The Most Beautiful States in the U.S., Ranked

In a head-to-head battle between beaches, forests, mountains, prairies, and deserts, only one state can emerge victorious.

From the snowy peak of Denali to the deepest depths of Mammoth Cave, America’s enormity means it’s home to a ridiculous wealth of natural beauty. Few other places on Earth have the same geographic range as these 50 United states, where you can find everything from red-rock deserts to thousand-year-old redwoods, unending tundras, and bone-white beaches. Truly, being a continent-sized country has its benefits.

Still, at the risk of stirring the melting pot, it has to be said: When you’re looking at the big picture from sea to shining sea, purple mountains boast way more majesty than amber waves of grain and fruited plains. While every state has its share of beauty, it’s pretty clear that Mother Nature loves some more than others.

To determine which state packs the most natural beauty into its borders, we assembled a crew of writers who, combined, have visited every state. Then, in true American spirit, we debated to the point of exhaustion. It was deserts vs. mountains. Lakes vs. forests. Salt flats vs. Great Plains. Seashores vs. glaciers. Gorges vs. canyons. You get the picture.

There was no right answer... until we decided there was. Here is every state, ranked by its natural beauty.

Iowa cornfield with blue sky and cottony white clouds

50. Iowa

Perched on Iowa’s northeast corner, you’ll find a slice of Wisconsin’s Driftless region that admittedly showcases some very pretty cliffs. As for the rest of the state, it does offer some breathtaking sunsets when the lights go down—there's romance in being able to see that far—but that's only because it’s flat as hell and, well, kinda boring. Apologies.

lush green fields under a blue sky
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49. Kansas

Kansans are a resilient lot, able to find happiness in life's simple pleasures and quirkiest roadside attractions. And their landscapes—which emphasize the latter half of the term Great Plains—encourage this enviable character. If Kansans can love their land, no one else has any excuses not to love the bejesus outta theirs.

wildflowers at blackwell forest preserve, illinois
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48. Illinois

This largely featureless Midwestern state compensates in the most effective way possible: plugging dozens of beautiful skyscrapers along Lake Michigan. Yet outside Chicago, you can still find dramatic vistas in Illinois—the knobby sandstone formations of the Garden of the Gods in the state's southern tail, for one. And do scope those beautiful Mississippi River views along that long meandering western border.

lake michigan at indiana dunes
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47. Indiana

At its northernmost edge, Indiana Dunes National Park offers a crackling little playground and views of Lake Michigan. Near its southern border, Indiana's hilly contours give towns like Bloomington an effortlessly heartwarming edge. In between, though? There's not a lot to recommend, aside from summertime drives, and discovering the soothing, almost hypnotizing allure of watching corn flash past your window at 60 mph.

field of yellow canola flowers, oklahoma
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46. Oklahoma

A certain type of person could protest this low ranking because, at the very least, Oklahoma does bring its fair share of variety. That panhandle stretches out and kisses New Mexico on the cheek, the southern edge is perfect for reading Larry McMurtry novels, and the eastern edge running along the Arkansas border offers a surprisingly diverse mix of electric-green hills and jungly forests. Suffice it to say that Oklahoma is probably prettier than you expect—but then again, your expectations were low for a reason.

cantilever bridges over the mississippi river
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45. Mississippi

Right now hundreds of Mississippians are reading this and saying, "Holy cow! There's a state ranking where we're NOT in the bottom five!" Thank your lucky stars for that funky, frolicsome Gulf Coast of yours, Mississippi. Your lovely magnolias and charming Southern foliage notwithstanding, you're just 21 miles of powder-soft beachfront, one picturesque small town made famous by a home reno show, and some pristine swamps away from being the Indiana of the South.

farmhouse on hills
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44. Ohio

High in the middle and round on the ends, Ohio has an honestly fair reputation as both flat and forgettable. But the hilly southern part of the state is prettier than people realize; it does border Kentucky and West Virginia, after all. And while no one would mistake the southern shore of Lake Erie for Big Sur, Ohio's nearly 300 miles of Great Lake coastline offer outstanding open-water vistas best viewed from the tops of roller coasters.

