until the total solar eclipse.

A Ranking of 20 Favorite Travel Experiences of 2020 – A Year in Review

The list of lists - my favorite travel experiences of 2020 in a very distinctive ranking.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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I ended up doing more travel in 2020 than I expected, but still not as much as I had planned. It was a tough year for the planet – particularly for travel – but in between lulls in surges of COVID-19 I snuck in a road trip, a couple of adventures in national parks, and one great week in Georgia. Flipping through my photos, I realized my year was replete with amazing travel experiences that I just had to share.

This is a long read. I don’t recommend it all at once. I whittled the list down as much as possible, but each of these twenty experiences was just too good not to tell. Get a coffee, bookmark the page, and read it in your leisure. This was my year in travel experiences!

A Year in Review

2020 has (thankfully) come to an end. It’s that time to have a Year in Review. I have rounded up my favorite travel photography, destinations I visited, travel experiences, and most popular travel articles of the year.

No. 20

Hilarious Lunch at B&K Root Beer in Sidney, OH

I had just finished exploring Tawawa Park – and capturing photos of their stunning red covered bridge – when I decided it was time for lunch. Across the street from the park’s entrance, I saw a sign that caught my attention. B&K Root Beer made their own root beer!

I parked outside the old-fashioned drive-in restaurant. A waitress immediately approached with a notepad in hand. After a recent experience with delicious West Virginia Hot Dogs, I decided to give their ‘dogs a try. I ordered two, but I didn’t want relish on the hot dogs.

About three minutes later the waitress walked back to my car. “I’m sorry, but we accidentally put relish on one of your hot dogs. We made another the way you ordered, but figured we’d still give you the other for free.” I laughed and said that was fine.

Another three minutes later and she brough the tray of food to my car. I noticed it looked a little full. “I’m sorry again,” the waitress said, “we ended up making two hot dogs right and two wrong. We gave them all to you. Enjoy!”

I opened the Styrofoam container to find four delicious looking hot dogs on steamed buns. I am not admitting to how many of those I ate.

No. 19

A Weekend Getaway with Mom to Augusta, GA

Each year, I go on a weekend getaway with my mom. She used to travel with me more often, but as my trips became longer and longer road trips, she was unable to keep up. In early February, we went to Augusta, Georgia for a weekend getaway.

Augusta was a nice place to visit – probably better in the spring and summer – but the weather was mild, so we enjoyed the trip. Downtown dining and shopping, a trip to nearby Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site, and a guided boat ride at the Augusta Canal Discovery Center. Our favorite experience was exploring the Augusta Museum of History, a fascinating museum with an indoor life size train, local history exhibits, and a film about the best biscuits in America!

No. 18

The Outstanding Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio

I had never visited an art museum quite like the Toledo Museum of Art. The building itself was an exquisite work of art with marble floors, gorgeous wall panels, and a magnificent grand staircase. The rooms of the museum were interconnected and almost got me lost a few times.

One of the rooms had been designed to resemble an historic Roman home. Subdued lighting creating a comfortable ambiance. Beautiful artwork adorned the walls. I was at peace in this one room and would have been quite happy to just stay right there. But the entire museum was this awesome and I needed to see it all!

No. 17

Discovering the History of the Wood Booger in Norton, VA

When I first arrived in Norton, Virginia, I noticed a sign “Get your Wood Booger t-shirts here.” Strange, I thought. Then I saw The Wood Booger Grill. That’s when I wondered, “What in the world is a Wood Booger?”

Half an hour later, I learned the answer. Flag Rock is one of Norton’s most popular attractions. In the early 1900s, a German immigrant wanted to show his appreciation for his new homeland. He climbed the mountain looming over Norton and planted a flag on an exposed rock. Today, a park provides access to a short trail leading to overlook where visitors can see Flag Rock with Norton behind.

