14 of America's greatest natural wonders

A spouting volcano; a vast meteor crater; a mountain range home to the world's oldest life forms… no other nation does epic landscapes like the USA

Published 4 May 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:55 BST
Kīlauea Volcano, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Kīlauea Volcano, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Photograph by Getty

01 Hawaii
Kīlauea & Mauna Loa

The Kīlauea Volcano, on Hawaii's Big Island, has been erupting near continuously for more than 34 years and is widely considered the most active volcano on Earth. It's one of the most spectacular too; an enormous cauldron of spitting fire and smouldering lava that's covered 40sq miles of the island in its molten flow. But this year is special. Lava is now spilling into the ocean — a six-mile river of fire cascading into the sea in torrents of steam and hiss. It's a rare phenomenon that few will ever glimpse.

But it's not the only remarkable volcano on the island. Right next door to Kīlauea is her sister, Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth. More than 60 miles long, 30 miles wide and rising 56,000ft from the ocean floor — almost twice the height of Mount Everest — it's large enough to house 3,200 Mount St Helens within its colossal frame. Two of the world's great volcanoes — the largest active one, and the most active — fiery sisters, side by side.

02 Colorado
Great Sand Dunes

Standing on the top of the Star Dune, it's hard to believe you're still in the US. Rolling desert spreads out for 30sq miles in all directions, like a sea of sand. At dawn, as the first rays break over the Sangre de Cristos Mountains, the dunes are flushed pink; at sunset they turn golden, long geometric shadows snaking across the land like a Mondrian painting.

They're formed from the remains of an ancient dried-out lake. Sand is swept up from the vast San Luis Valley by the wind and pushed against the base of the mountains. When storms rage, the wind races back in the opposite direction, lifting the dunes higher. Grain by grain, over thousands of years, these desert mountains were born.

Getting to the top is hard, but getting down is easy: strap on a sandboard or sledge (available to rent nearby) and scream all the way down. Alternatively, hike just a couple miles into the dunes, pitch a tent and enjoy the silence and stars of your own private desert oasis.

03 Alaska

This year marks the centenary of Denali National Park and Preserve, in Southcentral Alaska. Covering six million acres of arctic forest and high alpine tundra, it's the largest national park in the country, roughly the size of Vermont. To be here is to experience America's last true frontier, to hear its original heartbeat, the solitude and ferocity of the real wilderness.

In the centre of the park is Denali mountain, its name meaning 'the great one' in native Koyukon Athabascan. And so it is. Denali is 20,310ft tall, the highest peak in North America, with a vertical rise of 18,000ft — taller than Mount Everest's by a third and the largest of any mountain that's entirely above sea level.

But for all its superlatives, it's the wildlife that most people come here for. In a single day, it's possible to see all of Alaska's Big Five: grizzlies, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep. But get off the path too: unlike other national parks, the backcountry of Denali has no trails or campsites; this is a true wilderness, the adventure is as big as your imagination can make it.

04 Kentucky 
Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave, in southern Kentucky, is so large that, despite being discovered over 200 years ago, researchers still haven't finished mapping it. Current estimates put it at 405 miles deep, the longest cave system in the world by far. But size is only part of its wonder. Inside is a labyrinth of pristine geological formations: columns of stalactites and stalagmites, waterfalls of cascading flowstone and blooms of bright crystal gypsum flowers. Walking inside is like peering into a natural gallery of stone, carved over 10 million years by rainwater seeping in from above, drop by drop into the eerie underworld below.

05 Idaho & Oregon
Hell's Canyon

The Mississippi may be brimming with history and the sounds of the Delta blues, but large parts of it are industrial and polluted too. For a truly wondrous river, with some of the best whitewater in the country, check out the Snake River, particularly at Hell's Canyon. With drops of up to 7,993ft, this is America's deepest river gorge, dwarfing even the Grand Canyon. See it best on a kayaking or rafting trip, where fierce rapids are interspersed with long meandering views and deserted beaches perfect for camping.

06 California
Bristlecone Pines

California's wonder trees are well known: 'the very god of the woods', as John Muir called the sequoia, the largest living thing on Earth; and the giant redwood, the tallest, stretching 400ft to the sky. But there's another wonder tree that almost no one's heard of, and it's perhaps the most remarkable of all.

With a potential lifespan of 5,000 years, bristlecone pines are the oldest living organisms on the planet, some predating the birth of Christ, the invention of the alphabet, and the fall of Greece, Rome and the Incas. When the first stones of the Egyptian pyramids were being laid, the most ancient of these gnarled and wind-twisted trees — found almost exclusively 10,000ft up in the White Mountains of California — already had its roots in the ground.

