What if you took a list of 50 must-see American attractions and plotted a road trip to hit all of them? Your route would likely look like this, says Discovery News, which partnered with a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University and used an algorithm to come up with what they say is the perfect cross-country American road trip.
You may disagree. Though the idea of a best-of-the-best itinerary is fun (if gimmicky), the attractions on this route are subjective. Discovery News may rate the Terrace Hill Governor's Mansion in Des Moines as a must-see, yet you might give it a disinterested shrug. There are quite a few places on this list that some experts might consider second- or even third-tier sites (such as the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum, Fox Theater, Hanford Site, and others).
The itinerary is contrived to fit Discovery News' criteria of:
- Remaining solely in the United States
- Including designated national landmarks, historic sites, and national parks and monuments
- Including only one attraction in each one of the lower 48 states (except for California, which got two).
The White House in Washington, D.C., rounded out the 50 picks. The issue is that some states are overflowing with road trip-worthy national landmarks and others are, well, not so much. This explains why a governor's mansion makes the cut while Zion National Park and Niagara Falls do not.
Methodology aside, this is a pretty comprehensive itinerary that does hit many iconic American landmarks. And if hitting all the states in the contiguous United States is one of your goals, this route accomplishes that. The researchers used an algorithm to come up with a loop that allows you to start this road trip in any state and follow it until you’re back at your starting point.
No question—of course, you need to see the Grand Canyon when you're driving through Arizona. Whether you go to the South Rim or North Rim (open May through October) depends on what time of year you're visiting. There are lookout points where you can get some nice photos if you don't have a lot of time, but a longer trip will allow you to dive deeper into this natural wonder.
Utah is overflowing in natural beauty with five show-stopping national parks, but it's Bryce Canyon National Park that made the top of this list. Consisting of large gravity-defying rock formations known as hoodoos, geology-lovers should give themselves plenty of time to enjoy this park.
Want wilderness? The Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho is an official Wilderness Study Area. This ancient lava-shaped landscape's nature remains "substantially uninfluenced by humans," which is hard to come by these days. A looping road takes you through a big part of the park and there are lots of places where you'll be able to park and explore the caves and craters on foot.
Another bucket list place for multitudes of Americans is Yellowstone National Park, known for its geysers, amazing vistas, hot mud, and the way the ecosystem has rebalanced with the reintroduction of wolves. There are also entrances to the park in Montana and Idaho.
Attracting more than half a million visitors every year, Pikes Peak is one of the most popular mountains in Colorado due to its proximity to the town of Colorado Springs. In this part of the state, you'll also find the Garden of the Gods nearby, an area filled with dramatic rock formations that jut out of the ground.
Caves, cacti, desert, and fossil reefs are all at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Spelunkers can even arrange for permits to travel off-trail on self-guided or ranger-guided trips underground. Non-spelunkers can explore the caves on foot or sign up for a guided tour, which will allow you to walk through more physically challenging parts of the cave.
The Alamo as a fort was significant in the creation of San Antonio and its designation as "Military City, U.S.A." Just in case you don't remember, this is the site of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo (before Texas officially became a state) between Mexican and Texan soldiers including the famous raccoon hat-wearing Davy Crockett.
Thirty miles of trails in the Chickasaw National Recreation Area in the Platt Historic District (formerly Platt National Park) are available for a variety of skill levels of hikers and have varying scenery among them, such as waterfalls, wildlife, Travertine Creek, ponds, and lakes.
Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park contains ancient mounds—what remains from a "ceremonial and governmental complex"—from A.D. 650 to 1050 when the area was inhabited by prehistoric Native Americans. It's a short drive away from the Arkansas capital of Little Rock.
Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion is like a time capsule and the home captures all the King's favorite 1977 kitsch. The best time to visit is in August during Elvis Week when mega-fans come together to celebrate his life and music.
A key city in the opinion of both sides fighting the Civil War, Vicksburg, Mississippi, was the site of a 47-day long battle. Here, you can see an ironclad ship used on the Mississippi River during the war, visit 1,400 monuments and memorials, and watch battle reenactments.
There's always something to see, hear, do, and eat in the New Orleans' French Quarter. You'll find many revelers enjoying the neighborhood's open container laws on Bourbon Street at night, but there is also plenty of history to explore during the day in this charming district.
At home in the Mobile Bay, the USS Alabama is a World War II battleship that saw action in the South Pacific. You can buy a ticket to walk around the ship and learn about the United States' military history from the inside.