unusual rock formations at sunset, toadstool geologic park
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43. Nebraska

Sleep on Nebraska's subtle beauty if you want, but its big skies and rolling hills have a thoroughly pleasant and peaceful charm. As impressive as Toadstool Geologic Park (Nebraska's Badlands!) and Chimney Rock are, the Cornhusker State doesn't have the spectacular vistas of its neighbors to the west. What it does have is open spaces, the Platte River, and a complex and important ecosystem where literally millions of birds—including 80% of the world's sandhill cranes—visit every spring.

Looking out over the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

42. North Dakota

North Dakota has become so synonymous with fracking, frozen flatlands, and an offbeat film and TV empire that doesn’t actually take place there that Fargo’s visitors center sports a “Best for Last” photo backdrop for people begrudgingly visiting in order to claim they finally visited all 50 states (it sits next to a certain iconic woodchipper). Still, it’s not all plains and you-betchas—NoDak is also home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a breathtaking mix of prairies, mesas, and mountain views dotted with buffalo. Kind of like the younger child constantly being compared to their older sibling, North Dakota doesn't get proper credit when compared to its beautiful sister state to the south.

Missouri River

41. Missouri

It's tough for Missouri—which borders five states already appearing in the bowels of this list—to distinguish itself. Its sprawling center is a less agriculturally fatigued transition between Illinois and Kansas. But that southern third or so is a delight. The ruddy hills of the Lake of the Ozarks area (population: Branson) are terrific for winding drives and trout-fishing trips. Further east, Missourians enjoy their forests and rivers as playgrounds. The curious rocky outcroppings around the Johnson Shut-Ins State Park swimming holes and the lazy tube-floats on the Current River are exemplars. They're almost spookily litter-free, evidence that Missourians appreciate what they have.

Sugarloaf Mountain overlooking Connecticut River in the fall at sunset
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40. Connecticut

Poor Connecticut (not literally, of course). Not only will most New Englanders disavow it for its close ties to New York—"half the state is Yankees country!"—but it also came out as the runt among the region's hill-and-valley idyll. Most of the state is flat, and although it's got some quaint towns along the coast (we’re looking at you, Mystic), and comely streams further inland towards the Berkshires, nondescript suburbs and urbanized areas are the norm—save, of course, New Canaan’s surprisingly sharp architectural prowess. Alas, at this point in its march towards the ocean, even the mighty Connecticut River has lost some steam (not to mention picked up flotsam in Hartford and Springfield).

tourists laying on bethany beach, delaware

39. Delaware

Want to surprise someone? Send them a postcard from Delaware. "I never knew Delaware was that pretty," they'll say, looking at a silhouette of dune grasses framed by an ocean sunset. Actually, no one does, because Delaware's not large enough to hold more than three cars at a time. But if you're lucky enough to be in one of those three cars, you, too, can take in the rolling rural countryside and the not-half-bad beach views.

lily pads and cypress trees on Caddo Lake
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38. Louisiana

Though New Orleans (deservedly!) gets most of the love, there’s plenty to do in Louisiana outside of its cities: The fishing's great, the duck hunting is world-class, and the airboat rides amid alligator-infested cypress trees are not to be missed. But its position at the bottom of the Mississippi River doesn't do its beaches or wetlands any favors, and when the highest natural point in the state is only twice as high as the Superdome, you're going to be stuck with a lot of scenery that ducks are in the best position to appreciate.

delaware water gap from mount tammany
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37. New Jersey

Look, even if New Jersey hadn't gone and covered the bulk of the state with rest stops and suburban sprawl, it still wouldn't be a stunner. That said, if you can manage to escape the strip malls, many parts of the Garden State are lovely, complete with rolling hills and glacial lakes, nice beaches, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area—a truly beautiful and underappreciated stretch of earth that NJ shares with Pennsylvania. Also, don't forget the Palisades.

