12 Most Extreme Places in America
In a country known for extremes, it's more than merely impressive to stand out from the crowd. From the tiniest town imaginable to one of the hottest places on earth, these twelve places embody our nation's capacity for wonder.
Westernmost point: American Samoa
Most of us are stunned to realize that the U.S. territories extend west of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. Easy to miss on the globe, American Samoa rewards those who are intrepid enough to make the trip with towering mountains, gentle waters, and friendly locals who will actually serenade you (and invite you to sing along) on their buses. With a population of fewer than 65,000, you'll also find elbow room on white-sand beaches such as the 2.5-mile-long Ofu Beach, the 5,000-plus-acre National Park of American Samoa and its rain forest birds, and the major town, Pago Pago. Visit during the dry season, May through October, and, because the only direct flights to American Samoa are from Samoa and Honolulu, consider making this destination just one stop on a South Pacific excursion.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu start at $937. The Tradewinds Hotel in Pago Pago offers access to sites such as the iconic Leone Church and Mount Alava. Guests can also enjoy the onsite pool and fitness center, coffee shop, and complimentary breakfast (Main Road, Pago Pago, tradewinds.as, doubles from $140).
Highest point: Mount McKinley, Denali National Park, AK
Denali National Park would be an extraordinary destination even if weren't home to the tallest peak in North America, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The park comprises 6 million acres that most visitors navigate via 92-mile-long Park Road, which parallels the stunning Alaska Range and allows access to a number of visitors' centers and six campgrounds. The park even has its own Big Five, a North American variation on the popular African safari hit list: If you're lucky, you'll spot moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. Although the park is open year-round, most people visit from mid-May to mid-September, when most visitors' centers are open, offering ranger talks and other interactive education programs. Summer bus tours are a convenient way to experience highlights of the park, including interpretive trails, scenic overlooks, and education programs. More ambitious travelers can learn about backpacking, dogsledding, and mountaineering opportunities at nps.gov/denali.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from San Francisco to Anchorage (about 150 miles from Denali National Park) start at $540. The Denali Perch Resort is located 13 miles outside the park (for Alaskans, that's next door) and offers two restaurants, a free area shuttle service, assistance with tours and tickets, and rooms have either river or mountain views (Mile 224 George Parks Highway, 907/683-2523, doubles from $125).
Lowest place: Death Valley, CA and NV
Death Valley is not only the lowest point in the United States—its Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level—but also the hottest and the driest. This stretch of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in California and Nevada is known for temperatures in the 100s for five months out of the year (the record high was 134 degrees, in 1913), unexpected deluges that bring fields of wildflowers, and, in winter, snow that can be seen dusting the higher peaks surrounding the valley. That's not to say it isn't a popular tourist destination. On the contrary, unique (and wildly diverse) attractions such as hikers' mecca Golden Canyon and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes make Death Valley a one-of-a-kind destination that's totally worth the trek. Explore Death Valley National Park via nps.gov/deva before you arrive—it's an excellent site that will help you choose among the varied offerings of this forbidding but beautiful place.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Las Vegas, about 130 miles from Death Valley, start at $338. Stovepipe Wells Village offers basic rooms with air-conditioning (vital here!) and an onsite restaurant (Highway 190, Death Valley National Park, escapetodeathvalley.com, doubles from $95).
Oldest community: Acoma, NM
Here in the U.S., we run the risk of applying the word tradition to institutions, such as the Super Bowl, that are less than 50 years old. So Acoma, NM, comes as a surprise to many. This community, which was originally settled by Native Americans, dates back to 1150, placing it squarely in the company of some of the oldest of old-world sites, such as medieval European cathedrals. About an hour's drive from Albuquerque, visit the Sky City Cultural Center for guided tours of an ancient pueblo on a sandstone bluff, explore the Acoma Pueblo Indian Museum, shop for traditional Native American crafts at the tribal-operated Gaits'I Gallery, and if gaming is your thing drop by the Sky City Casino Hotel for slots and table games.