Still, in our search for America’s best views, it was only natural to draw heavily from beautiful sites in the National Park system. Of course, we’re not alone in our desire to experience and celebrate views inside these protected areas: in 2013, nearly 300 million people sought inspiration in America’s 370 national parklands, including some 15 mllion who witnessed the iconic views in California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
But the best views in America not only showcase national parks. They incorporate the magic twinkle of city skylines, the fortitude of rocky coastlines, and breathtaking discoveries found on easy walks, rugged hikes, and scenic drives across the nation. Anyone who’s experienced the dramatic drops around Big Sur, CA, or basked in the glimmer of New York City’s skyline will certainly agree.
And uplifting views don’t necessarily start with tall buildings or plunging cliffs. Just ask anyone who’s witnessed the 360-degree panorama of nighttime lights on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Fortunately, the best views in America aren’t going anywhere. From canyons and coastlines to peaks and parks, Americans have a proud history of preserving their special places for future generations.
But that doesn’t mean you should wait to see them. Put these gorgeous spots on your bucket list and start making travel plans.
Battery Spencer, CA
The perfect place to gaze at the Golden Gate Bridge is Battery Spencer at Fort Baker in Marin County. Located on a 335-acre, former 1905 U.S. Army post, the splendid lookout is easily accessible by car or bike.
Insider Tip: This summer until Labor Day, the West Marin Stagecoach Route 61 will stop at Fort Baker on weekends and holidays.
The otherworldly landscape of Bryce Canyon’s towering sandstone hoodoos, natural arches, staircases, and canyons leaves an indelible impression no matter where you stand. Sunrise Point has incomparable views of the fire-hued, mostly limestone rock formations, which are the remnants of an ancient lake that covered western Utah. Visitors can take an easy hike from Sunrise Point to wander among the hoodoo giants along Queens Garden Trail.
Insider Tip: Unfortunately, the hoodoos are eroding (at a rate of two to four feet per 100 years), so see them while they’re still at maximum height. The park also offers nighttime hikes, stargazing, and ranger-guided rim walks.
The best advice for any first-time visitor to the nation’s capital is to start with a tour of the monuments on the National Mall—at night, when the marble structures resemble white beacons against a dark sky. There’s no more patriotic experience than to walk up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and see the powerful marble statue of Honest Abe in his chair next to the engraved words of his Gettysburg Address. From there, looking out over the Reflecting Pool, is the towering Washington Monument, with the ornate dome of the U.S. Capitol in the distance.
Insider Tip: Seeing the list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (located just off the Reflecting Pool) at night is a humbling experience.
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, HI
The Na Pali Coast is a bucket-list must with towering green spires, deep canyons, and perilous cliffs sloping into the sea. Those who have the stamina and time to hike the full 11-mile Kalalau Trail are in for one of the world’s most celebrated vistas. A shorter option is to hike two miles of the trail to Hanakapiai Beach.
Insider Tip: You can also enjoy Na Pali’s jutting green cliffs by helicopter, boat, or small plane. The expense is well worth it. Air tours also include the vast and colorful Waimea Canyon nearby.
Portland Head Lighthouse, ME
Rarely has a sentry been so iconic and beautiful.Portland Head lighthouse, in Cape Elizabeth, was commissioned by George Washington and first lit in 1791. It has helped guide boats into the Portland harbor ever since. Today’s lighthouse is the epitome of charm, with its white tower and the red-roofed keeper’s house set on a rocky shoreline.
Insider Tip: Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used to sip drinks with the lighthouse keeper, and Portland Head reportedly inspired his poem “The Lighthouse.”
Dog Mountain, Columbia River Gorge, WA
Hikers are rewarded with a visual feast after climbing Dog Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge: beautiful fields of wildflowers and the yawning expanse of the gorge, Mount Hood, and Mount Saint Helens volcano. Dog Mountain is 16 miles from Hood River—a great town to enjoy dinner afterward.
Insider Tip: The seven-mile loop hike takes about 5.5 hours and includes a 2,800-foot elevation gain—a real challenge for casual hikers. But you can choose from three routes—from quickest and steepest to longer and more moderate.