But that's not the only amazing thing about them. Using a combination of living and dead wood, scientists have now pieced together a continuous tree-ring chronology that stretches back 10,000 years to the last ice age. Peering inside their rings is like looking at a photocopy of the climatic conditions of our past, which is helping to combat climate change. These trees have stood watch over the rise and fall of empires, seen the atom split and man walk on the Moon. To be near them is to touch deep time itself and see the flash of our own lives.

07 Colorado
Black Canyon of the Gunnison

This 48-mile canyon, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, is barely known outside of Colorado but don't let that put you off. The Grand Canyon may be bigger, but this steep and narrow river gorge is just as spectacular. The chasm lights up blood red at sunset, with the silver sliver of the Gunnison River like a trail of mercury far below. Miles away from the artificial lights of civilisation, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (an International Dark Sky Park) is also one of the best places in the country for stargazing.

08 Arizona
Barringer Meteor Crater

This crater is one of the world's largest and best-preserved meteor-impact sites. With a diameter of 4,000ft and a depth of 550ft, this hole in the desert of Northern Arizona is big enough to hold more than 70,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

When the meteorite struck around 50,000 years ago, it hit the Earth with a force greater than 20 million tonnes of TNT — 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The ground melted instantly, dark clouds rained molten iron and nickel from the sky. While other impact sites around the world have eroded over time, Arizona's dry climate has preserved Barringer's in near-pristine condition. It's like looking at that moment of violence frozen in time.

But it's remarkable for other reasons. For decades after its discovery, in 1903, no one was quite sure what had caused it. Then, in 1960, geologist Eugene M Shoemaker discovered two rare types of silica at the site that can only be created under immense pressure. It was the first time a meteor crater had been conclusively proven to exist and it opened the door to a flood of scientific discoveries, from what happened to the dinosaurs to what caused those dents in the Moon.

In 2015, an 1,800ft-wide meteorite — roughly 100 times bigger than the rock that caused the Barringer crater — missed by a hair's breadth. To stand on the rim is to see with your own eyes the awesome forces that have forged our world and be humbled by the unfathomable power of the universe.

09 North Carolina & Tennessee
Great Smoky Mountains

New England gets the press, but the Great Smoky Mountains, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, offer an arguably better autumn spectacle.

In late September, bright hues of red, yellow and purple spill down from the mountaintops in rolling waves. And, because of the varied elevation within the park, the peak brightness lasts longer than elsewhere in the country. It's a great landscape to explore too, with some of the best woodland hiking in the States, including sections of the famed Appalachian Trail.

10 Florida
Dry Tortugas

This archipelago of pristine coral reefs and sparkling waters lies 70 miles off Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of its designation as a national park this year, the Dry Tortugas are America's premier snorkelling and scuba-diving location, with abundant marine life: swim with sea turtles, explore shipwrecks and search for manatees hiding among the coral gardens.

11 Louisiana
Atchafayala Swamp

The Everglades, in South Florida, are rightly famous, but they're not the country's only wonder-filled wetland. Atchafalaya Swamp, deep in Louisiana's backcountry, 100 miles east of New Orleans, is the largest river swamp in America, a million-acre wilderness filled with enormous alligators and the ghostly stumps of a vast cypress forest.

But it's the people that make it special. This is Cajun country; the seafood is always fresh and old Acadian jigs play all night long. Take an airboat through the narrow bayous, trawl for crawfish or just sit back with a cold beer, like the Cajuns do, and let the sparkle of the swamp cure you of the ills of the civilised world.

12 Oregon
Crater Lake

The Great Lakes may win on size, but for beauty, Crater Lake, in Oregon, is the country's best by far. At the centre of a volcanic crater, the vast cobalt pool reaches a depth of 1,943ft, making it the country's deepest lake, and as it's fed only by rain and snow, it's one of the most pristine on Earth too. Hike the rim, jump in the ice-cold waters and watch the sunset reflected in its mirror-still surface.

13 Wyoming
The Tetons

The sharp peaks of the Tetons, which rise up to 13,775ft, are some of the most striking, and photogenic, mountain ranges in the world. Forget the Rockies — if you want colossal scale and drama, picture-postcard peaks unencumbered by foothills and some of the steepest and most stunning hiking in the country, come to the Tetons.

14 Alaska
Prince William Sound

Celebrate the 150th anniversary of Alaska this year with a cruise along Prince William Sound, one of the most spectacular coastal areas in the country. Covering close to 15,000sq miles, this vast maritime wilderness is home to the largest collection of tidewater glaciers in the world; if you want to see rivers of ice crashing into the sea, to hear the crack of enormous icebergs breaking into the bay, then this is the place to come.

But there's much more too: orcas and humpback whales cross these icy waters, sea lions and porpoises play by the shore; there are enormous fjords, small fishing villages and fascinating First Nation heritage on the shore. Prince William Sound is what Alaska is all about: wild, dramatic and teeming with life.

Follow @AaronMWriter

Read more in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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