Ideas for a USA trip
September 27, 2008 9:45 AM   Subscribe

I am planning on going to America for 3/4 weeks next year during July. We want to see as many of the amazing places/sites as we can in that period. So far, the sorts of places we have in mind: (more inside!)


New York - 3 days
Grand Canyon
Niagara Falls
Mount Rushmore
San Francisco
Las Vegas
Los Angeles
California (walt disney)

We dont mind flying, driving, train, etc but would like some ideas on where to go - major sites only and how best to travel.

Once in a million places, like we have been tipped off to stay at the Mandalay in Las Vegas greatfully appreciated.

We don't need to head to florida as have done that previously.

Thanks for the ideas.

posted by trashcan to Travel & Transportation (45 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Maine is absolutely beautiful in July, as are Vermont and New Hampshire. All my really nice memories of vacationing as a kid are up there.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:54 AM on September 27, 2008

Some more context would be helpful. Are you outdoorsy people? Do you like sports? Shopping? Looking for touristy things, or off-the-beaten-path quirky stuff? Do you have kids? How old are you? How much money do you have to spend? All these things matter a great deal.

That said, most major cities in the US have had travel-filter questions asked about them. Use the AskMe search to find the threads on each city and pull together a nice listing of recommended spots. (example: Boston)
posted by chrisamiller at 9:55 AM on September 27, 2008

If you're into history, stop in Philadelphia between New York and Washington, and do a walking tour. Similarly, Boston, has the Freedom Trail, but is not between New York and Washington.
posted by Airhen at 10:02 AM on September 27, 2008

posted by Wayman Tisdale at 10:08 AM on September 27, 2008


There is just me and my wife we are in our early 30s, we have a good budget - not millionaires by any stretch but can splash out every now and then.

We love history, real history. We love art. We love music. We love scenary, but we want to do a checklist of the amazing things in America.

This for us is going to be a once in a lifetime trip, or at least not for another 20 years or so before we settle down to have kids.

We love life in general and anything that makes it special!

Hope that clarifies.
posted by trashcan at 10:09 AM on September 27, 2008

Disneyworld in Florida is much better than Disneyland in LA. The property in LA is small, and they tried to pack in so much that it feels very claustrophobic. At Disneyworld they had enough space to do things right. All the same attractions at both, except that Disneyworld also has MGM Studios and Epcot.
posted by Class Goat at 10:09 AM on September 27, 2008

Mount Rushmore itself is kind of so-so, but plan to spend a couple days in that area. Because right nearby Rushmore is the completely amazing Custer State Park, an enormous Black Hills paradise of woods, hiking and horseback trails, and tons of wild Western animals like bighorn sheep, buffalo, mountain goats, etc. It's a great place. Also not too far from there is the Badlands - very interesting - and the Crazy Horse monument.

I also really loved Yellowstone and Grand Tetons parks and the town of Bozeman, Montana. They fall on a logical Western path from South Dakota to the Pacific Coast.
posted by Miko at 10:15 AM on September 27, 2008

I would also highly recommend Disney World (Florida) versus Disneyland (California). I would also recommend staying on-site in one of their hotels (I'm a big fan of the Wilderness Lodge) -- the whole experience can be kind of cheesy and commercial, but at the same time, as a cynical person I always found it fun and "magical."
posted by elisabethjw at 10:19 AM on September 27, 2008

Skip the Grand Canyon and go to Yellowstone/Grand Tetons instead. Really.
posted by RussHy at 10:19 AM on September 27, 2008

Caveat: America is LARGE. Larger than many people think. I had this conversation many times in Europe and the UK - most people (including many Americans) don't have a clear idea of the scale of this country. If you try to cover the map with your travels, travelling will be all you will have time for.

You may want to limit yourself to a geographical region or three in your plans. And more context in your travel plans will help you to whittle down your options to something more manageable.

That being said, may I suggest the Pacific Northwest? Mountains, rivers, plains, glaciers, rainforests, inlets, bays and open water make this corner of the country something really special. It's not called The Switzerland of America for nothing!
posted by Aquaman at 10:23 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may want to limit yourself to a geographical region or three in your plans.

I totally disagree - I did a cross-country drive in 4 weeks that took in most of the areas listed in the wish-list with the exception of the East Coast (where we lived anyway) . It IS a lot (a lot!) of driving, but not only can it be done, it lays out the country in an immense panorama that is highly memorable and inspiring. You can go back and spend more time in locations you find that really appeal to you - but I think there's no substitute for the 30-day full survey roadtrip, especially when you're young enough to really enjoy it.

