America is blessed with an abundance of natural wonders, from pristine lakes and mighty rivers to natural sandstone arches and snow-capped mountains. But it’s no easy task to narrow down a short list of the country’s best natural wonders. Some are obvious choices, quickly coming to mind. While others might take longer consideration, any noteworthy location making the final cut must present its own set of unique characteristics and Earth-thundering displays of nature’s power. The following are 10 of the best natural wonders in the U.S.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley, CA 92323
Death Valley is the hottest, driest and lowest area in North America, as well as the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. Located on more than three million acres within the Mojave Desert, Death Valley has a diverse collection of topography and habitat, ranging from the Badwater Basin at 282 feet below sea level to Telescope Peak, the park’s highest point at 11,049 feet. The park is open year round but visitors are strongly advised to take special precautions when temperatures typically rise above 120 degrees from May to October. Just recently, the park celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the World’s Hottest Recorded Air Temperature when a scorching 134 degrees was recorded on July 10, 1913 at the aptly-named Furnace Creek.
Everglades National Park
Homestead, FL 33034
With more than 1.5 million acres, the Florida Everglades is the country’s largest subtropical wilderness. Dedicated as a national park in 1947, the vast wetlands is home to several endangered species, including the American crocodile, West Indian manatee and Florida panther. Because the winter months from December to March are typically the driest, with less humidity, this is when the park is filled with visitors and most operational facilities are open. One of the most popular activities for tourists to embark upon is an airboat, with its prominent aircraft-like propeller gliding through the vast marshes of one of the country’s largest national parks.
Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
Unquestionably one of the country’s greatest natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is also on a short list of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Etched over time by the powerful Colorado River to reveal a brilliant display of Earth’s colors within its cavernous walls, the mile-deep canyon attracts five million visitors annually. The most popular section of the 277-mile-long gorge is the awe-inspiring South Rim, approximately 75 miles north of Flagstaff and a four-hour drive from Las Vegas. Additionally, the Grand Canyon provides a number of outstanding outdoor activities like hiking, mule rides and rough water rafting.
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Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
Hawaii, HI 96718
One of the world’s most active volcanoes is located on the island of Hawaii, less than an hour drive from Hilo. Estimated to be 300,000 to 600,000 years old, Kilauea is the youngest and southeastern most volcano on Hawaii’s largest island and rises 4,190 feet above sea level. After an extended period of relative calm, there have been numerous eruptions since 1952 and it is now a constant source of volcanic activity. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1982, Kilauea is located within Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, also featuring the world’s most massive volcano, Mauna Loa. According to Hawaiian mythology, Kilauea is home to Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes.
Denali National Park
Denali Park, AK 99755
Due to its remote location, Denali National Park attracts less than half a million visitors each year. But those who do come to the park, about 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks, can admire Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America and the world’s third most prominent mountain. Also known as Denali (the High One), the 20,320-foot summit is not the only attraction at the national park, with ranger-led hikes, cycling and fishing being among the most favorite activities. The best time to visit Mount McKinley and Denali National Park is from late May to early September, although there is a greater chance of rain and cloud cover after June.
Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls, NY 14302
One of the world’s most recognizable natural wonders, Niagara Falls State Park is the oldest state park in the country. Located on the Niagara River, the postcard-perfect tributary connecting with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls is comprised of three separate falls, with the American and Bridal Veil Falls in the U.S. and Canadian Falls located north of the international boundary. Drawing an estimated 22.5 million annual visitors, Niagara Falls is easily one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions. With an astounding 3,160 tons of water flowing over the falls every second, the falls has the world’s largest flow rate. Frequently described as the Honeymoon Capital of the World, Niagara Falls has been practically synonymous with honeymoons in American culture for over 200 years.
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190
Niagara Falls may be the country’s first state park, but Yellowstone National Park is widely considered to be the world’s oldest national park. Established in 1872, the park is home to the world’s largest collection of geysers, including Old Faithful, with a dramatic burst of steam high into the air nearly every 91 minutes. Not to be overlooked is the Yellowstone Caldera, the continent’s largest super volcano and Yellowstone Lake, one of the largest highest altitude lakes in North America. Yellowstone was established as a national park by Congress and President Ulysses Grant in 1872.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO 80517
Stretching more than 3,000 miles from British Columbia’s Liard River to central New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains is actually a series of mountain ranges featuring several American and Canadian national parks. With an elevation of 14,433 feet, Mount Elbert is the highest point of the Rockies and the second highest in the contiguous U.S. Other prominent national parks of this historic natural wonder include Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons in the U.S. and Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Canada. A significant portion of the Continental Divide separates the water heading towards the Pacific Ocean from the water filtering into the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Sequoia National Park
Three Rivers, CA 93271
Yosemite National Park is more famous and attracts more than three times the number of visitors, but Sequoia National Park has something no other park in the world can claim – the world’s largest tree by trunk volume. Named after Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, the giant sequoia stands nearly 275 feet high, with a total volume of more than 52,000 cubic feet. General Sherman is located within the Giant Forest Grove of Sequoia National Park, where six of the 10 largest trees in the world reside. While the largest trees are in Sequoia National Park, the world’s tallest and oldest trees are located elsewhere in California. Measuring nearly 380 feet high, the world tallest tree – Hyperion – is in Redwood National Park and a Great Basin bristlecone pine estimated to be over 5,000 years old is located in the White Mountains.
Yosemite Village, CA 95389
Often considered one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Yosemite National Park annually draws 3.5 million visitors from all over the world. Known for its spectacular granite rock formations, tranquil forests and captivating waterfalls, the highly acclaimed park is located in the central Sierra Nevada mountain ranges of California. Unquestionably the crown jewel of the Yosemite Valley is the venerable Half Dome, the mammoth rock formation whose natural beauty is world renowned and one of the most photographed natural wonders on the planet. Other noteworthy attractions not to be missed are El Capitan, the world largest monolith of granite, Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.