What better way to celebrate American history this Presidents’ Day than by taking an expansive, cross-country road trip? You’d be surprised by some of the lesser-known treasures tucked away across the United States. From the Hoover Dam to FDR’s Bay Area “Floating White House,” you can trek across mountains and state lines in honor of our country’s presidents. After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.”
Check out these not-to-miss spots.
11 sights you must see in honor of our country’s presidents
1. Teddy Roosevelt’s first conservation effort at Crater Lake
Begin your journey out in the West! Oregon’s Crater Lake is undoubtedly beautiful, but this spot is historically significant as well: it was the first major conservation effort enacted by Teddy Roosevelt. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” he once said, “but the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone …” And so Crater Lake was established as the first of many natural wonders that Teddy Roosevelt, the “Conservation President,” would work toward preserving.
2. FDR’s “Floating White House” in Oakland, California
From here, head south on I-5, continuing through the forests of Oregon, past the California border. In the Bay Area, there’s a historical landmark that’s on the move, yet hiding in plain sight: FDR’s private yacht, the USS Potomac. Roosevelt’s previous tenure as Assistant Secretary of the Navy left him with a deep appreciation for the sea. Also known as the “Floating White House,” this was often an informal meeting place for the president and his advisors. It’s now kept and maintained in Oakland, where visitors can enjoy meals and bay tours aboard the Potomac.
3. Hoover’s legacy at the Colorado River
Head down I-5 and onto the 15, heading eastward into the southern tip of Nevada. One of America’s greatest landmarks sits along the scenic Colorado River: the Hoover Dam. During the Great Depression, it was a powerhouse in many ways, taming the river while also generating electricity and jobs for 5,000 workers.
4. Taft’s legacy at Zion National Park
Onward! Taking the I-15 N, cross the northwestern corner of Arizona until you land along the southern Utah border at Zion National Park. Formerly called the Mukuntuweap National Monument, this was another conservation effort from an American President — this time, William Howard Taft in 1909. Zion National Park is home to incredible canyons boasting rock layers that are around 240 million years old! One look and you can see why Taft was so keen on helping preserve this natural wonder.
5. Gerald R. Ford’s Rocky Mountain Ampitheater
Now take I-70 into Colorado. Surrounded by evergreen forests and the Rocky Mountains, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater serves as a thriving cultural center. It might seem odd for a Nebraska-born, Michigan-raised president to have a monument in Vail. But it turns out that the Fords had a major connection to this majestic getaway, returning every year to flip on the town Christmas tree. While you’re sightseeing in Vail, stop by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens to get a glimpse of some rare, exotic wildflowers as part of the Fords’ conservation efforts.
6. Untamed Texas wilderness at LBJ’s Ranch
Heading southeast, you’ll find yourself deep in the heart of Texas for the estate of our thirty-sixth president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Among the sprawling countryside, you can see Johnson’s childhood home, along with many historic barns and windmills dating back to the 1800s. There are also plenty of outdoor activities like swimming and swimming — and you just might spot a herd of Texas Longhorns.
7. Hillary and Bill’s BBQ stop in Hot Springs, Arkansas
Time for a pit stop! While there’s plenty of excellent barbeque to be found in Texas, McClard’s is in Hot Springs, Arkansas, about 30 minutes outside of Little Rock. This AR-style BBQ spot is a favorite of Bill and Hillary Clinton. In fact, not only do the Clintons frequent McClard’s, but the restaurant has even catered Air Force One several times!
8. Abe Lincoln’s Illinois home
Travel along the I-55 from Arkansas to Springfield, Illinois, jumping back in time to the home of President Abraham Lincoln. Open to the public since 1887, the tour covers Lincoln’s family life leading up to his 1861 Presidential term. But before the presidency and the Emancipation Proclamation, he was Abe Lincoln the family man and successful lawyer, demonstrating what was referred to as “an ambition … that knew no rest.” Before moving on to Washington, Lincoln said of his Springfield home, “to this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
9. Obama’s big moment in Grant Park, Chicago
Heading north along the I-55 to Chicago, you’ll arrive at Grant Park, the site of one of the most powerful moments in modern American history: Obama’s speech on the night of his 2008 victory. Surrounded by cheering supporters and Chicago’s scenic skyline, he opened his speech with these words: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible … tonight is your answer.” The park itself is a scenic destination, located right on the edge of Lake Michigan.
10. George Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon
Head east to Mount Vernon where you’ll get a glimpse into the life of our very first president, George Washington. The plantation is surrounded by lush, ornate gardens and woods, overlooking the majestic Potomac River. The house itself is open to tours, having been restored to its vintage 1799 condition. Washington spent 40 years at this residence, returning periodically during his political career. He’s even buried there along with First Lady Martha Washington, and you can visit the tomb. Fifty yards southwest and surrounded by woods, you’ll find the haunting slave memorial, an elevated column upon a circular dais, inscribed into which are the words, “faith,” “hope,” and “love.”
11. The big finale: Washington, DC
Further down the Potomac River (or the George Washington Memorial Parkway, if you don’t have a boat-car), is the cherry on top of the American sundae: Washington, DC. You can probably name some of the famous monuments here: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial — but it doesn’t stop there. DC is also home to gorgeous dedications to Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., and FDR.
When traveling the United States, you’ll cross many borders and see topographies as diverse as the people who inhabit them. The breadth of our presidents stretches all the way across America, from the wild west, to the golden heartland, to the east coast. But as different as we may be — and as Barack Obama once agreed — “we are, and always will be, the United States of America.”