The United States of America ("USA," "US," "United States," "America," or simply "the States") is a large country in central and north-western North America. The U.S. also includes several Pacific islands (primarily represented by the state of Hawaii) and an unincorporated Caribbean territory (the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico).
One of the most powerful and wealthy nations on earth and third largest in territory and people, it has a mixture of densely-populated urban areas with wide areas of low population and incredible natural beauty.
With a history of mass immigration dating from the 17th century, the U.S. prides itself on its "melting pot" of different cultures from around the globe. Even the briefest visit to the United States is a study in contrasts.
The U.S. stretches across the midsection of North America, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, with non-contiguous states to the north west and in the Pacific. As such, its many regions are varied. Following the admission of the state of Hawaii in 1959, the United States has 50 states as well as the city of Washington D.C. (considered separate and independent of any state) and a few territories which are not considered regular states. Below is a rough grouping of the country into regions relevant to the traveler, from the Atlantic to the Pacific:
New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont)
Home to gabled churches, rustic antiques, and steeped in American history, New England offers beaches, spectacular seafood, rugged mountains, frequent winter snows, and some of the young nation's oldest cities, in a territory small enough to reasonably cover (hastily) within a week.
Mid-Atlantic (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania)
Ranging from New York in the north to Washington DC, the Mid-Atlantic is home to a number of the nation's most densely populated cities, but also rolling mountains and traditional seaside resorts like Long Island and the Jersey Shore.
South (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia)
The slow-going, friendly South is celebrated for its down-home cookin' and its blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and country music traditions. This lush, largely subtropical region includes verdant (and refreshingly cool) mountains, stately agricultural plantations, and vast cypress swamps.
Northern Florida is similar to the rest of the South, but head further south into the megaresorts of Orlando, retirement communities, tropical Carribean-influenced Miami, the Everglades swamp, and 1200 miles of sandy beaches.
Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin)
The Midwest is home to rolling farmland, large forests, picturesque towns, and many bustling industrial cities. Many of these states border the Great Lakes, the largest system of freshwater lakes in the world, forming the North Coast of the U.S.
The second biggest state in the nation, it's like a whole other country (and in fact, once was). The terrain ranges from southeastern swamplands to the cattle-ranching South Plains to the miles of sandy beaches of South Texas to the mountains and deserts of West Texas.
Great Plains (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma)
Travel westward through these supposedly "flat" states, from the edge of the eastern forests through the prairies and onto the High Plains, an enormous expanse of steppes (shortgrass prairies) as desolate as in the frontier heyday.
Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming)
The spectacular snow-covered Rockies offer outdoor pursuits such as hiking, rafting, and skiing on some of the greatest snow on Earth. There are also deserts and some large cities.
Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah)
Heavily influenced by Hispanic culture, the arid Southwest is home to some of the nation's most spectacular natural attractions, and a flourishing artistic culture. Although mostly empty, the region's deserts have some of the nation's largest cities.
In some ways quintessentially American, and in others completely atypical, California offers world-class cities, deserts, rain forests, snowy mountains, and a famous beach lifestyle. Northern California (centered around the Bay Area) and Southern California (centered around Los Angeles) are culturally very different.
Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon)
The pleasantly mild Pacific Northwest offers outdoor pursuits as well as cosmopolitan cities. The terrain ranges from spectacular rain forests to scenic mountains and volcanoes to sage-covered steppes and interior deserts.
One fifth as large as the rest of the United States, Alaska reaches well into the Arctic, and features expansive mountainous wilderness.
A volcanic archipelago in the tropical Pacific, 2,300 miles from California (the nearest state), laid-back Hawaii has long been a vacation paradise
The United States has over 10,000 cities, towns, and villages. The following is a list of nine of the most notable. Other cities can be found in their corresponding regions.
Washington (D.C.) - The national capital, home to the United States' most grand public buildings as well as a thriving multi-cultural community.
Boston - The capital of Massachusetts retains much of its colonial charm, but is kept young by its multitudes of students.
Chicago - The "Windy City", bustling heart of the Midwest, transportation hub of the nation, notable for its large number of architectural gems and massive skyscrapers.
Los Angeles - The home of Hollywood and the film industry, palm-fringed Los Angeles offers mountains, beaches, sunshine, and everything else visitors look to find in California.
Miami - Miami is home to one of the greatest beaches in the country, and has a mix of sun-seeking northerners and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean seeking a chance to make it in the US.
New Orleans - Despite a devastating hurricane, "the Big Easy" is still famous for its atmospheric French Quarter and annual Mardi Gras celebration.
New York - The United States' largest city, with world-class cuisine, unparalleled arts offerings, and one of the most diverse populations on the planet. Both a symbol of the country and intensely international.
San Francisco - One of the most photogenic cities in the world, idiosyncratic San Francisco offers a diverse array of attractions, and is a popular gateway to the California coast and Yosemite National Park.
Seattle - This green and rainy city is known for its trend-setting cultural scene and the business presence of international high-tech giants.
