99 Places to Take Your Family in the United States
UPDATED FEBRUARY 18, 2020
Here are 99 must-see places around the United States to take your family on vacation. We cover everything from the action and adventure you'll find ballooning over the Arizona desert and trudging through the Alaskan tundra to historic spots like Puerto Rico's coastal fortress and California's Gold Rush Country.
So pack your bags, strap the kids into the car, and let's hit the road!
It's hard to explain the feeling you get in the old-growth forests of California's Redwood National and State Parks. Everything seems big, misty, and primeval—flowering bushes cover the ground, 10-foot-tall ferns line the creeks, and the smells are rich and musty. You half expect to turn the corner and see a dinosaur.
Only 200 miles by road from often-overrun Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks still feel like untrammeled wilderness. High-altitude hiking and backpacking are what these parks are all about; some 700 miles of trails traverse this terrain of snowcapped Sierra Nevada peaks (including Mount Whitney, which at 14,494 ft. is the highest point in the lower 48 states), high-country lakes, and alpine meadows. For families, though, there's one main attraction: the largest groves of giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada.
More than 2,000 imposing natural stone arches punctuate this sandstone plateau, almost as if it were one gigantic pop-up book. These are natural formations, the result of cycles of freezing and thawing rain and snow that continually dissolve the "glue" that holds together the sand grains of the stone, chipping away at them bit by bit over time. And yet, knowing the scientific process doesn't detract from the marvel of it, a seemingly endless variety of shapes and delicate colors, as if some giant sculptor were deliberately trying to make each arch more fantastic than the one before.
Postcards just don't do justice to this classic American panorama—a majestic 277-mile-long canyon of the Colorado River. Gaze into the depths from the rim and you'll see striated bands of multicolored rock, a living history of geologic periods unfolding at your feet. Descend and you'll pass through no fewer than four distinct climate zones, as if you began your day in Mexico and ended it in Alaska.
Before you leave home, be sure to show the kids the scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss starts sculpting Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes. The film's director, Steven Spielberg, sure picked the right landing pad for his alien spaceship to make contact with earthlings—there is definitely something otherworldly about this stark monolith rising out of the Wyoming pines and prairies.
A better name for the Petrified Forest might be the Petrified Pile of Logs, with its fossilized hunks of ancient trees scattered like kindling across the arid scrubby landscape. But these richly colored petrifactions are plenty impressive close up, and the other half of the park, the Painted Desert (pictured), more than lives up to its name, in glowing pastel beauty.
Pearl Harbor is a site that inspires reflection on war and peace and our place in the global community. You can still see the sunken deck of the 608-foot battleship USS Arizona, which went down in a swift 9 minutes, killing 1,177 of its men—more than half the total casualties that tragic day. Oil still oozes up from the engine room to stain the harbor's calm blue water. Inside the white rectangular memorial that spans the hull of the ship, the names of the dead are carved in stone.
At Santa Monica State Beach, off the Pacific Coast Highway in Southern California, it's ridiculously easy to fulfill visions of a classic beach escape involving soft sand, warm temps, and the sparkling Pacific Ocean. What's not to like?
Give your kids a rock-and-roll history lesson with a visit to Memphis, Tennessee. Stopping by Graceland—the world's greatest Elvis shrine—is a no-brainer. But don't forget to cover the predominantly African American styles, including gospel, soul, and blues, that flowered in this Mississippi River town, too. Start on Beale Street, where in the early 20th century W. C. Handy pioneered the sound that would change music forever.
You'll find a vast array of species at this San Diego institution, including such rarities as the Buerger's tree kangaroos of New Guinea, long-billed kiwis from New Zealand, Przewalski's horses from Mongolia, lowland gorillas from Africa, and giant tortoises from the Galapagos. All creatures dwell in naturalistic surroundings.
This smartly packaged attraction dedicated to all things espionage is entertaining as well as educational. There's a little science here, a little history there, and lots of geography.
Leave the car behind and do Nantucket by bike. The pedaling is easy, and the island's small scale makes you feel you're really getting somewhere, especially when you hit the bluffs and get that Atlantic panorama. Picnic benches and water fountains are conveniently provided at strategic points along all the paths, which you'll appreciate if you're towing young ones in a bike trailer.
