As the world’s only superpower and biggest economy by a huge margin, almost everyone on the planet knows something about the USA, even if they’ve never been. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State, the Hollywood sign, Las Vegas neon, Golden Gate and the White House have long been global icons, and American brands and images are familiar everywhere, from Apple computers and Levi’s to Coca-Cola and hot dogs. Yet first-time visitors should expect some surprises.
Though its cities draw the most tourists – New York, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are all incredible destinations in their own right – America is above all a land of stunningly diverse and achingly beautiful landscapes. In one nation you have the mighty Rockies and spectacular Cascades, the vast, mythic desert landscapes of the Southwest, the endless, rolling plains of Texas and Kansas, the tropical beaches and Everglades of Florida, the giant redwoods of California and the sleepy, pristine villages of New England.
You can soak up the mesmerizing vistas in Crater Lake, Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks, stand in awe at the Grand Canyon, hike the Black Hills, cruise the Great Lakes, paddle in the Mississippi, surf the gnarly breaks of Oahu and get lost in the vast wilderness of Alaska. Or you could easily plan a trip that focuses on the out-of-the-way hamlets, remote prairies, eerie ghost towns and forgotten byways that are every bit as “American” as its showpiece icons and monuments.
The sheer size of the country prevents any sort of overarching statement about the typical American experience, just as the diversity of its people undercuts any notion of the typical American. Icons as diverse as Mohammed Ali, Louis Armstrong, Sitting Bull, Hillary Clinton, Michael Jordan, Madonna, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Mark Twain, John Wayne and Walt Disney continue to inspire and entertain the world, and everyone has heard of the blues, country and western, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop – all American musical innovations.
There are Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans and Latinos, Texan cowboys and Bronx hustlers, Seattle hipsters and Alabama pastors, New England fishermen, Las Vegas showgirls and Hawaiian surfers. Though it often sounds clichéd to foreigners, the only thing that holds this bizarre federation together is the oft-maligned “American Dream”. While the USA is one of the world’s oldest still-functioning democracies and the roots of its European presence go back to the 1500s, the palpable sense of newness here creates an odd sort of optimism, wherein anything seems possible and fortune can strike at any moment.
Indeed, aspects of American culture can be difficult for many visitors to understand, despite the apparent familiarity: its obsession with guns; the widely held belief that “government” is bad; the real, genuine pride in the American Revolution and the US Constitution, two hundred years on; the equally genuine belief that the USA is the “greatest country on earth”; the wild grandstanding of its politicians (especially at election time); and the bewildering contradiction of its great liberal and open-minded traditions with laissez-faire capitalism and extreme cultural and religious conservatism. That’s America: diverse, challenging, beguiling, maddening at times, but always entertaining and always changing. And while there is no such thing as a typical American person or landscape, there can be few places where strangers can feel so confident of a warm reception.
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Where to go in the USA
The most invigorating American expeditions are often those that take in more than one region. You do not, however, have to cross the entire continent from shore to shore in order to appreciate its amazing diversity; it would take a long time to see the whole country, and the more time you spend simply travelling, the less time you’ll have to savour the small-town pleasures and backroad oddities that may well provide your strongest memories. Unless you’re travelling to and within a centralized location such as New York City, you’ll need a car – that mandatory component of life in the USA.
The obvious place to start for most people is New York City – international colossus of culture and finance, with a colourful history and numerous skyscrapers to prove its status as the essential American city. While you could easily spend weeks exploring the place, just a little more effort will take you into the deeper reaches of the Mid-Atlantic region to the north. Here, whether in upstate New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania, major cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh border a landscape of unexpected charm and beauty, from the bucolic hamlets of Amish country and the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains to iconic sights such as Niagara Falls and holiday favourites like the Catskills. Next door, New England has a similarly varied appeal; most visitors know it for the colonial and history-rich city of Boston, but there’s much to be said for its rural byways, leading to centuries-old villages in Vermont and New Hampshire, bayside Massachusetts and the rugged individualism of the lobster-catching harbours and mountains of Maine – which take up nearly half the region.
Seven hundred miles west lie the Great Lakes, on the whole the country’s most underappreciated region; vigorous cities including Chicago and Minneapolis, isolated and evocative lakeshores in Michigan and Minnesota, and rousing college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin, reward any visitor with more than a few days to explore. Bordering Ohio to the east, the nearby Capital Region is the home of Washington DC, capital of the nation and centrepiece for its grandest museums and monuments. Nearby Baltimore is one of the region’s few other big cities, and to the south the old tobacco country of Virginia holds a fair share of American history while coal-mining West Virginia has a scattering of curious natural treasures.