El Morro Fort, San Juan, P.R.
El Morro’s sentry boxes (or garitas) have served as lookouts over the blue Caribbean Sea for centuries. Built by Spain 68 years before America’s Jonestown settlement, this Puerto Rican fort has withstood Dutch and British invaders and even a missile launched by a U.S. warship in the Spanish-American War. The best time for photos is sunset.
Insider Tip: As a National Historic Site, El Morro is Old San Juan’s most recognized destination in a city that charms with cobblestoned streets, the Hotel El Convento, and Juan Ponce de León’s home, La Casa Blanca.
Schwabacher Landing, Grand Teton, WY
One of the best places to capture the Tetons in all their glory is along the Snake River at Schwabacher Landing. This plum photography spot is located 16 miles north of Jackson, east of Highway 89. Take the small gravel road on the left until it dead-ends; the viewpoint is a short walk. You’ll know you’re there when you see it—and you’ll never forget it.
Insider Tip: Look for the area’s abundant wildlife, including beaver, otter, antelope, coyote deer, and soaring eagles.
Mather Point, Grand Canyon, AZ
If there were ever a place you’d want to turn into a bird, it would be at Mather Point, on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim: the yawning, mile-deep, 277-mile-long opening is so vast, you could glide over it forever. Thankfully,Grand Canyon National Park has gone to great lengths to improve the infrastructure around popular Mather Point to ease congestion. There’s easier road access, expanded parking, and also a viewing platform, amphitheater, and visitors’ center.
Insider Tip: After Mather Point, enjoy some or all of the nine other lookouts that are accessible using the free shuttle bus.
Kerry Park, Seattle
It’s not unusual to find photographers standing together at Kerry Park waiting for the sunset to cast its glow across Seattle. The view encompasses the Space Needle, downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the ferries floating by, along with Mount Rainier and Bainbridge Island in the distance.
Insider Tip: Parking can be limited, but it’s well worth the search.
Glacier Point, Yosemite, CA
What makes Yosemite so riveting is its breadth and variety of magnificent sites. First, Glacier Point provides the best view of towering Half Dome—the perfectly halved, naked granite mountain that rises 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Visitors will enjoy watching rock climbers try to conquer the herculean El Capitan, the world’s largest granite monolith, which can best be seen from Yosemite Village. Other sites include Cathedral Rocks, the 500 giant sequoia trees in Mariposa Grove, and famous Horsetail Falls, which reddens when illuminated by the setting sun.
Insider Tip: Yosemite is open all year. Reservations are a must if you plan to stay overnight in lodges or campsites.
Upper Deck, PNC Park, Pittsburgh
Lots of baseball parks have been built or refurbished to boost fan interest. But Pittsburgh’s classically styled PNC Park, home of the Pirates, dazzles from almost every seat. In fact, the upper-deck seats are just 88 feet from the field. But best of all, if the game lulls, at least the fans can count on being charmed by the magnificent view of Pittsburgh’s skyline, waterfront, and the yellow Roberto Clemente Bridge.
Insider Tip: On game days, the bridge is closed to vehicles, allowing pedestrians crossing over the Allegheny River an unfettered stroll to the game.
Big Sur, CA
Big Sur is loosely defined as the Central California Coastal area between Carmel and San Simeon. Highway 1 is the place to put the top down, crank up the radio, and delight in the sight of the coast’s plunging cliffs and wild surf. Often there’s an abundance of wildflowers gracing the hillsides, along with impressive, ancient coastal redwood trees. The chance of spotting whales swimming by, or condors and eagles flying overhead, simply adds to the magic.
Insider Tip: Check out the purple sand and massive Keyhole Rock, on Pfeiffer Beach, located on Sycamore Canyon Road.
Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas Strip
One of the best panoramic vistas of the Las Vegas strip is 460 feet above ground in the Eiffel Tower. Las Vegas isn’t shy about glitz, and the fact that there is an Eiffel Tower shows that there’s nothing this city can’t or won’t do.
