While on vacation, we all search for that perfect photo op -- that precise moment that captures the entire trip's atmosphere. This desire may be irrational, and oftentimes we return home with unsatisfying pictures, but that doesn't stop us. We still aim for the perfect image to showcase our unique artistic vision -- and to post online to impress our Facebook friends. Our photographic hunger drives us to take hundreds of shots (thank goodness for digital cameras) that are inevitably inferior to those found on a $.50 postcard.
To help you out, we decided to point out the ideal vantage points of the United States' most dramatic scenes. All of our suggestions are accessible to the public and display inspiring urban or natural landscapes. And just in case you can't reach our first choice or have more time to explore, we've recommended a "second place" to visit. So grab your camera and head out to capture the best views our country has to offer.
The Hawaiian Islands' tropical terrain indulges the imaginations of honeymooners and adventure-seekers alike. Most travelers familiar with the archipelago will tell you that Kauai features the most stunning scenery, and we agree. The views we can't get out of our heads were from the Na Pali Coast. Its sharp emerald cliffs and jagged mountains trace the northern coastline. And while a boat trip leads you to the perspective that is most often photographed, we recommend taking the more exhilarating, exhausting trek along the Kalalau Trail. Hikers begin this 11-mile route at Ke'e Beach and traverse five valleys before reaching Kalalau Beach. You'll stop several times along this challenging but rewarding path for photo ops (and water breaks).
On Kauai's western side, the Waimea Canyon (a.k.a. "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific") contains verdant gorges, soaring buttes and ever-changing scenery, which shifts with the sun and the seasons. Hiking the canyon is surprising manageable when compared to its larger counterpart in Arizona, but we still recommend stopping at a ranger station to pick up a trail map.
Oh, New York. The rise-and-fall landscape of man-made marvels continues to enchant us day after day, year after year. Yet, capturing the je ne sais quoi proves to be quite a challenge. Most visitors head straight to the top, to the observation decks on the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center or another soaring skyscraper. But, should you wish to feel a part of the city, you must go to the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The vast majority of museum goers miss this gorgeous lookout atop the art collection, simply because they don't know it exists. From this urban perch, Central Park's trees billow out until they reach the edges of their concrete quarantine. Plus, you can admire the distinguished high-rises that corral the park while sipping a refreshing Midday Martini. This privileged perspective is available to all summertime Met visitors, so be sure to visit in that season to savor everything this incredible museum has to offer.
To trace New York's entire profile, you should leave Manhattan entirely. Located across the East River, Brooklyn Bridge Park provides a classic view of Lower Manhattan and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. And because everyone should stroll the bridge at least once, consider getting to the park on foot.
As "The Last Frontier," Alaska hosts numerous natural attractions, but we have yet to find one more impressive than Mt. McKinley. Sometimes called "Denali," North America's tallest mountain is usually shrouded in cloud cover. However, if you're in photo-taking position early enough, you could snap the perfect image; the peak is most often visible in the morning. Aside from the temperamental clouds, the challenge of capturing Mt. McKinley arises from Denali National Park's lack of infrastructure and the density of the surrounding forest. So unless you're planning to scale a tree, the best place to view the mountain is from Wonder Lake. Located approximately 26 miles from Mt. McKinley's base, the lake is an ideal distance (not too close, not too far) to bracket the range in a single shot. The National Park Service provides summer shuttle service to the lake, which makes accessing the park easy. And don't attempt to reach Wonder Lake during the winter: Much of the park is inaccessible for the majority of the year.
While taking exhausting treks into the wilderness is enjoyable for some, others may prefer to sit back and savor the scenery. If you fall in the latter category, you're in luck: The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge has an unbelievable view of Mt. McKinley. And from the lodge's viewing deck, the Alaskan landscape may seem even more spectacular with a hot cup of Joe.
According to a Cornell University research study, San Francisco is the United States' second-most photographed metropolis, next to New York City. Exposed on the tip of a peninsula, San Fran is inherently photogenic, standing still (usually) for adoring tourists to shoot from all angles. However, its most memorable feature -- the Golden Gate Bridge -- is outside of downtown. Therefore, the iconic "Look at me! I'm in San Fran!" shot, featuring both the bridge and the city, is difficult to capture. But we've done your homework for you and found the sublime spot for this quintessential photo. Across San Francisco Bay from the city, the Marin Headlands rise above the water to offer panoramic views. Here, you can capture the bridge, Alcatraz and the downtown area all in a single image. And since you've made the trek over, you might as well stick around to enjoy the headlands' beaches and hiking trails.
