Yes, you’ve seen Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but have you seen The Wave? Some of the most beautiful and fascinating parts of the United States are off the beaten path. These extraordinary, stunning creations of Mother Nature are destinations reachable in many cases only by those having dedication and a dash of adventurous spirit. Here are 10 of the most remarkable landscapes America has to offer the committed tourist.
1. Coyote Buttes, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Utah
Way in the backcountry of Arizona near the Utah border where U.S. Highway 89A follows the old wagon route from Utah to Arizona, there can be found the fascinating Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. It is the second “step” in the huge five-step “Grand Staircase” of colorful layered sedimentary formations stretching south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon.
Extending into Vermillion Cliffs are the Coyote Buttes, home of exotic, rich, multi-hued sandstone formations. The most fabulous of these is “The Wave,” seen in the photos above, its smooth flowing contours streaked with long, thin lines of red, orange, pink, and yellow. Only 20 people are allowed to visit The Wave each day, with 10 chosen in an online lottery four months in advance and the other 10 picked in a daily 9 a.m. lottery held in Kanab, Utah.
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2. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Both Bryce and Zion canyons were formed millions of years ago when the Earth's crust slowly but violently heaved, leaving behind the raw material for stunning, unique arrays of rock formations, such as these spire-like escarpments, or “hoodoos.”
Hoodoos are formed by short, high intensity rainstorms combined with the more than 200 freeze/thaw cycles occurring each year in Bryce Canyon. These all crack, pry open and wear away the rock at the rate of 2 to 4 feet every 100 years, sculpting the hoodoos. Layers of mudstone and siltstone are more durable than the limestone and don’t erode as quickly, giving many of the hoodoos their banded, lumpy appearance. The erosion also yields various pinnacles, arches, mazes, and natural horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters.
Favorite trails to see the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon are the Navajo Loop Trail (which includes slot canyons), the Queen’s Garden Trail, and the Mossy Cave Trail, which includes a waterfall and a mossy cave harboring hanging icicles.
3. Monument Valley, Arizona-Utah State Line
When you see it, you immediately understand why Hollywood movie directors like John Ford made more Westerns in Monument Valley than anywhere else in America. These 91,696 acres of the Colorado Plateau, called by the Navajo “Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii” or “Valley of the Rocks,” includes spectacular, 1,000-foot high red-and-blue gray sandstone buttes, Mystery Valley (with its tall formation called the Totem Pole), the Eye of the Sun (lower photo), and Hunt’s Mesa, which contains both very large and small natural arches.
In the area you can also see the Four Corners Monument, situated near the tiny community of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., and managed by the Navajo Nation, which is the only place in America where four states (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) come together at one point. Here you can stand in four U.S. states simultaneously.
4. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Island of Hawaii
Of the more than 50 U.S. national parks, surely this one is the most extraordinary. It takes at least a whole day to experience the vast, alien landscape that is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the southeastern corner of the Big Island of Hawaii.
An amalgam of 333,333 acres of active volcanism such as the Kilauea Caldera (upper photo) along with biological diversity and 1,600 years of Hawaiian culture, here one can hike miles of trails near lava, mini-deserts, beaches, rainforests, and in winter, trek through snow up on 13,677-foot Mauna Loa. Unusual attractions include the Thurston Lava Tube (lower photo), steam vents, sulphur vents, and the 11-mile Chain of Craters Road. The Kilauea visitor center and museum are about 29 miles southwest of Hilo, on Route 11.
5. Salton Sea, California
California’s biggest desert is home to its largest lake. Its birth was dramatic: In 1905 the Colorado River spilled over its levees into the “Salton Sink,” a depression the size of Long Island Sound 280 feet below sea level, the dried-up bottom of an ancient sea. More than 1500 workers and half a million tons of rock were needed to put the river back on course.
Lacking an outlet, the artificial Salton Sea was formed, its surface 220 feet below sea level and its waters 30 percent saltier than the Pacific. The place became a popular tourist attraction in the 1950s and developers began to “terraform” the area, planting trees, building golf courses, etc. Today, however, the Powers That Be wish to divert the lake’s source of water (agricultural runoff) to other thirsty areas, which could dry the lake up. Before you actually reach it you can smell the algae, rotting fish, and glimpse the decaying buildings of this former glittering oasis of the Imperial Valley.
The Salton Sea’s best kept secret? “Mud Pots,” or geothermal mud volcanoes (middle photo). On the eastern shore’s muddy flats, carbon dioxide slowly bubbles up to the earth's surface, passing through an aquifer on the way, forcing water and mud to bubble up. They're not as impressive as the ones in Yellowstone National Park, but they are easily accessible (and yet not frequented by tourists), make funny noises, spew mud and steam, and are basically amusing.
