Top 10 Science Destinations for Your Dream Summer Road Trip

So much science, so little time! As summer nears to a close, there’s nothing like a cross-country science road trip to capture these last precious moments. Although school will be starting for me in less than a week, the lucky few with more summer left to spend are hereby officially invited to embark on a rollicking tour of the US’s national science treasures. Pack your bags, bring your brain, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

Who else hasn’t finished their AP Chemistry summer assignment yet? (Gif credit: Giphy).

*Disclaimer: Because I am indecisive, these rankings are by no means definitive. All places listed below are awesome and, in my humble opinion, you would do yourself a disservice by neglecting any of them.

#1: Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone

Image credits: National Park Service, J. Swaminathan and MSD Staff at the European Bioinformatics Institute, Brumm et al., 2015.

Although some may visit Yellowstone National Park for the legendary geysers, true science lovers know it better as The Birthplace of Modern Molecular Biology. This vaunted title not only establishes Yellowstone’s hot springs as the cradle of the humble T. aquaticus bacterium, but also as my all-time dream destination. Forget the concerts, amusement parks, and exotic beachside vacations — my scientist’s soul pines for a visit among the mud pots, fumaroles, and hot springs of the Lower Geyser Basin. Why so effusive over a simple bug, you ask? Because T. aquaticus flourishes at 80° C, its DNA polymerase enzyme is the ideal candidate for copying DNA via PCR (polymerase chain reaction), a method that essentially takes a needle in a haystack (a gene of interest) and then makes a haystack of needles (replicates that gene virtually ad infinitum). The advent of PCR revolutionized biology, enabling fields ranging from forensics to animal behavior to ask bigger and better questions. But, just in case you don’t identify as a T. aquaticus groupie, take heart in the fact that you can visit over 100 geothermal features at the basin, including the White Dome Geyser and its flashy 150ft eruptions.

Location: Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Price: Click here for information.

#2: Soudan Underground Mine State Park

Image credits: Uniquely Minnesota, Quantum Diaries, TripAdvisor.

Although Minnesota boasts many gems— any Garrison Keillor or Fargo fans? — none are more scientifically stimulating than the Soudan Underground Mine State Park. A subterranean science experiment of epic proportions, Soudan Park searches for dark matter and changes in subatomic particles emitted by the Fermilab Particle Accelerator some 740km away. Offering geocaching and a three-minute mine-cage physics lesson half a mile below the Earth, Soudan Park is also home to two major experiments attempting to tease out the origins of our planet’s structure. The first project, MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search), parses through elusive particles in search of neutrinos. The second project, CDMS II (Cryogenic Dark Matter Search), uses disks the size of a hockey puck to detect WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles), which may be the primary constituent of dark matter.

Location: Soudan, Minnesota.

Price: $12 for adults (ages 13+), $7 for youth (ages 5–12), and FREE for children (under 5).

#3: LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory)

Image credits: aLIGO MIT News, LIGO Caltech.

If your inner geek greets museums with a yawn, then it’s time for you to check out LIGO, a national facility consisting of two interferometers based in Washington and Louisiana. Stop by on Science Saturdays to learn about the science behind Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, or — if you’re really feeling the pull of laser interferometry — visit the control room and immerse yourself in the mechanics of gravitational wave detection at the Hanford Observatory’s quad suspension model. Before you visit, however, be sure to update yourself on LIGO’s research, which recently confirmed the presence of gravitational waves by measuring minute ripples in space-time (this musical tribute to their discovery is a great way to start your literature review!). In case you can’t go to these facilities anytime soon, try to visit the MIT LIGO Group in Massachusetts to tour their full-scale prototyping facility instead.

Location: Livingston, Louisiana OR Hanford, Washington OR take a virtual tour.

Price: FREE!!!

#4: Kitt Peak Observatory

Image credits: NOAO, University of Arizona, Discover Marana.

To feed your astrophysics obsession in a more hands-on way, make the trek up to Kitt Peak Observatory, where 24 telescopes overlook the Sonoran Desert in virtually perfect stargazing conditions. Boasting the world’s greatest concentration of telescopes for stellar, solar, and planetary research, the observatory is the site of many scientific discoveries. Most notably, observations of rotating galaxies at Kitt Peak informed the development of several theories surrounding the role of dark matter in accelerating the cosmos’ expansion. Currently, astronomers at the observatory are investigating how galaxies are formed by studying “high-redshift” galaxies and examining the luminosity of Type 1a supernovae.

Location: Sells, Arizona.

Price: Vary based on nighttime programs (click here for more details).

#5: Argonne National Laboratory

Image credits: New York Times, University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, White House Archives.

