What are your must-see attractions?
June 28, 2006 4:25 PM   Subscribe

What are the must-see attractions or must-have experiences in the lower 48 that we need to catch when the wanderlust strikes?

My SO and I have saved our money and vacation time, and we are ready to do some travelling in the contiguous U.S. Inspired by an earlier post on superlatives, I'd like to know what are the locations, attractions, experiences, etc. that you believe everyone should experience at least once before they die.

Christmas in New York City, a real drive-in movie, the Vietnam Memorial in DC, standing small among the California redwoods, shopping at Uncle Fun's in Chicago... where have you been that you'll never forget? We're open to any and all suggestions.
posted by gyrom to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Swimming in the ocean, preferably Jones Beach which is on Long Island, New York. it is a blast. it is big cold waves, none of that icky shark-infested bathwater like in Florida.
posted by amethysts at 4:33 PM on June 28, 2006

The Florida Keys, especially:

Dry Tortugas National Park. The island is located about 70 miles west of Key West in the waters of the Straights of Florida. It takes a while to get out there, but well worth it. It's such a beautiful, remote area to snorkel, picnic, and swim. You can arrive there in about 2 hours via a high-speed catamaran, or quicker by sea plane.

Bahia Honda Beach in the Florida Keys. One of the most beautiful, tranquil beaches I have ever been to. I live on a very beautiful beach, but Bahia Honda is gorgeous with its white sand, turquoise water, and tranquil waves. It feels and looks like the Caribbean. I have been there several times, and it has never been crowded.

Key Largo, especially John Pennekamp State Park for diving or snorkeling.
posted by LoriFLA at 4:42 PM on June 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

The Badlands in South Dakota.

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Maine.

Rocky Mountain National Park.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

The High Sierras, east of Yosemite, around Mono Lake.
posted by Framer at 4:52 PM on June 28, 2006

Northern New Mexico - drive from Santa Fe to Taos. Hike around Bandelier. Look at the light, and the distances. Watch as many sunsets as you can - they are all completely different.

(I haven't been there since Katrina, but...) New Orleans. NOT Canal Street, but find some legitimate New Orleans music - maybe at Tipitinas. There used to be a place called Howlin' Wolf's. Wherever - but find non-touristy, real New Orleans blues-soul-funk-rock - drink beer, dance, and eat great food.

Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 4:56 PM on June 28, 2006

I think everyone should experience Taste of Chicago.
posted by MeetMegan at 4:58 PM on June 28, 2006

Niagara Falls (but it may be cheating since the best view can be seen by walking across the bridge to the Canadian side).
posted by Kellydamnit at 5:10 PM on June 28, 2006

On an extensive road trip years ago, I found myself in Idaho, one of the most gorgeous states in the US. My traveling buddy Chuck, who had grown up in Montana, told me that we'd be coming up on something totally unique and that it would blow my mind, and lo and behold, the Craters of the Moon national preserve came into sight. The miles of black volcanic rock were unlike anything I've ever seen in my travels. It's like being on another planet, with oxygen. I'll never forget the experience.
posted by dbiedny at 5:13 PM on June 28, 2006

Zion, Bryce and Cedar Breaks in Southern Utah.

Oh yeah ... not too far away from this is Vegas, baby. Vegas. And the Hoover f'n Dam.
posted by frogan at 5:14 PM on June 28, 2006

Hiking anywhere in Yosemite Natl Park

Walk around Venice Beach/Santa Monica

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park (woops, not lower 48)

Drive Highway 1 in CA

Visit Las Vegas (It's OK if you don't like it, but you gotta go there)

Second the bit about Idaho...That whole Idaho/Montana area is spectacular.

