Post summary: Here are the best ways to find the best hiking trails, secret spots, and outdoor hidden gems anywhere in the world (and how to find places you see on Instagram without relying on geotags!)
Whether you’re searching for an uncrowded summit view, a serene place to camp, or another place to enjoy the outdoors, there’s something undoubtedly special about getting off the beaten path and having a spot in nature all to yourself.
These places are often the best hiking trails, outdoor hidden gems, and secret spots. They’re the places that take a little more finesse to find and a little more effort to reach. And you’ll rarely see them geotagged on social media.
But, although they may seem elusive, secret spots are everywhere. There are millions of hidden waterfalls, secret trails, and secluded hot springs that are within everyone’s reach. You just have to know where to look. And the goal of this post is to provide you the tools to do your own research to find them, no matter where you are in the world.
This post is for you if you:
- Want to adventure off the beaten path
- Consistently rely on geotags to discover new locations (and/or get mad when people won’t just tell you where things are)
- Wonder what the secret is to finding the magical, unmarked, hidden gem locations that you see on social media
- Want to know how to find hidden spots without the crowds
…but you don’t know how. Or where to start.
In this post, I’m giving you the best resources to do your own research, so you can find your own hidden gems, secret spots, and better hiking trails anywhere in the world – without relying on social media geotags.
So let’s get started!
WHY YOU SHOULD LEARN HOW TO FIND ADVENTURE OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Why would you want to do your research to find off-the-beaten-path locations and hidden gems? Well, to escape the crowds at touristy places, of course! … and probably because that IG influencer isn’t going to just tell you where their secret spots are…no matter how nice you are when you slide into their DMs.
But it’s actually about more than that. There are a lot of good reasons why you should want to learn how to find your own hidden gems. Some of these reasons might surprise you!
To Protect the environment
In the wake of the outdoor movement and continued rise of social media, it’s become increasingly important to do your own research on outdoor places. As more and more people opt outside, outdoor etiquette and Leave No Trace Principles have seemed to fall by the wayside. Once quiet and serene outdoor places have been catapulted to internet fame, paving the way for irresponsible tourism, unprepared hikers, pollution, and the destruction of fragile ecosystems.
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples:
Always follow the Principles of Leave No Trace while enjoying the outdoors. Click here to learn about the 7 principles of LNT
To disperse and prevent overcrowding
Researching your own off-the-beaten-path destinations helps keep fragile ecosystems from crumbling under the weight of overcrowding.
For example, if there’s a popular hike you really want to do, try seeing if there’s a similar alternative nearby. You may find a hidden gem that’s 100 times better than the areas everyone flocks to – without the crowds!
To properly prepare
Exploring off-the-beaten-path locations often requires extensive planning and preparation.
For example, does your hike require a permit? Do you need to make reservations for a campsite online in advance? Where are you allowed to set up camp? Do you need any special skills, like knowing how to read and follow GPS coordinates?
Sometimes lesser known locations are “lesser known” because they’re on private property. Always double check if your location is on private or public land. If its on private land, do you need to contact the owners for permission? Are there set hours that you can visit? Do you need to pay a fee?
And don’t forget to check for any updates to safety considerations or important notes on trail conditions. You can check for any recent updates using the AllTrails App. Keep reading to learn how to use it.
Havasu Falls, Havasupai AZ. After skyrocketing to internet fame, Havasupai is no longer considered a hidden gem. However, getting here still takes extensive planning to obtain permits, pay Reservation Fees, plan your trip safely, and prepare for the 24 mile RT hike through the Grand Canyon.
Read more: Everything To Know Before Hiking Havasupai
To teach you what to expect on the trail
This ties into my point above about being prepared.
Far too often, I see hikers dressed in jeans and flip flops attempting to summit mountains in the backcountry because they saw someone geotag it on Instagram. Did they make it? Perhaps. But hiking unprepared is extremely dangerous (at worst) and uncomfortable and irresponsible (at best).
Doing your own research gives you a better understanding of where you’re going so you can pack accordingly, plan for weather conditions, understand elevation changes, and determine if a hike is within your current skill level.
To save money
Hidden gems and secret spots generally don’t charge an admission fee, and if they do, its often a lot cheaper than the main tourist attractions nearby. Sometimes they’re even totally free to access (with the exception of park fees, campsite fees, permits, etc).
