There are certainly more than 10 things to see in the United States before you kick the bucket. But, let’s be honest – most people don’t have the attention span to read through ten suggestions, let alone 20 or 100. So, I came up with this list of 10 American experiences that I have personally found amusing enough to suggest that you add them to your own bucket-list travel plans.
#1 Attend The Indy 500
I’ll begin by saying I know almost nothing about racing or the people who drive these cars professionally. In fact, see that photo above? I took that during the 99th Indy 500 while standing on the actual track minutes before the race began. I still have no idea who any of those people are. (I think I saw one of them in a Papa Johns commercial. Maybe?)
So perhaps with that clarification you’ll believe me when I tell you that experiencing an Indy 500 is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The speed of the vehicles flying around the track, the noise of the roaring engines and watching scores of race day enthusiasts parking their own cars on neighborhood lawns. (You’ll understand that reference when you go.)
The thing that truly makes the Indy 500 a must-see really boils down to the sheer amount of people in one place. More than 300,000 individuals fill up the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. If you’ve ever been to a major league baseball game when the stadium is sold out – imagine about 10 of those stadiums, full, all together side by side inside the speedway. You can’t even wrap your mind around how many people are in the stands or how gigantic this place is.
#2 Hike Into The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is one of the great wonders of the world and constantly appears on lists of things you should absolutely see during your lifetime. But, just peeking over the edge or posing for a photo at the top isn’t really experiencing this marvel of nature.
Depending on who you ask – trails to the bottom of the canyon vary in difficulty. If you’re not used to higher elevations – any trail will prove difficult. But, it’s not impossible and it’s totally doable if you prepare and do a little planning.
When I was at the Grand Canyon in early 2015 – I hiked about three miles down. That’s more than enough to get the grasp of how beautiful it is and to get some amazing photos for keepsakes. Visiting the south rim during the late winter is the best time to go if you want to avoid crowds and have a chance of seeing a snow covered Grand Canyon. (It’s so beautiful!)
Tips: Bring comfortable, yet sturdy boots with tons of traction in case it’s icy. Bring or rent walking poles because you’ll need them, especially on the way back up when you start to breathe heavy from the elevation changes. A back pack with lots of water, some snacks to keep you energized and dress in layers. (I went down covered up in a heavy jacket – and wished I had shorts and a tee shirt on my way back up!)
#3 Visit The Henry Ford Museum
Having seen more museums than you can ever imagine – there are several that stand out above the rest. Picking one favorite museum is a difficult task but I chose The Henry Ford as a must-see because of the variety of items on display.
In one visit you can do everything from seeing the chair Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in to riding around in an actual Model T Ford.
Other notable pieces in the collection include Thomas Edison’s lab, The Wright Brother’s shop and the bus Rosa Parks was in when she refused to give up her seat.
#4 Tour Sun Studio
There are lots of worthy places to call “must see” when talking about American music history. Sun Studio in Memphis made my list for a handful of reasons. One – the fact that it’s exactly the same today as it was when an unknown singer named Elvis Presley made his debut there in 1953.
It’s hard to think of a bigger American born singer that changed the music world more than Elvis. If you have doubts – drive by Graceland in Memphis and look at the lines of people still trying to get inside his house all of these years after his death.
The first thing you notice when you step inside the studio is that it doesn’t appear to be anything special. But, once the old, original recordings of Elvis start playing on the speakers – you get goosebumps knowing the king of rock and roll stood exactly where you’ll be standing. The tour guides are fantastic, too.
Bonus – you can take as many pictures as you want. Can’t say the same thing for other legendary studios like Motown in Detroit that will have a panic attack if you even think about trying to take a picture of anything on your cell phone
#5 See The U.S. Constitution
If you call America home – there’s no document that’s more important to our way of life than the U.S. Constitution.
Inside the National Archives in Washington DC you’ll find the original copy sitting between the Bill Of Rights and the Declaration Of Independence. Seeing these three items up close is truly an awesome experience.
In small groups – visitors are allowed into a dark, and quiet rotunda that displays the three documents in secure cases that according to some reports – can withstand damage from bomb blasts, fire and more. Of course – ask the staff about security measures and they’ll tell you they can’t talk about it.
