Think you know your American landmarks? In my mid-20s I realized that although I’d seen the Eiffel Tower three times and clambered all around the Great Pyramids of Giza, I’d never made it to the Grand Canyon, nor had I seen St. Louis’ Gateway Arch or Maya Lin’s haunting Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I’ve since corrected the lapses, and been duly awed. So by way of an apology, I’ve put together a must-see checklist of American icons. How many have you seen?
Whether you soar above it in a helicopter, hike down into it, or simply gaze upon it from the rim at Mather Point, the Grand Canyon remains one of the most stunning spots in the continental United States. Most visitors approach it from the south side, where the rimtop facilities are open year round; if you decide to skip a trip down into the canyon, just use the shuttle and rim trail to compare the vista points. For spectacular views without the crowds, visit the north rim instead, staying at the majestic Grand Canyon Lodge.
Just outside Miami, the watery Everglades sprawls across Florida’s southern tip. At its heart is the “River of Grass,” a river 50 miles wide but only 6 inches deep, flowing from Lake Okeechobee through marshy grassland into Florida Bay. Author Susan Orlean gave the area’s funky flora a star turn in The Orchid Thief, but it’s the park’s watery wildlife — crocodiles, manatees, Florida panthers, water moccasins and more — that can put the bite into your trip. Take an airboat ride for a close-up view of the local critters. Just remember to keep your hands in the boat.
The Golden Gate Bridge
The signature red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge have illuminated the entrance to San Francisco Bay since 1937. The views from the bridge are spectacular — the open Pacific to the west, the rocky Marin Headlands to the north, and the San Francisco skyline south and east. For the ultimate GGB experience, walk across the bridge — you’ll avoid traffic that way and the $5 toll.
Elvis may have left the building, but his hip-swiveling spirit is still alive at Graceland. A room-by-room audio guide talks you through the tour of the Memphis landmark, where the music legend once lived (and where he and his parents and grandparents are now buried). The mansion is preserved pretty much as Presley left it, rococo touches and all; highlights include his car collection and the green-shag splendor of the den-like “jungle room.”
Man’s effort to impose his will on the wilderness is nowhere more apparent than at Mount Rushmore, where the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt gaze down at the monument’s visitors. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum spearheaded the task, and the attendant publicity blitz, until his death in 1941, unveiling the mountain’s carved faces one by one. Today, visitors can fly into Rapid City, S.Dak., and check out both Rushmore itself and Borglum’s on-site studio, which is preserved as an information center.
Sure, the pioneering Anaheim, Calif., theme park is kitschy, but even grownups can have fun here, and the kids will go nuts. Old-school favorites like It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion mingle with updated movie-themed attractions like the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and the oversized Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. One tip: Disneyland gets a local crowd, so avoid weekends and school holidays if at all possible.
The Arch in St. Louis
Designed in 1948 by modernist architect Eero Saarinen, the soaring Gateway Arch in St. Louis pays tribute to the pioneers of the American West. Lewis and Clark kicked off their historic journey just north of here; at the base of the arch, the Museum of Western Expansion tells tales of cowboys, Indians, and John Deere. For your own bird’s-eye view of the western horizon, be sure to take a tram to the viewing area at the top of the 630-foot-high arch.
The Empire State Building
Only two New York skyscrapers make the list of the world’s 25 tallest buildings, and they were both built more than four decades before their oldest rivals. The Chrysler Building has no observation deck, but you can have your own “King Kong” moment at the Empire State Building by riding the elevator to the 86th floor. If skies are clear, you should be able to catch a view of five states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and even Massachusetts. Bonus hint: The lights change color for holidays and special events, so if coming by night, be sure to check out the lighting schedule on the building’s website.
The Mall in DC
To take in the grace of our nation’s capital, walk the green expanse that stretches from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial. Start at the eastern edge of the National Mall and head west, dropping in at the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, or one of the other museums that line the Mall proper. After climbing past the towering Washington Monument and the columned World War II memorials, you’ll encounter the sobering quietude of the Vietnam Memorial and, finally, the Lincoln Memorial, engraved with the powerful words of the Gettysburg Address.
Photographer Ansel Adams described Yosemite Valley as “a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Indeed, Yosemite National Park’s soaring granite and dramatic waterfalls create one of America’s most awe-inspiring settings. Splurge on a stay at the landmark Ahwahnee Hotel or bunk in the rustic tent cabins at Curry Village; either way, be sure to rise and shine for a morning hike to catch the valley’s quiet grandeur.
—Rachel F. Elson
And here are the runner-ups….