If you're driving, totally rent audiobooks. It makes time go faster.

The train is wonderful but slow.
posted by Miko at 10:27 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would skip Mount Rushmore. If you've seen pictures of it, that's pretty much what it is.

If money and time are not too much of a factor, maybe make a stop in Hawaii or Alaska.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 10:31 AM on September 27, 2008

yeah, I spent TWO DAYS just to drive from Las Vegas to SW Colorado (to see Mese Verde N.P. and back in 2007.

Zion National Park was basically an RGB version of Yosemite (which doesn't have any red color, only gray and green).

Here's the loop I did . . . 1130 miles of driving over a weekend. A sane person would take a day in Zion, a day in Kayenta, a day in Williams with a day trip down to Sedona.
posted by troy at 10:36 AM on September 27, 2008

We recently spent almost a month driving from NYC to Montana/Wyoming and back, and it was incredible. The country is really really huge, but if you drive you get to see lots of things you were not expecting (this is a positive for me). I agree about Mt Rushmore -- stop by, but if you're in that region there's a lot that's much more rewarding: the Badlands, Devil's Tower (from Close Encounters!), Yellowstone, Grand Teton, to name a few. You can go from the east coast and hit Chicago on your way out (definitely worth it -- great architecture, great food, great music, great people), see the nature stuff in Wyoming/Montana, then go south to Vegas. Plus if you're driving you can alter the schedule on the fly if you particularly like or dislike an area. Change is more costly if you're flying.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:42 AM on September 27, 2008

Definitely hit the South Dakota Badlands before/after Mt. Rushmore
posted by nathan_teske at 10:44 AM on September 27, 2008

When Americans say 'I have 3 weeks to see ALL OF EUROPE', my standard advice is 'you can't'.

Here, the reverse applies.

Now, I think it's barely possible in that 3/4-wk timeframe to do a classic coast-to-coast road trip -- perhaps even buying a car on the east coast and driving it west, if you can sort out the insurance. You've got a northern route that takes you to the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming (Yellowstone/Tetons) and just the whole experience of hitting the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi, then either dropping down to the desert or going all the way to the Pacific coast and heading down to California.

But for that kind of itinerary, the driving experience becomes the holiday. And as Philip Greenspun says -- and I reiterate all the time here -- you don't learn anything about the place if you do more than 150 miles a day.

Here's an alternative idea: take Amtrak for at least some of the route. If it's a 'trip of a lifetime', you need to get a sense of how bloody big the place is. You don't get that in a plane, and you get a blinkered sense of it in a car. In addition, New York and DC will always be a relatively cheap flight away from European hubs.

To me, the 'checklist' approach isn't the best way to approach this. Statue of Liberty? Check. Lincoln Memorial? Check. Mickey Mouse? Check. You're setting yourself up for the kind of 'if it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium' trip where you're almost cutting yourself off from unexpected surprises and serendipitous discoveries in an attempt to stand in a particular spot that satisfies your definition of 'amazing thing'. Sometimes an amazing thing can be a junk store or a snatched vista on the roadside or a conversation with someone in a diner or coffeeshop.

Limit your scope, but don't limit your opportunity to be amazed.
posted by holgate at 10:46 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Once in a million places, like we have been tipped off to stay at the Mandalay in Las Vegas greatfully appreciated.

I wouldn't call Mandalay Bay "once in a million". It's just another mondo-huge Vegas resort. If you want to splash some cash in Vegas and feel like you're not staying in a generic hotel, I would go with the Wynn. It's much more central, right in the midst of the Strip. And it's a lot nicer than Mandalay Bay.
posted by pdb at 10:56 AM on September 27, 2008

I love Chicago--to me Chicago is the great American big city.

For Mount Rushmore, you're probably talking about flying or driving into Rapid City and using that as your base. Note that driving would mean a travel leg of at least a day or two in the car. You'd require a rental car to see and explore the area, anyway.

You could spend 3-4 days or more around there, some things are tacky and touristy, some things are nice, some things are the "real America". I think it's a beautiful area, myself. You might be better positioned to see Native American stuff in South Dakota than in other areas on your list (I'd expect Arizona would do well in that area also). More info.