Kids and adults alike can imagine their space-explorer dreams at Cape Canaveral, a historic site and home to three rocket launch pads. Here, you can see where the U.S. space program began and tour the Kennedy Space Center and Visitor Complex.
The Okefenokee Swamp Park is nature like you've likely never seen it before. The Natural Wildlife Refuge covers nearly half a million acres. Surrounded by the sounds of animals, it's a peaceful place to enjoy nature and learn about swamp ecosystems.
Located in the Charleston Harbor, Fort Sumter is the site where the American Civil War began. You'll have to catch a ferry to get to this island, but when you get there you'll find a small museum that tells the story of the first battle.
About five hours from the Blue Ridge Mountains, West Virginia's Lost World Caverns inspire awe. Here, you can travel on a simple self-guided cave tour on trails 120 feet down, or you can go all in, deeper, on a four-hour guided excursion, where few humans have traveled.
The Wright Brothers weren't the only ones trying to fly, but their few moments sustained in the air in 1903 were historic. At the National Memorial Visitor Center, you can see the spot where the first successful flight first took off. It's located in North Carolina's Outer Banks, which also happens to be a great beach destination.
Mount Vernon is the historic home of George Washington, who was not only the United States' first president but was also a hero of the Revolutionary War. Visiting the place he lived is one way to get a peek into the home life of the historical figure.
It's easy to see the White House from the street when you're exploring Washington D.C., but if you want to take a tour of the inside, you will have to submit your application directly to your congressional representative way ahead of your visit. The process is a little complicated, but at the end of the day, there's no charge for a tour. If you're not a U.S. citizen, applications must be submitted to your home country's embassy in Washington, D.C.
Annapolis has more 18th century structures standing than any other city in the United States. Sometimes called the "Athens of America," the downtown area draws more than two million visitors per year. It's also home to the U.S. Naval Academy, which is open for tours.
If you can't get enough of colonial buildings, set your GPS for New Castle, Delaware. Founded in the 17th century, this charming colonial city beset with cobblestone streets has many historic homes you can visit, such as the Dutch House and the Amstel House. You can learn more in the museums and at and the Old New Castle Courthouse, which was the location of the colonial and state government until 1777.
Down the shore, you can check out the famous Cape May lighthouse at New Jersey's southernmost point. There are also many historic homes and businesses in this area, some that date back to the mid-1800s. Not far from Cape May, you can also visit the beaches and boardwalk in Wildwood, one of the beach towns in New Jersey.
When you're in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell is a must-see. At the Liberty Bell Visitor center, you can see the bell in person and learn all about its long journey from practical noise-maker to a symbol of freedom. Many historians believe this was one of the bells rung when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall.
When visiting New York City, you can take a ferry from Battery Park out to Liberty Island to see the iconic Statue of Liberty. However, tickets need to be purchased in advance if you want to climb to the top and the National Park Service only allows 240 visitors per day to do so. If you don't have a ticket, you can still walk along the grounds and tour the National Museum of Immigration.
In Hartford, Connecticut, you can visit the home of one of America's most famous authors. You won't see rivers and riverboats at Mark Twain's house in Connecticut, but you will see the place where he wrote his most famous novels from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Prince and the Pauper."
The Breakers Mansion: Newport, RI
In Rhode Island, you can see the Newport mansion of the Vanderbilts, one of America's richest families. Referred to as their "summer cottage," The Breakers is a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo and open for tours. Visiting is a fun way to take a fun peek into the lush lives of the wealthy at the turn of the century.
In Boston, you can climb aboard and tour the USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard. And if this visit inspires you to seek out more of Boston's military history, you're just a short walk of the Bunker Hill Monument and Museum.
Maine's pristine Acadia National Park is one of the east coast's hidden gems. The best time to visit is in the fall when the leaves change color and light up the whole landscape in shades of red and gold.
New Hampshire's Mount Washington was first explored by colonists in 1642, but three centuries later in 1900, construction began on the Omni Mount Washington. The century-old resort in a popular ski area is now a luxury hotel that has attracted elite guests from presidents like JFK and authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
At Shelburne Farms in Vermont, you can learn about sustainable agriculture and indulge at their farm-to-table restaurant. The farm holds programs about historic preservation, natural resources, and farming practices. It's located just seven miles south of the Vermont capital of Burlington.
The Fox Theater isn't your run-of-the-mill cinema chain. When it opened in 1928 it had the second-largest seating capacity in the world with more than 5,000 seats. It's one of the largest surviving movie palaces of its era and has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Not just historic and beautiful, Cincinnati's Spring Grove Cemetery is enormous, spanning over 700 acres. You could spend a whole day enjoying the peaceful grounds and exploring the lakes, islands, footbridges, and protected wooded areas. Historic figures laid to rest here include Civil War-era Major General Joseph Hooker and Salmon P. Chase, the founder of Cincinnati Law School.
