If America knows how to do one thing, it’s sweep the international competition when it comes to absolutely breathtaking, awe-inspiring landscapes. Few other places on earth have the same geographic range as the fifty states, where you can find everything from sweltering deserts to mossy rainforests to unending tundras; from coast to coast, it isn’t hard to find a vista that’ll leave you in total reverence of what Mother Nature can do.
Among the states, naturally, there’s bound to be some sibling rivalry. States who think their granite mountains are better than someone else’s red-rock deserts, or whose bone-white beaches surely beat out thousand-year-old redwoods. Well, we’re here to settle the debate. We assembled a crew of writers who combined has visited every state, and then set about arguing, weighing the variety, quantity, concentration, highlights, and lowlights of every state’s physique.
We independently ranked the states, then came together around a table to debate the discrepancies and to plead for the divisive cases, of which there were several. How do you pick, after all, between desert vs. mountains? Mountains vs. lakes? Lakes vs. forests? Forests vs. seashore? Seashore vs. glaciers? Glaciers vs. orchards? There was no right answer… until we decided there was.
Kansans are a resilient lot, able to find happiness in life’s simple pleasures. Their landscapes, which emphasize the latter half of “Great Plains,” encourage this enviable character. If Kansans can love their land, no one else has any excuses not to love the bejesus outta theirs.
At its top edge, Dunes National Lakeshore offers a crackling little playground and views of Lake Michigan. Near its southern border, Indiana’s hilly contours give towns like Bloomington an idyllic feel. In between, though? There’s not a lot to recommend, aside from summertime drives, and discovering the soothing, almost hypnotizing allure of watching corn flash past your window at 60mph.
This largely featureless Midwestern state compensates in the most effective way possible: plugging dozens of beautiful skyscrapers along Lake Michigan. Yet outside Chicago, you can still find dramatic vistas in Illinois—the knobby sandstone formations of the Garden of the Gods in the state’s southern tail, for one. And do scope those beautiful Mississippi River views along that long meandering western border.
Iowa may be flat as hell and, well, kinda boring. But it supports a lot of green living things, and it sure looks nice when the lights go down. Iowa sunsets never get old.
A certain type of person could protest this low ranking because Oklahoma at least brings its share of variety. That panhandle stretches out and kisses New Mexico on the cheek, the southern edge is perfect for reading Larry McMurtry scenes, and the eastern edge along the Arkansas border is a surprisingly diverse mix of electric-green hills and jungly mid-American forests. Suffice it to say that Oklahoma is probably prettier than you expect—but then again, your expectations were low for a reason.
Right now hundreds of Mississippians are reading this and saying, “Holy cow! There’s a state ranking where we’re NOT in the bottom five!” Thank your lucky stars for that funky, frolicsome Gulf Coast, Mississippi. Your lovely magnolias and charming Southern foliage notwithstanding, you’re 21 miles of undeveloped white sandy beach and some pristine swamps away from being the Indiana of the South.
High in the middle and round on the ends, Ohio has an honestly fair reputation as flat and forgettable. But the hilly southern part of the state is prettier than people realize; it does border Kentucky and West Virginia, after all. And while no one would mistake the southern shore of Lake Erie for Big Sur, Ohio’s nearly 300 miles of Great Lake coastline offer outstanding open-water vistas from the tops of roller coasters.
Sleep on Nebraska’s subtle beauty if you want, but its big skies and rolling hills have a thoroughly pleasant and peaceful charm. As impressive as Toadstool Geologic Park (Nebraska’s Badlands!) and Chimney Rock are, the Cornhusker State doesn’t have the spectacular vistas of its neighbors to the west. What it does have is open spaces, the Platte River, and a complex and important ecosystem where literally millions of birds—including 80% of the world’s sandhill cranes—visit every spring.
It’s tough for Missouri—which borders five states that have already appeared in the bowels of this list—to distinguish itself. The great sprawling center of the state is a less agriculturally fatigued transition between Illinois and Kansas. But that southern third or so is a delight. The ruddy hills of the Lake of the Ozarks area (population: Branson) are terrific for winding drives and trout-fishing trips. Further east, Missourians enjoy their forests and rivers as playgrounds. The curious rocky outcroppings around the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park swimming holes and the lazy tube-floats on the Current River are exemplars. They’re almost spookily litter-free, evidence that Missourians appreciate what they have.