On the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge (opposite the Marin Headlands), Fort Baker was once an army outpost. The soldiers have now relocated elsewhere and a luxury hotel, Cavallo Point, has moved into the officers' homes. Even if you aren't staying at the hotel, you can still adore the view from the dock at Horseshoe Bay, located out front.
You knew this was coming. It's iconic, breathtaking, unique -- in short, everything that makes the perfect photo-op. Everyone has his or her favorite viewpoint, but we've opted for the Rim Trail, which traces the edge of the South Rim. Along this 13-mile path, you'll catch the classic Grand Canyon panoramas and spot the mighty Colorado River. Be sure to pause at Pima Point along Hermit Road; not only will you get a stellar view, but also you'll hear the rushing Colorado River thousands of feet below.
The North Rim attracts fewer visitors than the South Rim and is less developed because of it. However, that doesn't mean you should discount this side of the canyon: Its landscape is equally dramatic, even if it's not as recognizable. Most North Rim travelers venture into the canyon, but we suggest that the less-intrepid guests head to Bright Angel Point for a bird's-eye view and less cliché Grand Canyon shot.
French visitors might be appalled that they won't spy the demur navy roofs and austere cream walls of Paris when they reach the top of this half-size Eiffel Tower. But we Americans can rejoice in the exciting neon-coated capitalism that unfolds below us. Eiffel's replica at Paris Las Vegas places you in the center of Sin City with close views of the Caesars Palace Coliseum, the striking new Cosmopolitan towers, and most memorably, the Bellagio Fountains. You can even spot the Empire State Building of New York-New York Casino, the Luxor Pyramid and Mandalay Bay at the southern end of the Strip. We recommend you visit at dusk to catch not only the desert sunset but also the nighttime illumination of the city. So say goodbye to that dusty old Stratosphere: There's a new high point to Vegas.
Mix at Mandalay Bay is one of several Vegas eateries to garner a Michelin star. However, those other restaurants don't have the perspective that this one does. Perched on the top floor of the resort, Mix looks straight down the Strip. And as Mandalay Bay is the southernmost property, diners can spot nearly every landmark.
While neighboring Yellowstone usually overshadows Grand Teton National Park, the towering peaks of the Teton Mountain Range deserve some of the spotlight. Many travelers feel that the scenery epitomizes the beauty of the American West. The Cathedral Group (which includes the three tallest mountains) presides over majestic valleys and forests filled with elk, wolves and bears. Largely untouched, the area features many unique perspectives waiting to be found, and visitors can venture into the wilderness either on horseback or on foot for these coveted spots. However, we've discovered that you can't go wrong taking pictures at Jenny Lake in the park's dead center. Easily accessed by Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, the lake offers a clear line of sight to the Tetons as well as a reflecting surface. Cathedral Group Turnout, located along the one-way road, is one of the most popular angles.
For a scenic activity, adventure seekers should kayak or raft down the park's eastern Snake River. You'll want to whip out your camera at nearly every turn, of which there are plenty. Just don't lose control of your vessel. Instead, pull your craft on shore and take a photo break.
The film Wedding Crashers had it right. The Lincoln Memorial provides the quintessential view of our nation's capital. You can gaze out over the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. But, it's not just the scene that makes this position special: Remember that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his unforgettable I Have a Dream speech from the memorial's top steps. In our opinion, the inspiring panorama surpasses the bird's eye perspective from the Washington Monument (and skipping the line ain't bad either). Plus, this spot is open 24/7 and free to enjoy. We recommend climbing these stairs at sunrise or at night, when you may actually have Honest Abe to yourself (ignoring the security guards of course).
At the Mall's opposite end, the recently built Newseum places visitors at eye level with the Capitol Building. On the Hank Greenspun Terrace, visitors receive not only an elevated angle that is perfect for pictures, but also a brief lesson; the small terrace exhibition delineates monumental protests and parades that have passed along the famous avenue.
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