natural Bridge hidden in the forests of northern Alabama
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36. Alabama

Though most Gulf Coast states are flat, green expanses of humidity and pine trees, Alabama actually has some pretty elevation in the central part of the state around Birmingham. Add this to the white sand beaches of the Redneck Riviera and you've got a state that rarely gets its due.

reading blue mountain and northern train
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35. Pennsylvania

It's got hills, Amish buggies, and pleasant forests that in the fall molt into spectacular golds and yellows and oranges. But for Pennsylvania's size, it lacks that "wow" factor. It's a densely populated eastern state minus the redeeming coastline. It's got a nice piece of the Appalachians, but not so impressive a piece as its neighbors. And, yes, you can ski the Poconos if you really don't feel up to going somewhere better. But like so many of the features here, you'd trade up, given the option.

castle hill lighthouse in newport rhode island

34. Rhode Island

For such a tiny state, Rhode Island does relatively well for itself. Lots of folks will joke that half of its area is made up of beaches, and they're honestly not too far off—Block Island has some lovely ones, and sea cliffs/bluffs there and in Newport add to the state's nautical charm. But it's got the deck stacked against it: There just isn't enough room in Rhode Island for anything truly grand, the Breakers aside. It's just a shame that nature didn’t build them.

Georgia trees
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33. Georgia

If you live in Florida, the most beautiful sight you'll ever see is when you cross the state line into Georgia and see gas prices drop a buck a gallon. Past that? Aside from the quaint Southernness of trees draped in Spanish moss and ungroomed beaches in the southern part of the state, the scenic highlight is the "mountains" north of Atlanta. Which seem downright towering when you've been driving through Florida, but still don't measure up to the Smokies or the Appalachians a few hours down the road.

aerial view of fall foliage in new hampshire

32. New Hampshire

If we’re being honest, New Hampshire lost its most glorious sight a few decades back when the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed. (No, we’re still not over it.) Yet its profile remains relatively strong: It’s home to the White Mountains' grand Presidential Range, dramatically carved flume gorges, notches, big lakes like Winnipesaukee, and sprawling valleys of farmland near the Canadian border. It's just a shame that the southern part of the state looks so much like suburban Connecticut, but with fewer package (a.k.a. liquor) stores.

mammoth cave national park
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31. Kentucky

Culturally, this state (and its accents) can never decide whether it's part of the Midwest, South, or Appalachia. Geographically, it doesn't care, because it rocks the highlights of all those regions: the pocky hollers and mountain views in the east, 400-mile-long Mammoth Cave, and an abundance of rolling, grassy hills. You can still find family tobacco farms on the back roads, but the most distinct part of the landscape is that symbiosis between horses and luminous pastures. People here swear they can see the grass glint blue (hence—you guessed it—bluegrass). Whatever color, it all makes you want to stop and marvel.

caesars head state park
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30. South Carolina

Arguably, the most picturesque part of South Carolina is also the most popular: Charleston. But since this is a ranking of natural beauty, not charming colonial architecture, the highlight of the state is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, home to the 420-foot-high Raven Cliff Falls in Caesars Head State Park and some of the best scenic overlooks in the South. The coastal beaches are pleasant and calming as well, and you cannot beat a sun-dappled drive through the low country under a canopy of moss-draped live oak.

