Forty-eight states. The trip from coast to coast measures over 2,500 miles. That’s farther than the distance between the tip of Spain, on the banks of the Strait of Gibraltar, to the colorful streets of Moscow. That’s only a single thread of a massive tapestry that makes the United States. Each state, many larger than countries in Europe, holds a unique culture, a distinct people, and a particular landscape. This year alone I road-trip-warriored my way through 26 states and completed yet another cross country move (hopefully the last for a while).
Of the 26 states, I’ve seen the best of northern United States - from spooky Salem to Pictured Rocks in the Upper Peninsula, to Seattle’s salty banks, and everything in between. Ten virtuous vistas stood out among the spectacular sea of scenes in the northern country.
10. Wedding Rocks, Washington
The best fantasy is based on reality. Sometimes, when reading a great fantasy book, I forget that our real-world has settings and scenes that totally eclipse the worlds we only conjure in our minds. Being almost three parks in one, the jagged, glacier-covered, mountains, the dark northwestern rainforests, and the cold coasts of the Pacific, Olympic National Park showed less of reality, and more of a Tolkien-esque envisioned landscape.
After walking through the deep coastal rainforests, a fantasy world of its own, you are suddenly thrust onto a harsh, rocky beach. The massive living forest abruptly stops short of the sand, making a dark green wall of moss-hanging branches your only escape from the chilly winds of the Pacific.
A pink sunset shot rays through rough, stone spires. Like lost sailboats, the spire drifted just off the coast, making a natural barrier to the lonely cove. Despite the stunning beauty, and the ability to camp right on the beach, we shared the scene with only the seagulls and sparrows. As the sun set, the spires cast massive shadows on the land and water. With the shadow came a chill, and the rising tide threatened our sandy camp. We moved into the green of the jungle, and inside the ferns and fresh leaves, the sounds of the ocean vanished.
9. Stark’s Nest, Vermont
I never would have guessed that such a scene would come from Vermont, of all places. There was something magical about Stark’s Nest. While it wasn’t a tent or the most remote place I’ve ever been (in fact it was on the top of a popular ski resort) it gave a nostalgic, comfortable, and serene sense.
The tiny, one-room cabin was placed perfectly on the clearing of a hill that overlooked nearly the entire state. The hill was cleared on pines, giving a hollow look. The space between the edge of the pines and the foot of the cabin was filled with a blanket of golden flowers. An ancient, peeling and rusted, cable machine sat next to the cabin. Its well-used appearance reminds you how busy certain months of the year can get on the little mountain, yet in the summer, it's entirely abandoned.
Finally, the view, like many others, transforms throughout the seasons of the night. An incandescent dusk led directly, and unceasingly, into cool evening hues. Slowly, the invisible town below shows itself in a sprinkle of distant and desolate lights, giving life to wilderness. What absolutely solidified a scene that was already spectacular was a man-man phenomenon that happened as the last wink of light faded into the horizon. Musk’s Star-link trail blazed across the night sky in what appeared to be an alien invasion. The sixty or so dotted lights playing follow-the-leader was one of the most unexpected and unusually terrifying experiences I’ve ever experienced.
Alone, the view at Stark’s Nest was comparatively beautiful, however, with the show that we saw above the inky black of the sparsely speckled valley below, it solidly holds a special place in my heart and top ten list.
8. City of Rocks, Idaho
After driving across the country a number of times, and going out of my way to explore places that are regularly at the end of fifty-miles of dirt roads, I honestly thought I’ve seen it all, that was until I rounded a corner in a potato field in Idaho and got my first glimpse at the City of Rocks. City of Rocks not only blew me away as a spectacle, but it also acted as my first introduction to outdoor climbing.
No stretch of the imagination was required to visualize a city. Granite pillars the size of Brownstone houses and taller created avenues and distinct districts, dwarfing the small trees stuck in traffic below. I climbed to the top of one of the larger rocks and saw the city from a rooftop angle. From below I heard laughter, climbing calls, and other noises echoing through the allies. Atop the tallest skyscraper silhouetted a successful climber with hands raised. I looked to the horizon and saw the remnants of a passing storm skirting stealthily away out of sight.
7. Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
In my head, I pictured the salt flats to be, well, salty and flat. I expected nothing more than a vast expanse of desolate, dry, derelict wash. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, the flats call to all land-speed racers, tempting them to break a new record on it's white and crusty salt. When I visited, I saw no speedway or racetrack, rather, a shimmering lake. No cars or motorcycles would be racing that weekend, one would need a sailboat to make any headway.
