Mother Nature wasn’t modest with America, where her handiwork ranges from magical desert mesas to wooded river valleys to whisper-thin barrier islands. You might even say she was particularly heavy-handed when doling out American scenery.
The natural beauty found across the 50 states is so vast and staggering, it’s practically impossible to make sense of — though you can’t say we didn’t try. Here, our totally subjective, state-by-state list of the most beautiful places in the U.S.
Alabama: Magnolia Springs
Mail is delivered by boat — the last year-round river mail delivery in the country — in this small coastal village along the Magnolia River. Dating to the late 1700s, the town is named for its natural assets: gushing springs and a shady canopy of magnolia trees.
Alaska: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Few states seize the popular imagination like Alaska. And at 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias (the largest national park in the U.S.) encompasses the overwhelming beauty of the far north. Hiking here leads you through a boreal forest, along glittering glaciers (the Root Glacier trail goes right on the icy mass; crampons recommended), and up to ridges for wild mountain views — this park contains some of the highest peaks in the country.
Arizona: Grand Canyon National Park
What can we say? The most beautiful place in Arizona is the Grand Canyon. Though outrageous natural beauty is found in every corner of the state, from enchanting Emerald Cove to sacred Canyon de Chelly, nothing quite compares to the majesty of Arizona’s flagship feature.
Within this natural wonder of the world, Havasu Falls (or Supai Falls) contrasts the red rock with its seemingly impossibly turquoise water, while the circular arc of the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend is not to be missed.
Arkansas: Ozark National Forest
Dominating northwestern Arkansas, Ozark National Forest is an all-season haven rich in things to do. Its ferny oak-hickory woods are dotted with caverns (the tour-friendly Blanchard Springs Caverns has an underground river), grottoes, swimming beaches, campsites, and horseback and ATV trails. Whitaker Point and Sam’s Throne are favorites with hikers and rock climbers.
California: Yosemite National Park
The nation’s third-oldest park has major status with the National Park System, UNESCO, and traveler wish lists around the world. The alpine wonderland draws millions of annual visitors to see its high-country Sierra Nevada beauty, marked by granite domes, towering sequoias, and sheer-drop waterfalls.
Hike or drive up to Glacier Point to behold Yosemite Valley from 7,000 feet; the million-dollar panorama includes Yosemite Falls and famous Half Dome, staggeringly close and shooting 4,800 feet at a beyond-vertical pitch above the valley floor.
Colorado: Garden of the Gods
Anyone with even a passing interest in geology (or photography, or just knockout natural splendor in general) might find themselves at a loss for words at the sight of Garden of the Gods. Two tips: Aim to visit the lofty sandstone formations on a weekday morning to avoid the crowds, and take the Siamese Twins loop for a view of the snowy Pikes Peak (inspiration for “America the Beautiful”) set in a frame of red rocks.
Connecticut: Connecticut Shore
If you close your eyes and try to imagine the ideal seaside town in New England, your vision is probably not too far off from Old Lyme, Mystic, Old Saybrook, and other coastal Connecticut villages. Strung along the Long Island Sound, the small towns combine quiet coastal beauty and gobs of old-timey charm (think white-painted inns and cozy taverns).
Delaware: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge
You don’t have to be an avid birder to treasure this nature preserve. It’s one of the largest surviving tidal salt marshes in this part of the U.S., the boggy domain of bald eagles, snowy egrets, great blue herons, and other birds and animals.
Florida: Everglades National Park
A UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve, this watery 1.5 million-acre wilderness is home to extraordinary flora and fauna, including American crocodiles, manatees, otters, and wading birds. To see it, join an airboat tour, paddle the mangroves in a canoe or kayak, bike the popular Shark Valley Tram Road, or set out on the flat Anhinga Trail through a seagrass marsh.
Georgia: Cumberland Island
It’s hard to imagine a place better suited to peace seekers, bird-watchers, and even history fans than car-free Cumberland Island. Development on the Georgia barrier island is limited to the stately Greyfield Inn, and the rest of the nearly 10,000 acres is congressionally protected nature. When you’re not strolling the driftwood-strewn beaches, you can kayak the quiet waterways and stop by the Gilded Age-era Dungeness ruins.
Hawaii: Nāpali Coast
The Earth’s wrinkles are on spectacular display along Kauai’s Nāpali Coast, where sheer, fluted sea cliffs (pali) plummet into the Pacific. The only land access is the strenuous 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which follows the jagged, jade-colored coast’s gulches and valleys. The first two miles are a popular day hike; beyond that, a permit is required. This is considered one of the world’s most dangerous treks, though helicopter tours are another way to see the exquisite terrain.