Visit Tijuana. Same reason as Vegas.
posted by Brian James at 5:16 PM on June 28, 2006

Well, i can't think of any unmentioned location in the states, but if you're interested, just a two-hour drive north of seattle and you're in Vancouver, BC, which is probably the most beautiful city in North America (in my humble opinion).
When in Vancouver, your best bet is to spend as little as possible time in the downtown area, and more time watching sunsets in Kitsilano beach. As well, i'd try out yaletown, though don't plan on dining or shopping because it's an expensive neighbourhood. you should also check out granville island, full of small little galleries and such, and the granville island market, which has absolutely amazing food. and then from there it's a very quick drive to several provincial/national parks, including boreal rainforests (yes, rainforests in north america). and if you're up for a bit of a longer drive, it's about an hour or an hour and a half from vancouver to the famous whistler mountain.
posted by alon at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2006

Crater Lake in Oregon.

The whole Northwestern Coast from San Francisco on up.
posted by Eekacat at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2006

Grand Canyon.

Getting the first view of the Tetons as you come around a hill -- I think this is the entry from Jackson Hole. Also, hiking up through the Tetons.

Geysers at Jellystone. Sitting at Old Faithful ignoring the geyser because the marmots under the boardwalk are being more entertaining.

Any big Civil War site.

Driving a stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Stumbling at least a little tipsy down Bourbon Street.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:23 PM on June 28, 2006

If you travel through St. Louis, visit the Arch. It's enough just to stand underneath it... AND throw a rock into the Mississippi too!
posted by bjork24 at 5:28 PM on June 28, 2006

Seconding the Yellowstone geysers. Old Faithful's kind of blah, but Grand Geyser was incredible; only problem is that it doesn't erupt as frequently.

Go for lunch at Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, MI.

Do some canoeing in Voyageurs National Park.

And I know you said Lower 48, but don't discount Canada. Cape Breton Island & Louisbourg are fantastic, and you haven't seen gorgeous scenery until you've driven the Icefields Parkway.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:54 PM on June 28, 2006

Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway. (Damn, I just saw that ROU_Xenophobe beat me to it.)

Hike Sharp Top Peak and Flat Top Peak, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
posted by jayder at 5:55 PM on June 28, 2006

Cumberland Island, GA.

Pretty much any given stretch of the Appalachian Trail.
posted by saladin at 6:04 PM on June 28, 2006

from above, I meant Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, NOT Canal St. With apologies to ROU_Xenophobe - yes, Bourbon St is a sight to see, but for my money it's not really that different (or less distasteful) than many other places that attract tourists with promises of lots of beer and - well, lots of beer.

On the other hand, real, down and dirty, legitimate New Orleans music - NOT the whitewashed Bourbon street bit, NOT the "birthplace of JAZZ" Louis Armstrong re-tread - with apologies to Pops, who is still without equal - but some homegrown funk a la the Meters, Walter Wolfman Washington, Dr John, Allen Toussaint - hearing THAT kind of music IN New Orleans is, for my money, a truly high plane of living.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 6:11 PM on June 28, 2006

If you like greenspace, the Ozarks. Seriously. Any state park in Arkansas is an amazingly beautiful thing in the Spring, Summer or Fall.

I'm full of all kinds of bias, though.

There's also a working drive in theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Just so you know. The movies are usally pretty crappy, but it's fun.
posted by geekhorde at 6:36 PM on June 28, 2006

Seconding the Badlands, Vegas, Yosemite, and Pennekamp.

Add to your list some of the nation's major and unique cities, depending on what you're into. Also, and it'll be inevtiable, learn to appreciate the wide-open expanses that come between the "interesting parts." Though not chock full of natural or man-made wonders, the prairie states can be impressive in their emptiness and a good way to understand what's really going on in the US. I think we forget about that sometimes, living in the cities...
posted by whatzit at 6:40 PM on June 28, 2006

(And my favorite part of Pennekamp park is actually kayaking in the mangrove swamps. I was not too keen on the glass-bottom boat ride. Especially don't go right after lunch.)
posted by whatzit at 6:41 PM on June 28, 2006

(mangrove forests. Gah, where's my head.)
posted by whatzit at 6:41 PM on June 28, 2006

Another vote for the beautiful State parks of Utah, particularly Bryce and Zion. I also think Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde are extraordinarily beautiful. If you've only ever seen kitschy yard-art sort of representations, you'll be surprised at how lovely Anasazi art and dwellings are, and seeing them in a museum is simply incomparable to walking around them. If you can, time any park visits to the early spring (May) or fall (later September); there will still be others around, but far fewer than in summer.

