Our Top 10 Stops for a Science Road Trip

Do something different, guys. Make your brains happy with a science road trip.
Do something different, guys. Make your brains happy with a science road trip.
Stockbyte/Thinkstock

For those who believe life is about the journey and not the destination, there's no better way to spend a vacation than going on a road trip. In the United States, the road trip harkens back to the very beginning of the country when Lewis and Clark made their famous trek out to the Pacific Coast. Since then, the United States has developed a reputation for road trips, both real and fictional. Jack Kerouac, for instance, turned his frequent drives across the country into the fiction-autobiography hybrid "On the Road." And who can forget road trip movies like "Thelma & Louise" and "National Lampoon's Vacation"?

While most road trips are a bit tamer than Kerouac's or Clark Griswold's, they're no less memorable for the participants. The first step toward embarking on an epic road trip is to map out an itinerary. But what if you and your fellow travelers aren't interested in hitting up the standard tourist traps and roadside attractions? Where should you head if your idea of a good time involves chemistry kits or model rockets? In that case, you'll want to check out our list of the top 10 science road trip destinations in the United States. Our article takes you on a sweeping tour of the country that starts on the East Coast, loops all the way to the Pacific Ocean and ends in the Midwest. Pick out a few that strike your fancy or better yet, follow our itinerary and see all the sights in one super science trip.

For the first stop, you geology buffs might want to make sure you have an extra set of batteries for your headlamp.

10
Mammoth Cave, Geology
You, too, could check out the ruins of Karnak inside Mammoth Cave if you visit this treasure trove of geological marvels.
You, too, could check out the ruins of Karnak inside Mammoth Cave if you visit this treasure trove of geological marvels.
Photo courtesy National Park Service

Anyone with a passion for geology should consider a trek to Mammoth Cave, located about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Louisville, Ky., mandatory vacationing. This national park lives up to its name; with nearly 400 miles (644 kilometers) of passageways, it's far and away the planet's longest cave [source: National Park Service]. While visitors have explored Mammoth Cave for thousands of years, it wasn't until the Roosevelt-commissioned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built 24 miles (39 kilometers) of trails into the caves that the park became a major tourist destination [source: Western Kentucky University]. Thanks to their work, Mammoth Cave attracts around half a million visitors every year [source: National Park Service]. Those folks are treated to breathtaking views of stalagmites, stalactites, gypsum flowers and every other cave formation known to man.

Don't worry if you're not a seasoned spelunker. Mammoth Cave has something for every type of adventurer. If you're looking for a leisurely walk through the caverns, for instance, you can take the Frozen Niagara tour, an easy, hour-long walk that takes you past the Crystal Lake, the Moonlight Dome and the Onyx Colonnade on the way to a spectacular view of the Frozen Niagara flowstone. For the more adventurous, there's the Wild Cave Tour, a six-hour trip that takes you through claustrophobia-inducing passageways -- some only 9 inches (23 centimeters) high -- on your way to features like Thorpe's Pit and the Cathedral Domes [source: National Park Service]. Once you're finished exploring the caves, you can go horseback riding on nearby trails or kayaking on the Nolin River, which will give you good practice for navigating the swampy waters of the next spot on our list.

9
Okefenokee Swamp, Biology
An ethereal moment at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia
An ethereal moment at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee Swamp wasn't always the wildlife refuge it is today. For more than 3,000 years, Native Americans depended on its abundant resources for survival. After the last Seminoles were driven from the swamp in 1842, the territory was turned over to commercial interests, but the land proved too treacherous to turn into cotton, sugar and rice plantations. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was founded in 1936, preserving one of the richest ecosystems in the United States.

Budding biologists and anyone else with an interest in Earth's incredible biodiversity may find Okefenokee Swamp just as thrilling as any theme park. Guests can check out the 5,000-square-foot (465-square-meter) visitors' center, filled with information and exhibits like an underwater view of the area, but you'll have to venture into the swamp itself to truly appreciate Okefenokee.

