Where to sit on 7 of the most scenic US plane routes
You don't have to wait until you're on the ground to begin sightseeing on your next trip. Those who routinely select the window seat know that some of the best views of the United States come from 30,000 feet up — or at least while climbing to or descending from that altitude.
Want to make an otherwise ordinary descent into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) memorable? Grab a window seat and enjoy a beautiful view of Lake Michigan.
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On your way to New York for a meeting? Enjoy a few minutes of peace on your descent into LaGuardia Airport (LGA) with a spectacular view of Manhattan out your window.
No, we’re not suggesting forgoing that family trip to see the Grand Canyon in person. However, you can often catch a glimpse of some of America’s best views without even landing in that city or state. All you need is a seat on an airplane — a window seat, that is.
Additionally, apps such as Flyover Country use scientific maps to tell you all about the points of interest that you’re passing over. All you have to do is plug in your flight path before you depart; the app works offline, so you won't be reliant on data or often-spotty inflight Wi-Fi.
There are, of course, a few major caveats for getting the full experience: You’ll get the best views of most of these sites when flying during the day, although places like Las Vegas can be quite amazing at night. Another hard-to-control factor: the weather. It can be the difference between a beautiful view of the Earth and one of clouds alone.
With luck on your side, here are the seven most scenic plane routes to remind you that they don’t call it “America the Beautiful” for nothing.
Over the Grand Canyon
As we mentioned, there’s nothing like a real visit. However, it never hurts to steal a glimpse of the Grand Canyon when you can.
There are many routes that take you over this natural wonder. These include transcontinental flights to Los Angeles, flights into Las Vegas (sit on the right side) and short-hop flights from Phoenix to Salt Lake City (your best bet is the left side). Not only can you see one of America’s greatest landmarks, but the Southwest is an incredibly beautiful region in and of itself.
New York City: Landing or taking off at LaGuardia
Walking the streets of New York, it’s easy to forget just how big the city is. The best way to get a sense of the sprawl is from the air.
Most flights in and out of LaGuardia Airport (LGA) guarantee you some version of a view of the Manhattan skyline, depending on the flight path. The left side will yield spectacular views most times, but sitting on the right may be good, too.
Winds and the runway in use will change, so it’s hard to predict where to sit, but one thing is for sure: Keep your camera or phone ready, day or night, as New York will often dazzle you even before you set foot on the ground.
Niagara Falls: Albany, New York, to Chicago
While certainly not one of America's most-traveled routes, flights from Albany International Airport (ALB) to Chicago can be a great means to an end: getting a bird’s-eye view of Niagara Falls.
Book the left side of the plane for your best shot at a view of the majesty of the falls, minus all the tourists. On a clear day, the view can rival that of those below you who shelled out money for a pricey helicopter ride. This works with flights into either O'Hare International Airport (ORD) or Midway International Airport (MDW).
Golden Gate Bridge: Landing in San Francisco
San Francisco: So much to do, so little time. In case you miss the chance to check out the Golden Gate Bridge in person, you can catch it on the way into town.
On many flights arriving from Asia or Europe or from points north of the city, a seat on the left side is a good bet for a great view of the bridge and city. Even if you only catch a quick glimpse of it like senior aviation reporter Ethan Klapper did on the final United Boeing 747 flight in 2017, it's a sight that's memorable nonetheless!
Yosemite National Park: Sacramento to Las Vegas
If you're flying from Sacramento International Airport (SMF) to Las Vegas' Harry Reid International Airport (LAS), a flyover of California’s Yosemite National Park will send you off in style. Sit on the right side of the plane and keep your eyes peeled for the notable Half Dome.
Can’t make the flight during the day? You’ll always have the twinkling view of Vegas at night as a silver lining.
Landing in Washington, DC
The left side of the plane is a good bet when landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA). If you’re lucky, your pilots will fly the so-called river visual. This winding approach over the Potomac ends in a southbound landing at Reagan. Passengers will get a view of the Washington Monument and Thomas Jefferson Memorial, among other famous sights.
If you’re sitting on the right side taking off in the opposite direction, you can also catch a pretty good view of the National Mall area. TPG's Sean Cudahy got this view of the Washington Monument, with the Capitol off in the distance, when taking off from Reagan one night in October 2019.
The volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest: Taking off or landing in Seattle
The amount of volcanic beauty packed into the Pacific Northwest is unparalleled elsewhere in the U.S. When taking off or landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), you’ve got Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Baker so close it feels like you could touch them. It reminds you of your place on Earth.
Snag a seat on the right side of the aircraft on takeoff, hope that the winds are right and departures are to the north and prepare to be in awe. On landing in Seattle, the left side is often the better choice to catch the best views.
Most of the time when we select a seat for a flight, we factor in things like legroom, proximity to the front of the plane and the restrooms.
There's another factor to consider next time you make a seat selection, though: whether to sit on the left side or right, in hopes of enjoying the best inflight sightseeing.
A bit of research before your next flight could go a long way toward getting you the best photos before you even land. Just be sure to book a window seat.
Additional reporting by Sean Cudahy.