I like strange monuments and oddities a lot, and if you do too, if you're in Wisconsin, try The House on Rock. If your trip takes you through Kansas you'll have a very dull day unless you go off the beaten path a bit: I love Lucas and The Garden of Eden. There's also a surprisingly fine folk art museum there. I love it a great deal and you'll likely have it all or mostly to yourselves.

Have a wonderful trip -- I truly envy you two.
posted by melissa may at 6:46 PM on June 28, 2006

if in Colorado, why not go to the 'beach' and visit the Great Sand dunes, be sure to take the time to hike up it. Its very much like what I would imagine another planet would be...desolate.

For my money, Okracoke (sp?) island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is the most fantastic part of the East Coast of the US.

And yes, the Redwoods of CA and the Blue Ridge parkway of the Appalachians would be on my list as well.
posted by iurodivii at 7:08 PM on June 28, 2006

mt hood at sunrise.
posted by brandz at 8:31 PM on June 28, 2006

Teton National Park (God has a summer place there), Yellowstone, and Glacier National Park. A nice trifecta in Idaho & Montana. Cover them all on the way to Craters of the Moon.
posted by RussHy at 9:29 PM on June 28, 2006

Washington's Olympic Peninsula, particularly the Hoh Rainforest (North America's only rainforest) and Cape Flattery, the extreme northernmost point of the contiguous 48 states.

And Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Utah's national parks, particularly Bryce and Zion.
posted by kindall at 10:01 PM on June 28, 2006

I've traveled around the US a little bit, and if there is one thing I can tell you with some certanty, it is that this country is amazingly, insanely beautiful - every square inch of it. Anywhere you go, you will find something amazing. In some ways, the act compiling lists such as this one is quite self-defeating - you won't be done till you enumerate every small place on the continent, to your desired level of granularity. Naturally, none of this will stop me from giving you my input. It will be heavily biased towards the parts where I live or have traveled.

There are three national parks in WA - Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades. All of these are amazing places in their own right.

In North Cascades, come in summer (like, two weeks from now) for the most amazing alpine wildflower display you will ever see. There are also pristine lakes, deep gorges, towering peaks and blessed solitude is incredibnly easy to come by. The must do experience, in my opinion, is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, especially the section between highways 2 and 90, in late summer/early fall. Should take between 5 and 7 days.

For more of the same with a giant mountain in the background (the most prominent in US), go to Mt. Rainier - walk around to see towering waterfalls, hear whistling marmots, watch the mountain goats parade on the slopes, and hike the pristine alpine meadows to your heart's content. The big must-do thing in Mt. Rainier (which very few people actually do) is to hike the Wonderland trail that goes the entire way around the mountain. It takes between 7 and 12 days depending on your fitness level. The other big thing is, of course, to climb the mountain itself - the easier routes are accessible to most mountaineers in good shape and with appropriate glacier roped travel skills.

The Olympic national park is actually three different parks with an incredible variety of terrain: a big chunk of temperate rainforest, a long strip of completely wild Pacific coast, and a long mountain range. My experience here is limited, but off the top of my head, the must-do things are the drive up to Hurrican Ridge for a jaw-dropping view, and for the hiker a 3+ day walk along pristine Pacific coast beach, up and over steep bluffs (there are chains installed for ease of access) and all along beautiful coastal forest. Expect to see about ten million different types of sea creatures in tidepools, shallow waters and on the beach itself. In the right season, bald eagles are as common as crows. I have (sadly!) never walked through the rainforest part of the park, but I hear it is incredible.