Idaho: Sawtooth National Forest
Four mountain ranges and four major rivers collide in Sawtooth National Forest, a 2.1 million-acre great-outdoors paradise whose landscape has remained virtually unchanged since Lewis and Clark explored it in 1805. The forest is home to dozens of 10,000-plus-foot peaks, hundreds of sparkling alpine lakes, and more than 3,000 miles of gushing streams, as well as grassy meadows, sagebrush flats, and pine and aspen woods. Manners of exploration are as vast as the land itself and include backpacking, rafting, skiing, and mountain climbing.
Illinois: Cache River State Natural Area
You might think you’re deep in a Louisiana bayou in this bald cypress and tupelo swamp, the northernmost of its kind in the U.S. Explore the nearly 12,000 acres of wetlands by kayak, canoe, or foot via the park’s trails and boardwalks. Some of the cypresses you’ll see are more than 1,000 years old, with massive flared bases that exceed 40 feet around.
Indiana: Hemlock Cliffs
For the uninitiated, Indiana is full of surprises. It has the covered bridges and country lanes of Vermont, the sand dunes and lakeshore of Michigan, and fall foliage that could be taken for the Smokies. This box canyon within Hoosier National Forest is a terrific ravine- and waterfall-filled place that you probably wouldn’t associate with the heartland.
Iowa: Maquoketa Caves State Park
Avid explorers will be in their element at Maquoketa Caves State Park, where bluffs, miles of trails, and more than a dozen limestone caves await investigation. Some of the caves, such as the 800-foot Dancehall, can be walked through upright, while others require serious spelunking. Either way, bring a headlamp.
Kansas: Castle Rock Badlands
This quirky site is off the beaten path — literally. Located on private ranch land accessed by 4WD-demanding dirt roads, Castle Rock is a relic of an inland sea that once covered this part of the continent. The fragile, fossil-rich limestone pinnacles provide a near-shocking change of scenery from their Kansas prairie home.
Kentucky: Mammoth Cave
The longest known cave system on the planet is found below the wild hills of south-central Kentucky. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a vast (as in still-being-mapped vast) limestone network of cool caverns, cathedral-like rotundas, and claustrophobic crawl spaces. Lest you think a Mammoth Cave adventure is all below ground, the lushly forested park above it offers hiking and horseback riding, plus canoeing and kayaking on its two rivers.
Louisiana: Wild Azalea Trail
Bar-crawling in Louisiana may come to mind before forest hiking. At 31 miles, the Wild Azalea Trail is the longest in the state — expect peaceful scenery of pine trees, clear creeks, gentle hills, and maybe even wild horses. Time your trek to March or April to see the namesake pale pink flowers blanketing the countryside.
Maine: Acadia National Park
With its rocky shores, crashing surf, and coastal mountain hiking trails, Acadia National Park has a special place on Maine’s most beautiful places list. Get there via Coastal Highway U.S. 1 and you’ll incorporate one of our other contenders. Speaking of cars, drive to the Cadillac Mountain summit before dawn for the first glimpse of sunrise in the U.S. (most of the year, that is).
Maryland: Weverton Cliffs
Part of the famed Appalachian Trail, Weverton Cliffs is a switchback two-mile hike in South Mountain State Park. The reward for your effort? Views from 500 feet above the Potomac that include neighboring Virginia and West Virginia.
Massachusetts: Cape Cod National Seashore
This delicate chain of federally protected land is rich in natural appeal, including marshes, woodlands, wild cranberry bogs, windswept dunes, walking paths, and miles of sandy beaches. This is one of the last remaining blocks of Atlantic coastal pine barrens, a now-rare forest ecosystem teeming with animals and birdlife.
Michigan: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Out-of-staters might not equate Michigan with sandy beaches and striking sand dunes, but both are found along the state’s largely coastal boundaries — most notably, on the 35 miles of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This carved-by-glaciers shoreline is home to a beech-maple forest, scenic hiking and driving, and the immense namesake dunes rising high above Lake Michigan.
Minnesota: North Shore Scenic Drive
The North Shore is a road-tripper’s daydream. Many Minnesotans and Midwesterners drive this Lake Superior-adjacent route time and time again, hitting the four-tiered Gooseberry Falls, the precariously perched Split Rock Lighthouse, and the tallest waterfall in the state, High Falls (shared by the U.S. and Canada). And don’t miss World’s Best Donuts, a very important stop for cinnamon-sugar donuts and deep-fried “skizzles.”
Mississippi: Natchez Trace Parkway
Beauty and blacktop meet on the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile drive that crosses Mississippi like a pageant sash, following a Native American foot trail that goes back millennia. Instead of billboards and interstate exit signs, you’ll cruise past cypress swamps and meadows edged by black-eyed Susans and log fences, with lots of pull-over opportunities for picnics and nature walks.