On my way out to the scenic overlook, I found the Wood Booger. A life size statue of Big Foot – locally called the Wood Booger – greeted visitors on the trail. A plaque detailed the story of how the city council officially named Norton as a Wood Booger Sanctuary – all for the sake of a TV show that filmed there.

No. 16

Learning About Bitty & Beau’s Coffee in Charleston, SC

In early 2020, I was exploring the coffee scene in Charleston so I could do a round up story. During my exploration, I walked into Bitty and Beau’s Coffee and found a place with great coffee and a heartwarming story.

When Amy Wright’s two youngest children were born with Down Syndrome she became a lifelong advocate for including people with developmental disabilities in society. The core belief behind the Bitty and Beau’s franchise is to create a place for people with those disabilities to find an exciting and useful job.

Starting in Wilmington, NC, the Bitty and Beau’s Coffee location on Church Street in Charleston was their second location. It’s just around the corner from the Charleston City Market and directly beside the Cumberland Street Garage.

The menu includes hot and cold brewed coffee, espresso, frappes, and smoothies. The mocha latte was one of the best I’ve ever had, and I think that’s because of the excited barista who made it for me.

No. 15

Watching Lions Play with Lunch at the Columbus Zoo

I had just sat down for lunch at the Columbus Zoo when I heard a girl scream. It wasn’t he kind of startled scream, but rather joyous. I looked up to see what the commotion was and saw a lion glaring at the girl through a wall of glass!

The zoo had an enormous safari with a mixture of animals unlike anything I’d seen in a zoo before. Lions, giraffes, zebras, and several other animals roamed freely in an area a fraction the size of an African plain, but bigger than any I’d seen in a zoo so far.

While eating my own lunch, I kept an eye on the male lion. He was slowly creeping up on a trio of female lions. I grabbed my camera because something was about to happen. Sure enough, just as soon as the male lion surprised the female, she lashed out and sent the king of the jungle fleeing!

No. 14

Exploring Art at Pyramid Hill in Hamilton, OH

One of my favorite ways to find things to do on a road trip is to lay in bed with Google Maps on my iPad and explore my route. When I came across Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, it caught my attention.

I was the first visitor to arrive on a slightly chilly October morning. I rented a golf cart at the main office and whisked away for an hour exploring the park. It was absolutely fascinating! I learned when Henry Wilks bought 40 acres to build his unique pyramid house, he began putting outdoor artwork on display. He eventually purchased over 300 acres and built several vehicle drive routes, golf cart paths, and hiking paths throughout the park.

I spent an hour driving around about half the park, capturing photos, a smile permanently plastered on my face. I had never seen anything so beautiful and peaceful. A water feature churning in a small pond. A grove of trees hiding a sculpture. Autumn colors beginning to show! I will never forget my visit to Pyramid Hill.

No. 13

Visiting the Gorgeous Courthouses Across Ohio

When I began my road trip along I-75 in Ohio, I knew I wanted to stop at each and every town along the way. I would immediately head downtown to check out the local retail shops and restaurants. Bowling Green was my first stop, but it wasn’t until Findlay that I found the first gorgeous courthouse.

The towering stone courthouse included a clock tower, and each peak of the roof was topped with a giant bronze statue. Exquisite details in the architecture made the building a work of art. And it wasn’t the last gourgeous courthouse I would see.

Sidney, Troy, and Hamilton had equally gorgeous courthouses featuring water fountains, statues on the roof and ground, and surrounded by beautiful green spaces. Each was a unique masterpiece that must have taken years to design and build.

I found myself looking forward to my arrival in each small town for the opportunity to visit another beautiful courthouse. They became my favorite photographic subject on the road trip and something I will never forget!

No. 12

Devouring My First Five Way Chili at Camp Washington Chili in Cincinnati, OH

One of the few things I knew I wanted to do in Cincinnati was figure out what a Five Way Chili was all about. I had heard about it and read about it, but experiencing it was something else entirely. After some easy online research, it seemed the best place to get one was Camp Washington Chili.

