Juneau, Alaska

In 1867, American secretary of state William Henry Seward struck a deal with the Russian Empire in which the United States would acquire Alaska for just over $7 million. Critics had a heyday, and the purchase never quite shook off its nickname: Seward’s Folly.

Seward himself was philosophical about the very public political fracas. “Haters gonna hate,” he is reported to have said with a shrug.

(Just kidding.)

Really, he never doubted that he had struck a shrewd deal for the United States; however, he knew it would be future generations, and not his own, who would find out just how shrewd.

Those generations have fully supported him.

Alaska is separated from the contiguous United States by most of Canada. Its capital city, Juneau, is accessible only by boat or plane – and it is one of a kind in a hundred other ways.

Juneau is an old city, the first founded after Alaska changed hands. Historic South Franklin Street bears more than just traces of Juneau’s early history; many of the restaurants and shops are repurposed structures from the early 1900s. Visitors to the downtown area will want to pay their respects to Tahku, the life-size humpback whale statue cast in bronze and suspended in mid-breach in an infinity pool. Of course, dozens of real humpback whales frequent the waters around Juneau, and whale watching tours are another popular activity.

Many of Juneau’s attractions are natural ones, from famous glaciers to sprawling national forests.  And when humans have dared to tread, they have been more careful here than elsewhere. Museums, parks, and preserves abound, covering most of Alaska.

Worth Checking Out

  • Tahku
  • Tongass National Forest
  • Mendenhall Glacier
  • Macaulay Salmon Hatchery
  • Alaska State Museum
  • South Franklin Street
  • Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve

Dry Tortugas National Park

The vast majority of the area constituting Dry Tortugas National Park is open water. Facilities and amenities are next to nonexistent. The only way to reach the park is by boat or plane. Still, no survey of the national parks would be complete without this one.

Dry Tortugas National Park protects the seven Dry Tortugas islands, which are part of the Florida Keys. The largest, Loggerhead Key, is famous for its sea turtles, while Garden Key supports Fort Jefferson. The unfinished coastal fort is the centerpiece of the park, but the true marvels are all underwater.

An array of marine wildlife, coral reefs, and even shipwrecks make Dry Tortugas a diver’s paradise. The underwater sites range from those requiring scuba gear to those that can be surveyed by snorkelers. The Little Africa Coral Reef is a snorkeling site calm and shallow enough for kids to enjoy. More experienced divers will want to check out the Windjammer Shipwreck.

Worth Checking Out

  • Fort Jefferson
  • Loggerhead Key
  • Garden Key
  • Windjammer Shipwreck
  • Little Africa Coral Reef

Mammoth Cave National Park

Caves and cave systems hold a unique fascination for humans, most of whom have spent their entire lives on the earth’s sunny surface. Beneath it, of course, is a world nearly as alien to diurnal creatures as outer space, one characterized by stillness, dark water, close air, and endless night. And for a cave enthusiast, no string of visits to the world’s subterranean passageways would be complete without Mammoth Cave.

Parts of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, are protected and preserved as Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. The Historic Entrance is a natural one, leading into the long passages of the cave system. Landmarks along the hundreds of miles of passageways include Frozen Niagara, whose name says it all, Mammoth Cave’s underground river Styx, even the old site of a particularly unfortunate medical experiment involving tuberculosis patients and the (supposedly) salutary properties of cave air.

Before the area was a national park, it was a community, traces of which still remain in historic churches and cemeteries. One of the most significant is the Old Guide’s Cemetery. Here, a cave guide whose importance to the park would be difficult to overstate lies buried. Stephen Bishop was an enslaved African-American man who explored the cave and guided tours both before and after he gained his freedom. Stories of his long tenure in Mammoth Cave are still told today. Buried in the same cemetery are three tuberculosis patients who did not survive the cave treatment.

Worth Checking Out

  • Historic Entrance
  • Frozen Niagara
  • River Styx
  • Old Guide’s Cemetery

Crater Lake National Park

Of all the national parks, it’s pretty safe to say that Crater Lake has the coolest origin story. Some several thousands of years ago, the volcano known today as Mount Mazama erupted. It was the beginning of Mount Mazama’s second life as a caldera – essentially a collapsed volcano. And when the caldera filled with freshwater, Crater Lake was born.

Located in southern Oregon, Crater Lake National Park protects and preserves Mount Mazama, Crater Lake itself, and the surrounding area. It’s one of the most visually stunning national parks; the Lake is a deep, dazzling blue, surrounded by pristine forest and hills. As with all the national parks, there are a few different ways to experience Crater Lake.

Rim Drive takes visitors 33 miles around the rim of Crater Lake, and the views are as spectacular as you’d expect. However, snowfall closes parts of the Rim Drive annually. From July to October, the Drive is entirely open.