Not far from Bowling Green, Kentucky, Mammoth Cave National Park is the world's longest cave system with more than 400 miles of underground caverns. Much of the cave was first mapped out in the late 19th century by Stephen Bishop, a slave who was the first person to cross what was known as the "Bottomless Pit" and discover the sections beyond it.
The most historic and luxurious hotel in Indiana, the West Baden Springs Hotel hosts special events, entertainment, and historic tours, for those staying or not. It's worth visiting just to take a gander at the humungous atrium that spans 200-feet across and has a fireplace so big that it can burn 14-foot logs.
In Springfield Illinois, you can tour the home of President Abraham Lincoln. The museum is filled with personal artifacts of the Lincoln family and the tour explores his rise as a lawyer and politician leading up to his presidential campaign.
You don't just have to look at the arch, you can go to the top of it! In St. Louis, the Gateway Arch's tram will take you to the top for some incredible 360-degree views of the Twin Cities. The arch was completed in 1965 and is one of the city's most popular attractions.
In Leavenworth, Kansas, you can take a spin through the C.W. Parker Carousel Museum. Here you'll find restored carousels that date back to the mid-1800s like the Liberty Carousel and a Primitive Carousel and can learn about the history of C.W. Parker's carousel factory, which produced about 1,000 carousels during its time.
In Des Moines, you can tour the governor's mansion at Terrace Hill. The governor's mansion hosts special events such as the "Tea & Talk" series and the annual garden party and the piano competition. While you're in Des Moines, the State Capitol is also a beautiful building worth seeing.
In Wisconsin, you can visit one of world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wight's creations at Taliesin Wisconsin. You'll be able to walk around Wright's home, which is also a designated National Historic Landmark, and studio, where he lived during the beginning of his career.
Originally built as a frontier post in the 19th century, Fort Snelling is located near the Mississippi River. The fort tells the tense history of the region's new arrivals and the Native Americans who already lived here and in visiting you can learn the story of the Dakota War of 1862 and how the fort was used as an internment camp. On the river outside of the fort, you'll find a memorial for those that did not survive.
A must-visit for dinosaur lovers of all ages, more than 200 fossils have been recovered from the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Royal, Nebraska. Here, you'll find remnants of North America's prehistoric rhinoceroses and horses that roamed the land millions of years ago.
It was a massive project, that extended over decades, to carve the presidents' heads into a granite bluff at Mount Rushmore. Just down the road is Crazy Horse Memorial, which is even bigger—although still under construction
Located right on the North Dakota-Montana border, Fort Union was one of the region's most important fur trading posts between the years of 1829 and 1867. It was here that Northern Plains Indian Tribes peacefully traded furs for goods until the smallpox epidemic decimated the area.
One of Montana's many natural gems, Glacier National Park is full of turquoise lakes, snowy meadows, precipitous mountains, and 25 active glaciers. The park is a part of the Rocky Mountains and shares a border with Canada's neighboring province of Alberta.
If you've got a taste for dark tourism and are curious about what it would be like to walk around a decommissioned nuclear testing location, Washington's Hanford Site is open for visitors. It was here where the U.S. government conducted its plutonium research as a part of the infamous Manhattan Project, which would lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
Not just a scenic road, this highway is historic and has been well cared for over the years. Driving along this stretch of road, you'll be able to see the Pacific Northwest's temperate rainforests, which offer great opportunities for hiking and biking. There are also dozens of waterfalls to see when you get to the Columbia River Gorge, including the popular Multnomah Falls.
When you're in San Francisco, you have to ride one of the city's iconic streetcars in the place they were invented. Of course, after you've had your fun riding up the city's steep hills, there is plenty more to enjoy in the city from the food scene to the Golden Gate Bridge views.
You've probably heard plenty about the San Andreas Fault, an area of high tectonic activity where the Pacific plate meets the Atlantic plate, but did you know there are spots where you can see it for yourself? Many sections of the fault are easy to visit throughout California and you can find fault sites near Palm Springs, Frazier Park, Pinnacles National Park, and even San Francisco.
On the border of Nevada and Arizona, you can see one of the country's greatest feats of engineering. The Hoover Dam draws approximately seven million visitors a year and while you're there, you can walk across it, crossing state lines and even a time zone border, and take a tour of the plant to learn more about how it works.