Things to Do in the West to Complete Our American Bucket List
With the Great American Bucket List, we bring you the best of the United States by naming the one thing you must do in each state during your lifetime. This edition: things to do in the West. (See our picks for the Midwest, the East Coast, and the South.)
ALASKA | Denali National Park and Preserve
Standing at a sky-scraping 20,310 feet, Alaska’s Denali—known as Mount McKinley until President Barack Obama restored its Native American name—is the country’s tallest mountain. You can see it from a distance at Denali National Park and Preserve, but for a truly unforgettable experience, book a “Denali flightseeing” tour on an airplane or helicopter and zoom over the snow-capped peak and untouched wilderness.
- Best time to visit: Late spring. The crowds are smaller than in summer, and temperatures are still relatively warm.
- Animals you might see: Grizzly and black bears, caribou, moose, and Dall sheep
- Driving time to Anchorage: about four hours
ARIZONA | The Grand Canyon
Few places are as closely tied to Americana as the Grand Canyon. Nearly five million people come to gape at the mile-deep natural wonder each year. The combination of blue skies and vibrant red rocks makes for postcard-worthy views at every turn.
- Hitch a ride: Take the free shuttle—parking can be hard to come by, especially in summer.
- Get a close-up: with a Grand Canyon mule ride, a 4-mile tour along the canyon's rim.
- Where to stay: The Courtyard Flagstaff sits in the foothills of the San Francisco Peaks, about 80 miles south of the park.
CALIFORNIA | Golden Gate Bridge
If each state were an artist, the Golden Gate Bridge would be California’s pièce de résistance, an art-deco beauty linking the San Francisco Peninsula to Marin County. Walking the Golden Gate Bridge is a California rite of passage—the views are especially lovely with the Pacific Ocean or downtown San Francisco as a backdrop.
- Best photo op: The scenery from the Presidio, the park south of the bridge, is hard to beat.
- Must-do activity: Walk to the bridge’s halfway point (it’s 1.7 miles long) to get an up-close look at the towers and sensational views of Alcatraz.
- Where to drink: Irish coffee was reportedly introduced to Americans at the nearby Buena Vista Cafe.
COLORADO | Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Colorado tourism is dominated by the Rockies and ski resorts, and few know about the deserts in the state’s southern half. Great Sand Dunes National Park, featuring North America’s highest dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is the whimsical complement to the snowy peaks in Colorado’s north.
- Must-do activity: If you’ve mastered snowboarding, challenge yourself and go sandboarding. Special sleds allow thrill seekers to careen down the dunes.
- When to go: Summer, when it’s warm enough to go sandboarding
- Best photo op: During the hike to Zapata Falls, you’ll come across a panoramic view of the dunes.
HAWAII | Surfing Waikiki
Hawaii native Duke Kahanamoku popularized surfing globally in the early 20th century, and famous Waikiki Beach is still one of the best spots for the sport. The gorgeous, palm-studded beach has gone from the selective retreat of 19th-century Hawaiian royalty to one of the world’s most popular stretches of sand.
- Where to get lessons: Big Wave Dave Surf Co., which offers group and private sessions
- When to go: Early spring or late fall should provide the best breaks.
- Eat like a local: Get the mixed plate lunch (meat with macaroni salad and two scoops of rice) at Rainbow Drive-In.
IDAHO | Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Experience the closest thing to walking on the moon (minus weightlessness) on this lava field stretching across more than 600 square miles. Climb inside a cavern or to the summit of a cinder cone created by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.
- History: Apollo 14 astronauts studied the landscape to prepare for their journey to the moon.
- What to bring: A telescope for stargazing; night skies are darker here than in many parts of the country, thanks to less light pollution.
- Where to stay: Hilton Garden Inn Idaho Falls is set along the Snake River, near a scenic waterfront trail.