Located on 438,000 acres straddling the border between Georgia and Florida, the swamp is home to more than 600 species of plants and 400 species of animals, including numerous endangered ones, like the indigo snake and the gopher tortoise [source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]. As you'd imagine, this spot has its fair share of predators; bobcats, black bears and an estimated 13,000 alligators call the swamp home [source: Stripling]. Fortunately, several companies offer guided tours, allowing prudent souls the chance to see Okefenokee's wildlife from the safety of a boat.

Exploring the refuge can make you feel like you're on another planet, but if you're actually interested in space travel, you'll need to head to the next destination on our list.

8
Kennedy Space Center, Aerospace Engineering
If watching things head for outer space is your idea of a good time (space shuttle Atlantis is pictured), Kennedy Space Center should make your bucket list.
If watching things head for outer space is your idea of a good time (space shuttle Atlantis is pictured), Kennedy Space Center should make your bucket list.
Photo courtesy NASA/Kenny Allen

With the last space shuttle launch complete, Kennedy Space Center might not receive as much media attention as it has in the past, but that won't stop its 1.5 million annual visitors from heading to the space center's incredible Visitor Complex, located just outside of Orlando, Fla. [source: Kennedy Space Center]. Short of working for NASA, you'll probably never get a more in-depth look at America's space program than the one the space center provides.

Visitors get to tour actual launch facilities used during the space shuttle program, watch films about NASA in IMAX theaters and dig through an extensive collection of vehicles and equipment that starred in NASA's history. After all, nothing helps you appreciate the engineering brilliance behind manned spaceflight quite like seeing an actual Saturn V rocket in person. You can also get an unparalleled look at what it's like being an astronaut by climbing into Apollo, Gemini and Mercury space capsules or experiencing a simulated shuttle launch. And while many were sad to see the end of the shuttle program, there's one upside for Kennedy Space Center visitors; after it's been decommissioned, Atlantis will be on permanent display here for space shuttle enthusiasts.

The next landmark on our list brings us back to Earth -- or its atmosphere, at least. Read on to learn about a place where talking about the weather isn't just casual conversation.

7
The National Weather Center, Meteorology

Mother Nature can be quite unpredictable at times, but the meteorologists at the National Weather Center (NWC) work around the clock to figure her out. Located on the University of Oklahoma's South Campus, the NWC brings together a wide range of scientists and engineers all dedicated to improving our understanding of the weather, and if you're interested in stopping by, they'll gladly help shore up your knowledge, too. While you'll need to schedule tours of the NWC two to four weeks in advance, it's worth the effort. Visitors get a look at the center's observation deck, the Storm Prediction Center and the National Severe Storms Laboratory, among other things. Better still, plan to visit the NWC during the annual National Weather Festival, a day-long celebration of all things weather. Festivalgoers can check out storm-chasing vehicles, swing by hourly weather balloon launches and watch amateur radio demonstrations.

Once you've studied up on meteorology, you can put your knowledge to good use by making sure the skies will be clear when you visit the next destination on our list, the Mount Graham International Observatory.

6
Mount Graham International Observatory, Astronomy
If this picture doesn't convince you to go see MGIO, we don't know what will.
If this picture doesn't convince you to go see MGIO, we don't know what will.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

Anyone who's been fortunate enough to find themselves miles from civilization in the American Southwest on a clear night can tell you there's no better place to view the stars. No wonder, then, that the world's most advanced optical telescope reigns atop a mountain about 175 miles (282 kilometers) east of Phoenix, Ariz. Known as the Large Binocular Telescope, it's one of three important telescopes located at the Mount Graham International Observatory (MGIO). With the help of its two 27-foot (8.4 meter) wide mirrors and its location in one of the darkest places on Earth (that is, not a lot of light pollution), it promises to capture some of the most breathtaking images of the universe ever seen.