41. New Jersey
Look, even if New Jersey hadn’t gone and covered the bulk of the state with jug handles and suburban sprawl, it still wouldn’t be a stunner. But then it did go and litter the state with freeways, develop the beaches to the breaking point, and come down with a case of 114 superfund sites—more than any other state. That said, if you can manage to escape the sprawl, many parts of the state are lovely, with rolling hills and glacial lakes, nice beaches, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area—a truly beautiful and underappreciated stretch of earth that NJ shares with Pennsylvania.
40. North Dakota
For some reason—maybe some combination of fracking, the Coen brothers, and January—the words “North Dakota” have become synonymous with “frozen wasteland.” Which isn’t completely inaccurate when discussing some parts of this state, but lest we forget that it’s also home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a breathtaking mix of prairies, mesas, and mountain views dotted with buffalo. And kind of like the younger child constantly being compared to their older sibling, North Dakota doesn’t get proper credit when compared to its beautiful sister state to the south.
Want to surprise someone? Send them a postcard from Delaware. “I never knew Delaware was that pretty,” they’ll say, looking at a silhouette of dune grasses framed by an ocean sunset. Actually, no one does, because Delaware’s not large enough to hold more than three cars at a time. But if you’re lucky enough to be in one of those three cars, you, too, can take in the rolling rural countrysides and the not-half-bad beach views and say, “Delaware. Hi. I’m in Delaware.”
Though New Orleans (deservedly!) gets most of the love, there’s plenty to do in Louisiana outside of its cities: the fishing’s great, the duck hunting is world-class, and the airboat rides amid alligator-infested cypress trees are not to be missed. But its position at the bottom of the Mississippi doesn’t do its beaches or wetlands any favors, and when the highest natural point in the state is only twice as high as the Superdome, you’re going to be stuck with a lot of scenery that ducks are in the best position to appreciate.
Poor Connecticut (not literally, of course). Not only will most New Englanders disavow it for its close ties to New York—”half the state is Yankees country!”—but it also came out as the runt among the region’s hill-and-valley idyll. Most of the state is flat, and although it’s got some quaint towns along the coast, and comely streams further inland towards the Berkshires, nondescript suburbs and urbanized areas are the norm. Plus, at this point in its march towards the ocean, even the mighty Connecticut River has lost some steam (and picked up flotsam in Hartford and Springfield).
Though most Gulf Coast states are a flat, green expanse of humidity and pine trees, Alabama actually has some pretty elevation in the central part of the state around Birmingham. Add this to the white sand beaches of the Redneck Riviera and you’ve got a state that rarely gets its due. Unspectacular? Maybe. But as far as nature and comfort food goes, you can’t do much better.
It’s got hills and Amish buggies and pleasant forests that in the fall molt into spectacular golds and yellows and oranges. But for Pennsylvania’s size, it lacks that “wow” factor. It’s a densely populated eastern state minus the redeeming coastline. It’s got a nice piece of the Appalachians, but not so impressive a piece as its neighbors. And, yes, you can ski the Poconos if you really don’t feel up to going somewhere better. But like so many of the features here, you’d trade up, given the option.
34. Rhode Island
For such a tiny state, Rhode Island does relatively well for itself, on average. Lots of folks will joke that half of its area is made up of beaches, and they’re honestly not too far off—Block Island has some lovely ones, and sea cliffs/bluffs there and in Newport add to the state’s nautical charm. But it’s got the deck stacked against it: there just isn’t enough room in Rhode Island for anything truly grand, the Breakers aside. It’s just a shame that nature didn’t build them.
If you live in Florida, the most beautiful sight you’ll ever see is when you cross the state line into Georgia and see gas prices drop a buck a gallon. Past that? There ain’t much. Aside from the quaint Southernness of trees draped in Spanish moss and untouched beaches in the southern part of the state, the scenic highlight is the “mountains” north of Atlanta. Which seem downright towering when you’ve been driving through Florida, but still don’t measure up to the Smokies or the Appalachians a few hours down the road.
32. New Hampshire
If we’re being honest, New Hampshire lost its most glorious sight a few decades back when the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed. (No, we’re still not over it.) Yet its profile remains relatively strong: it’s home to the White Mountains’ grand Presidential Range, dramatically carved flume gorges, notches, big lakes like Winnipesaukee, and sprawling valleys of farmland near the Canadian border. It’s just a shame that the southern part of the state looks so much like suburban Connecticut, but with fewer liquor stores.