Although Virginia is technically part of the South, for the purest experience you’ll need to venture even further to get the feel of its charismatic churches, BBQ dinners, country music and lively cities such as Atlanta and Memphis. The “deepest” part of the South lies in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, and in these states – with their huge plantations and long history of slavery – you’ll get a very different view of American life than anywhere else in the country. Other Southern states have their own unique cultures: Florida is a mix of old-fashioned Southern manners and backwater swamps leavened with ultra-modern cities including Miami, Latino culture, miles of tempting beaches and the lustrous Keys islands; Louisiana offers more atmospheric swamps and “Cajun” culture, with New Orleans one of the few spots in the USA with a strongly Catholic, yet broadly indulgent culture of drinking, dancing and debauchery; and Texas is the country’s capital for oil-drilling, BBQ-eating and right-wing-politicking, with huge expanses of land, equally big cities and plenty of history.
The Great Plains, which sit in the geographical centre of the country, are often overlooked by visitors, but include many of America’s most well-known sights, from Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to the Gateway Arch in St Louis and the Wild West town of Dodge City in Kansas. To the west rise the great peaks of the Rockies, and with them a melange of exciting cities such as Denver, beautiful mountain scenery like Montana’s Glacier National Park, the geysers of Yellowstone and great opportunities for skiing throughout at places like Idaho’s Sun Valley. Bordering the southern side of the Rockies, the desert Southwest region is also rich with astounding natural beauty – whether in the colossal chasm of the Grand Canyon, striking national parks at Zion and Canyonlands or the Native American heart of the Four Corners region – along with a handful of charming towns and less interesting big cities.
The country’s most populous state is, of course, California, synonymous with the idea of “the West Coast” and its freewheeling culture of surfing, libertine lifestyles and self-worship. However, the further from the water you get, the less the stereotypes hold, especially in the lava beds and redwoods of the far north, the ghost towns and magnificent Yosemite in the Sierras and the intriguing deserts of Death Valley. To the state’s north, Oregon and Washington – the rain-soaked pair making up the Pacific Northwest – offer pleasantly progressive towns such as Seattle and Portland and some of the most striking scenery anywhere in the USA: the stunning landscape of the Columbia River Gorge, the pristine islands of the San Juans, the snowy peaks of the Cascades and more.
Beyond the lower 48 states, Alaska is a winter wonderland of great mountains and icy spires, with few roads and people, but much to offer anyone with a zest for the outdoors and the unexpected. Hawaii is the country’s holiday paradise, a handful of splendid islands in the central Pacific with remote jungle settings and roaring volcanoes.
Outdoor activities in the USA
Coated by dense forests, cut by deep canyons and capped by great mountains, the USA is blessed with fabulous backcountry and wilderness areas. Even the heavily populated East Coast has its share of open space, notably along the Appalachian Trail, which winds from Mount Katahdin in Maine to the southern Appalachians in Georgia – some two thousand miles of untrammelled woodland. To experience the full breathtaking sweep of America’s wide-open stretches, however, head west: to the Rockies, the red-rock deserts of the Southwest or right across the continent to the amazing wild spaces of the West Coast. On the downside, be warned that in many coastal areas, the shoreline can be disappointingly hard to access, with a high proportion under private ownership.
National parks and monuments
The National Park Service administers both national parks and national monuments. Its rangers do a superb job of providing information and advice to visitors, maintaining trails and organizing such activities as free guided hikes and campfire talks.
In principle, a national park preserves an area of outstanding natural beauty, encompassing a wide range of terrain and prime examples of particular landforms and wildlife. Thus Yellowstone has boiling geysers and herds of elk and bison, while Yosemite offers towering granite walls and cascading waterfalls. A national monument is usually much smaller, focusing perhaps on just one archeological site or geological phenomenon, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Altogether, the national park system comprises around four hundred units, including national seashores, lakeshores, battlefields and other historic sites.
While national parks tend to be perfect places to hike – almost all have extensive trail networks – all are far too large to tour entirely on foot (Yellowstone, for example, is bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined). Even in those rare cases where you can use public transport to reach a park, you’ll almost certainly need some sort of vehicle to explore it once you’re there. The Alaska parks are mostly howling wilderness, with virtually no roads or facilities for tourists – you’re on your own.