Only inches deep, the water sat still above the soak salt flats. So still it sat, that it acted as a perfect natural mirror, reflecting the jagged and wicked peaks of the Silver Mountain Range.
“The flattest place on earth” as some suggest, is so barren, so bleak, that I could see the slight curving of the earth very far in the distance. At day, the giant, temporary puddle was a sight to behold, but as the sun sank in the western sky, the mirror-like water spit back the very reflection of creation. With absolutely no obstruction to cast shade, the colors of the sky morph at the whim of the sun only. Very slowly, yet noticeably, the tangerine sky turned, pink, then every shade of blue before settling on black. Stars populated the vast empty space both above and below where you stand. It is possibly the one place on earth where a human’s eye level captures more than that of a bird’s. Five or so feet above the ground offering a vantage point that split the night sky and the mirror below, leaving the horizon at the perfect angle of artistry.
It was a view to behold, and one that constantly changed as the sunset in the sky.
6. Wright Peak, New York
The Adirondacks could not possibly imagine slipping past a top spot on any of my lists. After climbing Mt. Marcy, the tallest, Algonquin, the second tallest, and a handful of others in a similar order, I figured I had seen most of what the wonderful area could offer. But the Adirondacks isn’t one of my favorite places in the country on accident. Wright Peak, merely the 16th tallest, gave me possibly the greatest view I had yet seen in the aery Adirondack range.
Due to some geological, natural, and environmental reasons, Wright Peak is the windies of any in the range. As you begin to see signs of the alpine area, the wind picks up dramatically, giving a sense of adventure from the first step on the summit stones. Wright Peak, like a few others in the Adirondacks, holds a hidden story. If you know where to look, a few yards from the summit you’ll find pieces of rusted metal. These are leftovers from an airplane wreck followed by decades of pilfering and pocketing. Above the rusted bits of remaining fuselage towers Algonquin, the giant, and just southeast you can see Mt. Marcy. On one summit, you can spot the two largest summits of the range.
Dynamic clouds, fog, mist, and haze blast over slightly hiding perfect views of the two giants to the south, as if only giving a teasing glance. Below stretch conifer-clad valleys and cliffs for as far as the eye can see. In the distance, you can see the white face of Mt. Colden crashing into the dark waters of Avalanche Lake. Wright was one of my favorite summits of the year, and in turn, it gave me one of the greatest views.
5. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND
Absolutely infatuated with the prodigious life of Theodore Roosevelt, I’ve attempted to put myself physically in his boot prints to experience life exactly as he had over a hundred years ago. I wanted to live a day in the life of a man who not only influenced the country but whose words and actions greatly influenced my personal life. I drove significantly out of the way to visit the lonely, Theodore Roosevelt National Park that sat on the western border of North Dakota. I wander through the bison-filled bluffs of the northern Badlands and finally settled on a spot overlooking a drying creekbed. There I set camp, and watch a herd of bison below slowly wander through the blowing plains. Armies of prairie dogs yipped as hawks’ shadows passed over their holes. Dark pines sparsely covered soft, rolling green hills, under a dramatically clouded sky. For such a small park, the land felt largely alive.
I saw, for a moment, the wild, rugged beauty of the land, and finally understood why Roosevelt left the busy city streets of New York to seek respite. Among the herds and hills he solidified his political beliefs, and in turn, changed the course of history. And it was there, among the same hills, on my first solo hike, I saw the vast, mostly unchanged land, that he had seen.
The view was more of a personal treat than some incredible, Jurassic scene. There were no snowy peaks, no rolling thunderstorms, no crystal lakes or gaping caves, simply grass-covered hills and a sweet supple beauty. It was a scene that was lasting possibly more-so than any other.
4. Logan Pass, Montana
Glacier National Park is nothing short of spectacular. No other park, wilderness area, or public land I’ve seen quite compares to the immense scale and scope of Glacier. Though we couldn’t secure backcountry permits, we decided to travel down the famous Going-to-the-Sun road and were rewarded with views like any other right from the comfort of our car.
At the highest point of the road, Logan Pass, we left the road and continued on foot some miles down the Highline Trail, a trail that I would have loved to hike the full length of. Nevertheless, three miles was all it took for a scene to come into view that easily broke into the top five of the year.
