Is visiting America just for old people?

Channel Islands National Park, CA

Over the years I’ve encountered many Europeans and Antipodeans who have travelled extensively throughout the world, yet they have never been to America. When I ask them why they have neglected this big chunk of the globe the reply is nearly always the same: “we can do America when we’re too old to do the other places”.

For American tourism officials this must surely be their main challenge. How to sell the unparallelled natural adventures on offer in this vast, diverse land, when the global perception of America is that of a country where visitors can do all things without moving far from their vehicles because, quite frankly, that’s the way the locals live. American culture as portrayed in TV and movies perpetuates this stereotype.

Grand Teton National Park, WY

If the US was really about New York, Las Vegas and the Florida theme parks then that would be an understandable perception. Yet in my experience most people who state these opinions are talking about a lazy American vacation while they are trekking in a remote part of the world or heading off to some backwater to see a waterfall or a stunning viewpoint.

I have been to the western US states on several occasions, and when we lived in New York for a year made the most of the opportunity to explore the East Coast. There are natural wonders in the US that can only be fully appreciated by getting out of the car and getting out on the trails; not something you can put off with certainty to your latter years. Here’s a few of the places we have explored on foot that I won’t necessarily be able to do in my 70s:

1. Grand Canyon. Yes, you can stand at the rim, but it’s real beauty is from within. A multi-day hike or even a single day hike can provide a unique perspective on one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.

2. Death Valley. Fantastic hiking country with geology that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world, but I was glad to put up with those extreme temperatures as a relatively young and fit person.

3. Yellowstone. The best geothermal park in the world. Yes, the NPS have made many of the major sights in the park accessible from nearby parking lots but the stunning beauty of the park is best explored by getting off the beaten track (and you might meet a bear along the way if you’re lucky).

4. Arches National Park. Sandstone arches like nowhere else on Earth. Many of the arches are seen best via lengthy hiking trails; again not for those who are unable to walk long distances.

5. Sequoia National Park. Similarly, we walked around 15 miles through the park and came across so many surprises: many of them marked on the park map, but some of them our own discoveries. If we were restricted in our mobility we would have missed out on the most memorable experiences.

Arches National Park, UT

Even in New York, both as a resident and a tourist our greatest adventures involved walking across the boroughs, covering distances that shocked my work colleagues but that gave us views of city life that we could never have experienced without the ability and willingness to walk all day.

True, the US is well geared up to accommodate the elderly tourist. With an excellent road network and many tourist attractions being designed with the inability or unwillingness to walk as a primary thought, part of it can be experienced without the need to walk very far from a car park. But America is one of the most beautiful, diverse and geologically fascinating places in the world, and I am so glad that I have been able to appreciate the full beauty of its landscapes by getting away from the crowds and losing myself in the richness of its natural wonders; while I still can.

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14 Responses to “Is visiting America just for old people?”

  1. Interesting thoughts, Andy. I agree with you, there’s a widespread perception in Europe that the US are an easy travel, which is true I was stunned by the perfect organization of National Parks and how they are friendly to anyone, included small kids, elderly people and person with handicaps. This is something I truly admired, because I believe that the beauties of our planet should be accessible to all.
    Having said that, the wonders of US National Parks can be far better enjoyed and discovered by staying there some time, having a few walks. They’re not only places to ‘see’, they’re places to ‘feel’ and ‘live’. I will never forget the walks in Bryce and Grand Canyon. I remember Arches, it was awfully hot but when we reached our aim the view was so rewarding!
    Besides the perception of the US as a destination for elderly people, I was shocked by how many tourist visit the National Park as if they we eating fast food. They jump down the bus, take the unfailing souvenir photos of the family with Grand Canyon on the background, drink a coke and up again on the bus towards next destination.
    Yeah, sure when they’re back home they can tell friends that they’ve seen the US and proudly show their photos. But is it really worth to cross the ocean for that?

    January 19, 2010 at 11:30 am
  2. I often neglect United States because I am from there and want to see other parts of the world. However there are truly amazing activities and things to do that require physical ability. Good example with Grand Canyon. It is stunning from the rim, but when I did a 4 day backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon, it opened new dimensions. Keep it up!

    January 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm
  3. Karen Wise #

    I think America has potential for all ages.

    Last summer, when my children were six months and 3 years old, we seriously considered campervanning for a month around the Northwest. We felt that America was a “safe” option for small children and we would enjoy exploring this beautiful part of the world.

    However, the cost put us off in the end (and a friend offered us the use of her holiday home in France for free).