Let’s take New Zealand glowworms as an example. The glowworms in New Zealand are amazing, and one of the only places in the world where you can see glowworms in such incredible numbers. Naturally, we couldn’t wait to see them when we campervanned around New Zealand, but we were shocked to find out that it costs about $40NZD per person to join a massive one-hour tour (and you’re not even allowed to take photos!).
Instead, we did a bit of research on the North Island and were able to find several places where we could see glowworms for free. In my opinion, the effort to get to those free spots and the fact that we had the entire place to ourselves for hours made the experience even more spectacular.
So, if you’re traveling on a budget, learning how to get off the beaten path will certainly work in your favor. And don’t forget to download my FREE and customizable Travel Expense Planner below. Use it to easily and automatically calculate how much money you’ll spend on gas, lodging, food (and more) on your next trip!
To build a connection with nature that compels you to protect it and treat it with respect
This is called The Effort Paradox and its backed by cognitive science. The Effort Paradox states that effort adds value to the products of effort, but effort itself also has value. In other words, the more effort you put into finding a hidden gem of your own, the more likely you are to find value in it. And we love and respect and protect things we worked hard to obtain
SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS WHEN TRAVELING OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Finding secret hiking trails and outdoor hidden gems entails traveling away from the crowds…because obviously that’s the point! But there are several essential safety tips to keep in mind. Of course, these safety tips apply to anywhere you go in the outdoors, but they’re especially important when you’re traveling away from the crowds (take our disastrous Oregon Road Trip for example…).
Here are some important safety reminders for when you’re searching for a place to have all to yourself..because you’ll be, well, by yourself:
- Always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back!
- Always sign in at the trailhead, in case someone needs to come looking for you.
- Double check for private property and trespassing signs. NEVER trespass!
- Travel with a satellite phone if you’re going somewhere without cell service. We love the Garmin inReach Explorer+
- Invest in Skyroam with a data plan to have wifi on the road. Data plans are really reasonable and you can use them on a need-by basis.
- Know where you’re going. Sometimes, hidden gems and remote hiking trails are located down logging roads or other unmaintained forest roads. Make sure you have the appropriate vehicle with high clearance, if needed (and a spare tire!).
- Always be prepared! Know trail conditions, potential hazards, and weather changes. Pack accordingly.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF HIDDEN GEMS (AND WHERE TO FIND THEM)
Hidden gems and secret spots are places you may discover by sheer luck, on accident, or because someone else trusted you enough to keep them a secret. They’re anywhere quiet, serene, and uncrowded; and they come in a lot of different forms, such as (but definitely not limited to):
- Hidden waterfalls
- Remote hot springs
- Uncrowded hiking trails and mountain summits
- Back country campsites
- Anywhere you love and feel a special connection with
There are millions of hidden gems waiting to be explored and they’re easy to find if you know what to look for! Below, I’ll give you 9 of the best resources for researching hidden gems of your own, but here are a few places you’ll likely to find them:
Any spot that’s hard to find
…even if its hidden in plain sight.
Have you ever heard of the hidden swing in Milford Sound, New Zealand? It became a really popular photo spot after it was posted to social media a few years ago. However, finding it still takes a little bit of effort because its, well, hidden in Milford Sound. We even had to ask a local to point us in the right direction.
Finding spots like this are so fun because they feel like a little treasure hunt.
If you want to avoid the crowds, any trails that are longer or harder to reach will certainly be less crowded than shorter trails. And even if the trail begins at a popular area, walk a little further and you’ll notice that you start to leave the crowds behind. This rule applies almost everywhere. So, when in doubt, always opt for a longer trail, continue to the furtherest viewpoint, or venture past the touristy areas.
My favorite example of this is Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge in the Adirondack High Peaks. Giant Mountain is one of the most popular Adirondack High Peaks, attracting hundreds (if not thousands) of visitors every year. However, for a little more time and effort, you’ll reach Rocky Peak Ridge if you continue further down the back of Giant Mountain. At the top of Rocky Peak Ridge, you’re 100% guaranteed to find very few people and way better views.
Overlooked trails and alternative viewpoints
Don’t feel as if you have to venture miles into the backcountry to find hidden gems. You might be able to find one right next to the crowds. Overlooked trails are often found right next to more popular trails (sometimes hidden in plain sight). They usually have views that are just as good and are sometimes even better than the crowded spots. I’ve found almost all of my favorite hidden gems in Iceland this way!