You also aren’t allowed to take photos inside which is understandable. The National Archives also has the Louisiana Purchase, Emancipation Proclamation and tons of historical documents relating to the U.S. Government.
#6 Visit The Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains may be the most beautiful piece of American landscape I’ve ever seen. Impossible to describe, the view is different and perfect around every corner.
Case in point – the last time I drove through the mountains, I couldn’t help but stop at least once a mile and pull off the road to take a picture. Granted, no photograph can ever accurately portray this natural wonder but you have to try, right?
It was also fun offering to take photos for people (and families) trying to take selfies at various points through out the mountain range. I must have taken ten different photos for other tourists during my most recent visit.
We are blessed to have a lot of great views in America – but the Smoky Mountains has to be my favorite. I can’t be alone – Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited National Park in the country. Don’t forget to pose for a photo at the TN/NC state border, too.
#7 Baseball Hall Of Fame – Cooperstown
They don’t call the game “America’s favorite pastime” for nothing. Baseball is in our blood as Americans. We grow up playing catch in the front yard, cheer on our kids in little league and will spend a fortune for the pleasure of sitting inside a Major League Baseball stadium to watch our hometown team.
The National Baseball Hall Of Fame is my favorite sports museum because it has a certain magic that simply can’t be found anywhere else. In fact, just getting to Cooperstown requires serious effort by most people in the U.S. since it’s really not close to anything.
It’s a tiny town, often described as a sort of Norman Rockwell scene. Fall is the most beautiful time to visit and crowds are smaller.
Once inside – each exhibit can bring you back to your childhood and connect you to the childhood of a parent or grandparent. Listen closely to hear others swapping stories and memories as well.
#8 See A Movie At A Drive-In
Drive-In theaters were once all the rage in America. While harder to find – there are still about 350 of them still operating. Most of them have been family owned and passed down for generations.
Recently, many drive-ins were forced out of business for good as required equipment upgrades put operating costs out of reach for many owners. All of the drive-in’s must now use HD digital projectors as studios have gotten away from old-school film.
If you’ve never been to a drive-in, you’re missing out on a trip back in time. I actually saw the latest Jurassic Park film at a drive-in and loved the experience. You’re not worried about someone talking next to you or using a cell phone during the movie. You can usually bring your own food, too. (Though it’s always nice to buy something from the concession stand as its how they make a living.)
If you’re a fan of awkward talks with your parents – ask them what a “passion pit” is.
#9 Visit A Presidential Library
There are 13 presidential libraries in the United States. Interestingly enough – it doesn’t matter what your politics may be – each library contains one of a kind artifacts from various points in American history.
For example, inside the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library you’ll find the red phone from his Oval Office desk and the sweater Mr. Carter wore during his famous televised speech on saving energy during his one term as President. Ronald Reagan’s library has a former Air Force One aircraft on display. George W Bush’s library has artifacts from the days following 9-11 including the megaphone he used to talk to rescue workers in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Harry Truman’s library has the famous “The Buck Stops Here” plaque that sat on his desk.
Most of the libraries put their own spin on how they want history to judge the former President. However, most of them aren’t overly political – just really interesting collections of memos and notes from current events from their time in office, gifts from world leaders and items from their personal lives.
#10 Fireworks At The Magic Kingdom
It was hard to narrow the list to just ten things and while none of these are in any particular order – it took me awhile to decide which should be the last suggestion.
For anyone who truly finds the need to seriously create a “bucket list” – what better way to feel like a kid and let your worries vanish for awhile, than stepping inside the happiest place on Earth?
Say what you will about Disney – when it comes to making the visitor’s experience special – they knock it out of the park. I specifically mention the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom because that’s what stands out in my mind as something everyone should see at least once.
Watching the bursts of color explode over that castle while classic Disney songs and character voices play over the speakers – you can forget for a little bit about the real world outside. For 12 minutes – you can be a kid again and remember the days when you had nothing but time on your side.
I’ve shared some of mine. What’s your must-see American experience?
About the author: Bill Clevlen travels all across the country seeking people and places making America great. In addition to hosting the nationally syndicated “Bill On The Road” radio program he also hosts the daily feature “Re-Discovering America In 60 Seconds“. Bill lives in Saint Louis, Missouri and enjoys parks, medium-rare steaks, playing Pickleball and telling good jokes.