Maryland seaside grasses
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29. Maryland

It's hard to say anything necessarily bad about Maryland since it's got all the aspects of scenery you look for in a state. The mountainous west is almost an extension of West Virginia, with its dramatic green hills and blooming fall colors. Along the Atlantic beaches and the tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, the state has 600 miles of coastline—almost double what Texas has on the Gulf of Mexico—while the pastoral farmland and vineyards along the Eastern Shore in Talbot County rounds out the idyllic bliss.

martha's vineyard lighthouse at sunrise

28. Massachusetts

Topographically, Massachusetts is the crossroads of New England. Its neighbors to the south are comparatively nondescript, and its neighbors to the north are far more rugged (both in geography and the boot-leather character of their citizens). Still, Massachusetts has its draws—the Cape Cod National Seashore has long attracted artists for the quality of its sunsets, and the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley showcase some of the nation's best fall foliage. But Massachusetts also has Middlesex County, which, contrary to its name, is actually pretty low in sexiness.

magazine mountain during dramatic sunset
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27. Arkansas

There are benefits to being a hermit kingdom. The southeast half of the state isn't much to behold unless you're into swamps, pastures, rice fields, and the same fungible pine forests you'll find in Mississippi and Georgia. Heading north, however, you find hills that conceal caves, creeks, and gullies, and hot springs. The Buffalo River, the first designated National river in the country, remains one of the rare undammed American rivers of any consequence. And the Ouachita Mountains in the southwest amble endlessly, pocked with natural splendor and towns just big enough to support a gas station where you can outfit yourself for a few days of floating or camping.

donkey walking within red rocks
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26. Nevada

Most people know Nevada as Las Vegas plus the let's-floor-it portion of a road trip to California. And, yes, the bulk of this state is so dusty and unremarkable that the military used to test nukes here without anyone really noticing. But the highlights range from staggering to obscure. Red Rock Canyon, a mere Uber ride from the Vegas Strip, is a jaw-dropping haven of striated limestone and sandstone. The Ruby Valley is a foxy little patch of mountains that'll break up any trip across I-80. The swirling cream-and-crimson rock formations of Valley of Fire State Park look like Dr. Seuss drew them. And of course, there's Lake Tahoe and Death Valley National Park, both of which are mostly in California, but, hey, you made it!

lone tree at sunset at ravens roost overlook on skyline drive in blue ridge mountains
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25. Virginia

Though its beaches here might not be showing up in any Corona ads, the ones in the Hampton Roads are some of the nicest and widest on the Eastern Seaboard, and probably the least-appreciated scenery in the Commonwealth. The rolling hills and wine country of Central Virginia are a big part of why they say “Virginia Is for Lovers.” And a trip down Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park might be the best leaf-peeping drive in America.

paddleboarding at voyageurs national park
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24. Minnesota

In a classic Midwestern undersell, the Land of 10,000 Lakes actually boasts closer to 12,000, so Minnesota’s got plenty to ooh and aaw about in between smacking mosquitoes. But it’s the North Shore that truly drops jaws: You’ll find rugged lakeside cliffs lined with lighthouses and deep forests that conceal stellar hiking trails and waterfalls; come in the summertime, when the Boundary Waters offers some of the most sought-after fishing and canoeing in the upper prairie. The sheer, rugged Lake Superior shoreline gives another glimpse of raw North America, and the pocky glacial holes around Interstate State Park will remind you how far north you really are.

ice-laden shoreline sandstone formations on wisconsin's apostle islands national lakeshore
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23. Wisconsin

More than prairies and dairies. You could wander 800 miles along the shores of Lakes Superior and Michigan, not including the 15,000-odd lakes scattered around the rest of the state. (Yes, that’s more than Minnesota.) The state lacks a single grand, signature natural feature that you just gotta go see, though the Apostle Islands are one-of-a-kind and you'll be hard-pressed to find country more pleasant than Door County. But to truly appreciate Wisconsin's full array of cliffs, forests, water, and the occasional natural stone bridge, take the 1,200-mile-long Ice Age Trail that winds through the state like a tapeworm. Glaciers left these lakes and boulders for you to enjoy, so you might as well use 'em.

lightning at big bend national park
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22. Texas