Save Williamsburg until your kids are old enough to make sense of the place's history. The capital of Virginia during much of the Colonial period and an important location in the American Revolution, Williamsburg today draws visitors with its living-history museum where carefully preserved buildings are enlivened by the presence of costumed reenactors bringing the past to life.
In addition to using images, videos, and artifacts to document the roots of rock music and celebrate legends such as Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, this high-profile shrine gives visitors a chance to make their own noise. Take a guitar lesson, jam in a makeshift garage, scream your head off while surrounded by footage of classic concerts, and otherwise rock on.
Puerto Rico's two smaller islands, Vieques and Culebra, have some of the most beautiful real estate in the Caribbean. It's hard to pick a favorite, but we'll go with Vieques for its quiet beaches, nature preserves inhabited by wild horses, and magical bioluminescent bay.
Biscayne National Park is one of the least-crowded sites managed by the National Park Service, probably because the main attractions are kind of difficult to reach. It's not a question of being remote—the park is within day-trip distance of Miami—but more about being hidden from view. Aboveground, you'll see only a strip of mangrove shoreline and 44 barrier islands, most of them just dots off of South Florida's east coast. But beneath the surface lies the world's third-longest coral reef, an aquatic universe pulsing with multicolored life.
Every first-time visitor to Yellowstone National Park wants to see Old Faithful, the world-famous geyser that erupts about every 90 minutes. But that sight only scratches the surface of Yellowstone, an expanse of wilderness covering not just geothermal features but also canyons, forests, rivers, and habitats for bison, bears, wolves, and more.
For many years of the 19th century, whale oil was an important commodity (not to mention whalebone for ladies' corsets), and towns all along the New England coast prospered from the whaling industry. That's the sliver of history preserved at this open-air village museum in Mystic, Connecticut. From the Seaport's re-created waterfront, gaze out across the wide estuary of the Mystic River and feel the lure of the open sea.
Truth can be stranger than fiction, and no theme-park attraction could be any stranger than this actual house in San Jose, an hour's drive south of San Francisco. Walking through this quirky mansion, set in acres of meticulous gardens, you'll be astonished at its weird mix of luxury, good taste, and kooky touches such as a second-story "Door to Nowhere."
The name Kitty Hawk is forever associated with Orville and Wilbur Wright. According to textbooks, that's where the brotherly duo from Dayton, Ohio, achieved the world's first sustained, controlled, heavier-than-air powered flight. (You need all those adjectives to distinguish the Wrights' flight from a mere glider or hot air balloon ride.) But actually the Wrights didn't take off from the town of Kitty Hawk, but from a nearby 90-foot-high dune in what is now called Kill Devil Hills, where the Wright Brothers National Memorial stands today.
Hot air ballooning is extremely popular in the Southwest—Albuquerque's annual balloon festival every October is the country's largest—and there are plenty of operators vying for your business. Beautiful as all these desert landscapes are, the one that's most thrilling to soar over is the red-rock country around Sedona, Arizona, with its wind-sculpted buttes and outcroppings thrusting up from the desert scrub, the rock glowing as if on fire.
After decades, the active lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island may have stopped oozing, which means less dramatic pics on your social media accounts. But, on the bright side, visitors can now hike trails that give up-close views of the altered landscape and reach areas that were formerly closed off.
Everybody knows that Plymouth is where a band of English pilgrims set up a settlement after arriving on the Mayflower in December 1620. What you won't know until you visit Plymouth for yourself is how small everything was, from the perilously tiny Mayflower to the landing point at Plymouth Rock. For a taste of life in these parts during the 1620s, wander the re-created Plimoth Plantation, stopping for historical demonstrations and to step into homes constructed with close attention to period detail.
You've almost certainly seen photos of Niagara Falls, that stupendous curve of cascading water that lies between the United States and Canada. It's one of those places, however, that postcards can never quite capture. To stand on a viewing platform and see the size, to hear the thunder of falling water, to feel the mist spritzing your face and the earth shaking under your feet, is another thing altogether.
"I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing," Thomas Edison once said. The romantic notion of a genius tinkering alone at night over a breakthrough invention? That wasn't Edison. Yes, he was a gifted chemist and visionary, but he was also a shrewd businessman who amassed a fortune. Touring the Edison Laboratory Complex provides a fascinating look at one of the most efficient research-and-development operations in history.
