It's time for our annual list of the favorite places we visited this year. After going nowhere in 2020, this year saw us traveling to Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. It was great to be out on the road again, using proper precautions of course. We could make a list of our five favorite places just from Hawaii, but we're going to spread the wealth a bit. As usual, these may not be the most recognizable tourist destinations, but places off the beaten path that are worth a trip.
1. Pololu Valley - Hawaii
Situated on the northern shore of the big island, Pololu Valley is the western most of seven valleys that stretch along the Kohala coast. The view from the top is amazing, but the adventurous traveler really needs to hike down to the bottom. The hike is strenuous but not long. The quarter mile route descends 300 feet, occasionally over rocks and roots. Once at the bottom you'll find a black sand beach dotted with various sizes of smooth lava stones. The area right behind the beach is lush with small hills, trees, and a couple of rope swings.
2. Gibbon Falls - Yellowstone National Park
We usually don't think of a place inside one of the most popular national parks as being off the beaten track, but this gem is tucked away near the western side of the park, far from the tourist magnets of Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. The Gibbon River cuts through the mountains south of Norris Geyser Basin, creating a canyon featuring the 84 foot tall Gibbon Falls. This is a roadside feature with an accessible paved viewing area, so it's very easy to get a good look.
3. Buckeye Trail - southern Ohio
The Buckeye Trail is over 1,400 miles long and circumnavigates the state of Ohio. The North Country Scenic Trail shares a portion that starts in the northeast corner of the state, heads south, and exits in the northwest corner. This year we hiked and biked a section just north of Cincinnati, near the town of Milford. This part of the trail is paved, well maintained, and well used. Since this section is a rails to trails conversion, so we saw many remembrances of the train days, such as converted depots, mile markers, and signalling devices. Many of the little towns the trail goes through have restaurants, breweries, and other businesses that cater to the trail users.
4. College M Hike - Montana
On a mountain side just beyond downtown Bozeman, there is a giant letter M to signify Montana State University. There is a 2 mile loop trail that runs up to the base of the M. As a hiker arrives at the trailhead they must decide to go left, which is a mile and a half to the top, or right, which is half a mile to the top. Obviously, the trail to the right is much steeper. Either way there is an 820 foot elevation gain. The views from the top are spectacular, looking across Bozeman towards the foothills of the northern Rocky Mountains. While the trail is a loop, you can descend the same way you came up if you want an easier (or harder) adventure. From either direction the trail is strenuous and there are several bits of rock scrambling involved.
5. Kekaha Kai State Park - Hawaii
The road to the beach is definitely not the beaten track. The mile long route is a bumpy jaunt over lava rock suitable only for 4 wheel drive vehicles.
The beach by the parking area is covered with fist sized lava rocks, some black and others white. It gives the beach a salt and pepper appearance. A short walk brings you to Mahai'ula Beach, a more traditional sand beach on a wide, gentle bay. Near some old, closed buildings, a path heads across lava rock toward the more secluded Makalawena Beach. When we visited we spotted green sea turtles in the water and sunning themselves on some rocks near the shore.