Insider Tip: The Eiffel Tower is a half-size replica of the real thing, but it costs as much as $16.50 to ride up.
Merriam Point, Crater Lake, OR
Located 60 miles from Klamath Falls, Crater Lake is a blue mirror of perfection. In the spring, its Rim Drive opens for drives, cycling, and hikes. During winter weekends, rangers lead snowshoe hikes to the crater. Merriam Point edges out other terrific lookout spots, with panoramic views of mounts Scott and McLoughlin. Wizard Island sits serenely in the middle.
Insider Tip: Between August and October, hike the Cleetwood Cove Trail to reach the water for a swim or a boat tour.
George Parks Highway, Denali State Park, AK
If you remember your grammar school lessons, you’ll recall that Mount McKinley is North America’s highest mountain. Its original Tanana Indian name is Denali, which means “The High One.” The best place to enjoy views of the mountain and the other peaks in the Alaskan range is in Denali State Park, along the George Parks Highway at mile 135.2.
Insider Tip: Don’t let the views blind you to the abundance of wildlife in the park, which includes wolf, black bear, and flying squirrel.
Manhattan Skyline, Brooklyn Bridge Park
You’ll find the best view of lower Manhattan on the other side of the gothic-arched Brooklyn Bridge at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The entire waterfront park extends 1.3 miles along Brooklyn’s East River shoreline. In addition to providing plenty of subject matter for Nikons and iPhones, the park hosts outdoor movies, chess tournaments, basketball, exercise classes, and quiet places to relax.
Insider Tip: Pier 1 is accessible by subway, bus, and ferry.
St. Mary Lake, Glacier National Park, MT
There are more than 700 miles of trails winding through mountains, meadows, and forests in Glacier National Park, so picking one spot isn’t easy. St. Mary Lake provides jaw-dropping views of Red Eagle Mountain and its surrounding peaks, which are reflected in the water.
Insider Tip: Enjoy the Native American Speaks program at the St. Mary Visitor Center, which features art, drumming, and dancing by members of the Blackfeet, Salish, and Kootenai tribes.
Cliff Walk, Newport, RI
Where else can you stroll with mansions on one side and the ocean breeze on the other? Newport’s Cliff Walk is a well-marked, 3.5-mile National Recreation Trail that starts at Memorial Boulevard and Easton’s Beach. Much of it is paved and wide, but there are rocky and uneven portions. The path ends at Bellevue Avenue and Bailey’s Beach.
Insider Tip: The Cliff Walk is a pedestrian path. Don’t ride your bike, skateboard, or Segway on it. The northern portion of the walk is wheelchair accessible.
Formerly known as the John Hancock Observatory, the view from 360 Chicago’s 1,000-foot-high perch allows sweeping views of Lake Michigan, four neighboring states, and Chicago’s dazzling downtown. Its new Tilt attraction angles visitors outward 30 degrees from the building to provide a hair-raising view of the street below.
Insider Tip: There are a variety of pricing options; using a Chicago CityPASS ticket will save you money. Tilt is $5 extra.
Badlands National Park, SD
At Badlands, you’ll find the world’s richest fossil beds, but it’s where the jagged peaks meet the sky that captures view-seekers. At night, a vast, sparkling carpet of stars will provide awestruck visitors with a headful of questions and dreams. Rangers host stargazing programs at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater on Friday through Monday nights.
Insider Tip: Located about 84 miles east of Rapid City, SD, Badlands’s Ben Reifel Visitor Center will show you the best hiking trails for jagged cliff views and wildlife.
Lookout Ledge, NH
Enjoy the crisp aroma and full vista of a fall foliage hike. New England offers endless options, of course, but one of the best is New Hampshire’s Lookout Ledge—a quick 1.3-mile, forested walk up to a slab of rock on the side of Mount Randolph. From there you’ll enjoy a cornucopia of color along with views of King Ravine, mounts Adams and Madison, and the peaks of the Carter Range.
Insider Tip: The small town of Gorham offers inexpensive, guided hikes.