People do use Las Vegas as a base to see the Grand Canyon. One option is to buy a ticket for a helicopter ride that picks you up right in Vegas, flies you over the canyon, then drops you back in Vegas again. I've driven the same distance and back in a day, but then you don't get a lot of time to hang around the canyon itself, most of your time is in transit. You could also stay in Vegas, and plan on spending a night or two in Arizona before flying out of Vegas again.
posted by gimonca at 10:58 AM on September 27, 2008

if you're interested in history, you absolutely have to stop in philadelphia, just for a day. the liberty bell, independence hall, the constitution center, and lots of smaller things (christ church, betsy ross' house, etc.) are all within a few blocks of each other.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:16 AM on September 27, 2008

Can I suggest at some point you abandon the enormous tourist traps and head off into a more rural area? I don't suppose it matters which state, but you should consider taking a half day to cruise down some highway or eat in a roadside cafe run by a woman named Betty. You really can't claim to have seen the true America if you only visit the places you've mentioned.
posted by Ugh at 11:16 AM on September 27, 2008

That being said, may I suggest the Pacific Northwest? Mountains, rivers, plains, glaciers, rainforests, inlets, bays and open water make this corner of the country something really special. It's not called The Switzerland of America for nothing!

Agreed. Likewise, it's possible to enjoy the nice urban things in Seattle and take a day trip out to Mount Rainier or the many other natural attractions in the area, so you get the best of both worlds.
posted by gimonca at 11:27 AM on September 27, 2008

I'm with tractorfeed - you can't miss Yellowstone.

I just got back from the classic American vacation: the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. The Badlands is unlike anything I've seen in my travels. You can easily spend an hour or two marveling at the sights, shapes, and colors. It's like you've landed on the moon. Mount Rushmore is one of those places where I just spent thirty to forty-five minutes. It's cool, but the surrounding Black Hills are even more beautiful. Devil's Tower is awesome. Who knew that moss could make it look green and yellow up close? Cody is a charming town. If you go, stop by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center - it has five wonderful museums under one roof. Finally, depending on your other priorities, you can spend just one day at Grand Teton if all you want to do is drive the loop and see the park and wildlife. Yellowstone, though, really deserves two to three days and that's if you don't plan on getting out of the car often. If you have a short amount of time, I highly recommend taking a historic Yellow Bus tour of Yellowstone operated by Xanterra. They have bus trips that vary in length and the buses, which have been fully restored, are a lot of fun. If you visit, stay in Yellowstone. Do not stay outside the park. The Canyon area is a good base to operate from if you're traveling around the park by car. It's not the prettiest area, like Mammoth, but it's in the middle of the park and you can easily travel both loops of the park's figure 8 road network. However, if you want go all out and can get a reservation, try staying at the Old Faithful Inn. It's the premier example of "parkitecture" and has the best food in the park.

The Grand Canyon is great - you could stay at the historic El Tovar Hotel - but I'd rather spend my time in Yellowstone. If you're going to San Francisco, try going to Yosemite (a few hours by car) and staying at the Ahwahnee. It's expensive, but oh so worth it if this is your once in a lifetime trip.

I also agree with holgate and aquaman - America is so vast it's hard to pack in everything on your list and do it justice. The first time I went to Europe, I was a teenager and had the "checklist" experience where I missed out on so many great serendipitous moments that I had later when I studied at Oxford for a few months and took things much more slowly. I guess it goes back to the "Are you a tourist or are you a traveler?" argument. Enjoy your visit!
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 11:36 AM on September 27, 2008

Keep in mind it's going to be miserably hot in the southwest in July. The Grand Canyon Rim/ Flagstaff area isn't so bad because its higher elevation but the bottom of the canyon, Zion/ Mesa Verde/ Death Valley/ Vegas/ Joshua Tree will be insanely hot and the sun will be very strong. If you're from northern Europe you probably won't want to get out of the car. I love that area but it's a much better winter trip and in July you'll probably have a lot more fun if you stay further north.

Think about staying at Tahoe for a couple of days, it's really gorgeous and a comfortable and scenic drive from San Francisco.
posted by fshgrl at 12:18 PM on September 27, 2008

I'd suggest breaking things up into 3 or four regions, beginning with New York and Washington D.C.. If you're into history, you should also make some a trip or two south of D.C., to check out some of the battlefields and sites associated with the American Civil War, many of which are surprisingly close to D.C.., and which played such a key role in American history.

Since I'm from around Chicago, I'd recommend a trip to the Second City, by air probably, before heading out to check out either the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas (perhaps with a stopover at Hoover Dam and Lake Mead), or Yellowstone, which is a bit more isolated. As you consider what natural areas to visit however, you might have a look at this list of National Parks, and browse through them, paying special attention to ones near areas you plan to visit. There are some fantastic discoveries to be made off-the-beaten-track.

Finally, I'd finish with a trip to California, including especially San Francisco, and maybe L.A./Hollywood if you're film buffs, or maybe Northern CA or Oregon if you're more into wine and scenic beauty.