    January 19, 2010 at 12:10 pm
  4. jorg #

    im not from the us but i live here, i hav a lot of friends in europe and southamerica and they dnt think about the grand canyon or natural parks in the state like something amazing even i dont all they care in america is go to disney land or a big city like NYC or L.A.

    January 19, 2010 at 12:51 pm
  5. The Colorado River helped carve Grand Canyon, Arizona and is the southern border of Arches National Park, Utah. Enumerable Tour Operators of Europe offer rafting, 4×4, canyoneerying, horseback riding as options to travel in the rugged west. While river running advanced with European (German and Italian) adventurers of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Utah’s Cataract Canyon of Canyonlands National Park, the longer camping trips have paled. It appears that everyone in the world desires to do more in less time. Presently the 4 hour tours rafting, 4 wheeling, horseback riding, jet boating have found popularity with touring French and Dutch families. The Colorado River also flows into Canyonlands National Park, a little jewel, that is far more accessible than Grand Canyon with half day tours and every bit as scenic.
    Inevitably, the grandpa brings his entire family back for a longer rafting/camping trip, as he remembers fondly those early days with his new bride or fiance, before children, and how remarkable those intimate moments were. And I have personally rowed an 83 year old Belgian man on the Colorado River. Adventure just has to be a part of a person’s fabric and adventure definitely takes time.

    January 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm
  6. Thank you to all for the valuable comments. I’m glad there are others who share the view that America can be great for all ages (even 83 year olds!)
    It’s always true that we seem reluctant to explore the places that are closer to our own home. I have to admit to not knowing many parts of the UK as well as I should.

    January 20, 2010 at 4:58 pm
  7. I really had to laugh when I read this. I’m an American and even I said this recently. I am preparing for several months of long-term travel as I write this. Originally, I had planned to spend a year or so traveling around the U.S. in a van-sized RV. But the lure of overseas travel was just too strong. I head out in mid-February for Mexico, Central & South America. I decided that I can do the RV thing when I am to old to do things like hike the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu. My only saving grace is the fact that I have traveled extensively around the U.S. and I agree with you that there are thousands of beautiful places right here, many of which can only be seen with a little effort.

    January 20, 2010 at 8:03 pm
  8. Mick @ house to rent in France #

    America and Canada have some of the most diverse environments and landscapes in the world, not to mention wildlife and the beautiful forests, especially in Canada. I am not old and I would love to go there someday.

    January 21, 2010 at 5:11 am
  9. The US does such a terrible job of marketing itself. Really one of the best places to travel in the world.

    January 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm
  10. Thanks for the comments. Barbara, your trip sounds fantastic! I look forward to reading about it as you travel. How long will you go for?
    That’s the thing Anil. The US tourist authorities have such an amazing product, yet few people in the world are aware of what is on offer outside of the big cities and Disney. But then maybe that’s because those places are the ones in demand…

    January 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm
  11. I’m so surprised to read this, considering how many Europeans I meet when I travel the United States. The U.S. does make travel easy for older people, but as you point out, it also provides some pretty stunning outdoor activities as well as great and varied urban nightlife. Sure, you can lumber through the National Parks in an RV, but you can also backpack into the wilderness, far from everyone. I’m an American and have traveled internationally but I’ve also been exploring the United States for more than 30 years and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

    January 22, 2010 at 3:01 pm
  12. I sadly admit that Shaun and I have visited more places outside the US than inside. Shaun lived in Arizona for most of his life and never visited the Grand Canyon. This Sept we’re fixing that, going on a roadtrip, making several stops to camp, and taking a plethora of pictures. I’m a fan of the Southwest and I’m going to make sure that we can get in as much as possible – even to the point of throwing out the TomTom and using a paper map!


    P.S. Great choice of places!

    June 20, 2010 at 7:50 pm
  13. I think America does just as bad a job of advertising travel to its citizen as it does abroad. Whenever I’m planning a trip, traveling within the States doesn’t even come to mind. It wasn’t until this year, when I took a road trip through Utah, that I started to reconsider how I think about traveling here. I bought a guide to the national parks of the west when I got back, and am hoping to travel within my country as much as I do abroad. I’ve lived in California my whole life and never visited Yosemite(!) – so I think some changes need to be made.

    June 20, 2010 at 8:54 pm
  14. Thanks to Erica and Ashley for sharing your experiences. Sounds like you both have some great trips coming up in your back yards (almost!) – maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that so few people visit these parks, as the feeling of isolation and solitude is one of their main attractions.

    June 20, 2010 at 10:48 pm