Culturally, this state can never decide whether it’s part of the Midwest, the South, or Appalachia. Geographically, it doesn’t care, because it rocks the highlights of all those regions: the pocky hollers and mountain views in the east, 400-mile-long Mammoth Cave, and an abundance of rolling, grassy hills. You can still find family tobacco farms on the back roads, but the most distinct part of the landscape is that symbiosis between horses and luminous pastures. People here swear they can see the grass glint blue (hence—you guessed it—bluegrass). Whatever color, it all makes you want to stop and marvel.
30. South Carolina
Arguably, the most picturesque part of South Carolina is also the most popular: Charleston. But since this is a ranking of natural beauty, not charming colonial architecture, the highlight of the state is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, home to the 420ft Raven Cliff Falls in Caesars Head State Park and some of the best scenic overlooks in the South. The coastal beaches are pleasant and calming as well, and you cannot beat a sun-dappled drive through the low country under a canopy of moss-draped live oak.
It’s hard to say anything necessarily bad about Maryland since it’s got all the aspects of scenery you look for in a state. The mountainous west is almost an extension of West Virginia with dramatic green hills and blooming fall colors. Along the Atlantic beaches and the tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, the state has 600 miles of coastline—almost double what Texas has on the Gulf of Mexico—while the pastoral farmland and vineyards along the eastern shore in Talbot County rounds out the idyll.
Topographically, Massachusetts is the crossroads of New England. Its neighbors to the south are comparatively nondescript, and its neighbors to the north are far more rugged (both in geography and the boot-leather character of their citizens). Still, Massachusetts has its draws—the Cape Cod National Seashore has long attracted artists for the quality of its sunsets, and the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley showcase some of the nation’s best fall foliage. But Massachusetts also has Middlesex County, which, contrary to its name, is actually pretty low in sexiness.
There are benefits to being a hermit kingdom. The southeast half of the state isn’t much to behold unless you’re into swamps, pastures, rice fields, and the same fungible pine forests you’ll find in Mississippi and Georgia. Heading north, though, you find hills that conceal caves, creeks, and gullies, and which every so often will reveal a flat slab where you can slouch and soak in a sunset (or, perhaps, soak in a hot spring). The Buffalo River, the first designated national river in the country, remains one of the rare undammed American rivers of any consequence. And the Ouachita Mountains in the southwest amble endlessly, pocked with springs and towns just big enough to support a gas station where you can outfit yourself for a few days of floating or camping.
Most people know Nevada as “Las Vegas plus the let’s-floor-it portion of a road trip to California.” And, yes, the bulk of this state is so dusty and unremarkable that the military used to test nukes here without anyone really caring. But the highlights range from staggering to obscure. Red Rock Canyon, a mere Uber ride from the Vegas Strip, is a jaw-dropping haven of striated limestone and sandstone. The Ruby Valley is a foxy little patch of mountains that’ll break up any trip across I-80. The swirling cream-and-crimson rock formations of Valley of Fire State Park look like Dr. Seuss drew them. And of course, there’s Lake Tahoe and Death Valley National Park. The bulk of both technically being in California, but, hey, bright side, you made it.
25. South Dakota
Heading into the top half of this list, things get really competitive. If you’re wondering how the heck a freaking DAKOTA made it this far, you’ve clearly never made a trip to the most underrated state in America. The scenery here is so much more than just a mountain with four dudes’ faces disrespectfully carved into it. It’s the entire Black Hills region, where you can in the morning hike to Harney Peak (the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees) and spend the afternoon hiking Spearfish Canyon. Or head a little further into the Badlands, that inaptly named Martian rockscape, with more vegetation and a greater variety of colors. Even the flatter eastern part of the state has places like Palisades State Park outside Sioux Falls, where Split Rock Creek meanders through 50ft quartzite cliffs. A trip here might have you wondering why it’s not ranked higher.
This US state might as well change its name to Canada Lite. Along the North Shore, you’ll find rugged lakeside cliffs lined with lighthouses and deep forests that conceal stellar hiking trails and waterfalls; come in the summertime, when the Boundary Waters offers some of the most sought-after fishing and canoeing in the upper prairie. The sheer, rugged Lake Superior shoreline gives another glimpse of raw North America, and the pocky glacial holes around Interstate State Park will remind you how far north you really are.
