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16 Life-Changing Travel Experiences You Can Have Only in America

We've all heard some variation of the phrase, "collect memories, not stuff." When traveling, this means buy less tchotchke and have more experiences. Here's where you can do exactly that.

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Wizard Island
via tripadvisor.com

Hike the switchbacks to the top of Wizard Island

Simply being up on the rim of the wondrous Crater Lake can be life-affirming, if not changing. A hike down inside the crater followed by a short boat trip to the volcanic cinder cone called Wizard Island, and then a zigzagging hike up 755 feet to the top though is pure, natural magic. Pro tip: bring a full water bottle to drink on the way up and then refill it with lake water that is pristine, cold and delicious. Check out these one-of-a-kind bucket list travel experiences.

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Courtesy W The Foshay

Attend the NCAA Final Four

The thrilling conclusion of March Madness is about so much more than incredible basketball games and busted brackets. There are celebrity sightings, athlete autographs to collect, live music, and interactive games, for starters. The next two Final Fours are in Minneapolis and Atlanta, in the shiny new NFL stadiums in those two fun cities, so even if your team doesn’t end up cutting down the nets, you will still have a life-changing time at the Final Four. Stay with the official NCAA partner Marriott; in 2019, we recommend Marriott’s beautiful W Hotel The Foshay in downtown. After the games you can unwind from all the excitement with a cocktail at its Prohibition-style bar on the 27th floor.

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Lone Mountain Ranch
via tripadvisor.com

Sleigh ride dinner in the Montana mountains

Picture this: you and your favorite person/people are snuggled hip to hip under a warm blanket, beneath a sea of stars undeterred by light pollution, in a wooden sleigh pulled by two majestic horses in the snow through evergreen trees. This 20-minute journey culminates at a cabin in the woods lit only by candlelight. There, you will be treated to a remarkable pot roast dinner, wine pairings, and live acoustic music and stories of a life lived in the mountains. By the time you return to your Lone Mountain Ranch log cabin or car via the same romantic method of transportation, you’re stuffed… and changed. Find out the 32 secrets of people who’ve crossed major items off their bucket list.

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Denver, USA: July 21, 2012: Famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison. It is a rock structure near Morrison, Colorado, 10 miles west of Denver, where concerts are given in the open-air amphitheatre.
Radomir Rezny/Shutterstock

See a concert at Red Rocks

Music has changed many lives and still does today. Seeing a band live in concert can be even more life-altering. Now imagine hearing your favorite band perform under the stars at an amphitheater cut into stunning natural red rock, on a stage sandwiched between a pair of three hundred-foot monoliths dating back some 250 million years, in the very place where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains. This stunning natural setting over 6,000 feet above sea level sits just ten miles west of Denver, Colorado and has played host to The Beatles, U2, and just about every legendary artist of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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MEMPHIS, USA - NOV 13: National Civil Rights Museum on November 13, 2016. It is built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated

Tour the Lorraine Motel

Being inside The Lorraine Motel, now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, is one of the most powerful experiences any American can have in the country and, frankly, is an experience every American should have. This historic site in Memphis, Tennessee is inspiring and deeply emotional. A tour of the National Civil Rights Museum isn’t an easy day out, but it will change you for the better. Here are 50 things to do before you turn 50.

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nebraska crane migration
Courtesy Nebraska Tourism

Watch the second largest animal migration on Earth

Bird lovers and wildlife photographers alike will not want to fly over Nebraska because it’s home to the second largest migration on Earth. Every March, the Sandhill Crane migration brings more than 80 percent of the world’s population of sandhill cranes (that amounts to over 600,000 birds) to the Platte River Valley. This is the world’s largest gathering of one of the oldest living species. It’s an event Jane Goodall refers to it as the second best in the world behind the wildebeest migration in the Serengeti! Audubon’s Nebraska Crane Festival in Kearney, Nebraska is the ideal way to experience this natural spectacle.

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Winnie the Pooh at the New York Public Library, USA - 03 Aug 2016
Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock

Spend time with Winnie the Pooh and friends

Maybe you can’t get your family to the south of England to hike in the very real life Hundred Acre Wood but you can still visit with Winnie the Pooh. He and four of his best friends—Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger— are always ready to meet you at The New York Public Library in Bryant Park because Christopher Robin’s original friends have lived there since 1987. Seeing the actual stuffed animals that inspired the famous tales will transport you back to your childhood and help cement the bonds you are developing with your own kids today.

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Redwoods of Giant Redwoods National Park California. U.S
Fernando Tatay/Shutterstock

Stand among giants in the Redwood Forest

Nothing in the natural world provides the kind of perspective like the Redwood trees of Northern California. These ancient giants soar some 350 feet into the sky and can only be found in this precious portion of America. To stand and hike among these 1,000-year-old coastal redwoods and sequoias is soul-uplifting and life-changing. Check out 16 more beautiful destinations around the world.

