The United States has always been a land of extremes. European explorers were staggered by the sheer vastness of the land, and generations of immigrants have arrived here with the biggest dreams imaginable.
We decided to dig in and explore America's highest highs, lowest lows, and a number of other extremes (quick: how many people live in America's smallest town?). Here are 10 of our favorite points that embody our nation's capacity for wonder.
Coldest community: Fairbanks, Alaska
With average winter temperatures below -5 and highs only in the mid-40s, you may wonder what draws visitors to Fairbanks. Sure, the city's population is warm and welcoming and its gold rush history is still tangible in sites such as the Pioneer Museum, with its dioramas and murals. But most tourists are here to see the Aurora Borealis.
Also known as the Northern Lights, the aurora will be at its peak in 2013 because of heavy sunspot activity at the end of an 11-year cycle, producing the appearance of crackling skies filled with bright blue, green, and red patterns for more than 200 nights over the course of the year. August through April is primetime for aurora-viewing, and if you spend three nights in Fairbanks you have about an 80 percent chance of a clear night.
Hottest Community: Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
Death Valley may be the most scorching spot in America, with temperatures that can reach 130 degrees, but Lake Havasu City in Arizona earns the gold star for the hottest place where lots of people actually live. The town is home to more than 50,000 residents, all of whom have found a way to survive summer temperatures that regularly top 100 degrees and can reach as high as the 120s.
What keeps folks here is what also draws thousands of visitors: 45 miles of lakefront for boating, fishing (blue gill and crappie are anglers' favorites here), and hiking amid volcanic rock, sparkling geodes, and other desert formations.
Highest point: Mount McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park would be an extraordinary destination even if weren't home to the tallest peak in North America, 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. The park comprises 6 million acres that most visitors navigate via 92-mile-long Park Road, which parallels the stunning Alaska Range and allows access to a number of visitors' centers and six campgrounds.
The park even has its own Big Five, a North American variation on the popular African safari hit list: If you're lucky, you'll spot moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears.
Lowest place: Death Valley, Calif. and Nev.
Death Valley is not only the lowest point in the United States—its Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level—but also the hottest and the driest. This stretch of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in California and Nevada is known for temperatures in the 100s for five months out of the year (the record high was 134 degrees, in 1913), unexpected deluges that bring fields of wildflowers, and, in winter, snow that can be seen dusting the higher peaks surrounding the valley.
That's not to say it isn't a popular tourist destination. On the contrary, unique (and wildly diverse) attractions such as hikers' mecca Golden Canyon and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes make Death Valley a one-of-a-kind destination that's totally worth the trek.
Oldest community: Acoma, N.M.
Here in the U.S., we run the risk of applying the word tradition to institutions, such as the Super Bowl, that are less than 50 years old. So Acoma comes as a surprise to many. This community, which was originally settled by Native Americans, dates back to 1150, placing it squarely in the company of some of the oldest of old-world sites, such as medieval European cathedrals.
About an hour's drive from Albuquerque, visit the Sky City Cultural Center for guided tours of an ancient pueblo on a sandstone bluff, explore the Acoma Pueblo Indian Museum, shop for traditional Native American crafts at the tribal-operated Gaits'I Gallery, and if gaming is your thing drop by the Sky City Casino Hotel for slots and table games.
Smallest town: Buford, Wyo.
It doesn't get any smaller than Buford. Why? Because the town has only one resident, Don Simmons, the proprietor of The Buford Trading Post, a gas station and convenience store. If you're making a cross-country road trip on Interstate 80, it's worth stopping in Buford (between Cheyenne and Laramie) just to say hi, and to tell the folks back home that you've seen it. And since the town was purchased in an auction in September, it's not clear how long it will hold its title.
Biggest lake: Lake Superior
With an area of nearly 32,000 square miles, Lake Superior is not only the largest lake in the United States but also the largest freshwater lake in the world. Bounded by Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, this northernmost and westernmost of the Great Lakes was carved by glaciers 10,000 years ago and is so big (roughly the size of South Carolina) that it has its own climate, more akin to a coastal region than one so far inland. Among many beautiful parks and beaches along the lake's shores, Isle Royale National Park is perhaps the standout, with world-class canoe and kayak routes, hiking, and even scuba diving the lake's depths.
Biggest city: New York City
New York has been the most populous city in the U.S. since the first census was taken in 1790, but it wasn't until the inauguration of the Erie Canal in 1825 that its numbers really took off, nearly tripling by 1840. By connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, the waterway ushered in a new era in trade that rocketed the city to the economic preeminence it enjoys to this day. For visitors, that prosperity translates into unparalleled art collections, theater, music, and cuisine.
And while world-class museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim can come with a hefty suggested donation, New York also offers some of the choicest low-cost—or free— attractions anywhere in the world, including holiday department-store displays, the immense Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and public skating rinks in several locations, including cozy Bryant Park, right in Midtown.
Birthplace of the most presidents: Virginia
While most grade-school students know that four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) were born in Virginia, the list goes on: Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, and Wilson also entered the world in the Old Dominion. That historical density is reflected in the variety of amazing attractions you can find in Virginia, including historic downtown Richmond, the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg, Washington's estate at Mount Vernon, the home Jefferson designed for himself at Monticello, the National Cemetery at Arlington (on the grounds of what was once Confederate General Robert E. Lee's estate), and such Civil War battlefields as Manassas and Fredericksburg.
Biggest river: Mississippi River
At 2,320 miles long, the Mississippi flows from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, passing through or bordering 10 states and draining water from 31 between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Range. While there are a number of major cities along the river, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Memphis, if you have to choose just one Mississippi River destination, head down to the river's mouth, to New Orleans, for authentic jazz at Preservation Hall, a ride on one of the city's historic streetcars, the unique cuisine and party scene in the French Quarter, and, this winter, the Super Bowl.
See more of America's extremes.