Get a sense of how much you like or dislike driving, and how comfortable you'll be driving on the right-hand side of the road (the good news here is that rental cars are widely available and pretty inexpensive). Use Google Maps to estimate distances and driving times, and see whether these bother you. Amtrak (the US rail service) can be a good alternative, though the routes are limited and the service isn't as clean or efficient as rail in the UK.

Also, try to begin your trip before you leave, by watching films set in and reading-up on the places you're planning to visit (maybe _The Blues Brothers_ and _Ferris Buehler's Day Off_ for Chicago?)

Finally (and most importantly!):
Make sure you make arrangements for emergency health insurance before you come! If you end up getting injured in the US, the medical expenses will be charged to you and could very well be seriously ruinous.

On preview: fshgrl makes a good point about the heat. Much of the states and the Southwest especially will be pretty scorching hot in July.
posted by washburn at 12:23 PM on September 27, 2008

The United States are huge. And I say that as a European who has been on four trips there, each of which was four weeks long. And I only covered the Western half of the US. My trips always had more emphasis on beautiful scenery and nature than big cities (though I liked San Francisco and Santa Fe a lot), and I've been to many of the National Parks in the West. (On preview: I've always traveled in July and August and didn't mind the heat so much - carry plenty of water, seek out the shade whenever possible, and avoid hiking during the hottest hours in the middle of the day. Wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses.

While traveling in the area, many people have suggested going to Canyonlands instead of Grand Canyon because it's more beautiful, but the Grand Canyon is aptly named. You cannot imagine how big it really is until you've been there, and it's still difficult then. I hiked into the Canyon (not towards Phantom Ranch, though) and finally got an idea how deep and wide it really is, so my suggestion is that you visit Grand Canyon and go for a hike there - it doesn't have to be all the way to the Colorado, though.

Another park well worth visiting in that area is Bryce Canyon, but Zion and Canyonlands are spectacular as well. If you visit the area, Moab is a good place to stay because you can easily get to several parks from there.

My favourite National Park in the West is Yellowstone, which is also hard to describe. Again, you don't get the whole idea if you're there for just a day (the park is huge!) and stop by Old Faithful. Try to spend two or three days there and go for short hikes to take in all the different thermal features.

Personally, I skipped Los Angeles, but I'm not into big cities, the movie industry, or Disney. The Californian coast, however, is well worth a drive along Highway 1.

On my trips I've covered distances between 3,000 and 6,000 miles in four weeks by car, and while driving is much less stressful in the USA (at least outside of big cities) than in Europe, I enjoyed myself more the less I sat in the car. You can of course see the scenery while driving, but you only really get it if you leave your car and walk or hike. I often liked the smaller National Monuments or State Parks better than the crowded National Parks, but they probably wouldn't make it onto your list. A few favourites: Death Valley, Saguaro East/West near Tucson, Chiricahua, Great Basin, Joshua Tree ... I could go on and on, as you can see. Drop me a line (e-mail in profile) if you're interested, I'll happily help out with more specific tips for an area or a park.

One last tip: If you plan on visiting more than two parks, buy a National Parks Pass. It's valid for a whole year in all the parks and works out much cheaper than paying the individual entrance fees.
posted by amf at 12:27 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just want to add that trains in the US are different from trains in Europe. If you are thinking about using Amtrak, please be aware that there will definitely be delays, sometimes very long ones.

(I can't speak to commuter trains on the east coast. My understanding is that they are an effective means of transportation)

Do not use Amtrak if you have a tight schedule (you need to be in a certain city on a specific date and time for an event, for example). If you have a few days leeway and can afford a sleeping compartment, then riding Amtrak can be a relaxing, lovely experience.

I especially recommend the ride from Seattle to Chicago. Beautiful.
posted by Brody's chum at 12:34 PM on September 27, 2008

There are ways to do coast-to-coast with a rough historical theme, too.

If you start, say, in Boston, then you can get a sense of Colonial America, and it's something of a stand-in for Philly, or even DC. Or you could sweep down from Boston to New York and/or DC (Acela) and then take the Amtrak or fly out to Chicago: the train would be more interesting, as it takes you through the Rust Belt into a city with a history that's bound up with Industrial America. From there, you can hit the road, and have the historic mother road as an option or the northern route across the Dakotas into the vast open spaces of the western frontier -- which, as others have said, it'll bring you close to the remaining concentrated Native American communities. Then, the west coast, pushing into the present, whether it's Seattle/SF and tech, Vegas's hyperreality, or La-La-Land and Disney.

