The United States has always been a land of extremes. European explorers were staggered by the sheer vastness of the land, and generations of immigrants have arrived here with the biggest dreams imaginable. We decided to dig in and explore America's highest highs, lowest lows, and a number of other extremes (quick: how many people live in America's smallest town?). Here, a dozen of our favorite points that embody our nation's capacity for wonder—plus tips for actually getting to these amazing destinations, some of which can require a plane trip and a rental car.
Death Valley may be the most scorching spot in America, with temperatures that can reach 130 degrees F, but Lake Havasu City in Arizona earns the gold star for the hottest place where lots of people actually live. The town is home to more than 50,000 residents, all of whom have found a way to survive summer temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees F and can reach as high as the 120s. What keeps folks here is what also draws thousands of visitors, including 45 miles of lakefront for boating, fishing (blue gill and crappie are anglers' favorites here), and hiking amid volcanic rock, sparkling geodes, and other desert formations. Lake Havasu also boasts two unexpected attractions: It is home to more than a dozen 1/3 scale miniature lighthouses that dot the lake's shores, and London Bridge, purchased in 1968 from the City of London for more than $2 million, shipped more than 5,000 miles, and reassembled in Arizona. The bridge is now the second-most-popular tourist site in the state, after the Grand Canyon.
Get there: Las Vegas is the nearest major airport, about 150 miles from Lake Havasu City; round-trip flights on Delta from New York City start at $338. London Bridge Resort offers condo-style suites, three restaurants, a beach bar, and a pool (1477 Queens Bay, Lake Havasu City, londonbridgeresort.com, doubles from $95).
United States territories are surprisingly globe-spanning, and the nod for easternmost point goes not to the Maine coast but to tiny St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That means that, without a passport, you can immerse yourself in a culture that blends Caribbean, Dutch, French, British, Spanish, and Danish influences all in a package less than 23 miles long and eight miles wide. With all the expected to-dos you associate with an island paradise (swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, fine dining, and golf), St. Croix also offers the old-world architecture of Christiansted, with homes dating back to the 18th century, and a "rain forest" near the western shore. (It's not technically a rain forest, but private land open to visitors, with a bounty of tropical flora and colorful hummingbirds, warblers, and other birds.)
Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from New York City start at $359. Hotel Caravelle is near Christiansted's historical sites and has a restaurant, bar, outdoor pool, and spa onsite (44A Queen Cross St., Christiansted, hotelcaravelle.com, doubles from $136).
With average winter temperatures below -5 and highs only in the mid-40s, you may wonder what draws visitors to Fairbanks. Sure, the city's population is warm and welcoming and its gold rush history is still tangible in sites such as the Pioneer Museum, with its dioramas and murals. But most tourists are here to see the Aurora Borealis. Also known as the Northern Lights, the aurora will be at its peak in 2013 due to heavy sunspot activity at the end of an 11-year cycle, producing the appearance of crackling skies filled with bright blue, green, and red patterns for more than 200 nights over the course of the year. August through April is primetime for aurora-viewing, and if you spend three nights in Fairbanks you have about an 80 percent chance of a clear night. Ask your hotel if it offers middle-of-the-night wake-up calls to rouse you in time to see a display.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Alaska Airlines from San Francisco start at $937. When you're ready to warm up in the "great indoors," the Hampton Inn and Suites offers welcome amenities like Cloud Nine beds, complimentary breakfast, and a pool and fitness center (433 Harold Bentley Ave., hamptoninn.hilton.com, doubles from $104).
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).
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).
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).
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.
Get there: Round-trip flights on American Airlines from Chicago to Albuquerque start at $450. Sky City Casino and Hotel has an onsite restaurant, fitness facility, and spa (Acoma Village, skycitycasino.com, doubles from $84).
