Only two centuries ago, much of this rugged territory was a fledgling nation’s wildest frontier. For many more millennia, however, it has been the homeland of astoundingly diverse indigenous peoples, from the Navajo Nation to Alaska Natives to Native Hawaiians. Adventures in lost worlds and untouched wilderness are still possible in the western USA, but so are glitzy urban escapes and luxury resort vacations. It’s no exaggeration to say that you could spend a lifetime exploring this enormous region, but even one weekend is enough to get a quick look at just one of its most popular destinations, such as Las Vegas, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, or Waikiki Beach.
West of the mighty Mississippi River, the Plains roll across the belly of the continent through Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. These mainly agricultural and ranching states are the road-tripping vacationland of many American childhoods, especially North Dakota, with its Old West mining history and national parks and monuments like Mount Rushmore. In Oklahoma, Oklahoma City preserves cowboy and cowgirl culture, while Tulsa is where Art Deco architectural jewels stud the prairie.
Motoring west across the Great Plains, you’ll drive up against the jagged, sky-piercing Rocky Mountains, which run like a zipper down through most of the Mountain States, namely Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. This elevated region is a four-seasons playground for outdoors lovers. Some of the USA’s most vaunted national parks – Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier – are here, and so are famous luxury ski resorts like Aspen, Vail, and Jackson Hole. Colorado’s capital, Denver is the region’s busy and entertaining travel hub, and it’s not far from the outdoorsy college town of Boulder.
On and beyond the Colorado Plateau lie the great deserts and canyon country of the Southwest. Utah claims a ring of national parks, from Arches to Zion, with Moab as an adventure base camp. Arizona is famous most of all for the Grand Canyon, but also the red rocks of Sedona, posh resorts around Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tempe, and the Old West town of Tucson. In neighboring New Mexico, most visitors head straight for the arts centers of Santa Fe and Taos, north of quirky Albuquerque. Across the Hoover Dam from Arizona is Nevada, where the neon lights of casinos blaze in Las Vegas and Reno.
Farther west toward the Pacific Ocean are mountain ranges no less majestic than the Rockies – the Sierra Nevada and the volcanic Cascades, which cut through California and the Pacific Northwest, respectively. In California, you can stand underneath the world’s biggest trees in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, taste world-beating wines in Napa and Sonoma, and explore the urban grids of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego as you road trip along jaw-dropping coastal highways. Up in the Pacific Northwest, the states of Oregon and Washington are equally blessed with national parks, wild Pacific beaches, vineyards, islands, and the characterful cities of Portland and Seattle.
And we can’t forget about Texas, the Lone Star State, which hangs out on the meandering US border with Mexico. Tex-Mex food, 10-gallon hats, and smokin’ barbecue are just the beginning of the multicultural story of this state, which sprawls across a territory bigger than France. Chase tumbleweeds down Route 66, the USA’s “Mother Road,” in Amarillo. Take a dip at hot springs in Big Bend National Park or in cool swimming holes in Texas Hill Country. Stroll by the river in San Antonio and laze on the Gulf beaches of Corpus Christi and South Padre Island. Go glam in Dallas, listen to live music and help keep Austin weird, or go discover contemporary art in offbeat Marfa.
Flung far away from the U.S. mainland are Alaska and Hawaii, the last two states to join the union in 1959. Alaska, calling itself “the Last Frontier,” is not only the USA’s biggest state, but it also has more wilderness than all the rest. Spectacular Alaskan national parks that are less than a day’s drive from Anchorage include Denali, home of the USA’s tallest mountain, and Kenai Fjords, where boats take visitors to watch glaciers calve. Even more remote from the rest of the country, Hawaii is a tropical archipelago that feels as Polynesian as it does American. Stay at a chic Waikiki beach resort while you explore laid-back Honolulu and circle around O‘ahu, or go island hopping to the most popular Neighbor Islands – Maui, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i (the Big Island) – to find more beaches, surfing, and volcanoes.
To browse all of the places you could visit during your sojourn in the western USA, see our handy Where to Go page.