For those who want to experience the waters of Crater Lake, a summertime boat tour is a good option. Cleetwood Cove Trail will bring visitors to the edge of the Lake, and to the dock where tour boats await, but the steepness and length of the Trail may present a challenge.

If you brave the hike and the boat ride across the Lake, you may find yourself stopping at Wizard Island for a walk and some unusual views. It’s another great way to experience the Park up close – indeed, from a perch on the dormant volcano. Wizard Island is a cinder cone, formed during and after Mount Mazama’s eruption and emerging from Crater Lake hundreds of years ago.

Crater Lake is one of nature’s marvels, and it stands out even in a country blessed with quite a few of those.

Worth Checking Out

  • Rim Drive
  • Crater Lake Boat Tour
  • Cleetwood Cove Trail
  • Rim Village Visitor Center
  • Wizard Island

Joshua Tree National Park

In 1930, a wealthy society woman turned preservation activist founded the International Desert Conservation League. Minerva Hamilton Hoyt’s goal in founding the League was the preservation of the desert habitats and wildlife that she had grown to love. In her later years, this lady would persuade FDR’s administration to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of desert – the area we now know as Joshua Tree National Park.

The word desert may evoke images of barren wasteland, but a little travel will turn up what Minerva Hamilton Hoyt knew so well: the desert is a vibrant, richly varied environment, dramatic in its austerity, unforgiving in its extremes.

Joshua Tree National Park includes parts of two deserts, both distinct because of their different elevations. These are the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. The Mojave Desert claims the honor of supplying the special habitat of the Joshua Tree, the tough desert plant that gave the Park its name. It is the site of Death Valley, also a national park, and at certain times of the year, the hottest place on Earth.

If you’re lucky, you might glimpse some of Joshua Tree’s wildlife, much of which is nocturnal. This includes the desert tortoise, the roadrunner, and coyotes. But it doesn’t require luck to enjoy the night skies of Joshua Tree. Its Dark Sky Park status is a big draw for stargazers.

Rock formations in Joshua Tree National Park tell their stories to geologists, impart a sense of wonder to tourists, and present a challenge to climbing enthusiasts. They glow orange and red in the sun and captivate visitors used to thinking of this planet as green.

Worth Checking Out

  • Skull Rock
  • Hidden Valley
  • Mojave Desert
  • Death Valley National Park

Branson, Missouri

Branson’s transformation into a tourist destination began around the time that Marble Cave got a new name.

The cave had attracted enough attention to move one enterprising gentleman to purchase it and charge fees for tours. Though the initial explorers had been mistaken – there had never been any marble in Marble Cave – the Herschend family saw another kind of valuable resource there. They leased it for 99 years and recreated a frontier town on its surface. Today, Silver Dollar City attracts visitors from all over the country. The 1880s-themed amusement park still offers tours of a rebranded Marvel Cave, as well as rides and shows.

Silver Dollar City has done a great deal to make Branson what it is. But it wasn’t alone – far from it. The list of performers, theaters, and tourist attractions is much too long to exhaust in one trip, or even in many.

To name just one: Sight & Sound Theatres brings to the stage the stories told in scripture. The stage surrounds the audience on three sides, and live animals round out the cast. Sight & Sound has told the stories of Moses, Noah, Jonah, and more, all with original music and special effects.

Branson takes pride in its status as a family-friendly entertainment destination, a sort of counterpoint to Las Vegas. At places like Silver Dollar City, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and Sight & Sound Theatres, you’ll see visitors of all ages, because these attractions have taken care to appeal to them all.

Worth Checking Out

  • Silver Dollar City
  • Sight & Sound Theatres
  • Dolly Parton’s Stampede
  • Branson Landing

Savannah, Georgia

In 1994, John Berendt’s non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil turned the New York Times Bestseller List’s readers’ minds toward Savannah. But the city’s abundance of historic sites and charming local attractions had done their work on the nation’s imagination long before.

Still, the wildly successful novel subtitled A Savannah Story, steeped in the atmosphere of the deep coastal South, and telling in detail one of its crazier-than-fiction stories – well, as far as the local tourism industry is concerned, it didn’t hurt.

One of the places that the book made famous was the Bonaventure Cemetery, a sprawling graveyard so venerable that its 1994 literary appearance was not its first. John Muir was an advocate for the preservation of American wilderness, but he did more than talk the talk – he quite literally walked the walk. On his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, Muir spent six days and nights in 1867 in the cemetery while he waited for his travel money to catch up with him. In a chapter titled “Camping in the Tombs”, he wrote with rapture of the beauty of this graveyard, where in spite of so much company of the dead, the rhythm of life beat on. Today, the Bonaventure Cemetery opens its gates to the public every day from 8 AM to 5 PM.

