We wouldn’t dare rank our nation’s natural assets—who could choose between yosemite and Yellowstone? But the man-made attractions? You bet. Behold, our picks for the country’s most epic buildings, monuments, & engineering feats, with advice for navigating them smarter, better, & with fewer crowds.
Once the world's longest suspension bridge, the 1.7-mile Golden Gate has since been surpassed in size-but not in beauty. Hundreds of people walk the span from San Francisco to Sausalito each day, so you'll want to plan wisely. Bypass the two-hour meters at the overcrowded main lot off S.F.'s Merchant Road in favor of ample free parking at Crissy Field Center (crissyfield.org). There, fair-trade coffee awaits at the Warming Hut Café & Bookstore, a whitewashed shed near the shore that's the perfect place to fuel up for the gentle, half-mile Bay Trail to the bridge (415/561-3040, coffee $2). The Golden Gate's best-kept secret: Although it's closed to pedestrians after sunset, gates are opened for star-gazing cyclists. goldengatebridge.org
2. Highway 1, California Coast
Sure, it stretches almost the entire length of California, but the part you're dreaming of covers only 123 miles along two nationally designated scenic byways between Monterey and Morro Bay. That's the stuff of road-tripping fantasies, where you'll be curving between windswept cliffs, towering redwoods, and the crashing surf below. You could whip through the whole stretch in less than three hours, but you'd miss out on worthy detours for swimming, kayaking, hiking, and jade-diving. Traffic conditions are continuously updated at the California Department of Transportation site (dot.ca.gov), and crowds generally thin out during the shoulder-season months of May and September.
3. Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, CA
Each year, another 20 to 30 luminaries are added to the more than 2,400 celebrities already immortalized in pink terrazzo along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. The Official Hollywood Walk of Fame iPhone app ($2) tells you exactly where to find Bette Davis, the Beatles, and both Harrison Fords (the other one was a silent film star). Parking in Hollywood is notoriously challenging, so this is a rare moment when L.A.'s subway comes in handy: The Red Line, which runs between NorthHollywood and Down-town, stops at Hollywood and Vine; riders can leave their cars at one of the 1,500-plus free parking spots available at the North Hollywood and Universal City stops at the line's western end. walkoffame.com
4. Las Vegas Strip, Las Vegas, NV
Where else in the world can you find a permanent circus, an indoor sky, and a slice of the Roman Empire? Truth is, Vegas is famous for taking thrills to new heights-more so now than ever. Last April, the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower at the Strip's north end debuted its SkyJump attraction, the highest "controlled free fall" in the world. (Think skydiving with a cable instead of a parachute.) Brave souls, who pay $100 for the privilege, can make the 108-story leap as late as 2 a.m. on weekends, when all the glittering lights amp up the drama. stratospherehotel.com
5. Hoover Dam, Boulder City, NV
It's never been easier to visit this 75-year-old colossus, which provides 20 million residents of California, Nevada, and Arizona with water and 1.3 million with hydroelectricity. Some new engineering is now helping the flow of the near-million annual visitors: a four-lane, 1,900-foot-long Hoover Dam bypass bridge. This bridge is the second-highest in the nation, perched at almost 900 feet above the rushing Colorado River. Avoid the intense summer heat (as high as 110 degrees) by planning your visit during January or February, when temperatures hover in the low 60s. But be sure to arrive by 3 p.m. to tour the dam itself; visitors aren't allowed to the top of the facility after dark, which comes as early as 4:30 p.m. during that time of year. hooverdambypass.org, tour $11.
6. Mount Rushmore, Keystone, SD
You can't actually clamber over the presidents' heads like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. But the 500-foot-tall Mount Rushmore and the surrounding national forest still pack plenty of cinematic punch, thanks to the spiraling bridges, rock tunnels, and pinnacles of granite that line scenic Highway 89 north of Custer. There's no fee to see the busts (sculpted by 400 men), other than an $11 parking permit that, once paid, is good for the calendar year. Don't miss the equally epic Crazy Horse Memorial (crazyhorsememorial.org, entry $10), slated to be the world's largest cliff carving, just 15 miles away. nps.gov/moru
Did You Know...
John Steinbeck helped build California's Highway 1.
Around 250 marriage licenses are issued each day in Las Vegas.
Hoover Dam is larger than the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
It took 900 tons of stainless steel to build the St. Louis Arch.
The National Mall contains over 3,000 Japanese cherry trees.
The Statue of Liberty is only as thick as two stacked pennies.
We can pretty much guarantee that at least one of these beautiful, inviting cities is just a drive away. America's surprising state capitals are a truly varied bunch of burghs, but they have a few awesome things in common, including great cuisine, art, history, and four seasons of outdoor activities.