekker. The music scene carries a surprising punk undercurrent, while bars range from gloriously divey Empire to the farm-to-glass cidery Wild Terra. In a place that defies expectation, though, there's some things that you can ab solutely bank on: You betcha the wood chipper from Fargo is on display in the visitor center.  a person sitting on a bench in front of a pond © Val Lawless/Shutterstock.com

10. Oklahoma Annual visitors: 21.8 million

Why you should go: Oklahoma can look a bit barren and windswept in the popular imagination, but there's more to this state than waving wheat. Tulsa is one of America's most underrated weekend destinations, a city built on old oil money that's filling in with young people working in healthcare and technology. Due to the aforementioned old money, Tulsa has its own philharmonic and ballet and two of the country's best art museums at the Philbrook and Gilcrease There's now a growing nest of hipsters in the Brady Arts District. Tulsa also throws the best St. Patty's Day celebration west of Chicago.

Down in Oklahoma City, you'll find a thriving, modern metro that still embraces its cow-town roots. Hit the National Cowboy & Western Museum, or spend a day in Stockyards City where you can see a cattle auction, eat steak at the legendary Cattlemen's, bar-hop and dance to live music. Outside the cities, Route 66 runs through the entire state with funky roadside attractions like the Blue Whale of Catoosa. This state might be windy, landlocked, and at times a bit empty-feeling, but a trip through it is a true experience of the American West.

MORE: The best reason to visit Oklahoma City is a surprisingly legit whitewater rafting course a herd of cattle grazing on a lush green field with Chimney Rock National Historic Site in the background © Posnov/Moment Open/Getty Images

9. Nebraska Annual visitors: 20 million

Why you should visit: For reasons to visit Nebraska other than college baseball or Warren Buffett, allow us to suggest... football. The redded-out Memorial Stadium in Lincoln has sold out every game since 1962. Despite the program's recent struggles, the fans remain some of the most intense and spirited in the sport, and they're unusually polite to visitors. If you'd prefer to participate in sports rather than watch them, Nebraska is one of the top destinations in the world for quail and pheasant hunters; the annual One Box Hunt in Broken Bow draws celebrities and top hunters every October for one of the most revered hunts in the country.

You can't exit Nebraska without a visit to Chimney Rock or Scotts Bluff National Monument, both million-years-old stone monuments created when prairie winds carved away the natural rock. In the springtime, Nebraska is home to one of the last great migrations on Earth -- 600,000 sandhill cranes making their way through the middle of the state. You should also endeavor to visit when the weather is warm, because that means it's time to go tanking.

MORE: Nebraska is the ultimate summertime destination you didn't know you were missing a large building © Monte Goodyk/Moment/Getty

8. Iowa Annual visitors: 16 million

Why you should visit: Though the only reason many might think to visit the Hawkeye State is to run for president and/or the off chance of seeing a dead baseball player wander out of a cornfield, well, obviously neither is going to happen.

If you're a novice snowboarder and don't feel like learning on the side of a black diamond, the gentle slopes of Sundown Mountain near Dubuque are an inexpensive alternative to big ski states. Yep, we just told you about skiing! In Iowa!

The lake party scene in the Midwest is legendary, and it's not just limited to Minnesota. Outside Iowa City you can visit Coralville Lake and Devonian Fossil Gorge; a 1993 flood washed away tons of soil and exposed an ancient ocean floor and all the cool fossils that come with it.

For the active traveler, there's also the RAGBRAI -- the Register's Annual Great Bike Race Across Iowa -- where you start with your back wheel in the Missouri River and end, one week and 468 miles later, in the Mississippi. For a cyclist, it's one of the most sought-after rides in the country.

MORE: The best things to see and do in Iowa a castle on top of a mountain © Brett Maurer/Moment Open/Getty Images

7. West Virginia Annual visitors: 15.9 million

Why you should visit: They don't call the Mountaineer State "almost heaven" because of the strip clubs, though the state does boast the most per capita of any state in the Union (eat your heart out, Oregon). It's because of stunning outdoor attractions like the 25-mile North Fork Mountain Trail -- one of the few trails labeled as "epic" by the International Mountain Bicycling Association -- where you can ride backcountry ridges whilst soaking up the views over Seneca Rocks.

If you're into water sports, brave the Gauley River, one of the five best whitewater rivers in the world and home to a 14-foot raftable waterfall. If you're into land sports, catching a football game at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown (especially at night) is one of the most unique experiences in college football. a canyon with a mountain in the background © Don Fink/Shutterstock

6. South Dakota Annual visitors: 14.5 million

Why you should visit: We didn't name this place the most underrated state in the nation because we have a bizarre affinity for fried beef on a stick or undying love for motorcycles. We did it because South Dakota is straight-up beautiful and for too long has been wrongfully used as a synonym for "the middle of nowhere."

Take the Needles Highway near Custer through fascinating rock formations, or drive literally any stretch of the Badlands to see scenery like nowhere else in the world. Custer State Park is one of the few places in America where a buffalo in the road can cause a traffic jam; the annual Buffalo Roundup takes place here, when thousands thunder through the park as rangers round them up for medical checks and counts.