Texas is so damn big it can't help but have some standout sights along the way: Big Bend National Park, extraordinary night skies, and the sweeping desert beauty of West Texas, Hill Country in springtime, Gulf waves lapping against the curving shoreline. What it doesn't have is anything that is, in fact, the best in its category. There's better Western scenery as you go farther west, better forests anywhere east, better beaches in any direction 'cept straight north. But give Texas its due. Anything you'd want to take in (save snow-capped mountains) really is all here, and if you break free of the cities, the open roads feel as free as anywhere.

badlands of south dakota
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21. South Dakota

Most people associate South Dakota with the same plains and ice-coated dullery its cousin to the north, which is partially true. So how the heck did SoDak climb so high? Clearly, you’ve never made it to the America’s best-kept secret (unless you’re a biker of a giant presidential sculpture aficionado, in which case you definitely have). The entire western Black Hills region—where you can hike to Harney Peak (the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees) in the morning and spend the afternoon hiking Spearfish Canyon—is an absolute banger. Head a little further east into the Badlands, that inaptly named Martian rockscape, with more vegetation and a greater variety of colors. Even the flatter eastern part of the state has places like Palisades State Park outside Sioux Falls, where Split Rock Creek meanders through 50-foot quartzite cliffs. A trip here might have you wondering why it’s not ranked higher.

trees of great smoky mountains national park
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20. Tennessee

Read the state left to right, and it just keeps getting better, from the top of the Delta in the west, across the hills and pastures of the central third, to the crescendo of mountain vistas that announce your arrival in the Smoky Mountains. Since this landlocked eastern state packs this much variety, you can pretty much pick any highway, turn off the first time you see a State Park sign, and feel like you've hit the scenery jackpot.

rock formation vantage point at blackwater falls state park
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19. West Virginia

You may not mean to drive to it, but you'll never forget driving through it. A favorite of base jumpers for its gorgeous gorges and outdoorsy types come to ogle America’s newest national park, West Virginia's scenery is full of unbroken, rolling old hills and rivers spilling down limestone. The Monongahela National Forest exemplifies the forested, rocky terrain that kids from Maine to Missouri grew up clambering through. One of the most overlooked corners of the country evokes the best parts of the eastern half of the continent.

Mangrove Forest, Barron River, Everglades City, Florida
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18. Florida

It’s a tough call with Florida, where people dredged the flat swamplands that once defined the state, built hundreds of miles of artificial beaches, then lined those beaches with ugly condos, big name hotels, and the Florida Men (and spring breakers) that come with both. Still, gators be damned, we’d be remiss to ignore the obvious beauty dealt out by sites like the underwater paradise that is Biscayne National Park, the palm tree and white sand-lined waters of the Keys, and even the pretty nice swamplands in Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades. Clean up your act a little, Florida, and you may rank higher next time around.

Taughannock Falls Sunset In Full Fall Colors
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17. New York

New York State is too often defined by New York City. Too bad, 'cause the wilder reaches of the state rivals the diversity of almost any other. Consider: New York has three coasts (Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the Atlantic) and two distinct mountain ranges (the Catskills and the Adirondacks). It claims a slice of Lake Champlain and all of the Finger Lakes. Plus the prettier half of Niagara Falls—there's a reason the best views come when you stand on the Canadian side with your back to the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum. Conservation is an ongoing battle in New York, but the state has done an admirable job of securing natural spaces for wildlife and wild people to enjoy. The Empire State has more publicly owned land by percentage than any state east of the Mississippi and is number one in the country for percentage of land owned by the state itself. (Thanks, New York City tax base!)

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16. Idaho

Quick: What states contain a piece of Yellowstone? Most people will name Wyoming and Montana, but Idaho also claims a slice of the national park pie. Surprises like that lay all across Idaho, which is arguably America’s most under-appreciated state for scenery. The Sawtooth Mountains have some of the best mountain biking in America, while the snow-capped peaks visible from Coeur d’Alene make it a world-class skiing destination. And all the state’s beauty is best taken in with a trip down the Snake River, winding through mountains and scenic meadows.

lighthouse at fort williams park
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15. Maine

Maine residents know they’ve got some of the best natural scenery in the Northeast and are totally content with you just sticking to the Portland area to eat lobstah so there’s more room up north for them. In addition to possessing some of the most breathtaking coastline in America (with thousands of jagged islands offshore bringing the total mileage of pebbly beach to over 3,000), Maine’s got the gorgeous Acadia National Park, Mount Katahdin (the tip of the Appalachian Trail), and countless acres of dense wilderness and rugged seashore for the L.L. Bean types (it’s basically, like, their uniform up there).

