Despite all our incredible feats of engineering, art, and architecture, we’ve never built anything to rival nature’s majesty. Who would trade Everest for a skyscraper? The Grand Canyon for a colosseum? Niagara Falls for a water park?
America’s wilderness is teeming over with treasures. Here are 5 of the most breathtaking natural wonders to explore in the U.S.
1. Yellowstone National Park
With its thermal springs, fumaroles, and landscapes, Yellowstone contains many features that could easily merit their own spots on this list. The world-famous geyser Old Faithful, for example, is one of the most famous natural attractions in the whole country. But Yellowstone is so much more than any of its constituent parts. It truly is one of the most extraordinary places on earth.
At 3,473 square miles, the park is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. It contains more than half the known geysers in the world, the largest high elevation lake, and over 1,800 archaeological sites highlighting the ancient history of North America and its earliest human inhabitants. And if all that isn’t enough to win you over, there are also more than 1,000 miles of hiking trails in the park.
But the most fascinating (and deadly) thing about Yellowstone is what lies beneath the surface: a supervolcano. Unlike a traditional conical volcano, Yellowstone’s power isn’t immediately obvious. Magma builds up beneath the surface over hundreds of thousands or millions of years, causing the earth to bulge. Eventually, the volcano pops — like a subcutaneous blister, and the land sinks back down into a caldera.
That’s what Yellowstone is: a massive caldera, a volcanic pock mark in the land. It was created by three enormous eruptions that have taken place over the last two million years. Were it to explode again, it could potentially wipe humanity off the face of the earth.
Yellowstone is a good reminder that beauty usually comes with a side of danger. Take a look at our list of the best hikes in Yellowstone to enjoy this natural beauty up close!
2. Crater Lake, Oregon
If you’re looking for a volcano that’s less dangerous, consider heading out to Crater Lake, Oregon’s only National Park. It was formed from the collapse of an ancient volcano about 7,700 years ago.
The result is a cold, deep, crater-shaped sapphire lake. Bottoming out at more than 1,900 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest in the U.S. and the ninth-deepest on earth. Yet its surface area covers a mere 20 square miles.
Apart from its piercing blue color, it is noted for being surrounded by snow for almost all of the year, since it sits at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet above sea level. The only months when you might reasonably expect to see the park without a blanket of the white stuff are June, July, and August.
There are many trails inside the park, as well as a driving trail that takes you around the rim of the caldera. There are also campsites for those wishing to stay and explore, and fishing is permitted without a license.
3. Death Valley National Park
‘Death Valley’ isn’t exactly an encouraging name for America’s largest National Park outside of Alaska. It was named by a group of white settlers who became lost in the valley on their way west, certainly not by the Native Americans who have lived in the area for at least 9,000 years.
Although only one of the aforementioned settlers actually died here, the others correctly surmised how dangerous this place can be. Death Valley is one of the hottest regions on earth — in fact, it holds the record for the highest surface temperature ever recorded on the planet, 134°F. And the ground can be even hotter than the air, maxing out at 201°F. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the driest places in the U.S., with average yearly rainfall totalling only 2.36 inches.
But for all that, there is so much to explore in Death Valley when you next venture out west. There are plenty of ghost towns to be found throughout the park, and perhaps as many as 10,000 abandoned mines. Death Valley has some of the darkest skies you’ll ever see, so bring your telescope. And make sure to check out Badwater Basin and it’s 200 square miles of salt flats.
4. Kilauea, Hawaii
If you want to see an active volcano up-close, your best best in the U.S. is the shield volcano Kilauea. It has been coughing its fiery guts up nearly continuously since 1983, but usually in relatively peaceful fashion.
Shield volcanoes are known to be less explosive than their counterparts, tending to leak highly fluid lava from their vents rather than throwing huge amounts of gas and ash into the atmosphere. The watery flows of volcanoes like Kilauea spread out and cool on the surface, giving the surrounding area its distinctive ‘shield’ shape.
However, even the gentle Kilauea, which normally spits its lava directly into the sea, can be dangerous. In May of this year, earthquakes and gas emissions emanating from the volcano destroyed several nearby communities. On May 17, Kilauea exploded, hurling plumes of smoke and ash 30,000 feet into the atmosphere and forcing the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Authorities hope to have parts of the park reopened by the end of September, but keep yourself up-to-date by following the story here.
5. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Mammoth Cave is the largest cavern system in the world, and it isn’t even close. And we’re just talking about the 400+ miles of tunnels that have been mapped. How many more miles of passages lie beyond and beneath remains unknown.
You can tailor your tour to match the level of adventure you favor. You can take a short, fully-lit tour where the most iconic formations will be fully illuminated for your benefit, or you can set out on a guided tour with nothing but the flashlight on your helmet. It’s up to you!
Keep your eyes peeled for any signs of human habitation in the caves; Native American remains have been found in there that date back as much as 6,000 years.
We hope this list inspired you to get out there and explore all the natural wonders the U.S. has to offer. After all, they belong to you. Happy trails!