SD's roadside attractions are also among the quirkiest in America. Take I-90 east from the Black Hills and you'll pass ghost towns, a dinosaur sculpture park, the famous Wall Drug Store and the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell. You'll end up in Sioux Falls, one of those small cities that feels a hell of a lot bigger than it is, and a great place to spend a weekend. a large green field with a mountain in the background © Tom Narwid/Moment/Getty Images

5. Vermont Annual visitors: 13 million

Why you should visit: It's the only state in America where you can go to an opera in Canada. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby sits right on the US-Canadian border and the building lies in both countries. 

Vermonters are maple obsessed, so grab a maple creamy along the Lake Champlain bike path in the summer. It's also got more breweries (and distilleries) than a state this size rightfully should, so you can do a proper crawl through Citizen Cider, Switchback, Hill Farmstead, and the taproom at American Flatbread.

 

Then there are those ice cream guys, Len and Gary or something. They've apparently got a factory there where you can try flavors that either haven't hit the market yet, or never will. And finally, if you're an outdoor type, nobody in New England does skiing better than VT. But this you know. There's also an annual naked bike race at Jay Peak, in case you weren't aware. a man standing in a body of water with a mountain in the background © Jordan Siemens/DigitalVision/Getty Images

4. Montana Annual visitors: 12.4 million

Why you should visit: Montana? The state with Glacier AND Yellowstone national parks is the fourth LEAST-visited state? Yep. We really shouldn't need to sell you on why you should visit Montana; the aforementioned national parks and Big Sky country are reason enough to make the trip.

Nevertheless, we encourage you to check out Whitefish, which has become a trendy resort town outside of Glacier with first-rate skiing; it's not nearly as crowded or douchey as its counterparts in Colorado, Utah, or even Jackson Hole. If you're into fly fishing, there's no better place to do it than Missoula, where the Blackfoot River was made famous in A River Runs Through It. And in between Whitefish and Missoula, definitely make a stop at Flathead Lake.

Then there's the testicle festival. Held in Clinton the first weekend of August, it's a four-day celebration of Rocky Mountain oysters. It's pure madness. Just go with it. a group of people walking down a street © Jukie Bot/flickr

3. Delaware Annual visitors: 9 million

Why you should visit: Two words: tax-free shopping. It's like a statewide 8.5%-off sale every single day! Now let's turn our attention to the beaches, routinely ranked the cleanest in the country. There's the party-heavy Dewey Beach, the very famous Rehoboth Beach, the scenic Delaware Seashore State Park … Delaware's got beaches, and with them rad beach towns.

Get a taste of historical America on the cobblestone streets of Old New Castle, miles of Revolutionary War battlefields, and the old confederate POW prison at Ft Delaware. And, of course, the Gilded Age DuPont mansions. Sports fans can find tailgates for University of Delaware football games that are more like family picnics than enormous frat parties, or catch a NASCAR race at Dover -- although, as a Delaware-native friend wisely put thing, "It might come as a shock, but Delaware does have more to offer than a venue for stock cars to drive around in a very large circle, and water for Dogfish Head to brew it's beers with." water next to the rock © Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

2. Wyoming Annual visitors: 8.9 million

Why you should visit: The state with one of the best national parks in America somehow can't get anyone to visit for anything else. Yellowstone brings in 3 million people a year (even though it covers three different states) but the other 5.9 million come for other reasons. 

Jackson Hole is an obvious choice -- it's one of the most challenging ski areas in the nation and a popular luxury vacation alternative for the wealthy who are tired of Aspen. It also attracts extreme skiers and snowboarders, and is adjacent to Grand Teton National Park. Even if you're not so big on nature, there's Cheyenne Frontier Days, which locals describe as a kind of Mardi Gras for cowboys -- although we're not sure the whole beads-for-boobs thing would be nearly as cool with a bunch of cowpokes. And if that event is just a little too played out for you, there's the Laramie Jubilee the weekend before.

MORE: Check out Thrillist's ultimate guide to Yellowstone National Park a man riding a wave on top of a body of water © Naphat Photography/Moment/Getty Images

1. Alaska Annual visitors: 2.26 million

Why you should visit: If only Alaska was ... anywhere closer than "next to Russia." It's a long, cold trek to reach the last frontier, but absolutely worth the effort. Over half of this breathtaking state's visitors come via cruise ship, which typically navigate the inner passage of southeast Alaska past blue glaciers and through towering fjords. If the lido deck life isn't for you, smaller adventure cruises take passengers into areas big boats can't reach, affording more opportunities to hike through majestic wilderness and see wildlife up close. You could also hitch a ride on one of the country's prettiest train rides.

Juneau has a big-league food scene for such a small city, and the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage is the best in the nation to see polar bears and other Arctic wildlife. And if you can brave the dead of winter, Alaska is lucky to be the only place in our great nation with a seat for the northern lights.

MORE: Check out Thrillist's ultimate guide to visiting JuneauSign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist's Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at kmedrano@thrillist.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.

Liz Provencher and Andy Kryza contributed to this story.

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