The USA lives up to its promise of purple mountain majesties and beautiful, spacious skies, most of all in its prized national parks. Many of the country’s most magnificent natural wonders are protected today by the National Park Service (NPS), which will celebrate its centennial in 2016. These specially protected places also provide safe haven for an astonishing array of wildlife, ranging from tiny eyeless fish living in the dark haunts of Mammoth Cave to the giant grizzly bears of wild Denali National Park. If you want to have your mind blown, visit these top 10 natural wonders, scattered from coast to coast and beyond.
Famous conservationist and wilderness writer John Muir called Yosemite nature’s temple. Gazing up at towering granite monoliths such as El Capitan and at Yosemite Falls, North America’s highest waterfall, you’ll know exactly what he meant. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site for its unique geological features carved by glaciers, Yosemite also sustains a variety of rare wildlife inhabiting California’s craggy Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Top tip: Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls peak in late spring, which is a less hectic time to visit the park than during summer.
Measuring a mile deep, up to 18 miles wide and more than 275 miles long, no other sight in the USA beats this giant hole in the ground for instilling stupefying awe. Peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon is enough of a thrill for some, but to really appreciate the canyon’s grandeur, hike all the way down inside it to the rushing Colorado River.
Top tip: To escape the crowds, visit the canyon’s North Rim, which gets one tenth as many visitors as the South Rim. Note that the North Rim is open from mid-May to mid-October only.
The world’s tallest trees grow on the fog-kissed Northern California coast. Redwoods can reach a height of 379ft, taller than the Statue of Liberty in NYC, and live for up to two millennia. Almost half of all the old-growth redwood trees remaining that have never been logged are protected by the chain of Redwood National and State parks.
Top tip: Pick up a free permit to visit hidden Tall Trees Grove at the national park’s Thomas H Kuchel Visitor Center on Hwy 101.
In the indigenous Koyukon Athabaskan language, it means ‘the high one,’ which is fitting because Denali is North America’s highest peak (20,310ft). Prominently poised above the surrounding wilderness, it’s in fact taller than Everest when measured from its base. Climbers first reached the south summit in 1913, a feat now attempted by more than a thousand people every year.
Top tip: Flightseeing tours depart from Talkeetna, a railroad town about 150 miles south of Denali National Park.
Niagara Falls is not just one, but three waterfalls that gush along the US-Canada boundary between New York and Ontario: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. They aren’t the USA’s tallest waterfalls, but together these powerful cascades have a bigger water flow than any others on the planet. Get up close and feel the cool spray on a Maid of the Mist boat tour.
Top tip: The Canadian side of the falls claims more natural beauty, so bring your passport for international border crossings.