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10 Best Places in U.S. for Travel
10 Best Places in U.S. for Travel

By Heather C. Liston

Ask an adventurous American to name his or her very favorite beauty spots, and chances are you'll find the subject changed. Once people have found a trail, a mountain, a geyser, or a canyon that truly moves them, the last thing they want is to have everybody else rushing out there and blocking the view. The fact is, though, this country holds an immense variety of natural wonders, and even some of the best-known ones aren't crowded at all-at least, not once you get out of the car and hike a mile or so away from the road.

We've made a purely subjective selection of ten not-to-be-missed American treasures, so different from one another it's sometimes hard to believe that they're all on the same continent. Some are surprisingly near major urban areas; others take some time and effort to get to; but all are more than worth the trip, all still have room for you, and who knows? You may be so awestruck, you'll actually want to tell other people about them.

1. The Badlands, South Dakota

The Badlands
The Badlands.
Photo: Rachel L. Miller

And they thought the moon was interesting. Wait until you see the desolate, craggy, erosion-born eyeful that is the Badlands. Even the name is irresistible. The Lakota tribe named this area of Southwestern South Dakota "mako sica," which means "land bad" - but they were probably thinking of how it would work for farming. If your goal is to feel alone beneath the sky in a dramatic maze of cliffs, canyons, spires, and buttes, then the Badlands couldn't be better. The dinosaurs loved it and so will you. The park has eight marked hiking trails, but all of its 244,000 acres are open to hikers. Just make sure you bring water: with the world's greatest fossil beds from the Oligocene Epoch, the area has enough bones. Call (605) 433-5361 for Badlands National Park. [RELATED STORY]

2. Bayou Country, Louisiana

Louisiana Bayou
Louisiana Bayou

As wet as the Badlands are dry, the Bayou country of Southeastern Louisiana is unlike the rest of the U.S. in so many ways, it will broaden your ideas about the country you live in. For starters, there's so much wetland that the economy, entertainment, and transportation system are all built around the water.

Bayou Lafourche, also known as "the longest 'street' in the world," connects many of the towns in this area, including Thibodaux, the "Gateway to Bayou Country." And then there's the local culture: the delightfully spicy food, the spicy language, and the infectiously lively Cajun music and dancing. The area offers sugar plantations, shrimp fishing, and boat tours of the swamps, like the one offered by Zam's of Kraemer, LA, on which you're guaranteed to see live alligators. You can reach Zam's Swamp Tours at (985) 633-7881, or call (985) 537-5800 for the Lafourche Parish Tourist Commission. [READ ABOUT ALLIGATOR HUNTING IN THE BAYOU]

3. Giant Redwoods, California

California Redwoods
California Redwoods

People who have walked among the giant redwoods of California never seem to get over it. Technically known as Sequoia Sempervirens, or coast redwoods, these trees grow along the California coast, beginning around Big Sur and continuing into Southern Oregon. Closely related to the Giant Sequoias, which occur in the drier Sierra Nevada region, the coast redwoods hold the record for tallest trees ever recorded. You can see them in the Muir Woods National Monument, just a few miles north of San Francisco, but if you've got time, it's best to travel the Avenue of the Giants, a thirty-three-mile scenic drive through redwood country from Garberville up to Fortuna. If you want to hike among the trees, your best bets are Sequoia Park, located within the town of Eureka, or Redwood National Park at the very top of California, which includes the Tall Trees Grove, where you'll find the world's tallest tree, at nearly 366 feet. The Redwood Information Center is at (707) 464-6101.

4. Mt. Katahdin, Maine

At 5,267 feet, Mt. Katahdin is not one of the highest peaks this country has to offer, but if you climb it in September it might feel as though it is...especially if you began your hike in April. Mt. Katahdin, located in Baxter State Park in Northern Maine, is the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail, so it's a place for celebration. This is one spot you might actually want to visit when it is at its busiest. Through-hikers usually finish the Georgia-to-Maine odyssey between August and October, which is also a great time of year for warmish temperatures and the beginnings of foliage. Baxter also offers more than 200,000 acres of back-country camping, fishing, canoeing, and scenic northern forests. Call Baxter State Park at (207) 723-5140

5. Arches, Utah

arches national park

Edward Abbey, the prototype crotchety environmentalist, shot himself in the foot when he wrote Desert Solitaire, about the peaceful summer he spent in Arches National Park. "This is the most beautiful place on earth," he wrote, and then he got mad when we came to see for ourselves. Too bad.

One of Utah's five knock-your-socks-off National Parks, Arches has what is possibly the most unusual natural architecture on the continent. The hundred-plus arches that give the park its name are the strange and dramatic formations caused by the weathering of sandstone walls through the ages. Located next to the town of Moab, (mountain bike capital of the world), Arches has become very popular in recent years, and the government - wisely - limits its use. This means, if you go during high season, getting a campsite in Arches is about as competitive as getting a seat on the New York City subway at rush hour. Still, you must see what Abbey referred to as "The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky-all that which lies beyond the end of the roads."

