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From coast to coast, the sheer variety of landscapes, climates, and populations makes the United States a destination where travelers can find a little bit of everything. A famous lighthouse overlooking a rugged coastline? Head to Maine. Maybe you’d rather hike through ancient red rock formations during a trip to Colorado or explore a lively city filled with historic architecture and monuments instead. No matter what style of vacation you’re setting out on, the U.S. has a national landmark to suit all types of travelers. But the following 10 national landmarks should make their way to the top of every traveler’s list.
National Mall (Washington, D.C.)
A list of top national landmarks isn't complete without the nation’s capital. If you only have time for one excursion during your trip to D.C., strolling through the National Mall is an obvious choice. Its central location will allow you to see many of the city’s most notable sites during a single outing. Start off by exploring the Capitol Building and the Capitol Reflecting Pool, then walk down to the opposite end of the mall to see the Washington Monument. Continue on to see the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, beautifully mirrored by the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Constitution Gardens are among other notable sites that frame this grassy area. The best time to visit is during the spring to see the flowers in full bloom against the impressive architecture. An annual National Cherry Blossom Festival is held to commemorate the beautiful start of the season.
Portland Head Light (Cape Elizabeth, Maine)
The oldest lighthouse in Maine has become a national treasure, and rightly so. The most photographed lighthouse in the U.S., Portland Head Light is located on the southern coast of Maine, nestled onto a rocky cliffside that gazes out over the Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse is situated adjacent to Fort Williams Park, which boasts walking trails, beaches, grassy areas, a children’s garden, and an arboretum. Try your hand at sunset photography with the lighthouse as a backdrop and you’ll soon see why this national landmark has become so popular.
Alcatraz Island (San Francisco, California)
Located about a mile offshore of San Francisco, this National Historic Landmark is infamous as a former federal prison, but it has had many faces — a Civil War Fortress, a bird sanctuary, and the home of the American Indian Red Power movement are a few of them. Start off with views of the city as you cruise across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz. Once there, you might be pleasantly surprised by the gardens and wildlife on the island, which is a prime location to see nesting seabirds up close. Continue with a guided audio tour through the Alcatraz Cellhouse, where you can appreciate the stark contrast between the dark prison interiors and the sunlit exteriors of this fascinating locale.
Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Located in Colorado Springs, about an hour south of Denver, is a breathtaking National Natural Landmark known as Garden of the Gods, featuring 300-foot-tall sandstone rock formations against the backdrop of the 14,100-foot-tall Pikes Peak. If it’s your first time visiting, learn how these unique red rock formations formed at the must-see Visitor and Nature Center, and from there, the opportunities for exploration in this stunning park are bountiful. Take a free guided walk to get to know your way around the area. When you’re ready for a more exhilarating adventure, hop on a Jeep tour or rent a mountain bike. Epic rock climbing is available for the experienced, and there is even a free Garden 5K Fun Run offered every Thursday evening.
Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, Florida)
Florida is home to many world-renowned attractions and landmarks, but among the most unique is NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the launching point of many historic space missions over the years — including Apollo 11, the first successful moon landing. Celebrate the rich history of the Space Coast and join in on interactive exhibits like the Shuttle Launch Experience, or take a tour through the Rocket Garden. You may even be able to time your visit to coincide with an upcoming rocket launch. End your day relaxing on the soft white sands of Cocoa Beach, one of Florida’s most picturesque beaches.
Gateway Arch (St. Louis, Missouri)
Gleaming in the sunlight along the banks of the Mississippi River, the steel Gateway Arch stands as a monument to the United States’ westward expansion of the 19th century. At 630 feet high, it is the tallest monument in the United States. A tram ride, which may not be suitable for those with mobility impairments or claustrophobia, takes visitors to the top of the arch where, on a clear day, you can see for 30 miles in any direction. The Museum of the Gateway Arch charts the history of the founding of St. Louis in 1764 to the building of the arch in 1965. And the surrounding 90-acre Gateway Arch National Park has plenty more to explore and enjoy, including hiking trails, outdoor concerts, and great picnic spots by the river.
Crazy Horse Memorial (Crazy Horse, South Dakota)
Deep in the Black Hills, the Crazy Horse Memorial towers more than 6,500 feet above sea level. Korczak Ziolkowski worked as a sculptor’s assistant during the carving of nearby Mount Rushmore in 1939. That same year, Chief Henry Standing Bear approached him about building a monument for Native Americans in South Dakota. Work began in the 1940s and continues to this day. Although Ziolkowski passed away in 1984, he left detailed manuals and instructions for the completion of his work. His family still runs the foundation to support the completion of the sculpture. When finished, the Crazy Horse Memorial is expected to be the largest carving in the world. Yet even while the sculpture is in progress, it is magnificent and breathtaking to see.
Hoover Dam (Arizona/Nevada)
The Hoover Dam is a wonder of modern American engineering. Straddling the border of Nevada and Arizona, the huge concrete arch-gravity dam is 660 feet thick at its base. From the top of the dam, the Colorado River flows 726 feet below, which is the equivalent of a 60-story building. The dam creates enough hydroelectricity to power services for 1.3 million people each year and also regulates water supply for cities from Los Angeles to Tucson. Construction on the dam began in 1933 and work was completed two years later. Even if you are not interested in the technical details behind the dam’s operation, the views and the sheer size of the Hoover Dam will likely astound you.
Taos Pueblo (Taos, New Mexico)
Taos-speaking Puebloan peoples have resided in these adobe buildings in northern New Mexico for more than 1,000 years. Early Spanish explorers were convinced they had found the fabled city of gold when they first saw it, due to the mica in the clay that sparkles in the sunlight. The homes have passed through generations of the same Taos families since long before Columbus ever set foot in the Americas. In addition to still being home to some 150 people today, the Pueblo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tourism is an important part of the local economy, but visitors are reminded to be respectful at all times and not to take photographs of tribal members without explicit permission.
Mount Washington Cog Railway (Mount Washington, New Hampshire)
New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Cog Railway was built in 1869 as the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. Now a National Historic Engineering Landmark, the railway is still in operation. Six steam-powered trains and four biodiesel-powered locomotives carry visitors on a three-hour round-trip journey to the top of the highest peak in the Northeast. On clear days from the summit, you can see four surrounding states, Quebec, and the Atlantic Ocean. Also at the top is the Mount Washington Observatory’s Winter Weather Museum. The views during the train-ride are enjoyable at all times of year, but especially during autumn when you can soak up New England’s fall foliage.