The oldest public park in the United States, leafy Boston Common slopes confidently down from the prim mansions of Beacon Hill to the skyscrapers of downtown, overlooked by the gold dome of the State House. In colonial days, the common was at various times a public cow pasture, gallows site, and British army encampment; today you'll find picnickers, Frisbee and softball games, kite flyers, and busking musicians. The Frog Pond (pictured) makes a pleasant spot to splash around in the summer and skate in the winter.
Having won the World Series several times in the 21st century, the Boston Red Sox may have lost their status as one of baseball's most beloved underdogs, but you won't hear any members of Red Sox Nation complaining. Sure, the Yankees, their perennial American League East rivals down in New York City, have a higher payroll and more world titles. None of that matters to dedicated Red Sox supporters, and their numbers are legion. Sit among them in the stands of this historic ballpark and you'll definitely remember that the word "fan" comes from "fanatic."
The snowcapped summit of Mauna Kea—the world's tallest mountain if measured from its base on the ocean floor—is the best place on earth for astronomical observation. It's not just the height, it's also the peak's location near the equator, where clear, pollution-free skies give way to pitch-black nights undisturbed by urban light. That's why Mauna Kea is home to a number of world-class telescopes. But even with the naked eye, the stargazing from here is fantastic.
Although this part of Los Angeles may not feel as glamorous as you were probably expecting, there are still silver screen–related attractions. Those include the literally star-studded Walk of Fame and TCL Chinese Theatre, where numerous film icons have set their signatures and hand- and footprints in cement out front.
Nashville is synonymous with music, specifically the brand of country played on the Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast from the city since 1927. To perform on the Grand Ole Opry is to officially make it in country music, and thus Nashville is a town buzzing with music-biz execs, state-of-the-art studios, and happening clubs, with a surprising amount of jazz and rock going down as well. Nashville is easy to love. Even if you're not a country devotee, it only takes a couple hours to get hooked on the city's twangy energy.
The icon to end all icons, New York City's awe-inspiring Statue of Liberty is recognizable around the world as the symbol of American freedom. What's more, this is the city's greatest two-for-one deal: The same ferryboat takes you to the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, where the kids can learn some of the stories of the millions who came to the U.S. in search of opportunity.
As thrilling a sight as this beautiful brown-hued East River bridge is from afar, with its Gothic-style towers and lacy mesh of cables, the view from the bridge is even more thrilling. A pedestrian walkway goes all the way across. One mile long, it should take half an hour to traverse—except you'll be tempted to stop more than once to ooh and ahh at the vision of Manhattan's skyscrapers thrusting upward, with the great harbor and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge beyond.
The echoing, marble-clad Great Hall tells you as you enter that this is a Serious Art Museum. But don't let that put you off—New York City's top tourist attraction can be a lot of fun for children, even toddlers. Make a beeline for the areas kids really love: Arms and Armor, Egyptian Art (don't miss the glorious mummies), Musical Instruments, the Costume Institute, and the European and American furniture rooms.
Youngsters are bound to be bowled over by this mighty bridge spanning the Pacific Ocean where it meets San Francisco Bay. In all lights, the bridge has a magical quality—brightening at dawn, glowing at sunset, glittering at night, or blazing proudly through the city's trademark fog. Bicycle across in the morning and have lunch in Sausalito on the other side.
El Morro commands the rocky point at the entrance to San Juan Bay in Old San Juan, the Caribbean's biggest historic district. A sweep of smooth green lawn—perfect for kite flying—sets the staunch old fort apart from the historic town it was built to protect. Beyond the ramparts lies one of the most dramatic views in the Caribbean.
Your children have heard about saving the rainforest for years—isn't it about time they set foot in one? Give up a day at the beach in San Juan to drive west to the El Yunque National Forest. Hike through the lush forest to reach waterfalls and natural swimming pools.
Spaceflight has lost so much of its novelty that it can be hard for youngsters to comprehend how exciting it once was to watch a mighty booster rocket blast off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Recapture the magic by heading to the Space Coast and looking at NASA uniforms, spacecraft, and other artifacts.