Woman hiker explores White Sands National Monument New Mexico mountains
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14. New Mexico

The fine cinematographers from Breaking Bad made this state a stunning backdrop for making crystal meth. But even without the dilapidated trailers in the foreground, the desert scenery here is absolutely breathtaking. The red rock cliffs and sprawling mesas make a road trip through New Mexico feel a lot shorter than the 375 miles that I-40 actually spans across the state. Northern New Mexico boasts the mountains of Taos, giving that part of the state a look more Colorado than Arizona; head south, and you’ll hit the dramatic Organ Mountains before arriving at White Sands National Park, one of the most arresting pieces of earth in the Lower 48.

Landscape of autumn farmland with woods in sunset light
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13. Vermont

This famously sparsely populated state is covered in rolling green hills, all of which seem to have clear mountain streams, lakes, and tiny villages huddled around them. (God forbid you visit during the height of fall, when the red and gold foliage makes The Northeast Kingdom almost painfully beautiful.) From the sunset shores of Lake Champlain to the misty rivers of St. Johnsbury, you’d be hard pressed to find a place in Vermont that didn’t look like it popped out of a calendar. Of course, it is the only state in New England without any ocean coastline, and even Bernie Sanders and Ben & Jerry’s can only make up so much for that.

Aerial view of Stone Mountain in North Carolina in fall
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12. North Carolina

The most beautiful state on the East Coast? Hard to argue with North Carolina, the rare eastern state where you can see a progression of scenery as you drive through from the East Coast beaches to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west. The Outer Banks are some of the best coastal retreats in the nation, and a trip through the lush greenery of the center of the state ultimately brings you to the preeminent place for mountain scenery, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Throw in Asheville’s artsy vibes, and what more could you ask for?

Scenic view of Glacier National Park
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11. Montana

A brunch-menu version of Alaska, Montana offers big Rockies, big lakes, distinct seasons, and two of the most awe-inspiring national parks anywhere in the world: a section of Yellowstone at the south border, and the broad shoulders of Glacier at the top. To be honest, the sky isn't any bigger here than elsewhere; if anything, the mountainous contours at the edges give definition to the surroundings. But what you do get is wide open spaces, and lots of 'em. This, America's third-largest state, is home to just 1 million people compared to 38 million in California and 27 million in Texas. Splendor abounds in Montana, and chances are you can have a huge slab of it (hopefully a hot spring) to yourself.

grand tetons Landscape wyoming
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10. Wyoming

Here marks the best-of-the-best portion of this list. Everyone in the top fifth has some singular, majestic facet that can make a case for being the best in the land. Wyoming is so rich with beauty that even the Grand Tetons—home to quite possibly the single most dramatic vista points in the country—somehow get overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park right next door. But if all you've ever seen of Wyoming is Jackson Hole and I-80, you're missing out on the otherworldly high plains outside of Laramie and Cheyenne, the ghostly rocks of Vedauwoo, the mountains of the Front Range (the very same mountains you saw on your trip to Denver), the Wind River Range, the Bighorns, and the brightest Milky Way views in the Lower 48. That's not to mention Red Canyon, the Red Desert, Devils Tower, or the wildlife, including elk, moose, bison, and pronghorn populations that number in the hundreds of thousands. Few people venture into Wyoming to see just how the light shimmers off gold Aspen trees on a limitless mountain prairie—and folks in the Cowboy State like that just fine.

