It’s easy enough spotting a panhandle on a pan: Just look at the part you use to lift it off the stove. Identifying a panhandle on a state can be trickier.
The USA, apparently, has 10 of them, all variously sized, usually awkward add-ons that tug away from a state’s main mass. But what makes for a “panhandle,” exactly?
Mark Stein’s excellent How the States Got Their Shapes explains a lot, but not why Nebraska’s chubby western end is considered a panhandle, while Utah’s similarly shaped northward-thrusting stub doesn't rate.
I needed to know, so I called a geographer.
Joseph Kerski, education manager at Esri, a major player in mapping technology, said he’d not heard of any science behind panhandlology, but took a shot at defining what might constitute this elusive piece of geography anyway.
“I’d say it’s a narrower part of a political polygon extending from the state’s main body,” he offered. Then, after a thoughtful pause, he added: “Often there’s a strong sense of place there, maybe ... a sense of frontier.”
Kerski's definition* will have to do until panhandlology becomes a science. Meantime I’ve ranked all 10 of the generally recognized panhandles in the United States based strictly on travel appeal—with a little lore thrown in—for your reading enjoyment.
* OK, there is a definition. Merriam-Webster defines panhandle (in this usage) as: “a part of a land area (such as a state) that is narrow and sticks out from a larger area.”
Alaska’s island-rich southeastern arm is a well-known travel destination in its own right, with cruises and ferries passing glaciers and coastal villages along the Inside Passage. Off the boat, towns like historic Sitka or capital city Juneau have spectacularly scenic trails, homespun seafood shacks, and walk-up glaciers. Fun.
Dee Longenbaugh, owner of Juneau’s Observatory Books, who grew up in the Texas panhandle before relocating to Alaska half a century ago, admits life on the panhandle of the Last Frontier—residents simply call it the Southeast—can feel disconnected at times.
“When Anchorage tried to take the capital from Juneau, the Southeast teamed up with the Interior [of Alaska] and voted against it. No way! Anchorage doesn’t know what it’s doing.”
That sounds pretty panhandle to me.
By the way, locals here take some cheeky pride in the role their area played, perhaps, in the “strange” death of President Warren G. Harding immediately following his ambitious visit—a presidential first—to Alaska (then a territory) to mark the completion of its railroad in 1923.
The most populated panhandle in the States (over 1.4 million live here), Florida’s northwestern arm is a major tourist draw, too.
The Emerald Coast occupies much of the panhandle and can get kind of, uh, touristy, especially around spring break. (Think Panama City.) In Pensacola, however, one of North America’s oldest European settlements, the Gulf Islands National Seashore car fee keeps out most of the usual beach-bar rabble.
Better is a look at the sleepier, more natural Forgotten Coast, nestled in Florida's armpit, on its panhandle’s southeastern end.
In addition to being just plain fun to say, Apalachicola is worth a visit. Another trippy spot is Seaside, a community intentionally designed to look old—the perfect filming location for the real-yet-unreal town in 1998's The Truman Show.
Cross-country drivers love to whine about Interstate 80 as they make a beeline for the Rockies, not realizing that they're passing an overlooked region in Nebraska’s husky western panhandle. Slow down, and you'll find, as I have, that it is packed with interesting, if lonely, attractions.
But if you keep going north on the mostly empty two-laner toward South Dakota’s Black Hills, you can hike alongside—alert your bucket list—prehistoric beaver tunnels at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument and see the spot where Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota was killed in 1877 at Fort Robinson. You can even overnight in the officer barracks there.
“It’s cheap up here. You can still get $2 beer.”
That’s the word of Rick Shaffer, an inn owner who proclaimed himself the prime minister of Wallace, Idaho, to amuse tourists in the 1990s (the city council eventually got in on the joke and issued a charter recognizing him as the "Prime Minister of Hospitality and Official Greeter of Historic Wallace" in 2005). “We’re definitely the 'Other Idaho,'” says Shaffer, who’s lived in the state for a quarter of a century.
Wallace is a silver mining town that saved its historic center from being a casualty of I-90 construction by getting the whole thing listed as a national landmark. These days, people come here to bike. There are 185 miles of trails, many of which trace the paths of old forest roads and converted railway beds.
A highlight is the nearby Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, a 72-mile paved route that runs along a network of lakes with baggage-forwarding services for overnight stays in noteworthy towns along the trail.
In this panhandle—more widely known as Western Maryland—the locals don’t always identify with the rest of the state. During election years, Pittsburgh-based stations pump ads for Pennsylvania candidates through radios and televisions and most residents cheer for the Steelers, not the more distant Baltimore Ravens.
