Quick: close your eyes and picture a beautiful view.
Where do you put yourself? Looking out over tall, gleaming urban spires? Mammoth snowcapped peaks? Vast gashes in the earth?
Fortunately, no matter what your vision might be, you can probably find a view to match it somewhere in the U.S. Inspiring vistas are ubiquitous and easy to find—they stretch from Hawaii to Maine.
Still, in our search for America’s best views, it was only natural to draw heavily from beautiful sites in the National Park system. Of course, we’re not alone in our desire to experience and celebrate views inside these protected areas: in 2013, nearly 300 million people sought inspiration in America’s 370 national parklands, including some 15 million who witnessed the iconic views in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
But the best views in America not only showcase national parks. They incorporate the magic twinkle of city skylines, the fortitude of rocky coastlines, and breathtaking discoveries found on easy walks, rugged hikes, and scenic drives across the nation. Anyone who’s experienced the dramatic drops around Big Sur, CA, or basked in the glimmer of New York City’s skyline will certainly agree.
And uplifting views don’t necessarily start with tall buildings or plunging cliffs. Just ask anyone who’s witnessed the 360-degree panorama of nighttime lights on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, the best views in America aren’t going anywhere. From canyons and coastlines to peaks and parks, Americans have a proud history of preserving their special places for future generations.
But that doesn’t mean you should wait to see them. Put these gorgeous spots on your bucket list and start making travel plans.
Battery Spencer, Calif.
The perfect place to gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge is Battery Spencer at Fort Baker in Marin County. Located on a 335-acre, former 1905 U.S. Army post, the splendid lookout is easily accessible by car or bike.
Insider Tip: This summer until Labor Day, the West Marin Stagecoach Route 61 will stop at Fort Baker on weekends and holidays.
Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon, Utah
The otherworldly landscape of Bryce Canyon’s towering sandstone hoodoos, natural arches, staircases, and canyons leaves an indelible impression no matter where you stand. Sunrise Point has incomparable views of the fire-hued, mostly limestone rock formations, which are the remnants of an ancient lake that covered western Utah. Visitors can take an easy hike from Sunrise Point to wander among the hoodoo giants along Queens Garden Trail.
Insider Tip: Unfortunately, the hoodoos are eroding (at a rate of two to four feet per 100 years), so see them while they’re still at maximum height. The park also offers nighttime hikes, stargazing, and ranger-guided rim walks.
National Mall, Washington, D.C.
The best advice for any first-time visitor to the nation’s capital is to start with a tour of the monuments on the National Mall—at night, when the marble structures resemble white beacons against a dark sky. There’s no more patriotic experience than to walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and see the powerful marble statue of Honest Abe in his chair next to the engraved words of his Gettysburg Address. From there, looking out over the Reflecting Pool, is the towering Washington Monument, with the ornate dome of the U.S. Capitol in the distance.
Insider Tip: Seeing the list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (located just off the Reflecting Pool) at night is a humbling experience.
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii
The Na Pali Coast is a bucket-list must with towering green spires, deep canyons, and perilous cliffs sloping into the sea. Those who have the stamina and time to hike the full 11-mile Kalalau Trail are in for one of the world’s most celebrated vistas. A shorter option is to hike two miles of the trail to Hanakapiai Beach.
Insider Tip: You can also enjoy Na Pali’s jutting green cliffs by helicopter, boat, or small plane. The expense is well worth it. Air tours also include the vast and colorful Waimea Canyon nearby.
Portland Head Lighthouse, Maine
Rarely has a sentry been so iconic and beautiful. Portland Head lighthouse, in Cape Elizabeth, was commissioned by George Washington and first lit in 1791. It has helped guide boats into the Portland harbor ever since. Today’s lighthouse is the epitome of charm, with its white tower and the red-roofed keeper’s house set on a rocky shoreline.
Insider Tip: Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used to sip drinks with the lighthouse keeper, and Portland Head reportedly inspired his poem “The Lighthouse.”
Dog Mountain, Columbia River Gorge, Wash.
Hikers are rewarded with a visual feast after climbing Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge: beautiful fields of wildflowers and the yawning expanse of the gorge, Mount Hood, and Mount Saint Helens volcano. Dog Mountain is 16 miles from Hood River—a great town to enjoy dinner afterward.
Insider Tip: The seven-mile loop hike takes about 5.5 hours and includes a 2,800-foot elevation gain—a real challenge for casual hikers. But you can choose from three routes—from quickest and steepest to longer and more moderate.
El Morro Fort, San Juan, P.R.
El Morro’s sentry boxes (or garitas) have served as lookouts over the blue Caribbean Sea for centuries. Built by Spain 68 years before America’s Jonestown settlement, this Puerto Rican fort has withstood Dutch and British invaders and even a missile launched by a U.S. warship in the Spanish-American War. The best time for photos is sunset.
Insider Tip: As a National Historic Site, El Morro is Old San Juan’s most recognized destination in a city that charms with cobblestoned streets, the Hotel El Convento, and Juan Ponce de León’s home, La Casa Blanca.
Schwabacher Landing, Grand Teton, Wyo.
One of the best places to capture the Tetons in all their glory is along the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing. This plum photography spot is located 16 miles north of Jackson, east of Highway 89. Take the small gravel road on the left until it dead-ends; the viewpoint is a short walk. You’ll know you’re there when you see it—and you’ll never forget it.
Insider Tip: Look for the area’s abundant wildlife, including beaver, otter, antelope, coyote deer, and soaring eagles.
Mather Point, Grand Canyon, Ariz.
If there were ever a place you’d want to turn into a bird, it would be at Mather Point, on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim: the yawning, mile-deep, 277-mile-long opening is so vast, you could glide over it forever. Thankfully, Grand Canyon National Park has gone to great lengths to improve the infrastructure around popular Mather Point to ease congestion. There’s easier road access, expanded parking, and also a viewing platform, amphitheater, and visitors’ center.
Insider Tip: After Mather Point, enjoy some or all of the nine other lookouts that are accessible using the free shuttle bus.
Kerry Park, Seattle
It’s not unusual to find photographers standing together at Kerry Park waiting for the sunset to cast its glow across Seattle. The view encompasses the Space Needle, downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the ferries floating by, along with Mount Rainier and Bainbridge Island in the distance.
Insider Tip: Parking can be limited, but it’s well worth the search.
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