Naturally, visitors to MGIO won't get to operate the sophisticated eye in the sky, but there are plenty of other fascinating things for them to do at the nearby visitors' center called Discovery Park. Here, guests can try their hand at astronomy as they peer deep into the sky through a research-grade, 20-inch (51-centimeter) Cassegrain reflector telescope. Guests to Discovery Park can also explore a number of exhibits geared toward astronomy, see one of the world's largest camera obscuras and even take a ride on Space Shuttle Polaris, a full-motion simulator that takes riders on a tour of the solar system. No doubt about it: Visiting MGIO and Discovery Park is out of this world.

The engineering behind the Mount Graham International Observatory is certainly impressive, but if you're itching to check out an engineering marvel firsthand, you'll want to head about 400 miles (644 kilometers) northwest to our next destination.

5
Hoover Dam, Engineering
Do you know a better way to marvel at the intersection of science and math?
Do you know a better way to marvel at the intersection of science and math?
Robert Cameron/Getty Images

Located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Las Vegas, the mighty Hoover Dam stands as an indelible testament to the power of engineering and the human will. More than 725 feet (221 meters) high and spanning the width of the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam's 17 generators create enough electricity to serve around 1.3 million people in Nevada, Arizona and Colorado [sources: U.S. Department of the Interior, Hoover Dam FAQ; U.S. Department of the Interior, Hydropower FAQ].

Sure, there are dams out there larger than Hoover, but there aren't many as impressive, especially considering the fact that construction of the dam started more than 80 years ago. More astonishing still is the fact that the dam took only five years to construct, despite requiring more than 5 million barrels of cement and well over 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of metal to build [source: U.S. Department of the Interior, Hoover Dam FAQ].

Simply driving up to the roadway turnouts on each side of Hoover Dam is quite an experience, but if you're interested in learning more about the dam, you can be one of around a million visitors to take a tour of the structure and its power plants every year. During these tours, you'll get an up-close look at the dam's equipment, as well as some truly impressive panoramic views of Lake Mead, Hoover Dam and the surrounding area, all while learning about how the dam was constructed and how it operates today.

Hoover Dam demonstrates the benefit of harnessing the power of nature, but there's something to be said for leaving some places untouched, which is why we have nature sanctuaries like the next destination on our list.

4
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Marine Biology
Sunset at La Push beach on the Olympic Coast
Sunset at La Push beach on the Olympic Coast
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Any list of must-see scientific destinations would be remiss without mentioning the amazing diversity of marine life living just off the United State's coasts, and there are few better places to see that wildlife in person than Washington's Olympic Coast. Stretching 73 miles (117 kilometers) along the Pacific Ocean, the Olympic Coast sanctuary is protected completely from commercial development. Visitors can enjoy fishing, camping and whale watching among other activities, all in a protected natural environment in which marine life is thriving. Harbor seals and gray whales are common sights, and more than 300 species of birds populate the coast and the nearby Olympic National Park [source: NOAA].

Experienced adventurers can even take guided diving expeditions or kayaking trips in the sanctuary, but cold water temperatures and notoriously unpredictable weather can make those activities dangerous for anyone lacking experience. The less adventurous can take in the Makah Museum or go on a guided hike to Cape Flattery. Even if you stick to the shore, it's easy to appreciate the harmony among the refuge's fish, birds and other marine animals. No wonder millions of people visit the sanctuary every year [source: NOAA]. Of course, there are a couple of places in the U.S. that get even more visitors every year, and the next destination on our list is one of them.