When my waitress asked what I wanted for lunch, I explained this was my first visit and I wanted to try a Five Way Chili but didn’t know what it was. “It starts with a bed of spaghetti noodles topped with chili, beans, shredded cheese, and onions, served on a warm plate.” I had no idea what to think about it but I ordered it anyway!

It was the most interesting looking meal I’ve ever eaten. I almost didn’t know where to begin. I slowly picked at it for fear the top would slide onto the table. Eventually, I got a little path carved into the Five Way Chili and found it delightfully delicious.

No. 11

Getting My First West Virginia Hot Dog at Frostop Root Beer in Huntington, WV

When I told my friends I was spending the weekend in Huntington, West Virginia, the first thing they said was I needed to get a West Virginia Hot Dog. I didn’t know if that was a particular recipe or just the local name, but when I learned Frostop Root Beer made their own root beer I knew that was the place I wanted to find out.

I parked my car just after a brief rain. A lady walked out in bright yellow Wellies to take my order. “What exactly is on a West Virginia Hot Dog?” I asked.

“It’s an all-beef frank on a steamed bun, topped with chili, onions, and coleslaw. And nothing else,” she replied. Nothing else? I guess I won’t get mustard and ketchup as usual, I thought.

I ordered two and a bag of onion rings – which turned out to be delicious – and about ten minutes later I ate my first West Virginia Hot Dog. It was interesting, particularly since I’m not much a fan of coleslaw. But I would eat it again.

No. 10

Exploring Waterfalls Across Ohio

I live a dual life as a travel writer and photographer. Actually, I started as a travel photographer originally back in 2009. But in 2015, I decided to expand my talents to travel writing as well. Today, I am constantly torn between the fast-paced life of a travel writer and the slow pace of a travel photographer.

After a five-week road trip, I decided it was time to put the photographer hat on for awhile. I decided to do a one-week trip across Ohio hunting the most beautiful and accessible waterfalls. Although I would take notes for an article about waterfalls across Ohio, my primary purpose was to capture stunning photos.

Life as a photographer is less stressful and chaotic. Rather than needing to visit ten destinations in a single day, I could visit just one and be happy about the result. That’s exactly what happened on this leg of my trip.

The first couple of waterfalls around the Dayton area were duds – and one was so dangerous to view I will never recommend it. I visited Hocking Hills State Park – it was incredibly crowded that day – only to discover the waterfalls were dried up for the season. Autumn is definitely not the best time of year to visit waterfalls and it just might be the worst.

I struck waterfall gold, however, with a visit to Western Falls in Elyria and Paines Falls in Painesville. But my favorite waterfall during my trip across Ohio was captured at Great Falls at Tinkers Creek in Bedford.

No. 9

Visiting the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, OH

I had a wonderful plan for visiting the National Museum of the United States Air Force. I was giving myself three full hours to explore the museum – more time than I’d ever given myself in a museum! But when I told this to the gentleman at the entrance, he laughed and said, “That’s not gonna be enough time.”

He said I would need at least a full day to even do a cursory walk through all the exhibits and planes at the gargantuan museum. I sighed deeply – I just didn’t have a full day – and decided to see how far I could get in three hours.

The museum is spread throughout four massive airplane hangars – each larger than a football field – with hundreds of interpretive panels to read. I didn’t look at my watch, keeping a steady pace on my own, and made it through the first two hangars before looking at the time. I had already been there four hours.

I laughed. What else could I do at that point? I ended up staying six hours at the museum and returned to Dayton a few days later to finish what I missed. But even with six hours, it was not enough time. The museum was incredible. The exhibits jaw-dropping. And the 360-degree flight simulator was awesome!

No. 8

Duck Butts at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio

I had been exploring Cuyahoga Valley National Park for three days – my first visit ever. I had hiked around The Ledges and spent hours watching wildlife at the Beaver Marsh. It was my last day. It was my last stop. And it was one of the funniest travel experiences of the year.