The park is open for camping all year, and things slow down after the first of November. Call the park directly at (435) 259-8161, or the Moab Area Visitor Information office at (800) 635-6622

6. Monogahela National Forest, West Virginia

Monongahela National Forest

John Denver spread the word a long time ago, "Almost heaven, West Virginia . . ." But where, exactly? "As far as I'm concerned, Ma'am, the Monongahela National Forest is the only place in West Virginia," says Marc Grigsby, a clerk at the state tourist bureau. The Monongahela (almost as much fun to say as it is to see) covers 909,000 acres sprawling across ten counties of West Virginia. It is home to more than 230 species of birds, 72 species of fish, and 9 federally listed endangered or threatened species (two birds, two bats, a flying squirrel, a salamander, and three plants). Vegetation ranges from wild blueberries to cactus, and the hiking, needless to say, goes on for days. To visit, call the United States Department of Agriculture at (304) 636-1800 and press "1" to get to National Forest personnel.

7. Taos, New Mexico

Taos Mountain Stands Guard
Photo by Don Laine

When people on the East Coast talk about "historic," they mean a couple of hundred years. If you go to Taos, New Mexico, though, you'll find vibrant evidence of nomads from 6,000 years ago; of Pueblo Indians from 900 years back; of Spanish Conquistadors and missionaries from the 1,500's; of mountain men like Kit Carson who lived here in the early 1,800's; and of some of America's finest artists and writers (Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather) from the last century and a half. All have left their distinctive marks, but, miraculously, none have interfered with the serene alpine meadows, the sunny mountaintops of the high desert, the pristine powder of the nearby ski resorts. Just seventy-two miles north of Santa Fe, Taos is surrounded by the Carson National Forest, which offers sunny and varied Southwestern beauty in every season of the year. Visitor information is available at (800) 732-TAOS. [READ MORE ABOUT TAOS]

8. Glacier National Park, Montana

Iceberg Cirque
Photo Source: Glacier National Park

Located in Montana, right along the Canadian border, Glacier National Park offers some of America's most breathtaking wilderness, with fifty glaciers, 200 lakes, and 1,000 miles of streams. The peaks of the Continental Divide run right through the park, making for ups and downs that support a vast variety of flora and fauna. From the highpoint of Mount Cleveland (10,448') to the low of the Flathead River (at 3,150'), Glacier offers a rollercoaster of outdoor thrills. Unlike most places in the lower forty-eight states, the park has black bears and grizzlies, as well as gray wolves, mountain goats, and more than 1,000 species of flowers. For general Montana visitor information, call (800) 847-4868. Contact Glacier National Park at (406) 888-7800. [ HIKE IN GLACIER NATIONAL PARK]

9. The Berkshires, Massachusetts

Mt. Greylock
Photo Souce: Massachusetts

The Berkshires, in Western Massachusetts, are ideally situated to offer the best in both wilderness and culture. The area, though peacefully low in population, still manages to include Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony; Jacob's Pillow, for the finest in dance; The Mount (historic home of the novelist Edith Wharton) for one of the great Shakespeare festivals of the East; the Clark Art Institute for one of America's fine collections of painting and photography; and much more. At 3,491 feet, Mount Greylock, near the town of Adams, is the highpoint of the state in more ways than one. It's also sufficiently beautiful that Thoreau climbed it regularly for inspiration. For general information, contact the Berkshire Visitors Bureau at (800) 237-5747; or for small-group tours of the wilderness and the culture, call Greylock Discovery Tours at (413) 637?4442. [SEE FALL FOLIAGE IN THE BERKSHIRES]

10. Yellowstone in Winter, Wyoming, Montana & Idaho

Yellowstone River &
Hayden Valley in Winter
NPS Photo

"Old Faithful is not the biggest geyser in the park, or the most beautiful," a ranger explains. "It just happens to be one of the most predictable, and it's near the lodge, so it's all that most people see." But if you come to Yellowstone, the first of our National Parks, in the winter, when the usual tourists are home watching TV . . . and better yet, if you get off the trail and into the backcountry just a little . . .you will begin to see some of the most amazing sights of your life.

The entire area of Yellowstone is a volcano caldera, and the action throughout the park is constant, varied, and bizarre. In cold weather, the steaming eruptions of the 10,000 geysers, natural hot springs, and other hydrothermal wonders are more visible than ever. Traveling on snowshoes or cross-country skis, you'll see all that, plus partially frozen waterfalls, deep in the woods.

The animals will hang out with you, because, hey, it's just you: it's not all those noisy RV campers who irritate them all summer. Bison will eye you slowly, as they stand around in herds, preserving their fat stores to get them through the winter. Coyotes will circle them, looking for signs of weakness. Bighorn sheep will gaze down at you from the mountainsides. Herds of elk, and an occasional moose, will share your trail to the dining hall in the pre-dawn glow. Jackrabbits will crouch invisibly by the side of the trail and then suddenly scram, like bouncing snowballs, as you approach.

At the end of the day, you can loll in outdoor hot tubs while snow drifts lazily at your side and stars wink at you from above. Wink back: you did the right thing. Call (307) 344-7311 for information and reservations.