Western Maryland is also notably different topographically. This is the state's idyllically rural stretch—and, notably, its most mountainous. “I moved here five years ago and the first weekend, I saw a tractor driving through [the] McDonald’s [drive-thru] and was like, what’s going on here?”
That’s the observation of Theresa MacLennan, director at the nonprofit that works to clear and build trails in Garrett County, including the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile rail trail that runs from historic Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh.
Biking, hiking, and lake recreation (all of Maryland's lakes are man-made, including the panhandle's ever lovely Deep Creek) are among the region's biggest attractions. U.S. Bicycle Route 50—which aims to connect D.C. with San Francisco—began here in 2013. Backpackers, take note: The 16.9-mile Big Savage Trail is particularly scenic, passing scads of rock formations near the Eastern Continental Divide.
6. West Virginia (Eastern Panhandle)
This ruggedly winsome swath of West Virginia is proud to be its own entity, and has courted the Washington, D.C.-area weekend crowd since there was a D.C. (Or, arguably, before; George Washington first visited as a teen.)
The more charming of the state's two panhandles (see below), this eastern arm boasts several destinations worth visiting.
Harpers Ferry, site of radical abolitionist John Brown's doomed 1859 effort to lead a slave uprising (a wax museum bearing his name depicts the famous incident), is where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia meet. It's also where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge (not a coincidence). The Appalachian Trail runs right through the center of town, which adds a folksy vibe to the place.
Berkeley Springs—formerly, and aptly, known as Bath—is one of the oldest spa destinations in the nation, if not the first. In addition to its healing mineral waters, the tiny community is known for its thriving arts community and the striking 19th-century “castle” that stands sentinel in the hills overlooking downtown.
“All we have to do here is go to movies and have sex,” a waitress in a Guymon steakhouse told me last year. In other words, it can take some creativity to find things to do in Oklahoma's panhandle—the most obvious “panhandle” shape in the States.
This is nothing new. The Oklahoma panhandle may just be the unluckiest rectangle of plains in world history. It was the hardest stretch to cross on the old Santa Fe Trail and the region hit hardest by the 1930s Dust Bowl. For decades in the mid-18th century, it sat unwanted as “No Man’s Land,” literally unclaimed by anyone. Alas.
Well, there are a handful of quaint community museums to visit (Goodwell, Oklahoma, has one that features two-headed calves), and Optima Lake, a failed project with roots in FDR's New Deal era that looks like a post-apocalyptic film set. And, near the New Mexico border, the 28-mile-long Black Mesa, the highest point in the state, juts up from twisting canyons home to dinosaur footprints.
But if you find yourself in this panhandle, your time would perhaps be best spent exploring side roads and popping into eerie abandoned homesteads left behind from Okie families heading west during the Dust Bowl.
Thirty miles south of Amarillo, Texas, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, as locals around here like to say, represents the Lone Star State’s very own “Grand Canyon.”
And to be sure, the 120-mile-long chasm, dropping 800 feet suddenly from the grassy plains, is this panhandle’s biggest highlight. There are New Deal-era cabins to bunk in at the park, and an al fresco production of a musical called Texas, which is sort of a half-hearted rebuttal to Oklahoma!
Born in (and usually linked to) Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie also lived in Pampa, which the legendary folk singer described as “wilder than a woodchuck” in his book Bound for Glory. Today you can visit the wee Woody Guthrie Folk Music Center.
9. West Virginia (Northern Panhandle)
No panhandle has a cooler nickname than this piece of West Virginia jammed like a fist between Pennsylvania and Ohio: “the Rod.” It’s here, running up in “a creepy way,” per Stein, owing to a Revolutionary-era compromise between the colonies of Virginia and Pennsylvania. As is the case in Western Maryland, residents from this region tend to have more in common with Pittsburghers than they do with folks from the rest of their state.
The star of West Virginia's northern panhandle is Wheeling, the state's first capital city after its split from Virginia during the American Civil War. Head downtown for the shops, food at the central Centre Market, which dates to 1853, or to the Wheeling Waterfront for views of the Ohio River.
Just outside Wheeling city limits you'll find one of the largest conical burial mounds in the United States. Built by members of the Adena culture well before Jesus was born, the Grave Creek Mound is 62 feet tall and 240 feet around (that's about 120 million pounds of dirt). A free museum nearby showcases relics found on the site.
Connecticut’s squat southwestern stub, a nearly perfect rectangle pointing toward New York City, is the smallest panhandle in the U.S., yet its most densely populated. Also, it’s where stinking rich “New Yorkers” eventually live. New Canaan and Greenwich, for instance, represent two of the most affluent towns in the nation, while Stamford is home to one of its largest concentrations of corporations, including a heaping handful on the Fortune 500 list.
So if you’re not meeting Mick Jagger or Kathie Lee Gifford for brunch, you might feel out of place here.