I parked at Kendall Lake with a plan to walk around the lake, capture a few photos, and call it a day. There were a few park benches facing a corner of the lake. I plopped down to enjoy the sunny and somewhat warm weather when I caught sight of duck butts stuck up in the air.

I sat there, mesmerized at first, laughing out loud a moment later, before finally grabbing my camera to capture photos. About a dozen ducks, floating in different groups, were randomly flipping upside down and putting their butts up in the air. I figure they were eating off the bottom of the lake, but of course that meant everyone else had to star at duck butts!

No. 7

My First Visit to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC

It’s hard to believe after dozens of times passing through Asheville – either on the Blue Ridge Parkway or I-26 heading for some adventure – I had never been to the Biltmore until this year. I bought an annual pass during the height of the pandemic to help support the historic estate – a pass which I’ll only get to use a few times before it expires. I got to use it for the first – second and third – time at the beginning of my epic five-week road trip in September.

My first visit was nearly perfect. I took a self-guided of the house during sunset – the perfect time to tour the house. I got lunch at Cedric’s Tavern in Antler Hill Village. I sat by the lake with a view of the house reflect in the calm water.

With nearly 3,000 acres to explore, I barely scratched the surface with my visits three days in a row. I started a list of all the things I still wanted to do – spend a night at the Village Hotel and go horseback riding – but consigned myself to less expensive options on my first visits. Between capturing photos of the house, touring the botanical gardens, and hunting for an elusive waterfall, I quite enjoyed my first visit to the Biltmore Estate!

No. 6

Exploring the National Aviation Heritage Area Through Ohio

Long before arriving in Ohio, I knew I would be exploring the National Aviation Heritage Area. Organized by the non-profit National Aviation Heritage Alliance, the heritage area includes fourteen aviation sites to visit across Ohio. At each site, I had to collect a stamp in a passport booklet for later use.

My first stop in NAHA was the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta. Childhood hometown of Neil Armstrong, the museum told his story from youth to first man on the moon to United States Senator. It was fascinating first stop in the tour.

Other stops throughout NAHA included the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Woodland Cemetery where the Wright brothers were buried, WACO Air Museum with a nice collection of vintage aircraft, and Carillon Historical Park where I enjoyed my favorite travel experience of the year.

My exploration of NAHA ended at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. The National Park Service site included a nice museum about the history of the Wright Brothers in Dayton, a Parachute Museum, and the Wright Cycle Company bike store.

It was at this park, with a completed passport, that I collected by favorite travel souvenir of the year: Will-bear! The stuffed bear was dressed like an old aviator and marked a triumph of travel to explore the history of aviation across Ohio.

No. 5

Spending a Few Nights at the Inn at Virginia Tech

Another more surprising email I received this year was from a marketing firm in Roanoke, Virginia. Lucas asked a very simple question that sent my heart racing, “Would you like to visit the Inn at Virginia Tech?”

I grew up about two hours from Virginia Tech University in Southwest Virginia. I spent many weekends of my childhood walking the Drill Field through the middle of campus, learning the name of every single building, and falling in love with the gorgeous architecture. It was the first college I attended after high school – but unfortunately, life happened, and I never graduated. To this day, one of my biggest dreams in life is to eventually become a Virginia Tech alumnus.

So when I was offered the chance to spend three days at the Inn at Virginia Tech, I did not hesitate. I tried my best to contain my excitement as I responded to Lucas’s email. Each morning, I sampled a fantastic breakfast at the on-site restaurant. I spent my days exploring the college campus, walking the Drill Field once again, and doing a little shopping at the local retail shops.

It was the last trip I took in 2020 and although it was the shortest, it was the most rewarding for me personally. I would do anything to be able to attend Virginia Tech once again and stand in a crowd of fellow graduates – changing me from merely a fan of the Hokies to an actual Hokie.

No. 4

Listening to the White Handed Gibbons at the Cincinnati Zoo

I was walking through the Cincinnati Zoo, snapping a few photos here and there, when I suddenly heard this strange animal call pierce the silence. I had never heard anything like it before. As I continued along the winding paved path, I came within sight of the source: a white handed gibbon monkey swinging in a tree!