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High Line Park in New York City.
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Walking The High Line in spring

It takes less than an hour to experience The High Line in totality but its impact will last far longer. This 1.45-mile stretch of elevated train track on New York City’s west side dates back to the mid-1800s and has since become a world-renowned reclaimed public space. Walking The High Line at any time of year, but on a beautiful spring day especially, will bring about an understanding that forgotten-about things, structures once destined for demolition, can and do still have value, and that with innovative thinking and community support they may bloom anew. You’ll see the city, and maybe the world, in a fresh way up there.

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA USA - JAN 22 2016: Historic building in the French Quarter in New Orleans, USA. Tourism provides a large source of revenue after the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
GTS Productions/Shutterstock

Party at Mardi Gras

A party like no other happens every year down in New Orleans. Whether you fancy a hurricane or a Shirley Temple, or prefer karaoke to jazz, being among the revelry on Bourbon Street with strings of colorful beads around your neck and a drink in your hand during the extended Mardi Gras season in NOLA is a unique travel experience you should try to have at least once in your life.

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Courtesy Jeff Bogle

Snowmobile to Old Faithful

Under normal circumstances, numbers like -8 and -40 would be reason to stay indoors beneath blankets by the fireplace but when you’ve got the opportunity to sit atop a snowmobile (with heated seats and handlebars!) on a full-day, Two Top Tour of Old Faithful, you disregard the temperature and the wind chills, pull on a few extra layers, and shake to activate many hand warmers. The chance to have America’s first National Park, along with Yellowstone’s picturesque snow-covered bison, steamy geysers, and other-worldly hoarfrost, practically to yourself is worth being chillier than you’ve ever been before.

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Tropical Sunrise - Vieques, Puerto Rico
Paul Dempsey/Shutterstock

Snorkel in a bioluminescent bay

Only a handful of places like this exist in the entire world, and three of them are in Puerto Rico! In these magical bodies of water are harmless, single-celled microorganisms called dinoflagellates that glow blue-green when agitated. As you snorkel or kayak through the bioluminescent bay, the water will light up around you, blowing your mind in the process. Here are 11 amazing beaches you must visit this year.

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Grand Canyon Village, Arizona, USA - September 17, 2011: Vintage Steam Locomotive at the station in Grand Canyon Village. Grand Canyon Railway.

Vacations By Rail to the Grand Canyon

Departing from L.A. and Chicago, Amtrak’s Southwest Chief reaches Arizona after an overnight train journey. Upon arrival in Flagstaff, you will board the historic Grand Canyon Railway to reach the famed Southern rim of the canyon. From there, a narrated motor coach tour carries you to some of the most scenic postcard-perfect overlooks in America. Embarking on a Vacations By Rail train journey to the Grand Canyon this year will allow you to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park in person!

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cruise to alaska
Courtesy Jeff Bogle

Cruise to Alaska

Alaska is the final frontier of American travel experiences but the 49th state is easily reachable from Seattle on cruise ships like the Carnival Legend and Carnival Spirit. Once in Alaska, stand on the top deck to see whales breaching in iceberg-dotted waters, ooh and aah at the seals sleeping on those little icebergs, explore charming ports, eat a fresh Dungeness crabcake, maybe even rent a car and drive into Canada’s remote Yukon Territory, and hop on a seaplane to get a bird’s eye view of the wild, icy expanse of many magnificent glaciers. An Alaskan cruise will change your life.

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MGM Resorts stage, SXSW Festival, Austin, USA - 16 Mar 2018
Tara Mays/Variety/Shutterstock

Rock out at SXSW

Where else can you see a new singer-songwriter crooning in a laundromat after breakfast, catch a screening of an experimental movie during lunch, and hear an up and coming punk band from the other side of the planet rock out in a park in the mid-afternoon sun before squeezing into a theater eager for a famous pop band to take the stage? At this annual event, you’ll also hear comedians, innovators, filmmakers, and thought-leaders speak. Something you will see, hear, do or experience as a result of attending a sprawling, madcap SXSW Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas is bound to change your life.

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Blue Hawaiian Helicopters - Hilo
via tripadvisor.com

Helicopter over molten lava

On Hawaii’s Big Island, the active volcano is constantly spewing molten lava. That’s amazing enough but when the fiery orange meets the crashing waves on the rocks, the result is a spectacular natural show unlike anything you have ever seen. Witnessing this display from the sky on a Blue Hawaiian Helicopter tour is certifiably life-changing! Now, check out the best bucket list adventures in every state.

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Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.