Some sites attract tourists for a straightforward reason: they’re worth seeing.
“Why do you want to go to Yosemite?” a grumpy fellow teacher asked as he brushed chalk dust from his cardigan. “All you’ll see is a bunch of noisy tourists: gawking, pointing, and driving slow. They’re worse than flies.”
The next summer, ignoring his ominous advice, I traveled to Yosemite and became one of the pesky sightseers he derided.
As I drove into the park, I looked beyond the slow-moving traffic and crowded campgrounds to the multi-faceted splendor of trees, water, and stone that had attracted us.
That afternoon, I hiked beneath massive granite domes toward the noisy rush of a waterfall. Those I met on the trail expressed awe and gratitude for Yosemite, a tourist attraction.
Other sites earn the label, tourist trap, for an equally obvious reason: they are.
My rule: the more signs you encounter advertising a must-see marvel, the more likely it will be a site of little interest and less authenticity, dwarfed by a store selling T-shirts, fudge, and coffee mugs.
A friend and I once stopped at a cave acclaimed by an abundance of gaudy signs as an outlaw refuge in days of yore. We stood with other tourists behind a chain-link fence, peered into the opening of a smoke-blackened cave, and read a sign about which bad guys were “thought to have” stopped there.
We then followed the exit arrows, which led us to a souvenir-and-sugar laden store with bathrooms available for customers only.
There was an alternate exit, but most folks were ensnared by the restrooms and temptations of the tourist trap.
A few sites surprise and delight travelers because they are unexpected, yet never forgotten.
Joel and I had driven I-70 through Missouri to Illinois a number of times. Because we drove it more quickly than Kansas, we didn’t pay much attention to the Show Me State beyond its rolling green hills, bashful wild turkeys, and billboards urging motorists to stop at Passion’s Adult Store.
Then we took a side trip the length of Missouri so Joel could revisit his childhood by fishing at Reel Foot, Tennessee. We consulted our scenic road-trip book and selected a route that took us by Missouri’s springs.
How had we never heard of these churning pools with their no-nonsense names: Alley Spring, Round Spring, Blue Spring, and Big Spring?
We discovered limestone bluffs standing guard over basins with rough edges, where turquoise waters bubbled up to flow into streams that drifted by caves and natural bridges before reaching the Current River.
At one stop, 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 70-mile radius and gushing up from the ground at a rate of 277 million gallons a day — up to a billion during floods.
No wonder the greenness of Missouri startles eyes accustomed to the dryer landscapes of the West.
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 didn’t know about the canyon and had little interest in it.
After all, if I wanted to peer into a gigantic gorge, I would have visited the Grand Canyon. At least I’d heard of it.
But when we stopped at the first viewpoint along the Black Canyon’s rim, I looked out 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 challenged the sun and dwelled in blackness.
At every stop, I held on to the guardrail: looking at the Black Canyon made me feel fragile.
It exceeded my uninformed expectations, and I’ll never forget it.
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