New York has been the most populous city in the U.S. since the first census was taken in 1790, but it wasn't until the inauguration of the Erie Canal in 1825 that its numbers really took off, nearly tripling by 1840. By connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the waterway ushered in a new era in trade that rocketed the city to the economic preeminence it enjoys to this day. For visitors, that prosperity translates into unparalleled art collections, theater, music, and cuisine. And while world-class museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim can come with a hefty suggested donation, New York also offers some of the choicest low-cost—or free— attractions anywhere in the world, including holiday department-store displays, the immense Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and public skating rinks in several locations, including cozy Bryant Park, right in Midtown.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from Atlanta start at $254. The Jane Hotel is right on the Hudson River in the bustling, vibrant West Village; its bunk-bed "cabin" room is incredibly reasonable by NYC standards (113 Jane St., thejanenyc.com, doubles from $125).
It doesn't get any smaller than Buford. Why? Because the town has only one resident, Don Simmons, the proprietor of The Buford Trading Post, a gas station and convenience store. If you're making a cross-country road trip on Interstate 80, it's worth stopping in Buford (between Cheyenne and Laramie) just to say hi, and to tell the folks back home that you've seen it. And since the town was purchased in an auction in September, it's not clear how long it will hold its title. Looking to do more than just pass through Buford? Nearby Vedauwoo State Park offers a breathtaking mountain landscape that flatlanders back east would die for.
Get there: Well, you're not going to fly to Wyoming just to see little Buford, but round-trip flights on Frontier from San Francisco to Cheyenne, about 30 miles away, start at $478. Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites Cheyenne has an indoor pool, complimentary breakfast, and is near the historic Wyoming State Capitol (1741 Fleischli Parkway, hiexpress.com, doubles from $109).
While most grade-school students know that four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were born in Virginia, the list goes on: Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson also entered the world in the Old Dominion. That historical density is reflected in the variety of amazing attractions you can find in Virginia, including historic downtown Richmond, the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg, Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, the home Jefferson designed for himself at Monticello, the National Cemetery at Arlington (on the grounds of what was once Confederate General Robert E. Lee's estate), and such Civil War battlefields as Manassas and Fredericksburg.
Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from St. Louis to Norfolk (near Colonial Williamsburg) start at $491. Crowne Plaza Williamsburg was built on the Fort Magruder battleground and is walking distance to Colonial Williamsburg and the Jamestown Settlement; indoor and outdoor pools provide a welcome break from theme-park and historic-site frenzy (6945 Pocahontas Trail, crowneplaza.com, doubles from $99).
With an area of nearly 32,000 square miles, Lake Superior is not only the largest lake in the United States but also the largest freshwater lake in the world. Bounded by Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, this northernmost and westernmost of the Great Lakes was carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago and is so big (roughly the size of South Carolina) that it has its own climate, more akin to a coastal region than one so far inland. Among many beautiful parks and beaches along the lake's shores, Isle Royale National Park is perhaps the standout, with world-class canoe and kayak routes, hiking, and even scuba diving the lake's depths. Visit nps.gov/isro to start planning your visit.
Get there: Round-trip flights on Delta from New York to Detroit, start at $288. Rock Island Lodge is a bit of a splurge, but it's inside the Isle Royale National Park and offers unparalleled access to the park's activities (Isle Royale, reachable by ferry from Houghton, MI, rockharborlodge.com, cottages from $223).
At 2,320 miles long, the Mississippi flows from Lake Itasca, in Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through or bordering 10 states and draining water from 31 between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Range. While there are a number of major cities along the river, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Memphis, if you have to choose just one Mississippi River destination, head down to the river's mouth, to New Orleans, for authentic jazz at Preservation Hall, a ride on one of the city's historic streetcars, the unique cuisine and party scene in the French Quarter, and, this winter, the Super Bowl.
Get there: Round-trip flights on United AirTran from Los Angeles start at $423. The French Market Inn is walking distance from Bourbon Street and includes an onsite coffee shop (501 Decatur St., frenchmarketinn.com, doubles from $132).