Most parks and monuments charge admission fees, ranging from $5 to $25, which cover a vehicle and all its occupants for up to a week. For anyone on a touring vacation, it may well make more sense to buy the Inter-agency Annual Pass, also known as the “America the Beautiful Pass”. Sold for $80 at all federal parks and monuments, or online at store.usgs.gov/pass, this grants unrestricted access for a year to the bearer, and any accompanying passengers in the same vehicle, to all national parks and monuments, as well as sites managed by such agencies as the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the BLM. It does not, however, cover or reduce additional fees like charges for camping in official park campgrounds, or permits for backcountry hiking or rafting.
Two further passes, obtainable at any park but not online, grant free access for life to all national parks and monuments, again to the holder and any accompanying passengers, and also provide a fifty percent discount on camping fees. The Senior Pass is available to any US citizen or permanent resident aged 62 or older for a one-time fee of $10, while the Access Pass is issued free to blind or permanently disabled US citizens or permanent residents. While hotel-style lodges are found only in major parks, every park or monument tends to have at least one well-organized campground. Often, a cluster of motels can be found not far outside the park boundaries. With appropriate permits – subject to restrictions in popular parks – backpackers can also usually camp in the backcountry (a general term for areas inaccessible by road).
Other public lands
National parks and monuments are often surrounded by tracts of national forest – also federally administered but much less protected. These too usually hold appealing rural campgrounds but, in the words of the slogan, each is a “Land Of Many Uses”, and usually allows logging and other land-based industry (thankfully, more often ski resorts than strip mines).
Other government departments administer wildlife refuges, national scenic rivers, recreation areas and the like. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has the largest holdings of all, most of it open rangeland, such as in Nevada and Utah, but also including some enticingly out-of-the-way reaches. Environmentalist groups engage in endless running battles with developers, ranchers and the extracting industries over uses – or alleged misuses – of federal lands.
While state parks and state monuments, administered by individual states, preserve sites of more limited, local significance, many are explicitly intended for recreational use, and thus hold better campgrounds than their federal equivalents.
Camping and backpacking
The ideal way to see the great outdoors – especially if you’re on a low budget – is to tour by car and camp in state and federal campgrounds. Typical public campgrounds range in price from free (usually when there’s no water available, which may be seasonal) to around $30 per night. Fees at the generally less scenic commercial campgrounds – abundant near major towns, and often resembling open-air hotels, complete with shops and restaurants – are more like $20–35. If you’re camping in high season, either reserve in advance or avoid the most popular areas.
Backcountry camping in the national parks is usually free, by permit only. Before you set off on anything more than a half-day hike, and whenever you’re headed for anywhere at all isolated, be sure to inform a ranger of your plans, and ask about weather conditions and specific local tips. Carry sufficient food and drink to cover emergencies, as well as all the necessary equipment and maps. Check whether fires are permitted; even if they are, try to use a camp stove in preference to local materials. In wilderness areas, try to camp on previously used sites. Where there are no toilets, bury human waste at least six inches into the ground and 100ft from the nearest water supply and campground.
Backpackers should never drink from rivers and streams; you never know what acts people – or animals – have performed further upstream. Giardia – a water-borne bacteria that causes an intestinal disease characterized by chronic diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, fatigue and weight loss – is a serious problem. Water that doesn’t come from a tap should be boiled for at least five minutes, or cleansed with an iodine-based purifier or a giardia-rated filter.
Hiking at lower elevations should present few problems, though near water mosquitoes can drive you crazy; Avon Skin-so-Soft or anything containing DEET are fairly reliable repellents. Ticks – tiny beetles that plunge their heads into your skin and swell up – are another hazard. They sometimes leave their heads inside, causing blood clots or infections, so get advice from a ranger if you’ve been bitten. One species of tick causes Lyme Disease, a serious condition that can even affect the brain. Nightly inspections of your skin are strongly recommended.
Beware, too, of poison oak, which grows throughout the west, usually among oak trees. Its leaves come in groups of three (the middle one on a short stem) and are distinguished by prominent veins and shiny surfaces. If you come into contact with it, wash your skin (with soap and cold water) and clothes as soon as possible – and don’t scratch. In serious cases, hospital emergency rooms can give antihistamine or adrenaline shots. A comparable curse is poison ivy, found throughout the country. For both plants, remember the sage advice, “Leaves of three, let it be”.
Take special care hiking at higher elevations, for instance in the 14,000ft peaks of the Rockies, or in California’s Sierra Nevada (and certainly in Alaska). Late snows are common, and in spring avalanches are a real danger, while meltwaters make otherwise simple stream crossings hazardous. Weather conditions can also change abruptly. Altitude sickness can affect even the fittest of athletes: take it easy for your first few days above 7000ft. Drink lots of water, avoid alcohol, eat plenty of carbohydrates and protect yourself from the sun.
