Top 10 Travel Spots in America
1) Olympic National Park, Washington
Sprawling over a huge swath of Washington’s wild Olympic Peninsula, this lush, temperate rainforest feels a world away from Seattle (and the rest of the country). I first visited at age 17, and watching the sun go down over the roaring waves of Ruby Beach redefined my notions of majesty and splendor. Later, when I was attending college in the Pacific Northwest, I made annual solo backpacking pilgrimages into the Olympic wilderness, where clover-leafs grow as big as your hand, and remote forest hiking trails lead up to glaciated mountain peaks.
2) Big Sur, California
Here’s a recipe for one of the most beautiful drives in America: Enjoy an early seafood supper in the classic seaside town of Monterey, then head south on California Highway 1 in the late afternoon. By the time the sun is nearing the horizon, you’ll be in the heart of Big Sur — a dramatic sprawl of more coastal wilderness than you thought was possible between San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the feeling grabs you, pull off to the side of the road, hike a ways down the coastal slope, and watch the light change across the landscape as the sun sinks its way into the sea. There’s not much else to distract you in Big Sur at day’s end: just earth, ocean, and a small highway carved into the curves where the elements crash against one another.
3) U.S. Highway 50, Between Maryland and California
Forget Route 66; in my book, America’s classic east-west thoroughfare is U.S. 50, which starts in Ocean City, Maryland, and ends 3,000 miles later in Sacramento. The most legendary stretch of this road is found along the stunning desert basins of Nevada (where it’s called “The Loneliest Road in America”), but many portions of this highway — from to the classic monuments of Washington, D.C. to the small towns of Ohio — make this a great excuse to leave the interstates and wander.
4) Pike National Forest, Colorado
Pikes Peak is the first mountain I ever saw, at age six, and the sight of it still fills me with a sense of grandeur. Beneath the eponymous mountain, Pike National Forest hugs the Front Range of the Rockies between Colorado Springs and Denver. Here, in the summers of my childhood, I learned how to sleep under the stars, build campfires, read topographical maps, and rock climb. Other national forests in the U.S. may be bigger or more remote, but I’ll always remember the contours of Pike Forest like they were those of a first love. Moreover, it was in these foothills that I spent my finest July 4 ever, watching the Air Force Academy fireworks from above as they bloomed out over the plains.
5) The Flint Hills, Kansas
Most folks consider the Great Plains fly-over country — and that’s a shame, since the prairies are home to America’s subtlest charms and scenery. Mostly treeless, and curving gently across the eastern Kansas landscape, the Flint Hills are home to the largest remnant of native tallgrass prairie in the world. Having grown up nearby, I’ve known this region since before I was potty-trained — and I still wow my New York and California guests by driving them through this sublime setting. I-35 between Kansas City and Wichita offers many folks their first glimpse of this gorgeous landscape — but for a slower, more in-depth journey, try Kansas highways 4 (east-west) and 177 (north-south).
6) Sun Studio, Memphis
Having come of age listening to the likes of Nirvana and the Pixies, I’ve always been drawn to rock music. Nevertheless, I feel like I was missing an essential understanding of this American art form until 2004, when I visited Sun Studios for the first time. Standing in the room where Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats recorded the first rock single in 1951 (and where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison would redefine popular music not long after), a rock enthusiast can’t help but feel he’s in a holy place.
7) The French Quarter, New Orleans
I first experienced the French Quarter of New Orleans as so many other young Americans have — amidst the crush of humanity on Bourbon Street, in the full bloom of Mardi Gras season. Since then, I’ve returned many times, and I’ve come to appreciate the subtler charms of a neighborhood that doesn’t feel like any other part of the United States. Sure, New Orleans purists will tell you that the Quarter isn’t what is once was — that the Marigny has better music and the Garden District better architecture — but for me, a walk in the Quarter at any time of day still holds the delicious buzz of possibility.
8) Key West, Florida
Key West is another one of those places that doesn’t quite feel like the U.S., as the palm-studded streets of this Florida outpost are nearer to Cuba than Miami, and the slope-roofed wooden houses that line the two-mile by four-mile island owe as much to African and Bahamian practicality as to Classic Revival design. My first journey to the “Conch Republic” came in 1994, when I holed up in the local youth hostel during spring break, explored the city on foot and bicycle, and discovered one of the most charming civic rituals in America: tourists and locals alike gathering at Mallory Square to watch street performers and applaud the sunset.
9) Yankee Stadium, The Bronx
Don’t get me wrong: I hate the Yankees as much as anyone — especially since some of my earliest memories involve my beloved Royals losing a string of heartbreakers to the Yanks in the AL Championships of the late 1970s. Still, there is something magic about an afternoon ballgame in the Bronx — even if you’re only there to cheer against the home team. If possible, try and get a bleachers ticket when the Red Sox are in town, so you can witness one of the most charmingly profanity-ridden rivalries in modern sports history.
10) No comment (coast to coast)
Some destinations are so wonderfully personal that they’re best kept to oneself. I’ve found many such places over the years — in the curious corners of Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and even New Jersey. I’m not about to share my secret favorites here — but I encourage you to get out and find your own!