Thunderhead Mountain with Blue Skies in Sedona Arizona
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9. Arizona

Arizona’s baseline is a riot of desert oranges and fuchsias that only build to perhaps the most-ogled feature on the continent: the Grand Canyon, the climax of a million American road trips. Monument Valley has been scientifically proven to be where cowboys' souls go when they die. Elsewhere, Arizona's B-sides—the Superstition Mountains, the Petrified Forest, Saguaro, Lake Powell, the areas around Flagstaff and Sedona—would alone make it a top 20 state. And don't sleep on one of the most dramatic terrestrial features anywhere: the 560-foot-deep meteor crater that, befitting so much of Arizona's look, literally came from elsewhere in the solar system.

Pictured Rocks Michigan Upper Peninsula Beach
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8. Michigan

Taken on their own, the Upper or Lower Peninsulas could have ranked in the upper tiers of this list. Combine them, and you’ve basically got two knockout states for the price of one—even if the Yoopers up north don’t want you to know. The most beautiful state east of the Mississippi is home to a staggering 3,288 miles of pure Michigan coast. Thanks to some meandering prehistoric glaciers, this landlocked treasure is surrounded by inland seas, and the Great Lakes combine to offer up some of the best beaches in the entire continental US. From the unspoiled forests of the UP to the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan to the craggy coast of Lake Huron, and the more than 11,000 inland lakes between, you could spend years exploring Michigan, and never reach the end of those good waters.

Ecola State Park looking south toward Canon Beach and haystack Rock, Oregon coast
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7. Oregon

Oregon’s west side is all rugged coastline and sprawling rainforests. Inland, you’ll find dense Douglas fir forests and snow-capped mountains; high desert and sprawling volcanic fields; and hills that look like they were painted by ancient deities who were doing plein-air art before it was cool in Portland. This is a state whose most famous highway, the Columbia River Gorge Highway, cuts a swath between Oregon and Washington that’s overflowing with sweeping vistas and roaring waterfalls. The coastline is pocked with giant rocks like Haystack and natural oddities like the surreal Thor’s Well. Add in Crater Lake National Park, the snowy peaks of Mounts Hood and Bachelor, the Willamette Valley wine country, and the undulating Painted Hills in the empty, open east, and you've got a state that holds its own as a coastal gem or a desert standout.


Mt Rainier Beautiful scenery in the state of Washington
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6. Washington

All that stuff we said about Oregon? You’ll find most of that up north, yet somehow everything seems more epic, from the craggy coastline to the thick forests that cover most of the state like a cozy flannel. Mt. Rainier holds its own against the rockiest of Rockies, while St. Helen’s flat-top offers a (somewhat) easily climbable way to get up close and personal with a (also somewhat) recently exploded volcano. The state is home to not one but two towering mountain ranges (the dramatic Cascades, the rainforested Olympics) as well as the winding Columbia River Gorge. The San Juan Islands are the closest thing you’ll get to cruising through Alaska without having to go north of the 49th parallel. The state’s two national parks—Olympic and North Cascades—manage the duality of being among the country’s best and the country’s most isolated. Even parts of Eastern and Central Washington—especially up north in the Okanagan—have some spectacular desert scenery.

Maroon Bells, Aspen Colorado in autumn color
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5. Colorado

To make it into the top 10% of scenic states, you’ve gotta have a certain je ne sais quoi. That’s no problem for Colorado, since anybody who’s ever set foot here has been wowed by the sheer verticalityincluding extraterrestrials. Colorado has more than 50—that’s five-zero—peaks standing higher than 14,000 feet, more than triple the rest of the Lower 48 combined. Harder to reach, but no less amazing, are the state's abundant mountain lakes—places that make the journey up those peaks worth the trek and provide some of the most underrated beachfront on the planet. The only drawback to Colorado is that the eastern third or so feels like Nebraska got a director's cut. To get the most out of this state, take a drive from Denver to Telluride and prepare to be blown away.

red rock formation in arches national park
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4. Utah

To rank this high with exactly zero miles of coastline, you’ve gotta have some superlative sights, and Utah brings it like no other landlocked state in the nation. It’s one of the few states where someone can look at a picture and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s Utah,” whether it’s the famous sandstone arches and the canyons at Moab or the bizarre formations in Goblin Valley. And that’s just the southern half. The Bonneville Salt Flats are one of the greatest geological sights in America, and further north, Utah is home to powder-covered mountains as good as any in the west. If outdoor recreation is your top vacation priority, you might not find a better place.