If you intend to hike in the desert, carry plentiful extra food and water, and never go anywhere without a map. Cover most of your ground in early morning: the midday heat is too debilitating. If you get lost, find some shade and wait. So long as you’ve registered, the rangers will eventually come looking for you.
At any time of year, you’ll stay cooler during the day if you wear full-length sleeves and trousers, while a wide-brimmed hat and good sunglasses will spare you the blinding headaches that can result from the desert light. You may also have to contend with flash floods, which can appear from nowhere. Never camp in a dry wash, and don’t attempt to cross flooded areas until the water has receded.
It’s essential to carry – and drink – large quantities of water in the desert. In particular, hiking in typical summer temperatures requires drinking a phenomenal amount. Loss of the desire to eat or drink is an early symptom of heat exhaustion, so it’s possible to become seriously dehydrated without feeling thirsty. Watch out for signs of dizziness or nausea; if you feel weak and stop sweating, it’s time to get to the doctor. Check whether water is available on your trail; ask a ranger, and carry plenty with you even if it is.
When driving in the desert, carry ample water in the car, take along an emergency pack with flares, a first-aid kit and snakebite kit, matches and a compass. A shovel, tyre pump and extra petrol are always a good idea. If the engine overheats, don’t turn it off; instead, try to cool it quickly by turning the front end of the car towards the wind. Carefully pour some water on the front of the radiator, and turn the air conditioning off and the heat up full blast. In an emergency, never panic and leave the car: you’ll be harder to find wandering around alone.
The opportunities for adventure travel in the USA are all but endless, whether your tastes run towards whitewater rafting down the Colorado River, mountain biking in the volcanic Cascades, canoeing down the headwaters of the Mississippi River, horseback riding in Big Bend on the Rio Grande in Texas or Big Wall rock climbing on the sheer granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley.
While an exhaustive listing of the possibilities could fill a huge volume, certain places have an especially high concentration of adventure opportunities, such as Moab, Utah or New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Downhill ski resorts can be found all over the USA. The eastern resorts of Vermont and New York State, however, pale by comparison with those of the Rockies, such as Vail and Aspen in Colorado, and the Sierra Nevada in California. Expect to pay $45–100 per day (depending on the quality and popularity of the resort) for lift tickets, plus another $30 or more per day to rent equipment.
A cheaper alternative is cross-country skiing, or ski touring. Backcountry ski lodges dot mountainous areas along both coasts and in the Rockies. They offer a range of rustic accommodation, equipment rental and lessons, from as little as $20 a day for skis, boots and poles, up to about $200 for an all-inclusive weekend tour.
Watch out for bears, deer, moose, mountain lions and rattlesnakes in the backcountry, and consider the effect your presence can have on their environment.
Other than in a national park, you’re highly unlikely to encounter a bear. Even there, it’s rare to stumble across one in the wilderness. If you do, don’t run, just back away slowly. Most fundamentally, it will be after your food, which should be stored in airtight containers when camping. Ideally, hang both food and garbage from a high but slender branch some distance from your camp. Never attempt to feed bears, and never get between a mother and her young. Young animals are cute; their irate mothers are not.
Snakes and creepy-crawlies
Though the deserts in particular are home to a wide assortment of poisonous creatures, these are rarely aggressive towards humans. To avoid trouble, observe obvious precautions. Don’t attempt to handle wildlife; keep your eyes open as you walk, and watch where you put your hands when scrambling over obstacles; shake out shoes, clothing and bedding before use; and back off if you do spot a creature, giving it room to escape.
If you are bitten or stung, current medical thinking rejects the concept of cutting yourself open and attempting to suck out the venom. Whether snake, scorpion or spider is responsible, apply a cold compress to the wound, constrict the area with a tourniquet to prevent the spread of venom, drink lots of water and bring your temperature down by resting in a shady area. Stay as calm as possible and seek medical help immediately.
Sports in the USA
As well as being good fun, catching a baseball game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on a summer afternoon or joining the screaming throngs at a Steelers football game in Pittsburgh can give visitors an unforgettable insight into a town and its people. Professional teams almost always put on the most spectacular shows, but big games between college rivals, Minor League baseball games and even Friday night high-school football games provide an easy and enjoyable way to get on intimate terms with a place.