When you think about it, the Everglades ecosystem is bizarre: a drawling grassy river that's rarely more than knee-deep but spreads some 40 miles wide, harboring an exotic population of alligators, manatees, hawksbill turtles, water moccasins, coral snakes, panthers, armadillos, muskrats, opossums, river otters, herons, egrets, the roseate spoonbill, and the big black anhinga bird. There's nothing like the Everglades anywhere else—all the more reason to preserve the area from ever-encroaching real estate development.
Rarely do state highway numbers have historical significance, but California State Highway 49 does. Winding through the hills east of Sacramento, Hwy. 49 is the main road through a string of Wild West towns (such as Columbia, pictured) that sprang up overnight in the California Gold Rush of 1849. As if frozen in time, Main Streets here still have raised wooden sidewalks, buildings with double porches, saloons, and Victorian storefronts. Touring the Gold Country, the kids will feel like they've been transplanted to a movie western (hundreds of which have been shot here) or to a time when the promise of an easy fortune lured thousands of adventurers to risk their all in a raw new territory.
This world-class aquarium is huge, with more than 350,000 marine animals and plants on display. The million-gallon Open Sea exhibit contains yellowfin tuna, large green sea turtles, barracuda, sharks, giant ocean sunfish, and schools of bonito. Another stunner: the three-story Kelp Forest with its stunning view of leopard sharks.
This little train has been puffing along the Animas River since 1882, traveling its 45-mile route from Durango through the mountains and San Juan National Forest to the town of Silverton and back. When it was first built, Silverton was, as its name suggests, a silver-mining town, and the train's business was to bring precious ore back down to the railroad hub of Durango.
When most of us think of the American West, this is what clicks into our mental View-Masters: a vast, flat sagebrush plain with huge sandstone spires thrusting to the sky like the fingers of ancient Mother Earth clutching for the heavens. Ever since movie director John Ford first started shooting westerns here in the 1930s, this landscape has felt familiar to millions who have never set foot here. We've all seen it on the big screen, but oh, what a difference to see it in real life.
Native Americans always knew there was a giant cave system snaking around under the porous limestone reef of the Guadalupe Mountains. But white settlers only stumbled upon the caves in the 1890s. Some 100 chambers lie within today's park, an underground world of pale limestone, where every fantastic shape imaginable has been sculpted by natural forces. Visitors can spot frozen waterfalls, strands of pearls, miniature castles, and draperies of stone.
For nearly 5,000 years, people have made their homes in this spectacular pair of narrow sandstone canyons in remote northeastern Arizona. The Navajo people are the most recent guardians of the land; the Ancestral Puebloans left their mark too, in the giant rock amphitheaters where they created caves, dwelling rooms, and ceremonial kivas. To explore the canyons is to see centuries unfold.
Mount Rushmore was the passion of Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor who was hired by South Dakota to make a memorial to draw visitors to the Black Hills. Borglum chose this peak because it was hard granite, reached the tallest elevation in the area, and faced southeast and would therefore catch good daytime light. He also picked which presidents to portray. Teddy Roosevelt made the cut because he'd lived in South Dakota and was a conservationist (and because Borglum had already done a bust of T.R. for the U.S. Capitol).
The story begins with a volcanic explosion so fearsome—scientists estimate it was 42 times as powerful as the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980—that a phenomenally deep crater was left behind. In time, that hole filled with water to become America's deepest lake. But this version of events doesn't prepare you for the sight of Crater Lake's intense sapphire blue and the forested cliffs encircling (and reflected in) the spring-fed waters.
The opening salvos of the American Revolution were fired in the villages of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. No need to memorize the date—you'll hear it everywhere when you visit Minute Man National Historical Park, which tells the story of the war's beginnings with a diorama, uniforms, and weapons amid some striking New England scenery.
At 2,350 miles, the Mississippi River is the third-longest river in the world. But in American lore, there's more to this waterway than length. As it surges north to south down the middle of America, the Mississippi gives this continent a heartbeat that is essentially, uniquely ours. To ride its majestic brown waters is to feel connected to West and East and North and South all at once.
Cropping out of the Straits of Mackinac, which separate the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan at their closest point, this summer resort island is a Victorian period piece of white frame houses and trim gardens. Since Mackinac is car-free, you have three options for getting around the island: on foot, by horse-drawn carriage, or on a bike. Pedaling happily along the limestone cliffs overlooking the straits, you may wonder why the automobile was ever invented in the first place.