More than prairies and dairies. You could wander 800 miles along the shores of Lakes Superior and Michigan, not including the 15,000-odd lakes scattered around the rest of the state. (Yes, that’s more than Minnesota’s Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.) The state lacks a single grand, signature natural feature that you just gotta go see, though the Apostle Islands are one-of-a-kind and you’ll be hard-pressed to find country more pleasant than Door County. But to truly appreciate Wisconsin’s full array of cliffs, forests, water, and the occasional natural stone bridge, take the 1,200-mile-long Ice Age Trail that winds through the state like a tapeworm. Glaciers left these lakes and boulders for you to enjoy, so you might as well use ’em.
Texas is so damn big it can’t help but have some standout sights along the way: Big Bend National Park, its extraordinary night skies, and the sweeping desert beauty of West Texas beyond, Hill Country in springtime, the open lap of the American West stretching off to the horizon. What it doesn’t have is anything that is, in fact, the best in its category. There’s better Western scenery as you go farther west, better forests anywhere east, better beaches in any direction ‘cept straight north. But give Texas its due. Anything you’d want to take in (save snow-capped mountains) really is all here, and if you break free of the cities, the open roads here feel as open and free as anywhere.
Though the beaches here might not be showing up in any Corona ads, the ones in the Hampton Roads are some of the nicest and widest on the Eastern Seaboard, and probably the least-appreciated scenery in the commonwealth. The rolling hills and wine country of Central Virginia are a big part of why they say “Virginia Is for Lovers.” And a trip down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park might be the best leaf-peeping drive in America.
Read the state left to right, and it just keeps getting better: from the top of the Delta in the west, across the hills and pastures of the central third, to the crescendo of mountain vistas that announce your arrival in the Smoky Mountains. Since this landlocked eastern state packs this much variety, you can pretty much pick any highway, turn off the first time you see a state park sign, and feel like you’ve hit the scenic jackpot.
19. West Virginia
You may not mean to drive to it, but you’ll never forget driving through it. A favorite of base jumpers for its gorgeous gorges and outdoorsy types come to ogle America’s newest national park, West Virginia’s scenery is full of unbroken, rolling old hills and rivers spilling down limestone. The Monongahela National Forest exemplifies the forested, rocky terrain that kids from Maine to Missouri grew up clambering through. One of the most overlooked corners of the country evokes the best parts of the eastern half of the continent.
Tough call with Florida, where people dredged the flat swamplands that once defined the state, built hundreds of miles of artificial beaches, then lined those beaches with ugly condos, big-name hotels, and the Florida Men (and spring breakers) that come with both. Still, we’d be remiss to ignore the obvious beauty dealt out by sites like the underwater paradise that is Biscayne National Park, the palm tree and white sand-lined waters of the Keys, and even the pretty nice swamplands in Big Cypress National Preserve. Clean up your act a little, Florida, and you may rank higher next time around.
17. New York
New York State is too often defined by New York City. Too bad, ’cause the wilder reaches of the state rivals the diversity of almost any other. Consider: New York has three coasts (Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the Atlantic) and two distinct mountain ranges (the Catskills and the Adirondacks). It claims a slice of Lake Champlain and all of the Finger Lakes. Plus the prettier half of Niagara Falls—there’s a reason the best views come when you stand on the Canadian side. Conservation is an ongoing battle in New York, but the state has done an admirable job of securing natural spaces for wildlife and wild people to enjoy. The Empire State has more publicly owned land by percentage than any state east of the Mississippi and is No. 1 in the country for percentage of land owned by the state itself. (Thanks, New York City tax base!)
Quick: what states contain a piece of Yellowstone? Most people will name Wyoming and Montana, but Idaho also claims a slice of the national park pie. Surprises like that lay all across Idaho, which is arguably America’s most under-appreciated state for scenery. The Sawtooth Mountains have some of the best mountain biking in America, while the snow-capped peaks at Coeur d’Alene make it a world-class skiing destination. And all the state’s beauty is best taken in with a trip down the Snake River, winding through mountains and scenic meadows.
Maine residents know they’ve got some of the best natural scenery in the Northeast and are totally content with you just sticking to the Portland area to eat lobstah so there’s more room up north for them. In addition to possessing some of the most breathtaking coastline in America (with thousands of jagged islands offshore bringing the total mileage of pebbly beach to over 3,000), Maine’s got the gorgeous Acadia National Park, Mount Katahdin (the tip of the Appalachian Trail), and countless acres of dense wilderness and rugged seashore for the L.L. Bean types (it’s basically, like, their uniform up there).
