Our Top Stories of 2014

From weird red waterfalls to the pleasures of small-town America, these were the most read articles on Smithsonian.com this year

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Small town travel, the Monuments Men, Chernobyl and Stonehenge were all among reader favorites in 2014 Clockwise from top left: Silver City Arts & Cultural District/Thomas Carr Howe papers, Archives of American Art/T.A.Mousseau & A.P. Møller/Henrik Knudsen, with thanks to English Heritage

Small-town America, a weird rusty waterfall, the heroism of artists and academics during World War II—the most popular stories on Smithsonian.com this year really spanned the range of our coverage, a melting pot of art, science, history and travel. Find out if your favorite made the list, or get caught up on any cool finds you might have missed:

10. How Japan Copied American Culture and Made it Better

In our April issue, journalist Tom Downey explored Japan’s infatuation with and perfection of American culture. While there probably are only a handful of countries around the world where you couldn’t find an American fast food joint, in one Japanese restaurant you can get a flame-grilled hamburger fresh off the barbecue. A culture focused on perfection has taken many of these iconic facets of American culture to the next level, and Downey gave readers an inside look at Japan’s version of America, from cocktails to suit shirts.

9. After Two Weeks, 234 Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls Are Still Missing

People around the globe were shocked in April when an Islamic extremist group called Boko Haram raided a secondary boarding school in Nigeria and kidnapped at least 200 young girls. Two weeks in, the girls were still missing, and our story on the lack of progress went viral. After the initial kidnapping, our Smart News blog covered developments throughout the year and the ensuing cascade of public outrage, including rumors that the girls had been married off, Boko Haram’s demands and the news than some lucky women had escaped.

8. What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller

Plenty of rumor and speculation surrounds the disappearance and presumed death of the lost Rockefeller heir. In 1961, he sailed into the heart of New Guinea to collect art of the Asmat tribe. Rockefeller’s catamaran capsized, and he was never seen again. Writer Carl Hoffman retraces the famous adventurer’s steps in his new book Savage Harvest, an excerpt of which appeared in our March issue.

7. The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets

Nearly two decades ago, a pair of college students found a skull in the shallows of the Columbia River in Washington State. They thought they’d found a murder victim, but today we know the skeletal remains belong to the prehistoric “Kennewick Man.” At 9,000 years old, the bones represent one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in the Americas. After a saga of legal battles, scientists finally published a complete analysis of the bones this year, and the Kennewick Man spilled his secrets in our September issue.

6. Step Inside the World's Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare)

In Northern England, the idyllic Alnwick Garden harbors some murderous residents. Held behind black iron gates, the Alnwick's infamous Poison Garden includes 100 plant varieties, including exotic killers like the South American Brugmansia and more common poisons like Ricinis communis, the source of ricin. Earlier this year, online reporter Natasha Geiling spoke to the Duchess of Northumberland about her quest to create this unique botanical landmark. Though it’s obviously against the rules to touch, smell or taste these plants, each species has a fascinating backstory to explore.

5. Forests Around Chernobyl Aren't Decaying Properly

Twenty-eight years ago, the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine, had a meltdown that spewed radiation into the surrounding environment and claimed the lives of 28 workers. While humans have not returned to the exclusion zone around the sealed plant, nature has, and scientists are trying to track the long-term ecological fallout. This March, Rachel Nuwer reported that even microbes and insects that eat dead plants are still feeling the effects of nuclear disaster, which has resulted in some funky forest decomposition in Chernobyl’s wilderness.

4. What Lies Beneath Stonehenge?

Southern England’s iconic stone circle has mystified us since it was first excavated in 1620. What was the site used for? How did the stones get there? It seems like Stonehenge always raises more questions than answers. This year, the latest underground survey revealed that there was a lot going on at the site during the late Neolithic period. Scouring the plains with ground-penetrating radar and other gadgets, researchers found new monuments, ditches, barrows and pits that add to the story of this mysterious landscape. Get the full scoop in this feature story from our September issue.

3. The True Story of the Monuments Men

While the George Clooney-helmed World War II film left audiences a little underwhelmed, the real adventures of the "Monuments Men" proved far more intriguing. Often working with few resources, the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allies saved and preserved thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis. In February, writer Jim Morrison spoke with art scholar Lynn H. Nicholas about the small team of artists, curators, architects and academics, some of whose accounts and documents reside today at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

2. Antarctica’s Blood Red Waterfall

Extreme environments can produce some bizarre scenes of beauty. That’s certainly the case for Blood Falls, a five-story waterfall that flows out of Taylor Glacier in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valley. When images of the falls stunned the Internet earlier this year, we decided to do a little digging into the science behind their reddish hue. (Spoiler: It’s not really blood.)

1. The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2014

Shining a light on the charm of small-town America has become a tradition here. For the third year in a row, we selected the top 20 small towns (those with fewer than 15,000 residents) in the United States based on local history, music, arts, science and other attractions. From the colonial ambiance of Williamsburg, Virginia, to the pinnacles and buttes of Sedona, Arizona, this year’s list took readers on a virtual road trip across America.