On that classic coast-to-coast drive across the USA, the scenery gets spread out once you hit the Great Plains—there's just so much distance between towns. That's the appeal of the Corn Palace, sitting right off South Dakota's long east-west stretch of I-90. You have to get off the road somewhere, and when you do, it might as well be to snap photos of a mock-Moorish castle covered with murals made out of corn.
During the most famous battle of the Civil War, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers clashed on this vast battleground for three sultry July days in 1863. As Abraham Lincoln said in the speech he delivered here, the land has been consecrated by blood—over 50,000 deaths—and an almost eerie atmosphere still hangs over the rolling countryside, now peppered with war monuments.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.'s hometown of Atlanta, the 10-block area around Auburn Avenue is one of the city's most-visited sites, encompassing the civil rights leader's boyhood home and the Baptist church where he, his father, and his grandfather were all ministers. While other civil rights sites may illuminate the issues of that tumultuous era better, this is the place where you'll really get a feeling for this complex, gifted man who dared to change history.
Many tourists don't realize that Boston has not one but two history walks stringing together important sites in the city's past. In addition to the Revolutionary War–focused Freedom Trail, you can also take to the Black Heritage Trail, which celebrates Boston's antislavery movement. The latter path runs 1.6 miles through Beacon Hill, the center of the free black community in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Pictured: Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial
Hidden in a tangle of forest on the Big Island's Kohala Coast, a shelf of pahoehoe lava rock the size of a football field overlooks the vast Pacific. Here, early Hawaiian artists carved a panoply of arresting figures, some 3,000 strong.
In the summer, families still flock to Coney Island for the beach, hot dogs, street performers, and carnival attractions, including the famous Cyclone roller coaster. Thrill rides may have advanced technologically since then, but this wooden classic, built in 1927, continues to draw crowds.
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia pays homage to one of the city's native sons—and the quirkiest of the U.S. Founders. At the core of this museum is the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, which has a 30-ton statue of its namesake and an evocative hands-on gallery on Franklin's inventions and the scientists he inspired. While the place looks all stately and neoclassical on the outside, it wouldn't reflect the spirit of Franklin if it didn't have a fascinating clutter of exhibits that simply encourage kids to explore.
Visiting San Antonio without going to the Alamo is like visiting London and not seeing Big Ben. Set smack in the heart of downtown San Antonio, the historic mission looks downright dinky amid skyscrapers and traffic. But the whole point of the Alamo is that it was such a tiny fort. The Texan volunteers never had a ghost of a chance of escaping the Mexican army's siege. And still they fought to the death.
Crossing the U.S.-Canada border is generally a routine experience, but not if you sail across on a high-speed catamaran from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia. The trip takes only 3 hours—just enough time for the kids to roam around the boat, get a bite to eat, and stare out the windows at the gorgeous northwest coast.
The Air and Space Museum is pretty much the star player on the Smithsonian team, at least as far as kids are concerned. Among the historic aircraft dangling from the ceiling: the Wright brothers' 1903 Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Enola Gay bomber that devastated Hiroshima, and the Friendship 7 capsule that took John Glenn into space.
Beautiful Daytona Beach runs for 23 miles along a skinny peninsula divided from the north Florida mainland by the Halifax River. In the early 1900s, when "horseless carriages" were still a novelty, automobile enthusiasts discovered that Daytona Beach's uniquely hard-packed white sand made the perfect drag strip. A century later, the town's speedway has every right to call itself the "World Center of Racing."
Every summer, boatloads of tourists crowd onto luxury cruise ships to be pampered on their way through Alaska. But that's not our idea of a rugged wilderness experience—not when you can still travel in comfort on the swift, well-outfitted ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway System, with the option of planning your own itinerary to suit your family's interests.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's lifelong home, Springwood, was a modest farmhouse when FDR's father built it. The president expanded the Hyde Park home in an eclectic Dutch colonial style, giving it an imposing redbrick porticoed facade. He entertained Winston Churchill, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, and many other dignitaries here.
Even the very youngest dinosaur lovers—and aren't preschoolers the biggest dinosaur fans there are?—can interpret the fossil record left in stone at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, Texas. The huge footprints in the rocks are so unmistakable, it's easy to picture prehistoric theropods and sauropods stomping around here 110 million years ago.