An amazing display of thousands of years of glacial activity spread below us. Like age showing on the skin, the force of time, wind, and ice cut valleys and divots into the landscape at angles that defy what’s possibly natural. And though we were still solidly in the front country, it felt as if we were miles away from any semblance of civilization. I’m sure that if we were able to hike into the backcountry of Glacier, we would have seen a view that would have topped the charts, alas, I would have to settle on only the spectacular for now.
3. Pictured Rocks, Michigan
I never would have guessed that Michigan would have made the list, let alone a position in the top three. The Upper Peninsula represented a still wild landscape like none I had quite seen before. Full of crystal clear freshwater, miles of forests, and desolate drives, Michigan stood out as something novel.
Sporting no granite-peaked mountains, desert canyons, or tremendous valleys, Michigan’s landscape was more subtle and uncommonly sublime. From Mackinac to Tahquamenon Falls, to Kitchitikipi, to the Great Lakes, Michigan’s landscape is formed and shaped by freshwater unlike anywhere else in the country - possibly the world. Although Tahquamenon and Kitchitikipi were uniquely beautiful, nothing really compared to standing on the sheer ledge of Pictured Rocks.
Chapel Rock, though small and easy to miss, may be the most impressive rock/tree formation I’ve ever seen. A single, mighty oak stands atop a white pillar of rock, solitarily fighting for resources that can only be found across a seventy-foot chasm. To reach the nutrients, the oak wisely stretched it's roots across, creating a natural, living, bridge. Beyond Chapel Rock, white cliffs cascaded into the Caribbean blue-green water of Lake Superior. A stone beach populated with the most colorful of rocks spread below us completing a beachy scene in the most unlikely of places. The cliffs created coves, and in a Moher-esque setting, lake waves splashed high into the air. The 200-foot drop suspended my beliefs that this was, in fact, Michigan, and not Ireland or Scotland.
2. Gunsight Pass, Utah
After moving to Utah, I knew I was in for a whirlwind of adventures. The state hosts five national parks, three of which, Zion, Arches, and Bryce, are among the highest regarded parks in the country. Amazingly, my favorite view came from the middle of a national forest, not a renowned national park.
The view came after a long drive and remote hike through Ashley National Forest, in Northern Utah. The trail led us to the base of King’s Peak - Utah’s highest. Though the view from the top of King’s was nothing short of spectacular, the true beauty of the scene was just below, with the King and his court of red peaks surrounding a panoramic valley. The red rocks of King contrasted against the light green grasses and pure white snow as clouds casually cast random spots of light and shadows, making a dynamic, moving, landscape.
The view sparked a thought, after living in the East my whole life, views like this were no longer a cross-country trip away. This was less than three hours' drive, essentially being my backyard.
1. Trappers Peak, Washington
The Trans American Super Eclipse in the middle of the least populated county in the least populated state. Campfires being lit on the south side of the Rio in the blackness of night. Thousand-Year storms ripping through the gulf. Forest fires engulfing canyon ridges in the heat of an electrifying storm. I’ve been fortunate to see some spectacular events and scenes throughout the country, and I would have to put the view from Trappers Peak among the best.
After a staggeringly difficult hike that hid views the entire way, I was just about ready to throw in the towel. Our trip to the Cascades was an impromptu plan-B, after being denied permits to hike in Glacier’s backcountry, and after an eight-hour drive, I was hardly prepared for a super-tough hike. I had to remind myself that the views were supposedly worth it. And my god they were.
Once past the treeline, the Cascades revealed their true glory. Like a more wild, rugged, and jagged Glacier, the Cascades stretched for miles in every direction. The pointed prominence of the mountains gave the impression of unrealistic mountains a child would conjure on a piece of paper. White glaciers clung to every incredible divot, creating bewildering complexity. Pines crowned the peaks, holding dearly as high as they possibly could reach. Waterfalls from still melting summer snow disappeared into dense green carpeting far below. Like an inverted skyline, fog crowded the basin, while the sky above the peaks was cloudless.
More dramatic than the Rockies, more climactic than Glacier, more vivid than Zion, and wilder than the Winds, the Cascades personified an alpine adventure. And to top it off, the summit was eerily still. No wind chilled the bones, no gust moved the flowers, and no howling gale clogged the mountain melodies. It was as if the scene was a work of art displayed in a museum - silent, still, serendipity.
What were your favorite views this year? I'd love to hear about them!