The US claims to be the greatest success story of the modern world - a nation fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.
Despite polemicists who justly cite the destruction of Native American cultures, racism and imperialism at the top of a long list of wrongdoings, half the world remains in love with the idea of America. This is, after all, the country that introduced the world to the right to the pursuit of happiness, free speech, electric light, airplanes, assembly-line automobiles, the space shuttle, computers, blues, jazz, rock & roll and movies that climax at the high-school prom.
On a short trip, it can be hard work dismantling your preconceptions. So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This worldwide representation can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, 'Have a nice day,' drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you'd be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.
Come prepared to explore the USA's unique brand of 'foreignness' rather than stay in the comfort zone of the familiar. You'll discover several of the world's most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.
Blessed with natural wonders, Alaska gloves the superlatives hurled at it with deserving grace, capturing the imagination of visitors and inhabitants alike. The expansive grandeur of the state will help you put the size of your snowshoes in perspective, such as the sight of a brown bear at full amble, or kayaking through the dreamy blue wonder of a deep fjord. Despite a reputation for high prices, it's possible to see Alaska on an oil baron's small change - as the hordes flocking to amenable towns and prime wilderness areas every summer have already discovered.
Full country name: The United States of America (USA)
Area: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)
Capital city: Washington, DC (pop: 570,000)
People: Caucasian (71%), African American (12%), Latino (12%), Asian (4%), Native American (0.9%)
Languages: English, plus many secondary languages, chiefly Spanish
Religion: Protestant (56%), Roman Catholic (28%), Jewish (2%), Muslim (1%)
Government: Federal republic of 50 states
GDP: US$9.3 trillion
GDP per head: US$33,900
Annual growth: 4.1%
Major industries: Oil, electronics, computers, automobile manufacturing, aerospace industries, agriculture
Major trading partners: Canada, Japan, the EU
Area: 570,375 sq miles (1,477,268 sq km)
Capital city: Juneau (population 31,000)
People: 75% Caucasian, 15% Inuit and other indigenous groups, 4% black, 3.2% Asian
Language: English plus Native Alaskan
Major industries: Oil and gas (25% of US production), commercial fishing, mining, tourism
Visas: Most visitors to the US require a visa. However, Canadians need only proof of citizenship. A reciprocal visa-waiver program allows citizens of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland to stay up to 90 days without a visa if they have an onward ticket.
Health risks: None, apart from the high cost of medical care
Time: Eastern (GMT/UTC minus 5 hours), Central (-6), Mountain (-7), and Pacific Standard (-8)
Weights & Measures: Imperial
Tourism: 45 million visitors per year
When to Go
The US is most popular with travellers during the summer, but this is when American families pack everything up and head out to visit Aunt Tilly. To avoid mobs (especially throughout the national-park system), it's better to go during autumn or early spring.
Autumn is an especially good time to visit New England and the upper Great Lakes because fall colours are at their best. Most of the country east of the Rockies is hot and humid during summer, especially the south. The deserts between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada are very hot and dry during the summer, especially in the southwest. California's southern coast is comfortable year-round, but if you want to experience the beach scene, it's best to visit between June and September.
Health risks: Giardia, hypothermia, motion sickness, rabies, sunburn & windburn
Time: UTC minus 9 hours
Electricity: 110/120V, 60Hz
Weights & measures: Imperial
Tourism: 600,000 visitors per year
When to Go
From June through August is when travellers like to range throughout the state, making the most of the 'warmer' temperatures. The peak weeks - from early July through mid-August - tend to attract colossal crowds to popular sites like Denali National Park and the Kenai Peninsula. Travel during the 'shoulder season' - May and September - offers not only mild weather, but also a good chance for off-season discounts on accommodation and transportation. Most Alaskan festivals and events take place during the summer periods of 24-hour daylight.
LAND & CLIMATE
Region: North America
Neighbors: The United States’ contiguous 48 states face Canada to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The state of Alaska, separated by western Canada from the rest of the United States, is bordered on the south by the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean, on the west by the Bering Sea and the Bering Strait, and on the north by the Beaufort Sea. The state of Hawaii is in the central Pacific Ocean.
Size Comparison: 4th largest country in the world after Russia, Canada and China. The United States territory is Almost the size of that of Canada
As the fourth largest country in the world, the United States is topographically diverse. The Atlantic Coastal Plain, 320 kilometres (199 miles) wide, intersects with the Appalachian Mountains, which run north to south, between the Great Lakes and the state of Alabama. The Appalachian system includes the White Mountains and the Green Mountains in New England, the Catskills in New York, and the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains in the Southeast.
South of the Appalachians, the Atlantic Coastal Plain widens as it nears the Gulf of Mexico and spreads into the Florida peninsula. West of the Appalachians, the Gulf Plains are separated in the north from the higher Great Plains by the Ozark Plateau, which runs through Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. West of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains rise to heights of more than 4,267 metres (more than 14,000 feet). The Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada, and the Coast Ranges line the Pacific coast.
Mount McKinley in Alaska is the country's highest peak at 6,194 metres (20,320 feet), while California's Mount Whitney (4,418 metres/14,494 feet) is the highest in the 48 contiguous states.
Major Rivers and Lakes
Several vital rivers run through the United States. Chief among them are the Mississippi and its tributaries, which include the Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, Platte, Red, and Arkansas rivers, and which drain the central plains. The Columbia River in the Northwest and the Rio Grande and the Colorado River in the Southwest are important to their respective regions. The country’s largest lakes are the Great Lakes, which lie along the border with Canada and are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world.