3
Yellowstone, Zoology
Bison are just one of the heftier mammals budding zoologists may encounter at Yellowstone.
Bison are just one of the heftier mammals budding zoologists may encounter at Yellowstone.
John Wang/Photodisc/Getty Images

Yellowstone National Park needs no introduction. In 2010, more than 3.6 million people thronged the park, and if recent trends are any indication, that number will only continue to climb [source: National Park Service]. Spanning nearly 3,500 square miles (9,065 square kilometers) of the northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone has become a symbol for the importance of preservation efforts. Although Yellowstone is well-known for its geysers and other geothermal features, it's also home to an incredibly diverse spectrum of plants and animals. For instance, the park hosts 67 different species of mammals, a group that includes the well-known grizzly bear and bison alongside lesser known animals like the wolverine and the lynx [source: National Park Service]. A remarkable variety of birds – more than 300 species in all -- call the park home as well, including threatened and endangered species like the whooping crane [source: National Park Service].

Visitors to Yellowstone have no shortage of things to do. In addition to activities like biking, boating and fishing, guests can also go horseback riding, take guided tours through the park and go camping. Granted, visitors need to exercise some precaution as they explore Yellowstone, particularly if they come across animals like bear and bison, but the sprawling, spectacular park offers an unprecedented glimpse into one of the most varied ecosystems in the United States.

While Yellowstone has an impressive amount of wildlife, you'll have to head north if you're interested in animals of the prehistoric variety.

2
The Montana Dinosaur Trail, Paleontology
There are plenty of these bad boys hanging around Montana. Go see for yourself.
There are plenty of these bad boys hanging around Montana. Go see for yourself.
Charles Carpenter/Field Museum Library/Getty Images

Dinosaurs were far too incredible to have only one museum devoted to them, so it's only fitting that the Montana Dinosaur Trail comprises 15 different museums and exhibits spread throughout the state of Montana. Many of the sites focus on the dinosaur fossils found in the area, and all of them put together some incredible displays that will give you a glimpse into a completely different world. And if visiting one or two of the museums on the Montana Dinosaur Trail has you ready for more, pick up a Prehistoric Passport for $5 at each of the trail facilities. Not only does the passport give you a rundown of all 15 sites on the trail, visitors who get a stamp from each site on their passports receive a special T-shirt in recognition of their achievement.

But exactly what kinds of things will amateur paleontologists see once they set out on the Montana Dinosaur Trail? A visit to the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum will put folks face to face with a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex model, as well as a cast of a T. rex skeleton found in the area. At the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont., visitors can check out one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils on the planet, a collection that includes the largest T. rex skull ever found. A trek up to the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum and Field Station gets you a close-up of triceratops and stegosaurus fossils, prehistoric fish fossils and, for the truly adventurous, a chance to go on a fossil dig with a paleontologist. Each of the 15 locations on the dinosaur trail offers a unique glimpse into the lives of dinosaurs, so dinosaur enthusiasts can pick their favorite and get ready for a roaring good time.

After you've explored the ancient fossils of the Dinosaur Trail, head even further back in time by checking out the final destination on our list.

1
Fermilab, Particle Physics

You might think that the home of Tevatron, the world's second largest particle accelerator, would be off-limits to the public, but in reality, the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) not only welcomes visitors but goes to great lengths to make particle physics accessible to everyone. And for visitors that make the trek to the 6,800-acre home of Fermilab, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Chicago, a journey exploring the nature of matter and the very beginning of the universe awaits. Groups of 10 or more can take a private tour of Wilson Hall, the central lab, and get a view of the grounds from 15 floors up before checking out exhibits like a full-scale model of a section of the resident particle accelerator. Guests can also tour the Linear Accelerator Building and peek at Tevatron's control room.

For younger crowds, the Lederman Science Center hosts exhibits and classes designed specifically for families, proving that you're never too young to learn about particle physics. Better yet, on the first Sunday of every month except February, the facility hosts an "Ask-a-Scientist" day, where a physicist takes visitors on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility while personally fielding their math and science questions. And once your brain is finally exhausted from pondering the mysteries of the universe, you can take a relaxing hike along Fermilab's prairie trails to check out buffalo and other wildlife.

That brings us to the end of our science road trip. We've explored the distant past and the distant future, Earth and outer space, all sorts of plants and animals and, of course, a lot of United States. Who knew getting smarter could be so much fun?

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