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8 of the most under-the-radar travel spots in the US

When it comes to travel bucket lists, sure there are the big destinations, like Paris, the Grand Canyon, Angkor Wat and seeing the northern lights. But what about oft-overlooked spots that might be right in your neck of the woods?

"Secret Marvels of the World" is out Aug. 15.

These hidden gems still pack an awe-inspiring punch, but with a fraction of the tourists. Luckily, Lonely Planet — whose trusty guidebooks have informed the journeys of countless travelers for decades — is shining a light on under-the-radar places with its latest book, “Secret Marvels of the World,” due out Aug. 15.

Featuring 360 unusual destinations around the world, this book will challenge even the most intrepid travelers, no matter how long they’ve been on the road. And for those in the U.S., Lonely Planet shared its top eight unusual picks that don’t require a passport.

Reproduced with permission from Secret Marvels of the World, © 2017 Lonely Planet

The Wave Organ – San Francisco, California

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The Wave Organ is a wave-activated acoustic sculpture in San Francisco operated by the Exploratorium.

Everyone sees the bay when visiting San Francisco, but how many people get to hear the bay? The unique Wave Organ is both a visual and auditory work of art where visitors can fill their senses with their surroundings. Located on a small jetty in the Marina District, the site takes in fine views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Fort Mason and further out across the bay.

The concept for the Wave Organ came to artist Peter Richards when he heard a recording of sounds coming from a vent pipe on a dock in Sydney, Australia. In collaboration with San Francisco’s well-loved, hands-on science museum, the Exploratorium, Richards worked with master sculptor George Gonzales to build the piece. The sounds are the most distinct at high tide as water rushes in and out of 25 organ pipes fixed in concrete at various levels and locations around the jetty. The site itself is a thing of beauty, constructed out of a multilevel hodgepodge of granite and marble reclaimed from a demolished cemetery. The low groans from the pipes can be subtle, so take time to take deep breaths, calm the mind and listen closely to music made by the sea.

The Wave Organ is a public site near St Francis Yacht Club.

Carhenge – near Alliance, Nebraska

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Carhenge, which replicates Stonehenge, is located just north of Alliance, Nebraska.

No one knows who built Stonehenge, or why. But we do know who built Carhenge (American artist Jim Reinders) and why (as a tribute to his father, and because it’s cool). Dedicated on the summer solstice of 1987, these automotive Nebraska monoliths are fast becoming a cult destination. The sculpture consists of 39 classic American automobiles, painted gray and assembled in exactly the same formation as Stonehenge (the honor of depicting the heel stone goes to a 1962 caddy).

Reinders, who erected the installation on the farm he owned in Nebraska, admitted its construction took "a lot of work, sweat and beers."

Carhenge is 3 miles north of Alliance, Nebraska. Open daily; entry is free.

Salvation Mountain – Niland, California

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Salvation Mountain is the life's work of Leonard Knight, who had a religious awakening in 1967. The desert artwork, located about 90 miles from Palm Springs, California, has been maintained by volunteers since Knight's death in 2011.

Salvation Mountain is a living prayer in a desolate wilderness. It is at once so unique and so out of place that you must enter it. Some cry at first sight, while others fall to their knees in prayer, and even those who visit out of curiosity often leave as pilgrims. It was the life’s work of Leonard Knight.

Born in Vermont in 1931, he was a drifter until a religious epiphany struck in 1967. Using his bare hands, he began building an adobe and straw mountain on a low mesa in the baking hot desert of Southern California near the Salton Sea in 1984. His simple mission was to share his religious fervor with the world, spelling it out in paint on his mountain, and it consumed him until his death in 2011.

Scenes from a post-apocalyptic town #slabcity #SalvationMountain #repent #nofilter #tricyles

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The result is a surreal merging of mountain and prayer book. The mountain face declares "God is Love" over a massive red heart, the work peaks at just over 50 feet and is topped by a gleaming white cross. It is framed by painted waves that Leonard called his "Sea of Galilee." The mountain boasts trees, flowers and waterfalls among countless prayers, coated with an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint in a rainbow spectrum. I followed a yellow path past a towering wall that holds both the sinner’s prayer and various biblical quotes, to the "Hogan," a circular room decorated eclectically with the cast-off detritus of the desert, and an homage to the local indigenous people. Next I visited Leonard’s "museum" of towering walls, held in place by a forest of surreally twisted, multicoloured trees, all winding towards heaven like giant fingers, in bold Day-Glo colours. I wandered through a maze of dead ends, which Leonard said always brought the visitor back to God.

Finally I climbed to the base of the mountain’s cross for a panoramic view of the entire 150-foot length of the monument, and the graveyard of abandoned vehicles surrounding it, each of which is covered with prayers. At the center is the rusting truck that Leonard Knight called his home for 31 years.

Another world #slabcity #niland #SalvationMountain #nofilter

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Salvation Mountain is listed in the Congressional Record as a national treasure, and has appeared in some half a dozen films. It’s maintained by volunteers, some of whom live on site, all of them eager to greet visitors and answer questions while soliciting donations of paint for the nonstop maintenance the monument requires.

Salvation Mountain is just outside the town of Niland, which sits on Highway 111.

Nine Mile Canyon – near Price, Utah

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Petroglyphs of Nine Mile Canyon

Tucked away in the fiery sandstone mountains of rugged Utah is one of the world’s largest — and oldest — outdoor art galleries. Nine Mile Canyon (which is actually 46 miles long, but was originally formed by Nine Mile Creek), contains thousands of ancient petroglyphs, carved by the native Fremont and Ute tribes between A.D. 600 and 1300. The scenes — scattered throughout the canyon and easily accessible from the road running through it — depict everything from war and sacrifice to animal husbandry and family dynamics.