Missouri: Ozark National Scenic Riverways
The spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork rivers anchor this national park. Swim, canoe, and fish in its crystal-clear waters and explore the area’s caves (more than 300 have been discovered so far, some only accessible by boat), trails, natural springs, and historic mills.
Montana: Going-to-the-Sun Road
Take the ride of your life on the white-knuckle Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 52-mile route that climbs above the clouds in Glacier National Park. Looking out the window takes a bit of bravery, but your prize is jaw-dropping views of alpine valleys, flowing rivers, and fields of wildflowers far below the surrounding peaks and ridgelines. The road crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass (elevation: 6,646 feet), where you can get out and hike Hidden Lake and Highline trails.
Nebraska: Toadstool Geologic Park and Oglala National Grassland
Nebraska’s native prairie land is thrown into splendid relief at Toadstool, a tract of unusual wind- and water-carved rock formations and vast fossil beds. Some rock layers contain tracks of animals long vanished from this part of the world, like rhinos and camels.
Nevada: Red Rock Canyon
Just 30 minutes from the LED skyline of Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon, named for its giant cliffs and craggy jumbles of yellow and red sandstone. The hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and scenic driving on offer here are a pretty amazing contrast to the gaming, buffet visits, and pool parties that define a typical Sin City getaway.
New Hampshire: Kancamagus Highway
Kancamagus Scenic Byway (“the Kanc”) may just be New England’s prettiest drive. Connecting the small towns of Lincoln and Conway, it meanders by the rocky gorges, waterfalls, swimming holes, campgrounds, and trailheads of White Mountain National Forest. Fall is a lovely time to make the journey, when foliage colors and moose sightings are at their peak. Just be sure to pack snacks and fuel up — there are no gas stations or businesses for some 30 miles.
New Jersey: Cape May
Cape May’s main claim to fame may be its late Victorian-era houses and hotels — some 600 structures in all — but this seaside resort town has non-architectural virtues as well. There are wineries, gardens, biodiverse wetlands, and, of course, end-of-a-peninsula beaches. Head to west-facing Sunset Beach at twilight for an amazing natural show over Delaware Bay.
New Mexico: Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
Millions of years of erosion have created this sci-fi, fantasy-like display of pinnacles, spires, and other weirdly wonderful bodies of weathered rock. This high-desert wilderness (read: no marked trails) is essentially the geologic record of a prehistoric coastal swamp where dinosaurs once roamed.
New York: Finger Lakes
Glacial force shaped this beautiful upstate landscape, leaving behind 11 long, skinny, finger-like lakes in its wake. The region is heaven in the summer, when visitors can choose between waterfall hiking (Watkins Glen and She-Qua-Ga Falls are popular stops), endless lake activities, and more wineries, vineyards, and breweries than you can shake a stick at.
North Carolina: Outer Banks
This remote stretch of North Carolina coastline has drawn pirates, colonists, and early aviators. Now, it’s the realm of beach lovers looking for peace, quiet, white sand, and salt air. Add in the barrier islands’ wild dunes (including the East Coast’s largest) and multiuse paths — it’s actually possible to bike the entire 100-plus-mile length of the Outer Banks — and you’ve got an amazing region for quaint coastal exploration.
North Dakota: Maah Daah Hey Trail
Hike, bike, or hop on a horse and ride through the remote scenery for which North Dakota is known. This 144-mile system is made up of nine trails with various lengths, difficulty ratings, and backdrops, from grassy prairies to dizzying badlands buttes. It’s a timeless American landscape, and the trail is aptly named for the Mandan phrase: “An area that will be around for a long time.”
Ohio: Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
You can pretend you’re in Victorian London in the Crystal Palace-evoking glass greenhouse that is the cornerstone of this botanical landmark. And its biomes and gardens might transport you to the desert, rain forest, and even the Himalayas.
Oklahoma: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Native grasslands, the ecosystem perhaps most powerfully entwined with our national identity, are on the decline. This protected preserve is the largest sweep of tallgrass prairie in the country, and the world. Here, you can see the American plains as they looked centuries ago, with herds of bison (about 2,500 of the shaggy-haired beasts roam freely) and swaths of purple prairie clover.
Oregon: Crater Lake
Crater Lake is evidence of the tectonic activity that’s eternally shaping the planet. A long-ago eruption formed a giant caldera, which filled with rain and snow over time. The gradual result is a deep lake (the deepest in the country, in fact) with intense blue waters and fantastic clarity. Crater Lake’s mountain setting atop the Cascade Range makes it even more hypnotic.