That leaves out the old South, which is a pity. (And Niagara, which isn't.) But you can't do it all, and you have to give yourself the space for things to happen around you.
posted by holgate at 12:34 PM on September 27, 2008

For music, be sure to check out the Hollywood Bowl. While in LA, also take a look at the Griffith Observatory and be sure to go on a bar crawl down Sunset Blvd. if nightlife is your thing.
posted by MaxK at 12:37 PM on September 27, 2008

Yes, if possible you should try to make a stop in the south - Nashville, Memphis or New Orleans maybe. Totally different culture to the rest of the US.

Oh, and Mandalay Bay is a great hotel. Have fun!
posted by triggerfinger at 12:42 PM on September 27, 2008

Also, just fyi: There are 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the US.
posted by washburn at 12:47 PM on September 27, 2008

It doesn't matter if you give a damn about Elvis Presley (I don't).
Graceland is America.
posted by Methylviolet at 1:00 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

+1 to ugh. Get off the beaten path as much as possible. Movies and tv present a very homogenized, Disney-fied version of what American life and culture is like. If that's all you're coming here for (New York, LA, Disneyland), you might as well stay at home and buy yourself a bigger teevee to watch it on.

Regional food, accents, architecture and lifestyle -- experience as many as possible. And triggerfinger is right -- make a stop in the South. New Orleans is a world unto itself, like no place else on earth. At least 4 "one in a million" experiences on every block of the French Quarter.

From my experience traveling around the country, visits to places with character create powerful memories. Monuments and famous buildings don't leave much besides a mental postcard. Having breakfast at a diner in Providence, Rhode Island was much more interesting to me than seeing Niagra Falls. You've got almost a month; once you've seen the Statue of Liberty and gotten used to the "OMIGOD!!! We're in AMERICA!!!" feeling, go someplace you've never seen in a Hollywood movie.
posted by junkbox at 1:15 PM on September 27, 2008

Disneyworld in Florida is much better than Disneyland in LA.

This is an opinion with which I disagree, strongly. Disneyland gives you the best of Disneyworld but is not a sprawling ginomopolis and requires just a day to see fully. Disneyworld is magnitudes larger than Disneyland and takes days to see all of--but it's really just more walking time, not more awesomeness. Plus, the rides are better at Disneyland for whatever reason. Disneyland is much more comparable in scope to Disneyland Paris, if you've been there (but the lines are better organized).
posted by tyrantkitty at 1:26 PM on September 27, 2008

For the love of God, skip Mount Rushmore. It looks exactly like it does in the photos and you cannot get any closer than the spot where ALL those photos were taken. It is both stunningly dull and inconveniently located.

My sister and I drove across country from New York to LA via Seattle and made a point to stop at Mount Rushmore. We treked up the thing to the point, batted away 27,000 other tourists, looked up at the mountain, turned to each other, and said "So. Lunch?"

If you want a fun Americana experience, I would suggest Cedar Point, which we did on the way to Chicago. There are few wooden roller coasters left in the world and most of them are at Cedar Point. Go, it's awesome.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:04 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

A weather tip: Keep in mind that the vast majority of the places you're interested in are torturously hot (and on the East Coast, humid) in the summer. July is a tough, tough time to be a tourist walking around a lot in the heat. California can be pleasant on the coast - San Francisco is downright cold in summer due to the fog, but just twenty miles inland it can be 40 degrees Fahrenheit warmer!

A luggage tip: bring a week's worth of clothes and do some laundry, tossing, and shopping. It's a hassle to lug a zillion things with you, and if you're from pretty much anywhere these days, clothing is far cheaper in the US than it is at home.

I see an itinerary like this - it's road-trippy, but the miles per day are quite low, I think, for a trip of this kind, so bear with me:

Eight days: New York and Washington - splurge and take the Acela (Amtrak's fastest train) if you can; it's only a few hours' journey and is center-to-center, making the whole getting-between-the-cities thing a non-issue.

Three days: Chicago. Fly there. No need for a car.

Ten days: Drive to New Orleans for a week and spend three days in the city.

It's a 14 hour straight shot down the freeway, about 950 miles/1500 kms, but you'll have enough time to take it a whole lot slower if you want. I realize that none of the places on your list are on this route. But I doubt there exists a single route you could take in America that would give you such an amazing window on the country. You said in your question that you want to see as many of the amazing places/sites as we can; trust me, your minds will be blown.