14. New Mexico
The fine cinematographers from Breaking Bad made this state a stunning backdrop for making crystal meth. But even without the dilapidated trailers in the foreground, the desert scenery here is absolutely breathtaking. The red rock cliffs and sprawling mesas make a road trip through New Mexico feel a lot shorter than the 375 miles that I-40 actually spans across the state. Northern New Mexico boasts the mountains of Taos, giving that part of the state a look more Colorado than Arizona; head south, and you’ll hit the dramatic Organ Mountains before arriving at White Sands National Park, one of the most distinct—and arresting—pieces of earth in the lower 48.
This famously sparsely populated state is covered in rolling green hills, all of which seem to have clear mountain streams, lakes, and tiny villages huddled around them. (God forbid you visit during the height of fall, when the red and gold foliage makes the scenery almost painfully beautiful.) From the sunset shores of Lake Champlain to the misty rivers of St. Johnsbury, you’d be hard pressed to find a place in Vermont that didn’t look like it popped out of a calendar. Of course, it is the only state in New England without any ocean coastline, and even Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s can only make up so much for that.
12. North Carolina
The most beautiful state on the East Coast? Hard to argue with North Carolina, the rare eastern state where you can see a progression of scenery as you drive through from beaches in the east to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west. The Outer Banks are some of the best coastal retreats in the nation, and a trip through the lush greenery of the center of the state ultimately brings you to the east’s preeminent place for mountain scenery, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The word that comes to mind here is “imposing.” A brunch-menu version of Alaska, Montana offers big Rockies, big lakes, distinct seasons, and two of the most awe-inspiring national parks anywhere in the world: a section of Yellowstone at the south border, and the broad shoulders of Glacier at the top. The sky isn’t any bigger here than elsewhere; if anything, the mountainous contours at the edges give definition to the surroundings. But what you do get is wide-open spaces, and lots of ’em. This, America’s third-largest state, is home to just 1 million people compared to 38 million in California and 27 million in Texas. Splendor abounds in Montana, and chances are you can have a huge slab of it to yourself.
Here marks the start of the truly elite, best-of-the-best portion of this list. Everyone in the top quarter of the list has some singular, majestic facet that can make a case for being the best in the land.
Wyoming is so rich with beauty that even the Grand Tetons—quite possibly the single most dramatic vista in the country—somehow get overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park right next door. But if all you’ve ever seen of Wyoming is Jackson Hole and I-80, you’re missing out on the other-worldly high plains outside of Laramie and Cheyenne, the ghostly rocks of Vedauwoo, the mountains of the Front Range (the very same mountains you saw on your trip to Denver), the Wind River Range, the Bighorns, and the brightest Milky Way views in the lower 48. That’s not to mention Red Canyon, the Red Desert, Devils Tower, or the wildlife, including elk, moose, bison, and pronghorn populations that number in the hundreds of thousands. Few people venture into Wyoming to see just how the light shimmers off gold Aspen trees on a limitless mountain prairie—and folks in the Cowboy State like that just fine.
Arizona’s baseline is a riot of desert oranges and fuchsias that only build to perhaps the most-ogled feature on the continent: the Grand Canyon, the climax of a million American road trips. Monument Valley has been scientifically proven to be where cowboys’ souls go when they die. Elsewhere, Arizona’s B-sides—the Superstition Mountains, the Petrified Forest, Lake Powell, the areas around Flagstaff and Sedona—would alone make it a top-20 state. And don’t sleep on one of the most dramatic terrestrial features anywhere: the 560ft-deep meteor crater that, befitting so much of Arizona’s look, literally came from elsewhere in the solar system.
Taken on their own, the Upper or Lower Peninsulas could have ranked in the upper tiers of this list. Combine them, and you get 3,288 miles of pure Michigan coast, and the most beautiful state east of the Mississippi River. And that’s saying a lot for a Midwestern state—just look at how Michigan’s neighbors fared. From the unspoiled forests of the UP to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan to the craggy coast of Lake Huron, and the more than 11,000 inland lakes between, you could spend years exploring Michigan, and never reach the end of those good waters.
Oregon is the perfect transition from California—and Nevada—into the Pacific Northwest. The state begins with rugged coastline and temperate desert, much like northern California. Then it eases through the mountains into evergreen wilderness, making Oregon’s stretch of I-5 the most scenic section of that highway. The state’s also got fantastic beaches, most notably Cannon Beach and Seaside in the north, with their trademark Haystack Rock. There’s also Mt. Hood, the jagged peak that’s the most scenic point between Mt. Whitney and Mt. Rainier. Add in Crater Lake, the Willamette Valley wine country, and the undulating Painted Hills in the empty, open east, and you’ve got a state that holds its own as a coastal gem or a desert standout.