Weather and Climate
Climates in the United States range from desert to arctic, with rainfall varying accordingly. Generally, the country has two relatively humid coasts separated by a drier interior that becomes more humid the farther east one travels.
The northeastern states, comprising New England and the northern states of the Middle Atlantic area, have a humid continental climate. Winters become colder and snowfall heavier inland and north, due to arctic air entering the region. Boston has an average daily temperature of -1°C (30°F) in January. But as in the humid subtropical southern states of the Middle Atlantic region, summers can be hot and humid. The East Coast states usually receive more than 1,016 millimetres (more than 40 inches) of precipitation.
The subtropical climate of the southern states is characterized by long, hot, humid summers and mild winters. In most of this region, rainfall averages 1,016 to 1,524 millimeters (40 to 60 inches) per year.
The humid continental Midwest has four distinct seasons. The northern midwestern states have hot, short summers and harsh winters; the southern states have longer, humid summers and milder winters.
Continuing west into the drought-prone steppe climate of the Great Plains, conditions are semiarid, with an average of 254 to 762 millimetres (10 to 30 inches) of annual precipitation. Strong, dry winds called Chinooks blow in from the Rocky Mountains and affect the western regions of the Great Plains. The area endures extreme high and low temperatures due to cold air from the Arctic and warm tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico. Average daily temperatures in the state of Iowa range from -11°C (12°F) in January to 30°C (86°F) in July.
Climates in the Pacific statesCalifornia, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaiirange from marine west coast to subarctic to tropical. There is little seasonal temperature variation along the coasts of these states. The far northwest coast is the wettest region of the United States; it often receives 1,778 millimetres (70 inches) or more of rain per year. Alaska has a range of marine west coast, subarctic, and tundra climates, while Hawaii has a tropical climate with little seasonal variation.
Spanning a wide range of latitudes, the United States encompasses dozens of types of vegetation, geologic formations, and ecological zones. The country’s huge area and diverse landscape have traditionally provided amply for its people, but population growth and one of the highest standards of living in the world are now straining natural resources. Fresh water in particular is scarce in the arid western states, where irrigated agriculture is important. Many reservoirs have been creatednearly every major river has been dammed or altered in some waybut environmental concerns have prevented the further harnessing and diversion of streams. In addition, heavily farmed soils throughout the United States are suffering from erosion and exhaustion. Most waterways are polluted with agricultural chemicals, although heavy pesticide use has given way in recent years to integrated pest management schemes. Open-pit copper mines, coal strip mines, and toxic ore-processing operations have had dramatic and widespread effects on wildlife and the landscape, and urban development continues to transform some of the richest fields and groves into pavement.
Nearly all of the original forests in the United States have been harvested except those at high elevations or in the most remote locations, as well as areas kept for posterity such as the redwood parks in California. Large tracts of conifer forest are maintained for repeated harvest by the U.S. Forest Service or by private companies. Massive clear-cutting has led to soil loss, landslides, and the degradation of aquatic habitats. The fate of the few remaining natural stands of large trees is a highly contentious political issue.
The United States has an impressive variety of habitats and a correspondingly high biodiversity. Virtually all natural habitats have been significantly altered, however, and some, such as native tallgrass prairie, are extinct or nearly so. Other threatened habitats include certain types of desert, old-growth forests, sand dune communities, and wetlands, from the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay to the forest bogs of the Northwest.
In 1872 the United States established the world’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park. In addition to numerous national parks, the government now manages a system of national monuments, recreation areas, wildlife management areas, and wildlife refuges. The national park system has outgrown its management budget in recent years, and fees are now charged at many sites to help fund the parks. Even so, public use of parks continues to increase, and many parks are faced with overcrowding, pollution, and erosion. Nongovernmental organizations, especially the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, have become increasingly important in preserving natural habitat. Overall, about 13.4 percent (1997) of the land is protected, most of it in the large federal holdings of the western states and Alaska.
Energy conservation has become a major concern in the United States since the mid-1970s. Most communities have strict energy-conserving building codes, and the growth in national energy demand has been significantly reduced. In California and the sunny Southwest there are massive wind turbine and solar power facilities, although their contribution to the total energy supply is still minor. Coal-burning power plants produce more than half of the country’s energy. Hydroelectricity, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, and nuclear power, particularly in the Northeast, are other significant sources of energy. But public opposition, high construction costs, and highly publicized accidents such as the 1979 Three Mile Island accident have eroded the momentum of the nuclear power industry, pioneered in the 1950s by the United States.
Despite energy conservation measures, the United States remains the largest consumer of energy in the world, as well as the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. About half of the air pollution comes from industry and the rest from automobile exhaust. Urban air pollution is regulated by the federal Clean Air Act, and individual states often have more stringent regulations. As a result, air pollution levels have improved since the 1970s, although the steadily increasing number of automobiles threatens to undermine these gains. Under the Montréal Protocol, the United States has curbed its huge emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which contribute to ozone depletion and global warming.
The United States has signed and ratified the World Heritage Convention as well as international environmental agreements concerning Air Pollution, Antarctic Treaty, Climate Change, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Marine Dumping, Marine Life, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Wetlands, and Whaling. There are 47 biosphere reserves under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Program. The United States cooperates with Canada on a number of conservation projects, and a United StatesMexico transborder park is planned.