Other destinations
These are some of the largest and most famous destinations outside of major cities.
The Grand Canyon
Yellowstone National Park
Yosemite National Park
Death Valley
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Glacier National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The U.S. is difficult to characterize because of its size and diversity, both in geography and in people, but an overview will help travelers to see these differences and perhaps help to find what they are most interested in. It is not realistic to see a little of everything unless one has a very long time to spend; indeed, even lifetime residents have trouble taking it all in. Part of the States' appeal is that you can experience so much in one country.
Due to the vastness of their own country, and due to the fact that many of the neighboring countries did not require U.S. citizens to have them, fewer than a third of Americans have passports, although this number is expected to increase greatly. Recently, with the requirement of a passport to travel to its neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, as well as to nearby Caribbean countries, there has been a surge in demand for passports.
The U.S. is one of the largest countries in the world in terms of area (at roughly 9.6 million sq km, it's about half the size of Russia and around the same size as China).
The contiguous United States (the 48 states other than Alaska and Hawaii) are bound by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with much of the country's population living on these two coasts. Its only borders are shared with Canada to the north, and Mexico to the south.
The country has three major mountain ranges. The Appalachians extend from Canada to the state of Alabama, a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. They are the oldest of the three mountain ranges, and are not particularly high, but offer spectacular sightseeing and excellent camping spots. The Rockies are the highest in North America, extending from Alaska to New Mexico, with many areas protected as national parks. Their natural wonders offer impressive hiking, camping, and sightseeing opportunities. The combined Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are the youngest. The Sierras extend across the "backbone" of California, with sites such as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, then give way to the even younger volcanic Cascade range, with some of the highest points in the country.
The Great Lakes define much of the border between the United States and Canada, also known as the North Coast. Formed by the pressure of glaciers retreating north at the end of the last Ice Age, the five lakes touch the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The lakes span hundreds of miles, and their shores vary from pristine wilderness areas to industrial "rust belt" cities. They are the second-largest body of freshwater in the world, after the shrinking polar ice caps.
The overall climate is temperate, with notable exceptions. Alaska has Arctic tundra, while Hawaii and South Florida are tropical. The Great Plains are dry, flat and grassy, turning into arid desert in the far West.
Seasons vary dramatically in the northern and mid-western major cities. In a single winter storm, as much as 2 feet (61 cm) of snow can fall, with bitterly cold temperatures. Summers are typically mild but very humid. However, temperatures over 100°F (38°C) sometimes invade the entire Midwest and Great Plains region now. Some areas in the northern plains can experience dangerously cold temperatures of -30°F (-34°C) during the winter. Temperatures below 0°F (-18°C) sometimes reach as far south as Kansas or even Oklahoma.
The climate of the South also varies, but with the extremes coming instead in "the long, hot summer", somewhat resembling tropical climates (the climate in the South is partially tropical). Humidity and high temperatures make warmer months in these states good for little but sipping iced tea and plunging into cool bodies of water. But from October through April the weather is glorious, and nuisance insects subside.
The Great Plains & Midwestern states also experience tornadoes from the late spring to early fall, earlier in the south and later in the north. See the Tornado safety article for more information. States along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, may experience hurricanes between June and November. These intense and dangerous storms frequently miss the the U.S. mainland, but if one is forecast to hit, do not take the situation lightly. Evacuations are often ordered for areas in the direct path of the storm and should be heeded.
The Rockies are very cold and snowy. Some regions see over 500 inches (1,200 cm) of snow in a season. Some of the world's most famous ski resorts are located in Colorado and Utah. Even during the summer, temperatures are cool in the mountains, and snow can fall nearly year-round.
The Southwestern deserts are extremely arid and hot during the summer, with summer temperatures exceeding 100°F (38°C) through most of the summer. This includes such cities as Las Vegas and Phoenix. Thunderstorms can be expected in the southwest frequently from July through September because of the summer monsoon that rises from Mexico. Winters in this region are mild, and snow is unusual. Average annual precipitation is less than 10 inches (25 cm).
Cool and damp weather is common in the northwest in areas such as in Seattle or Portland. Rain is most frequent in winter, and snow is rare along the coastal regions. The Pacific coast rarely sees snow and extremes in temperature are uncommon. Rain falls almost exclusively from late fall through early spring along the coast, except in western Washington, where rain falls year-round.
America was once populated by peoples who migrated there from northeast Asia. In the United States those that remain are known as Native Americans, or American Indians. With populations once in the tens of millions, most led tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyles, although some developed political enclaves based on agriculture, such as the Five Nations of the Northeast and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, various parts of the region were colonized by several European nations and/or their religious missionaries, including Spain, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Russia. The British colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were the kernel of what we now know as the United States of America. By the early 18th century, 13 colonies ranged along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to present-day Maine. Their growth drove the displacement the Native American population westward and the extinction of many others, as well as the end of the embryonic Dutch and Swedish footholds.

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