Photographer Blaine Harrington III has worked around the world, but some of his favorite vistas are closer to home.
Many of the country's most recognizable monuments and landmarks can be easily visited – and enjoyed without crowds, he says.
"If you get out first thing in the morning, it's the most beautiful time of day, and there's almost no one else around," Harrington said.
Harrington, who just opened an exhibit at The Wildlife Experience museum in Parker, Colo., shares some of his favorite monuments and landmarks with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.
If it weren't for the brown signs alerting Interstate 90 travelers, it would be easy to drive right by the park, missing the otherworldly landscape of eroded buttes and pinnacles that lies just a few miles away. "You get off the road and very quickly you're into the rock formations," Harrington says. "It's kind of trippy, like being on the moon." He suggests visiting at different times of the day to see how the light transforms the scenery. There are hiking trails, but this is mainly a drive-through park — with an abundance of scenic overlooks.
Bucket list tip: More than most other parks, this is a place to camp, which will allow you to see the formations early in the day, and without traffic. Be sure to stop at Roberts Prairie Dog Town to see the fascinating social mammals.
While the region's famed bluegrass isn't exactly blue, it still makes for unforgettable scenery, Harrington says. "In spring it's very green and you contrast that with the horses in the fields, and the fence lines going hill and dale. It's beautiful country and (has) such a deep heritage." The limestone-rich soil is said to be responsible for the distinctive taste of Kentucky bourbon and for the speed and strength of its thoroughbred racehorses. You can see farms by driving country roads outside the city. Guided tours are also available.
Bucket list tip: Time a spring or fall visit to see thoroughbreds in action at Keeneland Race Course, a National Historic Landmark.
A big part of the appeal of this West Texas park on the Mexico border is its isolation. "It's remarkably far from anywhere, and it's very, very underused," Harrington says. "It's something completely different from what you'll see anywhere else in the U.S." Hiking trails lead to even more remote areas of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape, home to more than 450 species of birds, and 1,200 plants. The Rio Grande forms part of the park's boundary as it passes through Santa Elena Canyon.
Bucket list tip: The scenery is just as stunning at night. "It's one of the darkest places in the U.S. You can see the Milky Way really well out there."
This spot has been sacred to Native Americans for centuries, but it was Steven Spielberg's science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind that put it on the map. (Spoiler alert: The distinctive rock formation proved to be a UFO landing site.) The monument has an undeniable attraction, Harrington says. "You see it in the distance, it's huge." Up close, the appearance changes. "It's all that cragginess in the rock, and you realize it's surrounded by boulder fields."
Bucket list tip: While climbing the tower requires technical skills, it's easy to walk around it on a 1.3-mile, mostly flat, oval path.
Travelers could spend years exploring the windswept shoreline of Maine, or they can go to Acadia, which offers the best of the region's distinctive topography. From popular spots like Thunder Hole and Jordan Pond to the carriage roads that lace through the forest, it's easy to get out and experience the scenery. A shuttle system circulates by the park's top sites. "It's different from the Western national parks and it goes way back," Harrington says.
Bucket list tip: Get up early and watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the north Atlantic Coast.
This is one of the few natural landmarks that can be enjoyed at 50 mph. A carefully-engineered stretch of Interstate 70 twists through the 12 1/2-mile canyon high above the rushing Colorado River. "I'm just stunned every time I drive through it. The combination of the big rock faces, the mountains and the power of the river, and the way they seamlessly put the road in is spectacular," Harrington says. Visitors can hike and bike along the river, and even take an Amtrak train through the passage.
Bucket list tip: After visiting the canyon, stop in the town of Glenwood Springs for a soak in the world's largest hot spring pool, which circulates with 3.5 million gallons of naturally-heated spring water.
Sure, the area is crowded with tourists, casinos and gift shops, but there's still no denying the power and majesty of the famed falls. "It's a marvel of nature, and man's tackiness can't even ruin it," Harrington says. The falls consist of three sections, Horseshoe, Bridal Veil and American falls. Visitors can don yellow rain slickers to see the cascade from the bottom on the famed Maid of the Mist excursion tour boats.
Bucket list tip: Try the region's famed ice wine, developed from grapes harvested in subzero temperatures.
This desert park, little-known outside the West, is named for its otherworldly hoodoos — toadstool-shaped rock formations. "They're monoliths. It's like being in Alice in Wonderland," Harrington says. The area was in the spotlight last year when three men toppled one of the formations and posted a video online. The remote location makes it an ideal spot for camping, allowing a chance to see the park during the evening and early morning.
Bucket list tip: Don't limit your explorations to the flat rock fields. Climb the buttes overlooking the park for a completely different perspective.
Harrington recommends seeing this glacier-rimmed ocean inlet from a kayak. "It gives me goose bumps just to think about it," he says. "It's just pristine." Visitors can explore fjords by water, or see the sound from the surrounding Chugach National Forest. The area has had a remarkable recovery since the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground here 25 years ago. "This is where the disaster happened. They almost ruined one of the most fabulous places on the planet."
Bucket list tip: Take a boat tour to see Columbia Glacier, which covers 400 square miles, and is the state's largest tidewater ice field.
This Navajo tribal park with its iconic sandstone towers and buttes has been featured in countless films and commercials, but is still an overwhelming sight. "We've all seen it one way or another. It really is the quintessential Old West background," Harrington says. "There's really nothing else like it." The valley, located on Navajo Tribal land, can by visited on self-guided drives, on jeep tours and on guided hikes.
Bucket list tip: Take a spur road to visit John Ford's Point, an overlook displaying the landscape featured in many of the Hollywood director's movies.