Forgotten trails are usually trails that were heavily used at one time, often for logging, tourism, or another business interest. Over the years, the interest in the trail declined or funding for maintenance ran out, yet the trail is still there. Trails like these are often largely overgrown and hard to navigate, so you must always use caution and your best judgement.
Before hiking a forgotten trail, contact the local trail maintenance organization or forest service to confirm that the trail is safe for you to explore and that you won’t be harming any environmental restoration efforts that may be in progress.
A great example of these types of trails are much of the old trail network on St. John in the US Virgin Islands. Once an old sugar mills site, St. John is peppered with remnants of old buildings, and a forgotten trail network that twists and turns throughout the island.
9 RESOURCES TO HELP YOU FIND HIDDEN GEMS AND SECRET OUTDOOR PLACES ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD
I almost always start with Google when it comes to finding the best hiking trails and outdoor hidden gems. If I don’t know where to start, then I start with a broad search of an area to get an idea of what’s around and what places are popular.
Try a broad search at first, like “best places to see in…” or “best things to do in…” (*insert the location*). That will pull up the most popular destinations in that place. Then from there, you choose one of those popular places and narrow down your search based on your interests. Try your best to be specific! The more specific the better. For example:
A general search for “Best places to see in Iceland”, will show you all the most popular places in Iceland. You might choose a popular waterfall, like Skogafoss, from the list.
You can even search for “hidden gems in…” or “secret places in…” and see what comes up. Don’t forget to check Google Images as well! Images are great because they’re linked to information sources that might not have qualified for one of the top 10 spots in the google search.
Scroll down and look at a few of the search results. You might end up stumbling across something good! Here’s an example of an image search for “hidden gems in New Zealand”. Click on the image that interests you, follow the link, and down the rabbit hole you go.
Forums, such as Reddit, are a great resource for skimming conversations and picking up on details or tips for visiting local gems.
Sub-reddits, in particular, are a really useful way to narrow down your searches and skim threads for valuable information on lesser known locations.
If you’re not familiar with the layout of reddit (like me), then don’t stress! Sometimes the correct Reddit thread (or other forum) will pop up in your Google searches. If you see a forum in the search results, click on it because they’re usually full of super helpful information! Alternatively, you can literally just Google “subreddit + traveling *insert your location*
If you’re a visual person, this one’s for you.
Pinterest is basically a search engine for photo inspo and blogs that might not be indexed on Google. It’s another one of my favorites for finding lesser known outdoor locations because its where travel bloggers share some of their best travel tips, itineraries, and information.
Pinterest is where I’ve found some of my favorite secret spots and where I’ve found inspiration to craft some of my best travel itineraries.
Just use the search bar to search for your place of interest and skim through the pins. Clicking on a pin will bring you to the original source. And when you find pins that you really like, you can pin them for later!
Follow me on Pinterest here!
This one kind of goes with my point about Pinterest, but I’ll say it again because its super helpful:
Blogs are where people share their best kept secrets and experiences (myself included!), so use them! You’ll rarely find bloggers geotagging their hidden gem locations on social media, but if they have a blog, you can bet that they’ve probably written about them there.
You can find some of my favorite hidden gems in these posts:
The Perfect British Columbia 5-Day Road Trip Itinerary
Short Hikes With Incredible Views in the Adirondacks
Hiking the Tiger Fern Falls Trail in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize
Maps are my favorite way to find hidden locations because maps help you visualize the layout of an area and find labeled trails and points of interest you wouldn’t have found otherwise!
Paper maps and Google Maps both work well for finding hidden gems. However, if you’re using Google Maps to search for hidden nature spots, I suggest switching to the “terrain” map overlay. The terrain map makes it a little bit easier to see things that might be of interest, like hidden beaches, waterfalls, and viewpoints (but always make sure there’s a trail leading to them!! Never try to get somewhere that doesn’t have a marked trail).
READ MORE: How to plan your road trip using Google Maps
When’s the last time you made friends with the locals? If you can’t remember, then make a note to change that next time you travel! Locals are one of the best sources of information when you’re looking for unique and hidden places. After all, they know their home the best!