Rainbow Lake, Alaska, the Aleutian Mountain Range, near Willow Alaska
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3. Alaska

No state will leave you in complete awe of nature like Alaska. Whether it’s Kenai Fjords and the glaciers of the inside passage, Denali’s vast expanse of snow-capped peaks, or the sprawling tundra that makes up the interior, the state boasts the kind of rugged wilderness that just doesn’t exist in the rest of America. (For proof, look no further than its eight massive national parks, including Gates of the Arctic, the largest of all 63.)

Part of the fun is that much of Alaska isn’t accessible by road, so the only way to get around is via scenic boat trips, helicopter tours, or Northern Lights train rides—all of which come with ample opportunities to spot whales, bears, sea lions, and other animals you typically never see outside of zoos. And although the land masses here are the biggest scenic draw, Alaska has some pretty respectable beach towns to boot.

USA, Hawaii, Kauai, Wailua State Park, Wailua Falls, aerial view
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2. Hawaii

Pound-for-pound, acre-for-acre, this archipelago is the most spectacularly diverse and diversely spectacular place you can get to without a passport—and maybe even with one. The Hawaiian islands—seven larger islands, plus 130 smaller, uninhabited islets—hold such an array of landscapes because of their vast age gaps: for example, forested, canyoned Kauai is 6 million years older than the broad, dark, raw Big Island, which is still growing, fed by the glowing volcanic vent that birthed the lot. Between them: Oahu, with heart-stopping beaches and jungles and cliffs under constant assault by rainbows; Maui, a sheaf of vacation postcards that unionized and formed an island; tourist-light Molokai, where some of the world's steepest cliffs plunge into deep blue oceans; and Lanai, which looks like the lovechild of Ireland and a Caribbean isle. You don't think it can be true until you get there, but Hawaii is one of the few destinations that, if anything, manages to exceed its perfect 10 reputation.

Yosemite national park scenic mountains
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1. California

Look, we didn’t really want it to be California. Californians don’t really need more reasons to say “I told you so.” But if we’re being truly honest, it couldn’t really be another state holding it down at the top of the list.

Yes, it has issues. Lots of ‘em. But how many beautiful things don’t? For a moment, let’s drop the talk of climate change and traffic and Kardashians and In-N-Out and talk for a minute about how California has EVERY SINGLE KIND OF BEAUTY you could possibly want. Start in the south with the expansive, natural beaches set against towering cliffs. Then move inland to the moon-like desertscapes in the Mojave. There’s the drive along the PCH and Big Sur, leading in the wine country of the Central Coast and up into San Francisco, a city that owes its aesthetic to cliffside views and curlicues of fog.

Oh, and lest we forget Yosemite National Park. Or Redwood National Park. Or Death Valley National Park. Or any of the many underrated national parks. Or the funky desert landscape featuring everything from Joshua Tree’s bizarro rock formations to the Antelope Valley’s kaleidoscopic poppy bloom. Or the wine country that stretches from Napa Valley in the north to Temecula in the south. Look, the Golden State isn’t for everybody, but as far as sheer diversity of natural beauty is concerned, nothing else comes close. You can see why, once upon a time, people crossed expansive grasslands and steep mountains and punishing deserts only to arrive in California and say to themselves, the trip was worth it after all.

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Matt Meltzer, Bison Messink, Sam Eifling, Andy Kryza, and Adam Lapetina contributed to the reporting of this story.