Specific details for the most important teams in all the sports are given in the various city accounts in this Guide. They can also be found through the Major League websites: mlb.com (baseball); nba.com (basketball); nfl.com (football); nhl.com (ice hockey); and mlssoccer.com (soccer).
Major spectator sports
Baseball, because the Major League teams play so many games (162 in the regular season, usually at least five a week from April to September, plus the October playoffs), is probably the easiest sport to catch when travelling. The ballparks – such as Boston’s historic Fenway Park, New York’s famed Yankee Stadium, LA’s glamorous Dodger Stadium or Baltimore’s evocative Camden Yards – are great places to spend time. It’s also among the cheapest sports to watch (from around $10–15 a seat for the bleachers), and tickets are usually easy to come by.
Pro football, the American variety, is quite the opposite. Tickets are exorbitantly expensive and almost impossible to obtain (if the team is any good), and most games are played in huge, fortress-like stadiums far out in the suburbs; you’ll do better stopping in a bar to watch it on TV.
College football is a whole lot better and more exciting, with chanting crowds, cheerleaders and cheaper tickets, which can be hard to obtain in football-crazed college towns in parts of the South and Midwest. Although New Year’s Day games such as the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl are all but impossible to see live, big games like USC vs UCLA, Michigan vs Ohio State or Notre Dame vs anybody are not to be missed if you’re anywhere nearby.
Basketball also brings out intense emotions. The protracted pro playoffs run well into June. The men’s month-long college playoff tournament, called “March Madness”, is acclaimed by many as the nation’s most exciting sports extravaganza, taking place at venues spread across the country in many small to mid-sized towns.
Ice hockey, usually referred to simply as hockey, was long the preserve of Canada and cities in the far north of the USA, but now penetrates the rest of the country, with a concentration around the East Coast and Great Lakes. Tickets, particularly for successful teams, are hard to get and not cheap.
Soccer remains much more popular as a participant sport, especially for kids, than a spectator one, and those Americans that are interested in it usually follow foreign matches like England’s Premier League, rather than their home-grown talent. The good news for international travellers is that any decent-sized city will have one or two pubs where you can catch games from England, various European countries or Latin America; check out Live Sport TV for a list of such establishments and match schedules.
Golf, once the province of moneyed businessmen, has attracted a wider following in recent decades due to the rise of celebrity golfers such as Tiger Woods and the construction of numerous municipal and public courses. You’ll have your best access at these, where a round of golf may cost from $15 for a beaten-down set of links to around $50 for a chintzier course. Private golf courses have varying standards for allowing non-members to play (check their websites) and steeper fees – over $100 a person for the more elite courses.
The other sporting events that attract national interest involve four legs or four wheels. The Kentucky Derby, held in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, is the biggest date on the horse-racing calendar. Also in May, the NASCAR Indianapolis 500, the world’s largest motor-racing event, fills that city with visitors throughout the month, with practice sessions and carnival events building up to the big race.
USA: the musical melting pot
Some of the world’s greatest musical genres took root in cities and small towns across America, products of the collisions of European, African and indigenous cultures.
The blues was forged from a combination of African and gospel sounds into a simple twelve-bar form during the late nineteenth century. You can still catch Mississippi blues in Delta juke joints, and electrified urban blues in the gritty clubs of Chicago.
Jazz took root in the Creole culture of New Orleans, blending African traditions with western techniques to create a distinctly American art form. Jazz is still dance music in New Orleans; cooler urban stylings can be enjoyed in clubs in New York.
Nashville remains synonymous with country and western; outside the cities, rural Appalachia brims with backwoods fiddlers and Louisiana’s sleepy bayous are alive with Cajun and zydeco.
Rock ’n’ roll has come a long way since its blues-based infancy, when young trucker Elvis Presley shook up white country with raw R&B in 1950s Memphis. Spiky New York punk, quirky Ohio industrial, furious LA hardcore, slacker Seattle grunge, and spaced-out neo-psychedelia are but a few of the rock genres that continue to thrive in the USA.
In the 1960s, the heartfelt soul of masters like Otis Redding preceded the explosion of talent that came to define the Motown era, born in Detroit.
Loaded with attitude, street-style and political savvy, hip-hop was born on the streets of New York, and later LA. Today any city with a major black population has a distinctive rap scene, including in the so-called “Dirty South”, where rappers play on the raw call-and-response stylings of early blues.
Modern dance music had its genesis in Chicago house, New York garage and Detroit techno, though club culture is now a global phenomenon.
Top image: Monument Valley © corumov/Shutterstock