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Gap year guide to the US

There’s no right way to take a gap year, no perfect time to start, and no ideal location to visit – it’s all down to you and what interests you the most. You might want to get a bit of work experience before going to university, take a career break to volunteer, or go on a multi-continent adventure. The possibilities are endless – and so are the benefits.

We’ve put together this quick guide to taking a year out in the US of A, and hope that it will help you discover new cultures, meet lifelong friends, and return home with expanded horizons. You won’t find any time frames in our guide as there is no right answer to how long you should spend on something during a gap year.

Why the US?

The US is a firm favorite with those taking a gap year – and who can blame them? It’s a country so vast and so varied that it has everything your travel-loving heart could possibly desire. From snow-capped mountains and vast national parks to cities that never sleep and beaches you won’t want to leave; from the leafy and charming corner of New England in the northeast to the tropical paradise of Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific, America’s got it all.

Go road tripping

Throwing a rucksack in the back of a camper van or classic pick-up truck and following the open road has been a mainstay of movies for generations and it’s easy to see why – America is made for road trips. The Pacific Coast Highway is a popular route as it weaves along the cliffs of the Californian coast, showcasing the very best of America’s beach culture. Make extended (surf) stops in Santa Barbara and the rural communities of Big Sur and be sure to leave ample time to experience the glamorous cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

Whereas the Pacific Coast Highway takes you through a sun-drenched, dreamy version of America, the Going-to-the-Sun Road shows off the rugged mountainous interior. Spanning Montana’s Glacier National Park, the road is impassable in winter but during spring and summer it is an awe-inspiring introduction to America’s finest scenery with lakes, waterfalls, and glaciers all on show.

For something a little longer, squeeze the gas along the famed Route 66, which takes you from Chicago to Santa Monica. Perhaps the ultimate road trip, however, is a coast-to-coast journey – starting in San Francisco, ending in New York, and encompassing the national parks of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the parties of Las Vegas and New Orleans and the iconic, all-American state of Texas and the capital, Washington, D.C. For more road trip inspiration, check our article on 3 classic US road trips.

Sample city life

New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Miami – the list of America’s world-renowned cities seems never-ending, so why not call one (or more) home?

A gap year doesn’t have to be one of constant movement – you can be based in one place for a longer period of time and fully immerse yourself in American city life. Master the English language, experience a New York winter turn into spring, or become a regular at the best Latin restaurants Miami has to offer – living a bit longer in a city allows you to look beyond the tourist facade and become a local yourself.

Many of these cities are centers for all kinds of industries – perfect if you are looking to combine a gap year with some career goals. You can intern in the field you studied or take a couple of months to find out if the industry is right for you before heading to university or embarking on further study.

Volunteer in the wilderness

Volunteering is one of the most popular gap year activities – not only does it look great on your CV, but it can also be really rewarding. If you choose to work in any of America’s 59 national parks, for example, you’ll get to experience spectacular landscapes up close and personal.

In Hawaii, you can monitor active volcanoes and gain hands-on experience in scientific research, while volunteering in Florida allows you to help protect a diverse array of marine ecosystems. In the Everglades National Park, America’s largest subtropical area, you can contribute to ecology restoration while living close to Miami. Ninety-five percent of Biscayne National Park is water and volunteers are needed to help preserve the mangrove forests, coral reefs, and the habitats of endangered animals.

Far removed from the Sunshine State, the Rocky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone are two other awesome parks where you can volunteer. If you fancy a truly wild adventure, then Alaska has enough spectacular scenery to last you a lifetime. Seven of the ten largest national parks in the US can be found there. Spanning 13 million acres (that’s an area bigger than Switzerland!), Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park and is home to everything from mountain ranges and volcanic fields to glaciers and diverse wildlife. You’ll find all kinds of conservation work in Alaska, especially in Denali NP, which is another huge expanse of scenic land with Mt McKinley as the star attraction, as well as Katmai NP, home to over 2000 brown bears.

Go seasonal

Conservation work is an excellent gap year activity but paid opportunities are hard to find. Handily, there are heaps of seasonal jobs available in a broad range of fields – and with a host of like-minded people working along side you, it’s a lot of fun. In the winter, the ski resorts of Colorado and Utah are always on the hunt for ski instructors and other staff.

In the summer, head to the west coast and call the ocean your office by becoming a surf instructor. Summer camps are as American as coca-cola and fried chicken and working at one as an activities leader is incredibly popular for those on a gap year. You can lead anything from watersports to soccer and drama classes. If you’re looking for something quintessentially American, why not work on a ranch in Texas or a farm in the mid-west?

Websites like Workaway offer places to stay and food in exchange for work. It’s a great way to meet other travelers and try jobs you had never considered before. Whether you work in the great outdoors, in a city hotel or with a small-town company – it lets you uncover the beating heart of America.

Obtaining a permit allowing you to work in the US is perhaps the biggest obstacle standing in your way, so make sure you plan well ahead. Getting one will depend on where you live, what type of work you wish to do, and whether or not you’re a student. All temporary worker visas require the employer to file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Only after this is approved can you apply for a visa. For more information on the visa process contact the U.S. embassy in your country.

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