Pennsylvania: Appalachian National Scenic Trail at the Delaware Water Gap
The famous Delaware Water Gap area spans 70,000 acres (Pennsylvania and New Jersey), yet its namesake point is where the river carves through the rugged Kittatinny Mountain. See the Gap from Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT, to in-the-know hikers), which offers a clear view from Mount Minsi.
Rhode Island: Block Island
Fieldstone walls hemming in emerald-green fields, Victorian buildings, and dramatic cliffs lashed by the Atlantic — you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve been dropped on a distant British shore. Mosey around the island by bike or moped, visit the two begging-to-be-photographed lighthouses, and pop into a classic New England eatery — we like Block Island Oyster Bar and Grill for lobster bisque and daily-harvested local oysters.
South Carolina: Hilton Head Island Bike Trails
Wide, natural beaches may be a big draw, but Hilton Head locals and vacationers alike praise the island’s bike trail system for easy, breezy cruising (and for bypassing road traffic, which can be intense). The 85-mile, well-maintained network is easy to navigate and takes you to some of Hilton Head Island’s favorite spots, like Sea Pines Forest Preserve. A bike ride is especially lovely in the late afternoon, as the sun begins to set over the marshes.
South Dakota: Badlands National Park
Steep buttes, crystal-lined caves, granite spires, prairies, and ponderosa pine forests — speculating the most beautiful South Dakota place is hopeless, but the fossil-packed landscape of Badlands National Park must come close. Here, meadows meet whimsically eroded canyons and vibrant, layered hills. Drive Badlands Loop Road (Highway 240) and the perimeter route around the South Unit. Bonus points if you time your visit to the south-facing Pinnacles Overlook for sunset.
Tennessee: Cherokee National Forest
Lovers of the outdoors have their work cut out for them in Tennessee, especially its eastern edge. The 650,000-acre Cherokee National Forest has something for adventurers of every sort, whether you’re looking to tackle the Appalachian Trail or other backcountry treks, whitewater raft down Pigeon River, pitch a tent next to Watauga Lake, or witness the dazzling rhododendron summer bloom in the Roan Highlands.
Texas: Guadalupe Mountains
These mountains in windswept West Texas are the exposed tips of the 400-mile Capitan Reef, one of the best-preserved ancient reef systems in the world. Explore more than 80 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy nature walks through the Chihuahuan Desert to hardcore hikes to the “Top of Texas” (a.k.a. Guadalupe Peak, the state’s highest point).
Utah: Arches National Park
We’ll confess to paralysis by indecision here, such is the vast choice on offer (see: Grand Staircase-Escalante, Monument Valley, Bryce and Big Cottonwood canyons). Yet surreal Arches National Park gets the nod. Its natural sandstone arches, tall cliffs, and honeycomb rocks are like a 65-million-year chronicle of our planet. The scenery will leave you breathless — as will a stamina-requiring Fiery Furnace hike (ranger guidance or individual permit required).
Vermont: Mad River Valley
In the 1950s, the snowy ski resorts of Mad River Valley pulled the likes of the Kennedys and Hollywood VIPs. Its creviced mountains and charming small towns still make it a prime destination for all manner of outdoor and simple-pleasure pursuits, like hiking, maple- and cheese-tasting, shopping for crafts, and seeking local swimming holes, to name a few. Even just cruising Route 100 is a delight.
Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway’s “America’s Favorite Drive” tagline isn’t just a stroke of marketing genius. The 469-mile drive (shared by Virginia and North Carolina) takes you through some of the most stunning scenery in the southeastern U.S. One example? Natural Bridge, a 215-foot-tall “overpass” spanning 90 feet to connect solid limestone cliffs. Don’t forget good hiking shoes and your phone charger because there are hundreds of trails and photo opps.
Washington: Hurricane Ridge
This mountainous area within Olympic National Park packs the best features of Washington state into one enchantingly alpine package: snowy peaks, glassy lakes, grazing black-tailed deer in steep meadows, and thick evergreen forests.
West Virginia: New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
A highlight of West Virginia is the seemingly endless reserve of spectacular river ravines and mountain views. New River Gorge gets a special mention for its iconic bridge. With a 3,030-foot steel span that’s nearly 90 stories high, it will make your heart skip a beat.
Wisconsin: Apostle Islands
There’s so much to explore on the 20-plus islands that make up this archipelago. Hike through the wilderness, hop in a kayak, scuba dive to shipwrecks and underwater sea caves (Lake Superior really does look and feel more like an ocean), and check all eight lighthouses off your list.
Wyoming: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Even in a state that’s wall-to-wall with magnificent scenery, this site is a high point. The deep river gorge is a rumbling mass of natural beauty, with roaming wildlife (bison, elk, and even a grizzly crossing may make traffic come to a standstill), plunging waterfalls, and canyon walls made colorful by iron compounds.