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Population: 285,000,000
Area: 3,618,000 sq miles (9,370,000 sq km)
Capital city: Washington, DC (pop: 570,000)
Languages: English, plus many secondary languages, chiefly Spanish

The continental US stretches across North America 'from sea to shining sea.' It borders Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Alaska juts out from northwestern Canada; Hawaii lies 2500 miles (4000km) off the country's western coast, in the middle of the Pacific. There are three major mountain ranges: the Appalachians in the east, the titanic Rocky Mountains in the west and the Sierra Nevada along the border of Nevada and California. The country has abundant natural resources and vast swaths of fertile soil.

While the Hawaiians may not have invented surfing, Oahu is surfing's spiritual home, and the legendary winter swells at Waimea, Sunset Beach and the Banzai Pipeline are the most beautiful and awesome waves. Not to be outdone, California also has a few surfable breaks itself - Malibu, Rincon, Trestles and Mavericks among them. There are a hundred other perfect breaks along the US coastline - but if we told you where they were, we'd have to kill you! Other popular watersports include sailing, windsurfing and sea kayaking.

Back on land, the Rocky Mountain states (and Colorado in particular) are home to the country's most popular downhill skiing and snowboarding destinations. Along with flash places like Aspen, Vail, Jackson Hole and Big Sky are smaller operations with a handful of lifts, cheaper ticket prices and terrain that is often as challenging as their glitzier neighbors. Lake Tahoe is the major ski destination in the Sierra Nevada, doubling as a summertime water-sports playground. Elsewhere in the US, you'll also find great cross-country skiing.

The US may be the most industrialized nation on earth, but it's also the land of opportunity when it comes to hiking - from the alpine meadows of the High Sierra to the forested byways of the Appalachian Trail. Walking trails are generally well kept, well marked and well patronized. But it's also possible to lose yourself in the 'backwoods,' where there's just you, the rattlers and the huge night sky.

Rock climbing and mountaineering are popular pursuits, especially in the Sierra Nevada and Rockies. El Capitan and Half Dome are both legendary climbs up the face of sheer granite walls in Yosemite National Park. Mt Whitney, in California's Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, is the highest in the contiguous 48 states at 14,500ft (4350m).

Many cities are relatively cycle-friendly, and hardy souls cycle across and around the country on picturesque backroads, while those stuck in tin cans fume on the freeways. It's easy to hire machines and gear throughout the country. Mountain biking is a huge pastime, particularly in California (where it was invented), and there are plenty of places to hit the gravel and graze the knees.

If you still have energy left, you can go horse riding in New York's Central Park, river rafting on Idaho's Snake River or caving in New Mexico's beautiful Carlsbad Caverns.

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