A huge portion of the history and culture of what the world knows about America traveled along this path: jazz and the blues, slavery, westward migration, the civil rights era, and even the image the world has today of rural, backwoods America itself as a gun-crazy, God-fearing, Wal-Mart-shopping, morbidly obese white guy named Jed.

And you'll have time for barbecue, for antique-hunting, and for some New Orleans craziness. I'm going to suggest you replace Las Vegas with New Orleans, even, because I feel it really, really has it beat for actual things to do and culture and life.

So that's 21 days.

If you've got a fourth week, tag on a flight to San Francisco and head north along the Pacific coast (which is no less than God's personal high-five to the nation) to Portland or Seattle, then fly home from there. Skip Los Angeles: it's not bad, per se, but the density of a day's worth of exploring is not worth 1/21 or even 1/28 of your time if you're visiting the rest of the country, and you're going to be able to dip your toe into the Pacific and sample things you might not have at home, like great Mexican or Vietnamese food, all along the way anyway. You'd need a week or more to explore Southern California, and there's too much good stuff elsewhere to check it out without cutting out something awesome.

So yeah: no Disney, no Grand Canyon, no Niagara even, but: America.
posted by mdonley at 2:39 PM on September 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm biased being from there, but the Finger Lakes region, between NYC and Niagara, is a gorgeous drive.

Also, see Boston to get a sense of history. I'd even argue you should lop a day off NYC to get more time in Boston.
posted by knile at 2:44 PM on September 27, 2008

If you want "real history" please don't miss Philadelphia and Boston.

Also, as a former Washingtonian I endorse getting out of the city to see some of the historic sites in the region at large: Gettysburg, if you can get that far. Mount Vernon and Lorton combine for a nice trip. Manassas Battlefield, if you can't get to Gettysburg. In the city, don't miss Ford's Theatre; again, "real history," not just a monument or a tourist place. For a break from the madness, try Dumbarton Oaks: again, "real history" and beautiful gardens.
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:19 PM on September 27, 2008

My big piece of advice as a DC-area native is that if you plan to spend any time there in July, recognize -- as other people have said -- that it will be extremely hot and humid (90s F/upper 30s C and 75%+ humidity). In fact, that will be true of much of the East Coast unless you head all the way up north of Boston.

If you want to do things that are uniquely "American", my answer is to spend some time on the East Coast to get some historical and cultural perspective, and then make a beeline for the West.

Specific itenerary? Well... for this I'm assuming that you're European. But I guess it'd be cool for anyone...

- I'd spend time in Boston rather than New York. New York is a giant city and it's a huge cultural force. But if you love real history, the Boston area is chock full of it. Boston will give you a good feel for how America became the way it is based on its Colonial heritage. The same is true of Philadelphia. Both have fantastic historic districts that have a lot of their original buildings intact and in both towns you can also get your fill of art and music.

- Take the train from Boston/Philly to Washington, DC. The Acela is nice. DC is an inherently touristy place. It will be crawling with thousands of other tourists just like you (especially with a weak dollar). Recognizing that, it can definitely be fun to do the touristy stuff if you're not averse to it. I'd personally only spend a couple of days there, because it can get old fast. You can take day trips around to the surrounding areas; Gettysburg is a Civil War battlefield in PA that's good, Harper's Ferry is an interesting historic place in WV, Williamsburg and Yorktown are two Revolutionary War places in southeast VA that are great, etc. There are a lot of things to do in the Mid-Atlantic, and you could spend a long time doing them all.

- If you really want to go to Chicago, I'd say fly there from DC. I've never been there, but I hear it's a great place. Personally, I'd recommend Texas for that "uniquely American" experience, but I live in Austin now so I'm biased.

- From Chicago or Texas or wherever, go to Denver. Rent a car or in some other manner get a set of wheels. Here's the part where you do a lot of driving. Places you must go upon leaving Denver:
~ Mesa Verde: awesome ancient Native American ruins.
~ New Mexico (in general): it's called the "Land of Enchantment" for a reason. High desert and arid mountains make for some spectacular vistas. And the food is fantastic. Specifically, I'd say hit up Santa Fe. From there head northwest to...
~ Arches/Canyonlands National Parks: Moab is a funny little place to stay. Canyonlands is supposed to be just as good if not better than the Grand Canyon; Arches is a park full of strange rock formations. From there go north to...
~ Grand Teton/Yellowstone: You are doing yourself an extreme disservice if you don't wind up here at some point. Yellowstone is as American as it gets. Hell, Yellowstone is America. It is beautiful and majestic. For a specific recommendation, my family did a back-country tour here with a group that did multi-day treks with llamas. It was awesome. If you want more specifics, MeMail me.
~ From Yellowstone, you have a couple of options. The Black Hills (and the Badlands) are to the east in South Dakota. If you're tired of deserts, though, you can go southeast to Rocky Mountain National Park. It has the country's highest road! Wind up back in Denver.