This spectacular visual storytelling is best explored with a local guide, who will help you peel away the respective layers (historically, not literally — there are signs everywhere reminding people not to touch the fragile rock art). A guide will also be able to point out petroglyphs, which you might otherwise have missed, as well as a number of (remarkably intact) ancient dwellings called pit houses. One way or another you’ll need transport, but the canyon is a great day trip option with plenty of picturesque picnicking spots along the 160-km round trip from the town of Price. Visitors are advised to pack plenty of provisions for the journey though (there are no shops or restaurants en route), as well as the free brochure detailing the canyon’s main sites, which can be grabbed from the Carbon County Visitors Center in Price.

Nine Mile Canyon is accessible from Price, southeast on U.S. Route 6 then north on to Soldier Creek Rd.

Winchester Mystery House – San Jose, California

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The Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, was once the personal residence of Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester.

The Winchester Mystery House is an unsolved mystery with as many twists as a Jason Bourne thriller — but here the plot moves on real-life hidden passageways and doors to nowhere. Built nonstop, 24 hours a day for 38 years, the house has over 160 rooms and more weird quirks than your Great Aunt Marge, including cabinets that lead into rooms, staircases that go up then down and chimneys that don’t reach the roof. The house feels haunted, yes, but it’s also an exceptional example of late 19th-century architecture, including Tiffany stained-glass windows and finely etched doorknobs.

Sarah Winchester was the solo mastermind behind the house. Heir to the Winchester rifle fortune — ‘the gun that won the West’ — she allegedly became interested in the occult after the untimely deaths of her child and husband. A medium told her the bad fortune was caused by spirits of those who had been killed by Winchester guns and wanted revenge. She spent the rest of her life trying to outwit the ghosts.

Sarah left her home in Connecticut and bought an unfinished farmhouse in San Jose, California. She was extremely secretive so most of what we know about her life are rumors. It’s said that she always wore a veil over her face and fired staff (that she paid generously) if they saw her without it; a bell tower chimed for lunch and dinner but also at midnight and 2 a.m. — the times of the departure and arrival of spirits. She spent every night in a different bedroom so the ghosts couldn’t find her, and the house and its constant construction were to form a labyrinth to keep her safe. Some staff claimed that she held nightly séances.

It’s impossible not to think of Sarah and her superstitions as you wander the home and property. Each turn to a wall, room after room or skylights installed in the floor, is a chilling reminder of a woman possessed, by what, no one will ever know. Employees have reported creaking floors, smells of chicken soup coming from the kitchens and there have been sightings of people resembling Mrs. Winchester’s old employees and even Sarah herself. It’s impossible to visit without at least one chill running up your spine.

Visit by car or take the number 60 VTA bus from Santa Clara Station. There are guided tours daily.

Unclaimed Baggage Center – Scottsboro, Alabama

Scottsboro’s Unclaimed Baggage Center delivers the goods in more ways than one. Part jumbo-sized secondhand store, part museum of an extraordinary range of lost items, this labyrinth of lost goods is awe-inspiring in scale and an excellent place to pick up some cheap cowboy boots.

There’s a simple idea at the heart of this place: Once airlines have paid passengers compensation for losing their bags they still need to dispose of them. What waits within the store are racks of (laundered) clothing, piles of electronic devices and enough quirky items besides to happily pass half a day. Staff also run insightful demonstrations of the art of unpacking someone else’s lost bag and deciding what gets to go on sale here.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is about a two-hour drive from Nashville, Tennessee, and is open Monday to Saturday.

Lunchbox Museum – Columbus, Georgia

If you haven't lived to see the world's largest collection of lunchboxes, have you even lived?

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Readers of a certain age will remember the days of toting your lunch to school in a metal box, usually with a matching thermos tucked inside. If you want to see your old lunchtime pal again, chances are you’ll find it at the world’s largest lunchbox collection in Columbus, Georgia.

Located in the backroom of an antiques shop, this isn’t a museum in any usual sense of the word, but rather a haphazard, extensive collection of varied lunchboxes featuring pop culture icons ranging from Star Trek to Peanuts to Strawberry Shortcake to Pac-Man.

The collection is open daily; entry to the museum is $5.

Coral Castle – Homestead, Florida

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Coral Castle was created by Edward Leedskalnin.

This massive sculpture park was a nearly 30-year labor of love — or more accurately, heartbreak. Built entirely by hand using primitive tools, the fantastical sculptures are the creation of Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin who spent 28 years sculpting them out of coral stone found near his home in Florida. Leedskalnin’s sculptures comprise over 1,100 tons of coral, all carved as a monument to the woman who left him a day before their planned wedding. Leedskalnin never married, and his love never came to see the monument he built for her. Much mystery surrounds Leedskalnin’s building methods. He was a small man, just over 5 feet tall and about 100 pounds, yet he labored alone for nearly three decades building sculptures reaching up to 7.5 meters (nearly 25 feet) in height, most of them carved out of a single piece of stone. He also constructed a wall around the sculpture garden, measuring 2.5 meters tall, 1.2 meters wide, and 1 meter thick. Leedskalnin never revealed his engineering secrets, and he worked at night by lantern light so no one could watch him or observe his methods. He came from a family of stonemasons in Latvia, but modern scholars are still uncertain about how he was able to complete such extensive building work on his own. The sculpture garden, about 45 minutes south of Miami, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Coral Castle is open daily. Admission includes a tour of the sculpture garden.

Robin Kawakami is the senior travel editor at TODAY. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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