Driving the part of the Lincoln trail that covers Abraham Lincoln's early years will allow your kids to discover the backwoods boy behind the great president. The first stop is Hodgenville, Kentucky, where a neoclassical memorial encloses a replica of the tiny log cabin where Lincoln was born. Other sites along the way: Mary Todd Lincoln's childhood home in Lexington and the Lincoln Legacy Museum in Springfield.
Fort Worth sure does put the "cow" in "cowboy." When this town boomed in the 1890s, it was because the Southwest's biggest livestock market was located here. Millions of cattle—as well as horses, mules, hogs, and sheep—were shipped to Fort Worth along the Chisholm Trail. That's how the city got the nickname Cowtown. The Stockyards district is where Fort Worth's Old West heritage burns brightest. Brick walkways lead to historic buildings now used for restaurants, shops, and live entertainment.
For the ultimate family bonding adventure, nothing quite equals a hike along the Appalachian Trail. But you don't have to trudge the whole 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia. Take on a segment of the trail instead. We recommend the stretch that slices through New England's White Mountain National Forest. The nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Club operates a network of huts where you can bed down along the way.
The Eastern Shore region of Maryland and Virginia is a tranquil, wind-ruffled spot full of wildlife refuges and weather-beaten charm. You can drive right onto Virginia's Chincoteague Island, home to an old fishing village that was settled by the English in the late 1600s. From there, take another causeway to Assateague, which was settled by wild horses at about the same time.
At the other end of South Dakota's I-90 corridor from the Corn Palace (see above), Wall Drug is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon—a wayside stop that just kept growing and growing. It all began in the Depression, when nearby Mount Rushmore was still under scaffolding, years away from attracting travelers to this middle-of-nowhere burg. Desperate for business, Wall Drug's owners put up signs on the highway advertising free ice water to thirsty travelers. Motorists poured in. Restaurants, souvenir shops, and kid-friendly games were eventually added. The water is still free.
Even kids who haven't read Louisa May Alcott's 1868 classic novel Little Women will probably know the story from its many film and stage adaptations. The story of the book's author is even more powerful when you consider that she was one of the first American women to earn a living as a writer. You can feel her presence in every room of Orchard House, her childhood home.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown sets the gold standard for sports museums. Opened in 1939, the facility has been around long enough to amass an unparalleled collection of memorabilia. You don't have to be a statistic-spouting baseball fanatic to feel moved by this homage to America's pastime.
Numerous historic sites throughout Alabama pay tribute to the brave men and women who have fought for civil rights for African Americans. Among noteworthy stops for teaching your children about this world-changing struggle: the Edmund Pettus Bridge (pictured) where demonstrators were beaten during the Selma-to-Montgomery march of 1965; Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church—still standing despite a 1963 bombing; and, in the state capital, the Rosa Parks Museum honoring the woman who initiated the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
It was once the biggest city north of Mexico, with somewhere around 20,000 residents—farmers, hunters, craftsmen, traders, priests—at its peak in A.D. 1100–1200. Archaeologists have named the people who lived here the Mississippians, but we don't know what they called themselves, because they left no writings behind. All that remains are these mysterious earthen mounds, situated just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Who were these people and what was their world like? The answers are hauntingly elusive.
From Notre Dame Stadium, you can see a 132-foot-high mosaic of Jesus on the side wall of the campus library. The mural was shrewdly placed so that Christ, with upraised hands, is centered right over the north goal post. Touchdown Jesus is a fitting sight at this Catholic university that's still one of the best places to experience the all-American ritual of a college football game in the fall.
Subscribing to the bigger-is-better philosophy, this retail behemoth in suburban Minnesota could hold seven Yankee Stadiums or 258 Statues of Liberty. Walk one circuit around a level of stores and you've clocked nearly a mile. There are hundreds of shops stacked on brightly lit levels around a central glass atrium—not to mention movie screens, a food court, sit-down restaurants, a Nickelodeon-themed indoor amusement park, a mini golf course, and a whole lot more.
When you roll into this laid-back river town about 130 miles up the scenic Mississippi River from St. Louis, you may get a nagging feeling that you've been here before. Well, you have—if you've read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Every scene in that book was based on affectionate memories of the town where a boy named Samuel Clemens grew up, long before he became Mark Twain. In addition to touring the boyhood home of the author and other buildings associated with the real-life models for Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, and other characters, you can visit an interactive museum displaying artifacts from Twain's life and classic scenes from his books.