- From Denver, I'd round off your trip in either San Francisco or Seattle. Both are great cities and they really will cap off your experience well. I've never been to Las Vegas, but if that's your thing you should definitely go for it.

Some quick comments on the schedule itinerary you posted:
- Niagara Falls is crappy. Skip it. If you go, you'll regret it as a waste of time.
- I've never been to the Grand Canyon, and I hear it's pretty amazing. I'd skip it in favor of other stuff, though.
- I hated Los Angeles when I was there. It's huge and it takes forever to get around because of the terrible, terrible traffic.
- I don't understand why people like either Disneyland (CA) or Disneyworld (FL). I think they're incredibly overrated, but then again, I really like roller coasters. If you like roller coasters too, check out Universal Studios rather than Disneyland (if you're intent on going to a theme park in the area). If you really want to go to a theme park period, and it doesn't matter where, I'd agree with Cedar Point (as mentioned before).

One thing that you need to realize is the that United States is a big country, and that means that even though there are a lot of things to do and a lot of things to see you can spend a huge amount of time traveling between them. Plan accordingly.

Wow, this post was long. But it's still not exhaustive, and it's only what I would look into if I was planning a trip for people like me but not from the US. Hopefully you'll get a good idea of what's unmissable from this thread. Good luck and have fun!
posted by malthas at 4:16 PM on September 27, 2008

One option is to buy a ticket for a helicopter ride that picks you up right in Vegas, flies you over the canyon, then drops you back in Vegas again.

This is one of the coolest things I've ever done. The grand canyon isn't just a big hole in the ground. It is *@! massive. Like, "I suddenly have no sense of spacial perception" massive.

Not much Texas love above. Its like a whole other country. As many have mentioned above, the nation is huge, and Texas is home to where the west begins. Driving across the state takes a couple of days - three if you want to be comfortable - more if you want to see anything. Piney forest in the east to desert in the west. Driving west from Fort Worth (or San Antonio or, to a lesser extent, Austin) there's a pretty abrupt point where it like you just drove off into Mars.

One thing that you need to realize is the that United States is a big country, and that means that even though there are a lot of things to do and a lot of things to see you can spend a huge amount of time traveling between them. Plan accordingly.

Yes, yes, yes. I'd pick one or two major centers where you'd like to spend the bulk of your time (San Francisco, DC, NY City and Chicago would top my list) to really get a sense of those places.
posted by GPF at 6:24 PM on September 27, 2008

Glacier National Park
is in northern Montana and is spectacular.
posted by charlesv at 7:58 PM on September 27, 2008

On the East Coast, you can see several sites in a number of states in a relatively short period of time. The further West you go, the bigger the states get. As a result, it is easy to spend several days, even weeks checking out sites in just one or two states.

That being said... In just New Mexico, you've got
White Sands - the sand is blindingly white
Carlsbad Caverns - for the good stuff, pay for the guided tour and be sure to stay for the sundown tornado of bats that leave the cave
El Morro - grafitti left by the conquistadors
Very Large Array - the size of this site is staggering
El Malpais - rugged but beautiful terrain
Chaco Canyon - a UNESCO World Heritage Site
If you like beautiful locations and history, check out Taos and Acoma Pueblos.
posted by onhazier at 8:09 PM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've travelled back and forth across the country by car many times, and I love it, but to a European these kind of distances may be daunting. To make time you have to be willing to go ten hours straight with just minor stops. Play around with mapquest - or google maps has a good trip mapping feature. The places you want to go are best done by car, you can start to get an idea of the mileage and make decisions about which leg(s) you want to do by air.

I like to stay at smaller local places rather than big chains when possible. I have done searches for rental cabins and often have found cute little places that are in beautiful spots with hospitable owners that are usually right near by with information only the locals might have (good swimming holes, places to eat, etc.)

We once stayed in a four room cabin right by Mesa Verde. This was one of my favorite trips - the whole four corners area. We got local maps that had all the known cliff dwelling sights scattered across southern Colorado and Utah and Northern New Mexico and Arizona. The hike to an ancient site on our own and and seeing pictographs away from the tourist traffic was amazing.

Also, I agree that books on tape are a lifesaver for long distance travel, but I like to listen to local radio when visiting a place. Local gospel stations in Appalachia, talk radio in Navaho, farm reports across the great plains...that what travel means to me.