MONTANA | Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park
Montana’s Glacier National Park boasts one of the most unforgettable drives in North America: the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile route that takes you deep into the park’s otherwise untamed wilderness. Following a curvy mountainside path, drivers come upon one spectacular scene after another, including snow-capped summits, waterfalls, meadows, Jackson Glacier, and the majestic Saint Mary Lake.
- Best time to visit: Summer. That’s the only time the entire road is open.
- Thing to bring: Hiking gear—you’ll want to get out and explore along the way.
- Where to stay: If you’re not spending the night in the park, drive southwest to the city of Kalispell.
NEVADA |Fremont Street in Las Vegas
The Las Vegas Strip is certainly something to behold. But for a taste of the classic glitz that put the city on the map in the Rat Pack’s heyday, you’ll want to visit Fremont Street downtown. It’s seven blocks’ worth of casinos, racy shows, and flashing neon—including the famous 40-foot-tall cowboy nicknamed Vegas Vic. It’s a salute to sensory overload as only Vegas can do it.
- Where to stay: The best hotels are on the Strip.
- Getting there: A cab ride from the Strip should set you back about $30.
- Traveling with kids?: Maybe pick a more family-friendly option instead.
NEW MEXICO | Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
Every October, hundreds of balloons take to the sky over Albuquerque as part of a nine-day festival that attracts nearly one million visitors. Talk to balloonists from around the world, watch them soar, and even take a ride yourself for a one-of-a-kind view of the gorgeous desert landscape.
- Best photo op: Capture the Balloon Glow during twilight hours; submit your best pic for a chance to win prizes.
- Inside tip: Arrive as early as 4 a.m. for weekend events to nab an ideal spot.
- Where to eat: The festival has more than a third of a mile of concessions.
OREGON | Portland Saturday Market
For a concentrated dose of Portland’s famously offbeat character, spend a day at the Portland Saturday Market, the largest continuously operating open-air craft market in the country. Every item at the market is sold by the person who made it. The colorful patchwork of art, food, and music comes together every Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine, from March through Christmas Eve.
- Number of booths: 252
- Food-cart cuisines: Thai, Lebanese, Polish, Greek, Hawaiian, Mexican, Guatemalan, American, and more
- Before or after: Grab a cup of coffee and walk along the Willamette River—it runs right along the east side of the market.
UTAH | Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Roll into Monument Valley and you might feel like you’re in an old Western. The valley, right on the Utah-Arizona state line, has served as the set for countless films, starting with the 1939 John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The otherworldly landscape of towering red mesas and buttes was also used to portray the surface of an alien planet in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- How high?: The sandstone formations can reach heights of 1,000 feet.
- Rave review: John Ford, director of Stagecoach and other Westerns, called it the “most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth.”
- Things to bring: Water, sunscreen, and a camera
WASHINGTON | Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands
Washington holds claim to the San Juan Islands, an archipelago just off the state’s northwest coast. The islands epitomize Pacific Northwest beauty, with views of rugged mountains and undulating hills covered in pines. Pods of migrating orcas pass through between May and October, making the scene even more majestic.
- Getting to the islands: Take the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes (about 80 miles north of Seattle).
- Choose your vehicle: Whale-watching excursions are available on vessels ranging from single-person kayaks to 100-foot boats.
- Where to stay: The Orcas Hotel overlooks the Orcas Island ferry landing and runs occasional specials on whale-watching tours.
WYOMING | Grand Prismatic Spring
The Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most iconic attractions in Yellowstone National Park. That’s really saying something for a place with soaring mountains, wild buffalo, and breathtaking canyons. Though Grand Prismatic is the third-largest hot spring in the world, it’s the eye-catching colors that really draw crowds.
- Best photo op: Hike the trail up to Picture Hill for an overhead shot.
- Nearby hike: The 2.5-mile trek to the 200-foot-tall Fairy Falls
- Wildlife spotting: Long traffic jams in the park are often due to animal sightings—keep your camera at the ready.
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