As a matter of fact, we discovered one of our favorite places on the south coast of Iceland this way when we booked a local bed and breakfast and ended up talking to the owner over coffee for more than two hours. It was a great conversation, and (in addition to learning about a few secret spots) we learned so much about Iceland’s government, culture, and economy from a local perspective.
So next time, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the locals! You’ll get to learn about a place through their eyes, and – if you’re lucky – they’ll share some of their favorite spots.
In my experience, connecting with locals is easiest through Airbnb. Aside from having some really great deals, Airbnb makes connecting with locals (and other travelers) so easy. For the most authentic experiences, search for stays in local houses/guesthouses or book a local tour through Airbnb Experiences.
Click here to save up to $65 on your first Airbnb booking
AllTrails is an outdoor/travel website with a database of over 100000 trails with trail info, photos, maps, and crowdsourced reviews from places all over the world.
The AllTrails App is one of my favorite hiking apps and always a staple in my travel planning process! I consistently use it to hunt down lesser known hiking trails. I also rarely ever set off on a hike without first checking the AllTrails maps, routes, and current trail condition reviews.
To begin using AllTrails, use the search bar to search for trails in a specific area, or use the “Explore” feature to discover hidden nature spots near you. Then you can filter by things such as trail length, difficulty, route type, related hikes, etc.
Creating an account on AllTrails is FREE and gives you access to basic trail information you’ll need to get started. Or you can choose to upgrade to AllTrails pro version for$29.99/year. The pro version gives you access to additional features, such as downloadable offline maps, route planning, and GPS.
Honestly, I put off purchasing the pro version for years because I felt it was pretty expensive. However, this year I decided to #treatmyself and buy it because we’ve been doing a lot of hiking around lesser known areas of the Adirondacks. And right away, I was surprised at how much use I got out of the pro features, like the offline GPS. If you spend a lot of time outside exploring off the beaten path locations, the AllTrails upgrade really comes in handy.
The AllTrails app is available in the App Store.
Reverse Image Search
This method is kind of a stretch and doesn’t always work, but sometimes you can use a reverse image search to find secret locations. While you can reverse search any image, it usually works best for photos that don’t have any people in them. Simply upload the photo or paste the image URL into the search bar and see what comes up.
HOW TO FIND SECRET SPOTS YOU SEE ON INSTAGRAM
I know, I just got done telling you not to rely on Instagram for this, but Instagram is actually a really great tool for finding instagram-worthy spots and hidden gems…as long as you don’t rely on the geotags.
Many people who use Instagram for travel inspiration rely almost entirely on geotags to find locations, which can be an issue if you’re looking for unique places, since the best places on IG are rarely ever geotagged. It can also be an issue because influencers and photographers don’t normally appreciate you sliding into their DMs to ask them to give up their secret spots (can we stop normalizing this, by the way?)
Instead, do the work yourself. Use the IG search bar to find photos that are geotagged as a general area (i.e. geotagged by the state or country); or skim tourism board accounts, hashtags, influencer accounts, or large feature accounts for a photo that catches your eye. Then study the photo to get some clues.
Where is it located? Did they provide info on the general area? Are they on a trail? On a beach? What’s the view look like? Don’t forget to to skim the caption and comments for location clues as well.
If you can collect clues about the general area in the photo, you’ll be able to use some of these methods above to to narrow your search and track down the specific spot (i.e. check Pinterest for unique photo spots in the area, scan Google Earth for view points or beaches, do a quick Google search of the area, check AllTrails).
Finding secret spots on Instagram takes a bit of patience, and you might have to mix and match the methods you use, but eventually you’ll find it. And if you don’t, then maybe you’ll stumble across something even better.
PS: Are you following me on Instagram?
And there you have it! A few of the best ways to start researching outdoor places on your own, so that you never have to rely on other people’s social media geotags ever again!
However, please keep in mind that I’ve only given you the resources you need to get started, and that finding hidden gems and secret hiking trails is a skill. You need practice, patience, and a little bit of luck to hone your craft, but it’s always worth the effort. And when you do find your own hidden gems, I encourage you to keep them a secret on social media and educate others to do the same :)
Did you like any of these tips for finding the best hiking trails, secret spots, and hidden gems? Have any to add? Drop them in the comments below. I love to hear from you!
Pin for later