Cloud-dappled hills and sun-streaked mountaintops dabbed with snow typify the landscape of the Eastern Sierra, where slashing peaks – many over 14,000ft – rush abruptly upward from the arid expanses of the Great Basin and Mojave deserts. It’s a dramatic juxtaposition that makes for a potent cocktail of scenery.
Breckenridge & Summit County
Home to four big-time ski resorts, the Blue River, and historic Breckenridge, the aptly named Summit County is close enough to Denver for a day trip but far enough away to feel like you've truly escaped the Front Range sprawl. In summer, cyclists enjoy the endless miles of paved bike paths that connect the major towns, while boaters take to the enormous Dillon Reservoir.
Everything you've seen on TV, from the McMansions of Real Housewives of New Jersey to the thick accents of The Sopranos, is at least partially true. But Jersey (natives lose the 'New') is at least as well defined by its high-tech and banking headquarters, and a quarter of it is lush farmland (hence the Garden State nickname).
The state revs up around the Indy 500 race, but otherwise it's about slow-paced pleasures in corn-stubbled Indiana: pie-eating in Amish Country, meditating in Bloomington's Tibetan temples and admiring the big architecture in small Columbus. For the record, folks have called Indianans 'Hoosiers' since the 1830s, but the word's origin is unknown.
Oklahoma gets its name from the Choctaw name for 'Red People.' One look at the state's vividly red earth and you'll wonder if the name is more of a sartorial than an ethnic comment. Still, with 39 tribes located here, it is a place with deep Native American significance. Museums, cultural displays and more abound.
History suffuses Alabama, a description which could be true of many states. But there are few places where the perception of said history is so emotionally fraught. The Mississippian Native American culture built great mound cities here, and Mobile is dotted with Franco-Caribbean architecture.
Around Los Angeles
Make like Jack Kerouac, ditch the congestion, crowds and smog, and use LA as a hub to all the natural glory of California. Get an early start to beat the commuter traffic (or catch a ferry, Greyhound bus or ride the Amtrak rails), and point the compass across the ocean, up into the mountains or into the vast and imposing desert.
Stretching from the North Carolina border south to the city of Georgetown, the coastal region known as the Grand Strand bustles with some 60 miles of fast-food joints, beach resorts and three-story souvenir shops. What was once a laid-back summer destination for working-class people from across the Southeast has become some of the most overdeveloped real estate in the country.
Big Bear Lake
Big Bear Lake is a low-key, family-friendly mountain resort (elevation 6750ft) about 110 miles northeast of LA. Snowy winters lure scores of ski bunnies and boarders to its two mountains, while summer brings hikers, mountain bikers and water-sports enthusiasts wishing to escape the stifling heat down in the basin.