U.S. 93, which runs between Las Vegas and Kingman, Arizona, lays its ribbon of concrete right across one of the great engineering wonders of the world. Built between 1931 and 1936, this gigantic Depression-era project redrew the map of America. If it hadn't been for Hoover Dam, Arizona and California would never have had enough electricity and water to sustain their subsequent population booms. The dam also created the largest artificial lake in the United States—120-mile-long Lake Mead.
The self-proclaimed "roller coaster capital of the world" is a must for thrill seekers. Set along Lake Erie between Cleveland and Toledo, Cedar Point has been in operation since the 19th century. But there's nothing old-timey about the park's innovative, standard-setting, often record-breaking roller coasters. This is where to find the very latest in loop-de-loops.
The old French explorers who paddled across North America in the 1600s seeking fur-trapping riches probably would have used sea kayaks instead of canoes if they'd only known. A boat with a closed cockpit is exactly what you want in order to venture onto the cold, often rough waters of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The cliffs, beaches, and historic lighthouses of the Apostle Islands make up the scenic backdrop for paddling excursions undertaken by modern-day adventurers.
Chicago's beloved Art Institute houses one of the country's most impressive collections of paintings, sculptures, and other works. The stone-faced farm couple of Grant Wood's American Gothic, the lonely diners of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and the pointillist park-goers of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte draw the biggest crowds. Kids might have the most fun gazing at the Thorne rooms, a group of elaborately decorated dollhouse-size miniatures.
There's no question that the Chicago Cubs play in one of baseball's all-time classic venues—Wrigley Field. Though the park's surroundings have changed a lot in recent years, as long as there's ivy on the outfield walls Wrigley will feel like old-fashioned baseball all the way.
The word library in the name may make the kids wince. After all, who wants to stay cooped up with musty old books on vacation? Actually, even if you wanted to flip through the rare items in Henry E. Huntington's book collection you couldn't; they're just that rare. You can, however, look at—but not touch—a rotating selection of 150 or so priceless objects, including a Gutenberg Bible and a first edition of Audubon's Birds of America. Also worth gazing at is Huntington's top-notch art collection, which lives in a stately Italianate mansion on a 207-acre hilltop estate adorned with elaborate gardens.
An odorous swamp of gooey asphalt oozes to the earth's surface in the middle of Los Angeles. No, it's not a low-budget horror-movie set—it's the La Brea Tar Pits, a bizarre primal pool on Museum Row where hot tar has been seeping to the surface from a subterranean oil field for more than 40,000 years. In Hancock Park, you can walk right up to the slick black pool of oily water, inhaling its acrid scent and watching bubbles of methane gas bloop to the steamy surface.
Who could fail to dig this white stucco complex with its three bronze domes, slung into the south side of Mount Hollywood with a killer panorama of Los Angeles spread out below? In the daytime, the lawn of the observatory is a prime viewing location for the famous Hollywood sign. On warm nights, with the lights twinkling below, the Griffith Observatory's wide terrace is one of the most romantic places in L.A. Be sure to head inside the observatory to do a little stargazing while you're up there.
How many children have fallen in love with dinosaurs in the echoing galleries of this world-class New York City museum? When you enter the magnificent rotunda at the top of the Central Park West steps, a rearing skeleton of a mommy dinosaur protecting her baby from a small, fierce predator clues you in that the dazzling interactive fourth-floor dinosaur halls are the perennial star attraction at this storied institution.
New York City's 265-acre Bronx Zoo is home to more than 4,000 animals, from Siberian tigers and snow lions to the beloved denizens of the Congo Gorilla Forest and the Butterfly Garden. As befits the flagship zoo of the Wildlife Conservation Society, exhibits here are extremely humane, in large environments—outdoors if possible—re-creating the species' native habitats.
It's no exaggeration to call Philadelphia's central core the most historic square mile in America, the very place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution of the United States hammered out. The look is tidy—steepled red-brick buildings with neat white porticos—yet what happened here was momentous. After visiting sites such as Independence Hall and national symbols like the Liberty Bell, head to the nearby Museum of the American Revolution to put everything, including the experiences of groups left out of the nation's founding, in context.