Have a passion for pear-shaped nuclei? Riveted by the role of radiometers, radars, and radiosondes in climate research? Or maybe you’re just hankering for a glimpse into one of the world’s top research centers? Regardless of whether you answered yes or no to the previous questions, it’s high time you paid the Argonne National Laboratory a visit. Whether you stop by the Advanced Photon Source to watch scientists tackle disease in three dimensions or venture into the Center for Nanoscale Materials to witness pattern-shaped wires grow via patented ultra-nanocrystalline diamond technology, there is something for every science nerd at Argonne. Case in point: The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, where a family of supercomputers affectionately dubbed Mira and Theta each crunch around ten quadrillion calculations per second, as measured in the arcane unit of petaflops. Still not impressed? Then tune in to the OutLoud Lecture Series, where seasoned scientists explore topics ranging from the future of food to the lithium ion frontier.

Location: Lemont, Illinois.

Price: Call 630–252–5562 or email for information.

#6: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

Image credits: University of Tennessee, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Knoxblogs.

From nuclear engineering to open-science computing to materials science, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has it all. Although you would think such a celebrated research facility would not be open to the public, regular tours provide inquisitive science lovers with a peek into ORNL’s history and its current discoveries. Watch cutting-edge research at the historic Graphite Reactor that led to the first production of plutonium and witness the most intense pulsed neutron beams in the world at the Spallation Neutron Source. Or, if physics isn’t your thing, stop by the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility to learn about AMIE, a 3D-printed, power-sharing house.

Location: Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Price: $5 for adults, $3 for teens (ages 10+), and $4 for seniors (ages 65+).

#7: Petrified Forest National Park

Image credits: National Park Service, Andrew Kearns, National Geographic, Huffington Post.

Paleogeologists rejoice, for your prayers have been answered — yes, there is now a way to explore geological formations without boring your family and friends to death! Called Petrified Forest National Park, this heaven molded from mudstone straddles the Late Triassic Chinle Formation and the Mio-Pliocene Bidahochi Formation, land forms deposited 200 million years ago and 8 million years ago, respectively. Although the park is home to many prehistoric fossils including crocodile-like phytosaurs, the real stars are the trees, man. Officially known as A. arizonicum, they fossilized over 225 million years ago, when minerals from volcanic ash seeped into their porous tissues and hardened, creating quartz cells colored by iron, manganese, and carbon impurities. Today, these banded badlands are a treasure trove of data regarding the effects of climate change on the rate of biotic extinctions.

Location: Holbrook, Arizona.

Price: $20 for one private vehicle and people within for seven days.

#8: Lassen Volcanic Park

Image credits: LA Times, Visit California, National Park Service.

Arguably the perfect backdrop for the cover of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Lassen Volcanic Park’s alien landscape is alive with seething mud pots and simmering springs. Repping all four types of volcanic domes — shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug — within the confines of 106,372 square acres is an impressive feat, and one that has prompted scientists to take note. The California Volcanic Observatory (CalVO) collects data from the park in order to understand volcanic processes and lessen their harmful impacts in the future.

Location: Mineral, California.

Price: $20 for one private vehicle and people within for seven days.

#9: Mammoth Cave

Image credits: Mammoth Cave, National Geographic.

More than 400 miles long, Mammoth Cave offers an enticing peek into the unique geology of a subterranean world. Speleothems, or cave formations sculpted from alternating layers of limestone strata, dot the length of the cave with stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, travertine dams, and spiraling gypsum flowers. If dark, damp places don’t entice your inner science enthusiast, however, the park also offers surface hikes, canoeing, bicycling, and horseback riding.

Location: Mammoth Cave, KY.

Price: FREE to enter park; $7 for adults, $5 for youth, $3.50 for seniors to enter Mammoth Passage (click here for more details).

#10: Biosphere 2

Image credits: University of Arizona, Flickr user lumierefl, Biosphere 2.

As an audacious riff on Noah’s Ark, Biosphere 2 was originally constructed to see if people could survive being locked in a glass tank for two years. Although it ended in (expensive) failure, Biosphere 2 was a well-intentioned attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of human life in closed ecosystems stationed in outer space. Fortunately for our benefit, it is now open to the general public, where visitors can tour “rockubators” investigating the influence of bacteria and plants on soil formation and visit simulations of rainforest drought exploring how changing conditions affect carbon and water cycling.

Location: Oracle, Arizona.

Price: $20 for adults, $18 for military, $13 for children (ages 6 to 12), discounts available for college students and faculty (click here for more details).

Stay curious, my friends (Gif credit: Giphy).

Works Cited

“About.” LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), Massachusetts Institute of Technology / California Institute of Technology, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“About Argonne.” Argonne National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Kitt Peak Visitor Center.” Kitt Peak Visitor Center, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Natural Features & Ecosystems.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Soudan Underground Mine Tours.” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Volcanoes / Lava Flows.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Welcome to the Soudan Underground Laboratory!” The MINOS Experiment and NuMI Beamline, U.S. Department of Energy, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

“Yellowstone National Park.” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed 29 Aug. 2017.

— Sophia S., Pennsylvania


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