Outside the national parks, other must-do outdoor things in WA include checking out the dry falls in Eastern WA, driving through the fake Bavarian town of Leavenworth to Icicle Creek canyon and hiking into Alpine Lakes Wilderness, driving the Mt. Baker Highway all the way to the top at Artist Point for a view out of this world (the road is only snow free maybe 2 months out of the year - come in August), climbing Mt. Baker (glacier route) and Mt. Adams (there is a glacier-free snow route that I shall attempt this coming weekend), kayaking around West Seattle to see a sunset over city and driving the circle route of I5->Highway 2->Highway 97->Highway 90, getting off the freeway frequently.

I am tired of writing, and I've only spent a little bit of time in Utah. There are 5 national parks in that state, and you should go to all of them, on the same roadtrip. I recommend going in October or early November - the places will be deserted, but daytime temperatures are still warm enough.

Drive down from WA to CA all the way along the coast, on highway 101. Better yet, ride your bike instead. It's only a thousand miles from Seattle to San Francisco - it might take all morning!
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:12 PM on June 28, 2006

Oh yeah. Go to Death Valley in CA, in wildflower season.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:13 PM on June 28, 2006

Seconding some of blindcarboncopy - go to Canyonlands in Utah. Not as awesome - just sheerly, mind-numbingly, completely fucking awesome - as the Grand Canyon, but, on the other hand, it's still remarkable to learn that you don't have to travel to other worlds to see land like that (in fact, it's right here in this country!), plus when I was there (in March), there were VERY tolerable crowds, unlike the Grand Canyon, I'm told.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 10:33 PM on June 28, 2006

Summer in New Hampshire: Hike the Franconia Ridge -- break it up with a couple nights in AMC Huts.

Late Winter/Spring in New Hampshire: Hike halfway up Mount Washington to Tuckerman's Ravine. If you're an expert skier bring your sticks and have a blast. If not, just be awed by the whole scene.
posted by Opposite George at 11:38 PM on June 28, 2006

Drive Historic Route 66/National Trails Highway between Flagstaff, AZ and Barstow, CA. Sidetrip opportunities abound -- Grand Canyon, Las Vegas/Hoover Dam (a bit out of the way), Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Peserve. You'll pass by Roy's in Amboy, CA -- that gas station in the middle of the desert where everybody in the movies stops when they stop at a gas station in the middle of the desert -- alphabetically-named railroad stops, desert farming camps and countless other abandoned, forgotten relics of recent but bygone civilization. A zillion miles of Krazy Kat backdrops and lunar landscape punctuated with dingy but welcome oases. You'll drive down the middle of Kingman Arizona on Andy Devine Boulevard. I mean, ANDY FUCKING DEVINE!!! And Needles, CA -- home of Snoopy's brother Spike.

Do it in the middle of the summer and you'll understand why the Joads had to drive it at night. Bring lots, lots, lots of water and a good car with great A/C if you do this. Leave the Hudson Super 6 with the dead old lady in the back at home.

This trip will make you want to be an American if you aren't one yet and a better one if you already are.
posted by Opposite George at 12:18 AM on June 29, 2006

I appreciate the wealth of ideas here... this should keep us more than busy for a few summers.

Thanks again!
posted by gyrom at 5:55 AM on June 29, 2006

Prairie Dog Town in the middle of nowhere, Kansas (you'll see the signs on the road leading there). Fantastic and surreal America.
posted by klangklangston at 7:39 AM on June 29, 2006

Visit/swim in Lake Michigan. It's like the ocean without the nasty salt that gets in your hair.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:43 AM on June 29, 2006

Cape Flattery, the extreme northernmost point of the contiguous 48 states.

Northwesternmost, you mean — it's south of the 49th parallel. This is the northernmost point.

posted by Johnny Assay at 10:23 AM on June 30, 2006

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