For the truly curious traveler, we've collected eight one-of-a-kind research facilities guaranteed to impress and entertain like no ordinary tourist attraction can. On this list you'll find labs where you can ride a miner's cage half a mile underground to see a 6,000-ton neutrino detector, watch artificial earthquakes topple bridges, and converse with the world's smartest apes. It's a good idea to call ahead and ask permission for a tour at many of these facilities, but some are just plain open to the public. Even better, all eight destinations are in the U.S., making it convenient and affordable to visit the one nearest you for a day or pack up the Prius and road-trip to a few. Skip the tourist traps, and start exploring!
Vacation With Martian Experts
Destination: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Pasadena, Calif.
If you can't go to Mars (and you probably can't), JPL may be the next best thing. This historic lab is the hub for the nation's latest Red Planet research. You'll see the Space Flight Operations Facility, where scientists monitor current missions, a Space Simulator for virtual testing, and a Marscape, where prototype rovers practice maneuvers. JPL offers a free, two-day open house every May, but private tours (also free) can be arranged year-round if booked in advance.
Geek highlight: Lie down and get run over by a mini Martian buggy!
Weekend With the Bear Essentials
Destination: Wildlife Research Institute - Ely, Minn.
If you've survived a few family reunions, then lounging with a bunch of black bears in the woods will be a cinch. That's just one of the items on the agenda during the four-day Black Bear Field Study Course offered 10 times from May through August. For $1,500, you'll become part of the longest and most in-depth bear study ever conducted, tallying up data on social organization, communication and other facets of the clan. Although there are more than 50 bears in the area, about a dozen are collared for intensive study. This year, seven mothers will also have cubs. A class size of eight guarantees proximity not only to the bears but to the institute's principal biologist and tour leader, Lynn Rogers, widely known as the Jane Goodall of black bears and star of the documentary The Man Who Walks with Bears.