The USA embodies the very definition of a giant, sprawling country, and with its wildly varied geography and astonishing assortment of regionally distinct subcultures, the third-largest nation in the world would take a lifetime (or more) to thoroughly explore.
And while this is not a country that specialises in subtlety – three of our ten spotlighted choices below feature "big" or "grand" in their name – it's full of inspiring places that hide themselves just under the surface of the country's skin to remind visitors that there's more to touring the USA than simply experiencing mega-destinations such as Times Square, Walt Disney World and Las Vegas.
Follow us, west to east, as our author highlights his pick of the ten best places to visit in the USA.
Sometimes the finest adventures begin at the end of the road – or in the case of this rough-and-ready village in the Alaska interior, across the Kennicott River from the end of the road. Accessible via small plane or, more popularly, by footbridge at the terminus of a 58-mile gravel route, the old mining town of McCarthy – the area's copper reserves dried up in the 1930s – soldiers on as a semi-living ghost town in the heart of impossibly enormous Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve. McCarthy's year-round population dropped from 42 to 28 in the 2000s, so get here now while the community still exists.
Best month to visit: August
Colourfully set beside deep-green forests and around the glimmering azure waters of Puget Sound – with the peaks of the Cascade Range to the east and the Olympic Mountains to the west often white with snow – greater Seattle is quite arguably both the most beautifully situated metropolis and one of the best places to travel in the USA. The Emerald City is also fun – a place where you can play catch with freshly caught fish at high-spirited Pike Place Market, dive deeply into the city's rich musical legacy at the Experience Music Project museum near the ever-cool Space Needle, and, if the frequently grey skies subside for the day, take in the heart-melting Pacific Northwest view from the 73-storey-high Sky View Observatory at the Columbia Center. You can also plan your visit around Bumbershoot, the city's colossal music and arts festival that takes place in the shadow of the Space Needle annually over Labor Day weekend.
Best month to visit: July
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California
A smart alternative for tall-tree-seeking Bay Area visitors over Muir Woods National Monument (often overcrowded) and Redwood National Park (much too far for a day trip), California's oldest state park is also one of its largest and best. Big Basin Redwoods, a gorgeous 65-mile drive south from San Francisco, is a choice destination in almost any weather, where the dense tree canopy of the Santa Cruz Mountains provides shaded relief on warm days and a natural umbrella on rainy ones. The park's extensive trail network includes everything from easy interpretive-nature trails to full-blown backpacking routes such as the lovely Skyline-to-Sea Trail.
Best month to visit: March
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
As you crest a gradual rise along the road north into Grand Teton, your first sighting of the purple, jagged-tooth peaks of the Teton Range may well result in mumbled exclamations of awe, if not an outright case of goose pimples. If so, you're not alone – initial reactions like this have been documented through the ages. Invariably overshadowed by its world-famous, geyser-spewing neighbour to the immediate north, Yellowstone, Grand Teton is in a league of its own. For outdoor enthusiasts, this is undoubtedly one of the best places to go in the USA, with year-round visitors coming to hike, rock-climb, bicycle, cross-country ski, wildlife-watch, and stare at the most striking mountains this side of the Alps.
Best month to visit: September
Image by Charles Hodgkins
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Wedged snugly against the US–Mexico border and located hundreds of miles from Texas's major cities, Big Bend is not for anyone seeking a conveniently located patch of desert ruggedness; this is a place that requires dedication to reach. However, your efforts are suitably rewarded with all the Chihuahuan Desert charms you can handle: sentinel rock outcroppings, small packs of low-slung javelinas scampering across hiking trails, towering canyons that seemingly threaten to swallow the muddy Rio Grande whole, international boundary intrigue, pointy ocotillo aplenty. You'd be forgiven for expecting to see Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner around the park's dusty roads.
Best month to visit: February
The reality of Southern Louisiana is not so different from the myth of the region in the minds of Americans and foreign visitors alike. From Lafayette to Baton Rouge to New Orleans, this really is a singular place: swamps and bayous full of alligators and moss-draped cypress trees; French-speaking Cajuns squeezing age-old tunes out of accordions and mandolins; Creole sugarcane plantations just over the levee from the mighty Mississippi River; jazz clubs, festivals, and second-line parades soaked in equal parts booze and brass; end-of-the-road holiday towns on distant barrier islands; foods that will tingle your taste buds and shatter your belt. There's nowhere quite like it.
Best month to visit: April
Image by Charles Hodgkins
Anchoring the third-most populous metropolitan area in the US, and boasting one of the most iconic skylines you'll find anywhere, lakeside Chicago offers a smorgasbord of attractions that could keep an ambitious visitor occupied for weeks. By day, join a walking tour of downtown's modern architecture landmarks, take your pick from an array of top-tier museums (including the world-class Art Institute of Chicago), or score an opening night ticket for the Chicago Cubs baseball game on 5 April at the so-called Friendly Confines of storied Wrigley Field. After dark, choose from almost any type of cuisine imaginable – from haute to Greek to BBQ, the City of Broad Shoulders does everything well, and more affordably than coastal culinary rivals New York and San Francisco.
Best month to visit: May
South Florida is known for many things, but a pair of particularly adversarial relationships head the list of many visitors: sodden wild lands versus the paved, built-up environment, and humans versus biting insects. The collision here between the subtropical United States and Latin America makes this one of the most culturally fascinating corners of the country, where you can stroll through Miami's Little Haiti and Little Havana neighbourhoods in the morning, enjoy an airboat tour through the Everglades' magnificent "river of grass" in the afternoon (just be sure to tote along bug repellant), and either indulge in Miami's legendary club scene all night or make the relaxing 160-mile drive out through the Florida Keys to atmospheric Key West. Or you can just eat key lime pie all day long. Regardless of your approach, this is where summer spends the winter in the States, so pack an extra pair of shorts.
Best month to visit: December
Image by Charles Hodgkins
While beach names such as Rehoboth, Dewey, and Bethany may not stir the imagination quite the same way as Malibu, Waikiki, and Key Biscayne, don't overlook Delaware's abbreviated, but lovely shore. Untainted by reality television and overdevelopment – though lashed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – the First State's 20-plus miles of land abutting the Atlantic Ocean is as glorious a strand as you'll find anywhere on the East Coast. Runners will want to come for the flat-routed CoDel (Coastal Delaware) Marathon, which begins and ends in Dewey Beach on the first weekend in May. Walk the sands in search of gigantic, laggard horseshoe crabs, snack on salt water taffy along Rehoboth's popular seaside boardwalk, and be thankful you won't have to cross paths with Snooki and her costar-inebriates.
Best month to visit: June
Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts
Resisting the frilly preciousness that can characterise higher-profile small towns of the region, Shelburne Falls offers a portrait of working-class New England while still drawing in plenty of visitors for its smattering of worthy sights. The humble village of 1700 residents, set along the leafy Mohawk Trail (also known as the State Route 2, a popular autumn foliage-viewing byway that's celebrating its 101st anniversary this year), is split by the languid Deerfield River, the banks of which are linked by the marvellous, pedestrian-only Bridge of Flowers – a set of unusual, riverside glacial potholes adjacent to the small downtown area. Shelburne Falls is also home to the second-oldest bowling alley in the US, where you can try your hand at candlepin, the New England-only brand of the game that requires extra precision by using a much smaller ball and pins.
Best month to visit: October
Top image © MaxyM/Shutterstock