What do you do with the most notorious criminals in the federal prison system? In 1934, at the height of the gangster era, the government had a brainstorm: Wall them up in a converted military fort on an island in San Francisco Bay surrounded by frigid waters and treacherous currents. Thus was the Alcatraz Island federal penitentiary born, a maximum-security prison whose infamous inmates included Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud (the Birdman). Closed as a prison in 1963, the spooky fortress can be seen today with the aid of a fascinating audio tour narrated by former inmates.
This sprawling museum dedicated to science, technology, and the arts fills every bit of floor space with inventive activity stations and displays that just cry out for youngsters to press, jiggle, squeeze, fiddle, poke, and manipulate to their heart's content. Visitors from toddlers to teens will be absorbed, and they might not even realize they're learning.
Among the stately white stone palaces lining the National Mall, this Smithsonian branch really stands out. A burnt sand–colored exterior of kasota limestone wraps around undulating walls, echoing the pueblos and hogans of the Southwest tribes. Inside, a huge rotunda lobby is filled with celestial references, from the equinoxes and solstices mapped on the floor to the sky visible in the oculus dome, 120 feet overhead. The size of the collection—hundreds of thousands of artifacts and images—and the breadth of traditions covered can be overwhelming, so the best way to see the museum is on a guided tour.
Driving around Newport, you can't help but gawk at the turn-of-the-20th-century mansions—Italianate palazzi, Tudor-style manors, and faux French châteaus, all set in elegant formal landscaping behind imposing gates or walls to keep out the hoi polloi (i.e., you). It's incredible to imagine the sort of wealth that built these homes, and even more incredible to realize that these places were just summer houses. Their owners called them "cottages."
Pictured above: The Breakers mansion
Dating back to 1907, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is California's oldest amusement park. Its strip of rides—including the historic Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster and the Looff Carousel—stand amid carnival games, shops, and restaurants along Santa Cruz's lovely mile-long public beach. The whole scene harks back to an era of innocent seaside fun.
Tour the huge hilltop estate of William Randolph Hearst to get a feel for the publishing magnate's staggering ambition. Built from 1919 to 1947 by architect Julia Morgan, the palatial residence contains 400-year-old Spanish and Italian ceilings, 500-year-old mantels, 16th-century Florentine bedsteads, Renaissance paintings, Flemish tapestries, and innumerable other European treasures compulsively collected by Hearst.
Alaska's Denali National Park is a pristine, 6-million-acre wilderness centered on the tallest mountain in North America. This remote and dramatic landscape encompassing tundra and evergreen forests makes an unforgettable setting for epic hikes, bike tours, and opportunities to see wildlife such as grizzly bears, moose, and caribou.
Best known for its large Amish community, Lancaster County in southern Pennsylvania is a bucolic region of rolling hills, winding creeks, neatly cultivated farms, and covered bridges. Come here to sample the slowed-down simple life of horse-and-buggy rides, markets selling handcrafted quilts, and kid-friendly railroad attractions left over from the area's industrial past.
Most folks visiting Yosemite National Park don't seem to realize there's more to the place than Yosemite Valley, where crowds of cars and RVs inch along the roads while their passengers stare at the 3,000-foot-high glacier-carved granite walls and the cascades that drop down them. Yes, you should see the awesome 7,549-foot-high sheer rock face called El Capitan, and you should pull off the road to take the easy half-mile trails to view Bridalveil Fall or Lower Yosemite Falls. But don't stop there—go up into the high country to explore the wilderness without the crowds.
Maine's Mount Desert Island is home to the spectacular Acadia National Park, a glacier-carved mound of rugged cliffs, restless ocean, and quiet woods. The island is surrounded by small bays and nearly knifed in half by the narrow, 7-mile-long Somes Sound. For a greatest-hits tour, take the 20-mile Park Loop Road that starts near the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. The drive follows the rocky coast past picturesque coves, looping back inland along Jordan Pond and Eagle Lake with a detour to Cadillac Mountain.
Pictured above: Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse
Talk about Rocky Mountain high—most of Rocky Mountain National Park is at an altitude of at least 8,000 feet. In the thin air, you'll see ponderosa pines, gnarled alpine tundra, heathery slopes, bare granite, dizzying views, and herds of elk. The Continental Divide cuts through the middle of this compact park; you can drive over it on Trail Ridge Road, a 48-mile stretch of mountaintop views.