For nearly half an hour I stood transfixed, capturing photos of the monkey swinging around, intently listening to the melody belted into the air. It was like attending an opera performed by monkeys.

As soon as I got back to the hotel room that night, I pulled up YouTube and found a video of the white handed gibbon calls. I’ve watched it a few times now – and once more while writing about it – and I’m not sure if I’ll ever hear something in nature more beautiful than that.

No. 3

Road Tripping Across Ohio with Red Roof Inn

In the midst of the pandemic, I received a very odd but exciting email. A lady from a marketing agency reached out to me on behalf of Red Roof Inn to ask if I would be interested in doing a road trip with the motel chain and write about their RediClean policy. After a few days of planning and negotiating, we settled on an epic road trip along the Interstate 75 corridor through Ohio.

But of course, I could not just drive straight to Toledo to begin that road trip. I needed a road trip to get up there! I began the five-week adventure with a couple of days in Asheville, North Carolina. I road tripped along U.S. Highway 23 through Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and then a two-day detour into West Virginia.

Finally, I reached Ohio. I continued along U.S. Highway 23 through Marion and Chilicothe on my way to four wonderful days in Columbus – the state capital. After nearly two weeks of road tripping, I finally reached Toledo.

With Red Roof Inn, I spent 10 days road tripping from Toledo to Cincinnati – never once driving the interstate – and visited the small towns of Bowling Green, Findlay, Lima, Wapakoneta, Sidney, Troy, and Dayton along the way. I found gorgeous covered bridge, fantastic local food, beautiful county courthouses, and had the time of my life! Each night, I found myself at a different Red Roof Inn – all of them recently renovated, carefully cleaned, with a comfortable bed and rather awesome desks for getting work done.

No. 2

Exploring the Foothills Parkway in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ve spent a total of nearly 40 days exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since my first visit in 2013. But in 2020, I visited the national park with a purpose for the first time. I wanted to create an awesome travel guide for the Foothills Parkway.

The Foothills Parkway has had a long history that began in 1944. In 1966, a 16.9-mile section of the parkway opened between U.S. Highway 129 and Walland – and that remained the only completed section in that area for nearly sixty years. In 2018, a section between Walland and Wears Valley was opened.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s official map still doesn’t show the new section of the parkway. The scenic overlooks don’t have names and there are no mile markers. It’s almost a forgotten section of the national park – and so I decided to change that.

I spent three days at a nice hotel in Townsend, Tennessee – the perfect base of operations for exploring the 36-mile Foothills Parkway. I drove it end-to-end three times, stopping at every single overlook, pull-off, and parking area. I took notes on the view, names of mountains, and created names of the scenic overlooks.

Finally, I published the Travel Guide to the Foothills Parkway in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was one of my most popular blog articles of 2020, and one I think will be useful for many years to come.

No. 1

Seeing the Original Wright Flyer III

During my epic road trip across Ohio, I explored various destinations throughout the National Aviation Heritage Area. Although Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is etched in history as the first place a lighter than aircraft flew, the birth of aviation took place in Ohio.

Orville and Wilbur Wright – the pioneers who designed the first aircraft – were from Dayton. During my time in the small city, I visited the Carillon Historical Park. It was a fascinating place to visit with an indoor museum, outdoor exhibit spaces, but there was one particular exhibit that took my breath away.

One of the buildings on the Carillon campus is the Wright Brothers National Museum. Inside, after a short tour through the history of the brothers, I came to a large room housing the original Wright Flyer III. In 1905, Orville Wright made his first flight with the aircraft and changed the course of history. Today, that original aircraft has been recovered, restored, and is on display for anyone to see.

I’m not exactly an aviation enthusiast – although I do love watching planes take off and land at airports – but it was thrilling to be standing in the presence of such an historic artifact.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.

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