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All-American bucket list

Four riders on horseback trekking along the Grand Canyon.

Seeing the Grand Canyon from horseback. Photo by Dieter Weinelt.

From pine-covered mountains to grassy plains, from the dust of the desert to pure blue lakes – the U.S. has it all. All the ‘must-see’ entries on these lists will make you wonder at the glory of nature, marvel at the ingenuity of man, or just be a whole lot of fun.

1. See the Northern Lights

Green-colored northern lights above a snowy landscape Northern Lights near Bear Lake, Alaska.

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, is one of nature’s wonders. In the right conditions, moving waves of light will appear in the winter nighttime sky.

At certain times of year Alaska can be a safe bet to see the Northern Lights. The area around the city of Fairbanks is a renowned destination for hopeful sight-seers. Parts of Idaho, Maine, Minnesota and Michigan also see their fair share of the lights.

The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to hike over a glacier or up a mountain. Anywhere that is far north enough, with little light pollution and no cloud cover, can be ideal for seeing the lights during the long winter nights.

2. Visit the Grand Canyon

Panoramic view of the Grand Canyon The Skywalk viewpoint above the Grand Canyon. Photo by Veselina Dzhingarova.

The Grand Canyon is a bucket list essential for people the world over. It’s one of the greatest natural wonders of the world – if not the greatest – and it’s right here in the USA.

If you’re a fan of adrenaline rushes, you can paraglide over the canyon, go for a breath-taking helicopter ride, or try whitewater rafting down the Colorado River.

For those who want to experience this natural beauty at a slightly easier pace, the Skywalk provides a great platform from which to take in the view. Alternatively, you can access many viewpoints along the canyon with relative ease.

3. Go whale watching off the San Juan Islands

Orca whale surfacing near a rocky coastline An orca spotted off the coast of the San Juan Islands. Photo by Jeff Gunn.

The San Juan Islands of Washington State are a fantastic place to get a glimpse of the world’s biggest and most beautiful mammals. In ocean waters surrounding the islands live resident pods of orcas, plus migrating minke and humpback whales.

There are many different tour companies offering whale spotting around the 172 named islands and reefs in the San Juan archipelago. Nine out of ten times, you’re likely to spot a whale or pod when you embark on one of these exhilarating boat trips.

4. See a show on Broadway

Broadway at night Bright lights and the big city on Broadway. Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre.

The concrete jungle has just as much to offer as Mother Nature when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. New York is one the greatest cities in the world, thanks to its history, culture and vibrant night life.

Broadway is the heart and soul of theater – it doesn’t get any better than this. Complete your Big Apple experience with dinner and drinks. There’s an estimated 24,000 eateries in the city, incorporating every world cuisine, cooking style and budget imaginable, so you’ll be spoilt for choice.

5. Ride the world’s tallest rollercoaster

The tall vertical drop of the Kingda Ka rollercoaster The Kingda Ka rollercoaster is 456 ft tall. Photo by Chun Yip So.

Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park in Jackson, New Jersey, is home to the world’s tallest rollercoaster, the Kingda Ka. It previously held the title of tallest and fastest in the world – until the Formula Rossa coaster in Abu Dhabi outpaced it in 2010. But, reaching a speed of 128mph in 3.5 seconds, the Kingda Ka is still not exactly a slowpoke.

While this heart-pumping ride is a hair raising prospect, you certainly won’t ever forget it. If you’d rather keep both feet on the ground, Six Flags is still a fun family adventure with plenty of shopping, dining and entertainment to keep everyone happy.

6. See a rocket launched into space

A rocket launch in progress The MUOS 2 satellite is launched into space from Cape Canaveral.

If traveling to outer space is your dream, but not quite within your budget, the Kennedy Space Center could be the next best thing.

A visit to the Kennedy Space Center is unlike anything else – launches are still regularly happening from Cape Canaveral and members of the public can actually see the countdown happen. Watching a launch is included with general admission, but be aware there is a cancellation policy – after all, this isn’t just for tourists, it’s a real space mission and conditions must be perfect. For an extra cost, you can also have lunch with a real astronaut and ask them everything you’ve ever wanted to know about being in space.

7. Celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans

A brightly colored parade float during Mardi Gras A Carnival parade with traditional purple, yellow and green colors. Photo by Tulane Public Relations.

Mardi Gras is celebrated in many places around the world, but Mardi Gras in New Orleans has taken on a special status across the world as the center of Carnival. Though the tradition may be European in origin, New Orleans has certainly made this holiday its own.

Meaning ‘Fat Tuesday’, Mardi Gras marks the end of Carnival, a season of parades and festivities, and the beginning of Lent. Because Lent traditionally is a time of fasting and serious reflection, Mardi Gras is a last chance to let loose and party.

Parades and celebrations start up to a month before Mardi Gras and tend to lead up to the biggest and brightest festivities on the weekend just before. Mardi Gras is a family holiday too, and plenty of local parents take their kids to the daytime parades.

8. Eat real Texan barbecue

A chef cooking ribs and sausage over a BBQ pit A traditional BBQ pit at Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, Texas. Photo by vxla.

If the aim of your bucket list is to check off all those typically American experiences, a good old-fashioned Texan barbecue has got to be on that list. By smothering homegrown beef in sweet sauce and slowly cooking it over hickory wood.

They say ‘if you’re going to do it, do it right’, so why not go to Snow’s, an hour’s drive from Austin, which is often ranked by travel guides as the best barbecue restaurant in the whole of Texas. Of course, if you can’t make it to Snow’s, Texas has no shortage of authentic barbecue restaurants cooking up classic dishes such as beef ribs, brisket, and sausage. Just bring a healthy appetite.

9. Walk the Golden Gate Bridge

View of the Golden Gate Bridge Nearly three miles long, the bridge is a marvel of modern engineering.

Named as one of the wonders of the modern world, the Golden Gate Bridge truly is a testament to human ambition and skill. Opened in 1937, it is instantly recognizable as a symbol of the USA’s west coast.

Anyone can walk across the bridge for free, but tolls will apply if you’d rather cycle or drive. The walk is worth it though, as amazing panoramic views of the bay and the ocean make for perfect photo opportunities. You can also see Alcatraz, the notorious island prison, from the bridge, and if you happen to be visiting around New Year, you can see a spectacular fireworks display light up the bridge’s distinctive silhouette.

10. Visit New England in the fall

Bright fall foliage reflected in a lake Fall at Morey Pond, Connecticut. Photo by Anthony Quintano.

New England has some of the most glorious, colorful fall foliage in the USA, if not the world. A combination of the right kind of trees, good soil, sunny days and chilly nights means that come September, New England turns gold and red.

Thanks to the beautiful natural scenery of these six states, opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor pursuits are in good supply. However, New England is also famous for its excellent cuisine, including lobster roll, apple cider, clam chowder, plus artisan breweries and vineyards. Connecticut, the furthest south of the New England states, even has a wine trail consisting of 25 vineyards.

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