I've been to almost all the places on your wishlist at least once so feel free to me-mail if you have any questions
posted by readery at 8:24 PM on September 27, 2008

If you're interested in American history, you should visit Williamsburg, Virginia, see Colonial Williamsburg and the start of the whole thing at Jamestown.
posted by MythMaker at 8:44 PM on September 27, 2008

For the love of God, skip Mount Rushmore. It looks exactly like it does in the photos and you cannot get any closer than the spot where ALL those photos were taken. It is both stunningly dull and inconveniently located.

I'm forced to point out that there are some very scenic overlooks in the Black Hills where, if you stop for a rest, you can see Mount Rushmore from a long distance away, along with much of the rest of the area. It's kind of neat to see it apparently tiny, and nestled among the forested crags. For that matter, you can see it from views around Keystone, the town at the base of the mountain. If there are buses and buses of old people waiting to get into the actual monument when you arrive, then yes, it might be better just to keep travelling. You can still tell people you saw it.

One more item--if you're in the area in July, that could be a good time to see a pow wow. Google for and check pow wow calendars next year for opportunities (here's one). It doesn't get much more American than that.
posted by gimonca at 11:23 PM on September 27, 2008

East coast, try Philadelphia too, you can take a train there from (Washington DC (Smithsonian, Museums) or NYC), eat at Reading Market, the museum, tour the US Mint, see the liberty bell etc, Center City type stuff could be done in a day or an overnight stay.

Central US, try Austin, Texas over a weekend (Fri, Sat) for the 6th street music and hill country The Chronicle will tell you whats going on there also The Oasis - the food is 'eh" but go for drinks and a sunset - it's perfect! , San Antonio is an hour drive south of Austin, you can do the Alamo and Riverwalk in a day there.

Chicago's Navy Pier also.

If you like airshows - I do since they are cool and free :) check in February or March before your July trip and match the 2009 show dates by state to where you might be and catch a show, any one with Thunderbirds or Blue Angels, and/or Tora Tora Tora is always impressive - its an all-day event with the feature performance right at the end. Look at this year's shows links to get an idea of what you'll see.

Don't forget to tour Hoover Dam when you are in Vegas.
Near Vegas: Grand Canyon
and somewhat close, Meteor Crater

You would probably enjoy Yellowstone National park (multi- day trip that one) and out near San Francisco, you can drive north across the Golden Gate past Sausalito to Muir Woods for a day trip. Farther north you could see the really big ones, Redwood National Park and Avenue of the Giants
San Diego is a few hours (3-4) drive south of Los Angeles, the beach there is great and theres Sea World and of course the San Diego Zoo

Let's see, not necessarily "American" but our favorite "treat" place to go to eat - and surely you will have one in ONE of the cities you are visiting - Fogo De Chao it's about 35-45 USD per person - guarantee you won't be disappointed and the service is excellent.

If we were going to do your "tour" I think 3 - 4 weeks could do it, but I'd make a primary list and a secondary list that I can "cut" from my tour if time is an issue or you just feel like staying longer someplace.

I'd fly to a major city (NYC, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, L.A.) and rent car, or train (east coast only) from there to places within that "hub", then fly to the next hub and repeat.
Southwest is probably cheapest for short notice flights and they fly nearly everywhere on your list.
Drive times vary but get longer out west until you get to California. Example: I live in Texas, to drive from Austin (center of state) to Dallas (north) is 3.5 hours, Houston (east) is 3.5 hours, San Antonio (South) is 1 hour and a bit, El Paso (west) is a 10 hour drive. But on the East coast you can drive from Baltimore/DC to Philadelphia in a couple hours, and Philly to NYC is another 3 hours or so. Los Angeles to San Diego - on a weekend - is 4 hours in traffic but would only take 2.5 hous without traffic I think. L.A. to Vegas driving is 5 or so hours (my guess) and LA to San Franis 6-8 hours depending on the route.

Bring a Laptop that has Wireless G and your memory card reader to offload digital photos onto your laptop. Also most places provide free wireless access (hotels, cafes, coffee shops) so google is your friend, get a cheap Prepaid cell phone that you can add minutes to online or with credit card (unless your phone works here) as you need and you should be set to get directions, call for prices, reservations, etc from nearly any place you want to go. I'd recommend buying it from a national chain - like WalMart - simply because if you keep your receipt and have problems with it, you can return or exchange it at any store and they are literally everywhere (sorta like starbucks) that you will be travelling. Have a great trip!
posted by clanger at 12:08 AM on September 28, 2008

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