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You may think you have a good idea about what the United States looks like, with its vast plains, towering mountains, and dramatic coastlines, but this country is also home to many bizarre geological features and surreal landscapes that look like something out of a fantasy movie. While popular tourist destinations like the Grand Canyon (a top wonder of the world) and Joshua Tree are famous for their one-of-a-kind visual appeal, there are plenty of other must-see natural landmarks across the US that can provide an out-of-this-world experience for visitors.
As one of the largest national parks in the US, Death Valley has plenty of famous natural wonders in the USA, including flowing waterfalls, canyons, badlands, craters, and sand dunes. But perhaps one of the most phenomenal landscapes found within the United States is also Death Valley’s most striking topographical feature—the salt pans located in Badwater Basin. Known for being the lowest point in the United States at 282 ft (86 m) below sea level, billions of salt crystals were left over from an ancient lake to form a surreal polygonal pattern. Framed by views of the rugged Black Mountains in the distance, this alien-like terrain looks more akin to the moon than California. Check out one of the many Death Valley tours from Las Vegas that stop in the area, with some offering special sunset visits and stargazing.
The snowy trails of the Rocky Mountains ski resorts aren’t the only slopes you can ride down in Colorado. About an hour’s drive south of Denver, between the San Juan Mountains and the Sangre de Cristos, you’ll find Great Sand Dunes National Park. These sand dunes stretch across 30 square miles of the state’s southern San Luis Valley and make a great adventure weekend getaway. Hike the tallest dunes in North America—they’re as high as 750 feet (229 meters)—then go sandboarding down the steep hills. Serious bragging rights.
With its steep walls of wavy, lined sandstone, Antelope Canyon is one of the most famous slot canyons in the US (as well as one of the most photographed thanks to light beams that filter through the openings down into the canyon and illuminate the sandstone walls for an otherworldly experience). Situated on Navajo land in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, the slot canyon was formed by water rushing through the rock over the course of millions of years. One of the coolest, natural places in the world, this slot canyon has two separate sections—the deep-but-narrow Upper Antelope Canyon (also known as Spiral Rock Arches) and the Lower Antelope Canyon (Hasdeztwazi). Good to know: Antelope Canyon can only be visited as part of a guided tour.
Stretching across 41,170 acres (16,660 hectares) in northwest New Mexico, the Bisti/De-Na-Zing Wilderness has a seriously atmospheric vibe. When the sun sets, shadows sweep over the strange spires and hoodoos. The stark landscape—which is now part Navajo territory—was once a sea, but as the water disappeared over time, it left a 1,400-foot-thick (427-meter-thick) layer of mudstone, shale, and coal that’s been untouched for more than 50 million years. It’s no wonder so many dinosaur fossils have been found here.
The Hamilton Pool Preserve is located just 23 miles (37 kilometers) west of ever-sprawling Austin and is a serene emerald grotto where 50-foot (15-meter) waterfalls flow from limestone cliffs and splash into an oasis below. Visitors agree that the Hamilton Pool Preserve is like looking into the entrance to some enchanted hidden land thanks to lush, preserved ecosystem that supports a variety of plants and wildlife. While there is a reservation system (make your plans in advance) and an entrance fee, it is absolutely worth visiting the Hamilton Pool preserve to walk around the pool and marvel at the stalactites, before taking a dip in this scenic natural pool.
Named after its numerous glacial-carved fjords—otherworldly ice valleys that sit below sea level— Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses a massive 1,047 square miles (2,711 square kilometers) filled with gorgeous scenery making it one of the most unique natural wonders in the USA. The fjords run down the mountains into the iconic Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States, with 40 tidewater glaciers flowing into it. Get a view of the fjords on a wildlife cruise from Seward.
When you think Hawaii, you’re probably thinking tropical, warm rainforests and maybe the occasional lava field. But what you might not know is that smack in the middle of the Big Island is a snowy peak doubling as one of the best astronomical observation sites on Earth. Mauna Kea is a volcano, albeit dormant, whose name means “white mountain” and stands at a whopping 13,796 feet (4,138-meter) high. This “technically” tallest mountain on earth is usually covered in snow during the winter months but also hosts some of the world’s best telescopes (there are more than ten of them, making it the world’s largest observatory). On tour from either Kona or Hilo, you’ll be able to see the observatory at the peak and hopefully spend some time stargazing.
Watkins Glen State Park is located just a short, 30-minute drive from the charming college town of Ithaca and is one of the most popular natural attractions in the United States and one of the best outdoor adventure vacations. What makes this New York state park unique is it offers a relatively short hike along the Gorge Trail through a variety of stunning (you guessed it) gorges, stone bridges, and tunnels, plus 19 waterfalls—a relative rarity in the more homogenous topography of the East Coast. The 1.5-mile (2.5-kilometer) loop trail climbs 500 feet via a series of paths and steps carved into the rocks. Walking past the multiple waterfalls, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a magical land straight out of a fantasy novel, but don’t get too distracted, as the path can be slippery.
With geographic highlights such as Wizard Island and Phantom Ship, you know you’re in for an extraordinary natural wonder when you visit Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Located nearly equidistant from Eugene, Bend, and Ashland, this 20-square-mile (51-square-kilometer) crater left from a volcanic eruption more than 7,000 years ago was subsequently filled by rainfall, which gives the lake its intense blue color. The steep walls create a striking perimeter and contrast distinctly with the blue water that is as deep as 1943 feet (592 meters), adding to its title of the ninth-deepest lake in the world—making Crater Lake worth a day trip for those nearby.
A portion of this article was originally published via Jetsetter, a part of the Tripadvisor Media Group in 2020 and was recently updated by Justin Hartung.