Seattle doesn’t have the best skyline in America only because the Columbia Center is a great feat of architecture. It’s because of the setting: Seattle looks south to Mt. Rainier and sits between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. And that’s just one city. The state is home to not one but two towering mountain ranges (the dramatic Cascades, the rainforested Olympics) as well as the winding Columbia River Gorge. The San Juan Islands are the closest thing you’ll get to cruising through Alaska without having to go north of the 49th parallel. And even parts of Eastern and Central Washington–especially up north in the Okanagan—have some spectacular desert scenery.
To make it into the top 10% of scenic states, you’ve gotta have a certain je ne sais quoi. That’s no problem for Colorado, since anybody who’s ever set foot here has been wowed by the sheer verticality. Colorado has more than 50—that’s FIVE ZERO—peaks higher than 14,000ft, more than triple the rest of the lower 48 combined. Harder to reach, but no less amazing, are the state’s abundant mountain lakes—places that make the journey up those peaks worth the trek and provide some of the most underrated beachfront on the planet. The only drawback to Colorado is that the eastern third or so feels like Nebraska got a director’s cut. To get the most out of this state, take a drive from Denver to Telluride and prepare to be blown away.
To rank this high with exactly zero miles of coastline, you’ve gotta have some superlative sights, and Utah brings it like no other landlocked state in the nation. It’s one of the few states where someone can look at a picture and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s Utah,” whether it’s the famous sandstone arches and the canyons at Moab or the bizarre formations in Goblin Valley. And that’s just the southern half. The Bonneville Salt Flats are one of the greatest geological sights in America, and further north, Utah is home to powder-covered mountains as good as any in the west. If outdoor recreation is your top vacation priority, you might not find a better place.
No state will leave you in complete awe of nature like Alaska. Whether it’s Kenai Fjords and the glaciers of the inside passage, Denali’s vast expanse of snow-capped peaks, or the sprawling tundra that makes up the interior, the state boasts the kind of rugged wilderness that just doesn’t exist in the rest of America. (For proof, look no further than its eight massive national parks, including Gates of the Arctic, the largest of all 63.)
Part of the fun is that much of Alaska isn’t accessible by road, so the only way to get around is via scenic boat trips, helicopter tours, or Northern Lights train rides—all of which come with ample opportunities to spot whales, bears, sea lions, and other animals you typically never see outside of zoos. And although the land masses here are the biggest scenic draw, Alaska has some pretty respectable beach towns to boot.
Pound-for-pound, acre-for-acre, this archipelago is the most spectacularly diverse and diversely spectacular place you can get to without a passport—and maybe even with one. The Hawaiian islands—seven larger islands, plus 130 smaller, uninhabited islets—hold such an array of landscapes because of their vast age gaps: for example, forested, canyoned Kauai is 6 million years older than the broad, dark, raw Big Island, which is still growing, fed by the glowing volcanic vent that birthed the lot. Between them: Oahu, with heart-stopping beaches and jungles and cliffs under constant assault by rainbows; Maui, a sheaf of vacation postcards that unionized and formed an island; tourist-light Molokai, where some of the world’s steepest cliffs plunge into deep blue oceans; and Lanai, which looks like the love child of Ireland and a Caribbean isle. You don’t think it can be true until you get there, but Hawaii is one of the few destinations that, if anything, manages to exceed its perfect-10 reputation.
Yes, it has issues. Lots of ‘em. But how many beautiful things do you know that don’t? For a moment, let’s drop the talk of climate change and traffic and talk for a minute about how California has EVERY SINGLE KIND OF BEAUTY you could possibly want. Start in the south with the expansive, natural beaches set against towering cliffs. Then move inland to the moon-like desertscapes in the Mojave. There’s the drive along the PCH and Big Sur, leading in the wine country of the Central Coast and up into San Francisco, a city that owes its aesthetic to cliffside views and curlicues of fog.
Oh, and lest we forget Yosemite National Park. Or Redwood National Park. Or Death Valley National Park. Or any of the many underrated national parks. Or the wine country that stretches from Napa Valley in the north to Temecula in the south. Look, the Golden State isn’t for everybody—but as far as sheer diversity of natural beauty is concerned, nothing else comes close. You can see why, once upon a time, people crossed expansive grasslands and steep mountains and punishing deserts only to arrive in California and say to themselves, the trip was worth it after all.