From super blooms to falling fire: 8 natural wonders in the U.S.
From fiery waterfalls to billions of blooms, these 8 natural wonders will remind you that the U.S. is filled with awe-inspiring—and sometimes bizarre—places.
We’ve all had the feeling: That moment when you witness something in nature so insane and unexpected, so utterly awesome that, for a second, it seems like sheer exhilaration has replaced the blood rushing through your veins.
Maybe it’s seeing not one, but double rainbows bowing across the sky. Perhaps it’s a rippling light show illuminating the heavens, or a bizarre rock formation straight out of an alien terrain. Whatever form it takes, there's something magical about the results when natural conditions converge to form something from the mind of Dr. Seuss right here on Earth.
Plan a trip to experience one or all eight of these surreal wonders and discover that you don’t need to leave terra firma for an out-of-this-world experience.
1. Yosemite Firefall, California
Few things in life are as frightening as the thought of fire falling from the sky. Turns out, few things are as beautiful, too. In Yosemite National Park, viewers gasp in awe rather than terror at the Yosemite Firefall, a glowing phenomenon that occurs when the sunlight strikes Horsetail Falls, creating the illusion of red-orange lava plunging down the side of El Capitan. Spectators and photographers flock from around the globe to witness this rare, fiery tableau, some returning annually for what they call a mesmerizing, almost religious, experience. Plan accordingly to witness the fire flow for yourself—it only happens during sunset for two weeks each year towards the end of February (weather permitting). Even better, don't rely on your smartphone camera skills to capture such a dazzling moment. Sign up for a photography workshop or multi-day photo tour before setting up your tripod at El Capitan Picnic Area, the most convenient spot to watch the waterfall ignite.
2. Death Valley Superbloom, California
Death Valley sounds like the last place for frolicking through a floral oasis—it’s one of the driest places on Earth, after all. Known for sizzling temperatures up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, elevation below sea level, and a measly two inches of rain each year, the arid landscape sustains a shocking level of usually hidden botanic diversity. Each year, wildflowers bloom miraculously from desolate salt flats and sand dunes. But on even more rarified occasions, the precise convergence of weather conditions (calm winds, increased rainfall, and a series of storms) result in a “superbloom,” unlocking the floodgates for yellow, white, purple and red blossoms to carpet the cracked ground in spectacular fashion. The 2016 floral phenomenon, blooming right now, is rivaled only by occurrences in 1998 and 2005—also El Nino years, according to a National Park Service statement. Particularly floral spots can be found 10 miles south of Badwater on Badwater Road and on Beatty Cutoff Road, where Desert Gold, Bigelow Monkeyflower and Golden Evening Primrose cloak the rocky ground with pillows of delicate florets.
3. Death Valley Sailing Stones, California
Can’t make it in time for the flowers? Death Valley is home to another bizarre phenomenon: the sailing stones of Racetrack Playa. For years it remained a mystery how the stones, some weighing more than 600 lbs., traveled across this dry lake. Leaving imprints like a racetrack in the dust, the rocks go straight, take sharp turns and even retreat in the opposite direction. A 2013 study that recorded the rocks’ movements showed that large, thin sheets of ice, formed after rain and a cold night, can break and catch the wind, acting as the sails for these “sailing stones."
4. Fly Geyser, Nevada
Basically everyone in the world associates Yellowstone as the ultimate stage for watching water explode from the ground, but few know about Nevada’s contender for geyser excellence. Located on Fly Ranch in Washoe County, Fly Geyser constantly spews scalding hot water that flows into a series of pools and terraces. The coolest part: The geyser’s rotund, undulating sides sport a surreal kaleidoscope of colors due to the minerals and algae that accumulate on its slick surface. Born from an attempted well dig in 1916, Fly Geyser has grown several inches per year over the last century, making repeat visits worthwhile. Getting here is half the adventure, though, if at all possible: It’s on private, gated property, and the only known way to score a tour is by getting in contact with the owners (a feat that's been accomplished in the past with a trip to Bruno’s Country Club in Gerlach, about 15 miles south of the site).
5. Mendenhall Ice Caves, Alaska
Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier stretches a whopping 13 miles between the Coast Mountains in Mendenhall Valley. On its surface are trails teeming with wildlife and waterfalls and icebergs dating back to the last Ice Age. But the real story is beneath its surface. There lies an almost celestial landscape of brilliant blue ice caves formed over thousands of years by the glacier's movement. Reaching the main cave requires serious ice climbing gear, hours of hiking and (potentially) a paddle across icy-cold lakes, so go with a guided group for safety and equipment purposes. The challenging, chilly excursion is once-in-a-lifetime, and well worth the effort: Trekking inside the ice cave is unlike anything else you’ll experience.
6. Jockey's Ridge, North Carolina
Got sand? Jockey’s Ridge State Park does. It's home to the tallest sand dune system in the Eastern United States. Although the vast expanse of untouched yellow and white sand looks like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, the dunes, consisting of three main peaks, are actually located stateside in Nags Head on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The mounds rise up to 100 feet above the ground, can get blazing hot, and are constantly shifting as winds mold them into a volatile landscape. The park has prime conditions for kite flying, sandboarding or hang gliding (time it right and you can even watch the sun set over the Atlantic Coast). You won't be in any hurry to shake the sand out of your shoes after a visit, though. A relaxed, coastal vibe and southern hospitality will make you want to spend your days walking through pathways of dune grass, collecting seashells and dining on local Mahi-Mahi at Blue Moon Beach Grill.
7. Northern Lights, Alaska
When solar particles collide with Earth’s magnetic field miles and miles above ground, the famous rippling light show we call Aurora Borealis comes alive. The type of gaseous particle in the collision affects the color—oxygen particles 60 miles high create the yellowish-green we most commonly associate with this celestial spectacle, but the right kind of nitrogen can turn this natural fireworks show a gorgeous fuchsia. Stateside, Fairbanks, Alaska, is one of the most reliable places to view the lights, which ripple in a shimmering rainbow curtain that changes day by day. Head north between September and April to see this mesmerizing display, and be sure to bring a thermos of coffee: The show peaks from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m.
8. Luray Caverns, Virginia
The product of four million years of natural forces, Luray Caverns in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley are the largest cavern system in the Eastern U.S. With ceilings reaching 10 stories high, intricate stone formations and pointy stalagmite/stalactites jutting out from every direction, it’s not surprising that millions come to explore Luray’s dimly-lit chambers, lakes and passageways. Don't forget to pay a visit to the Great Stalacpipe Organ, a musical instrument that makes the Caverns' stalactites sing as they're struck—gently—with mallets connected to an organ's keyboard.