Savannah holds still another honor: it contains and preserves the home of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder and first leader of Girl Scouts of the USA. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, and her Childhood Home has also been carefully preserved as a house museum to honor the writer.

Worth Checking Out

  • Bonaventure Cemetery
  • Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
  • Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home
  • Telfair Museums
  • Leopold’s Ice Cream

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Once upon a time, Santa Fe functioned as a gateway to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where science was turned to its most destructive uses in order to end a war. Today, Santa Fe hosts scientific meetings and lectures galore. Still, if there is one thing you’ll remember the city for, it probably won’t be its science, but its art.

A host of artists and writers have found inspiration in Santa Fe. For some of them, the area served the dual role of home and muse. Georgia O’Keeffe lived in and near Santa Fe during the closing years of her life. She made her homes in Abiquiú and on Ghost Ranch, painting what she saw and imagined, or some combination of the two. Renowned author Cormac McCarthy has filled his novels with Santa Fe’s landscapes and language.

But the art of Santa Fe isn’t limited to a few illustrious names. Local talent has filled Santa Fe with creative energy and work, especially Canyon Road, which hundreds of artists have made their studio. The city’s architecture, with its mingling of styles, has its own story to tell, perhaps most emphatically on the Santa Fe Plaza – the old town square.

Santa Fe’s museums display the enduring power of art to preserve in collective consciousness cultures now all but vanished in fact. They speak of immortality on a human scale, of an element of a fragile life that can be passed on and on and on.

Worth Checking Out

  • Santa Fe Plaza
  • Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
  • Museum of Indian Arts and Culture
  • Canyon Road
  • The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

Bend, Oregon

Somewhere between Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and the high desert lies Bend. Once upon a time, it was called Farewell Bend, because here the pioneers on the Oregon Trail crossed the Deschutes River and kept going. Today, Bend is a destination in its own right.

Bend can rest secure in its well-deserved reputation as an outdoor sports enthusiast’s paradise: It has mountains, a desert, and a river. The cool evenings and sunny skies typical of its climate are just a bonus. Among the outdoor sports Bend accommodates and facilitates are skiing, rock-climbing, mountain biking, white-water rafting, fishing, hiking, and camping.

Less well-known but definitely worth a visit are a few indoor attractions.

At the High Desert Museum, the cultural heritage and natural history of the region are on display. Specimens of local wildlife live in naturalistic enclosures, and scenes from the past – a pioneer wagon train, a trapper’s camp, a boomtown – are recreated in detail.

The Old Mill District retains visible elements of Bend’s past life as a lumber town. Once, two rival lumber mills competed for business and profits in the district. Today several of the original structures still stand, now renovated and put to new uses. A collection of shops, galleries, and restaurants has turned the Old Mill District into a thriving tourist hub.

Pine Tavern is the oldest restaurant operating in Bend – and one of the most popular. Its dining room and patio overlook the river, and two improbable ponderosa pine trees grace the interior. Its garden overlooks Mirror Pond, itself a product of the Deschutes River.

 Worth Checking Out

  • High Desert Museum
  • Pine Tavern
  • Tower Theatre
  • Old Mill District
  • Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe

Chicago, Illinois

Like many an American city, Chicago began as a settlement on the far reaches of the frontier. Unlike most other American cities, Chicago’s explosive growth through migration and heavy industry turned it into one of the three most populous cities in the United States. But Chicago’s uniqueness isn’t one of numbers.

Chicago’s story is peopled with larger-than-life characters, including Al Capone and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is deeply shaded with suffering and violence. As with all true stories, it is complex, too nuanced for easy judgments.

During Prohibition, Chicago’s gangsters and bootleggers flouted the law and spilled a great deal of blood, usually each other’s. They at once terrified and captured the public imagination. The Great Depression brought Chicago more than its share of misery, as half of its industrial jobs evaporated in the wake of the economic crisis.

Yet Chicago and its millions of citizens survived and thrived, and every year, tourism and business bring millions more to the Windy City. Its architecture is so famous that one of the distinctive styles in which it was built is named after the city. Its museums are world-class; you can find three of the most noted on Museum Campus. From the Willis (formerly the Sears) Tower, visitors can see the city as a bird might. Navy Pier, which juts out off the shore of Lake Michigan, is one of the most famous attractions in the Midwest – and rightfully so. Another is Millennium Park. 

In Chicago, everything seems built on a grand scale. From its complicated history and tough-minded art to its monumental architecture and vivid nightlife, the city is often dazzling and always fascinating. 

Worth Checking Out

  • Navy Pier
  • Museum Campus
  • Willis (Sears) Tower
  • Millennium Park