Also near the eastern shore is Salvation Mountain (lower photo), a 100 foot high hill of concrete and hand-mixed adobe, detailed with acrylic paint. Sporting its principal motto, “God Never Fails,” it’s the work of folk artist Leonard Knight.
6. Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona
The most photogenic — and most photographed — slot canyon in America, situated on Navajo land near Page, Ariz., is Antelope Canyon. It’s actually two slot canyons: Upper Antelope Canyon, or “The Crack,” and Lower Antelope Canyon, or “The Corkscrew.” The Navajo call the upper canyon “Tsé bighánílíní,” which means “the place where water runs through rocks,” and the lower canyon, “Hasdestwazi” or “spiral rock arches.” The twisting, convoluted canyons have 120-foot-high walls.
The upper canyon is more accessible than the lower (and one can see light beams there in the summer, see lower photo), which requires climbing up and down ladders, though both are popular. They are also both dangerous, since flash floods shoot through them. Rain falling many miles upstream from the canyons can arrive quickly and flood them. On Aug. 12, 1997, for example, 11 tourists died in a flash flood, the water having come from a storm seven miles away.
A gate blocks the road to Antelope Canyon. Entry is restricted to guided tours led by Navajo-authorized/approved tour guides. One must purchase a tour permit, ranging from $30 to $80 per person, depending on the tour length (there is normally a two-hour limit) and time of visit.
Nearby is Rainbow Bridge Trail, which leads to what’s said to be the world’s highest natural bridge, a formation 33 feet wide, 42 feet thick, and spanning about 275 feet.
7. Mount Grinnell, Glacier National Park, Montana
Upper photo: No, that’s not Photoshop wizardry — early morning light really does warm and redden the sedimentary rock of Mount Grinnell, situated in front of Swiftcurrent Lake in Montana's Glacier National Park. The rest of the park is nothing to sneeze at, either, as you can see in the lower photo.
8. Redwood and Sequoia Parks, California and Oregon
For 20 million years, old-growth redwood forest covered nearly 2 million of coastal northern California and southern Oregon. Today, 96 percent of this acreage has been logged, and 45 percent of what’s left (38,982 acres) can be found in Redwood National and State Parks: Jedediah Smith, Del Norte, Prairie Creek, and Redwood National Park (through the length of which runs tree-lined US 101, called “the Redwood Highway”).
To see a redwood forest (upper photo) is a startling experience, for they are the world’s tallest living things; as of September 2006, the tallest tree in the park was Hyperion at 379.1 feet, followed by Helios (376.3 feet) and Icarus (371.2 feet). They are about 2,000 years old.
Interestingly, the giant Coastal Redwood differs from its cousin, the Giant Sequoia of Central California. Unlike the Coastal Redwood that needs the moisture of marine fog from the Pacific, sequoias live at higher elevations and grow naturally only along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation, where the periodic dry heat of the mountains spurs their cones to open and release seeds. You can find them at the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, and places like Caleveras Big Trees State Park.
Sequoias are not as tall as redwoods (up to 311 feet), but are more massive and can reach 3,000 years in age. The largest, most massive tree in the world — the largest organism on planet Earth — is a sequoia called “General Sherman” (lower photo). It is 275 feet tall, 37 feet in diameter, and weighs 2.7 million pounds.
9. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas
Early American explorers and settlers, familiar with forested country landscapes, were confounded by the vast, treeless, American prairie, home to both millions of buffalo and a sea of tallgrass that could reach shoulder height. Formed 10,000 years ago from the bottom of the ancient Permian Sea, it was called the “Great American Desert” until the invention of the steel plow and wind-powered deep well led to the plowing under of nearly 140 million acres for agricultural purposes.
Once, 40 percent of America looked like this; now, less than 4 percent, mostly in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma and the Flint Hills of Kansas, such as this 10,894 acre stretch. Designated in 1996 as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, it’s the sole national park that preserves an endangered ecosystem of 400 varieties of plants, 150 species of birds, 39 types of reptiles and amphibians, and 31 species of mammals, second only to the Brazilian rainforest in diversity and complexity.
Here you can see both the Spring Hill Ranch (a national historic landmark) and the Lower Fox Creek School, a one-room schoolhouse dating from 1881 (lower photo).
Visitors are prohibited from driving through the park or camping there. Prior to Oct. 30, 90-minute bus tours are available most days from Strong City, Kan., and hiking trails are open 24 hours a day.
10. Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park, the largest national park in the lower 48 states (a bit larger than even Yellowstone) is home to thousands of square miles of the world’s most forbidding, nearly lifeless salt pan, particularly Badwater Basin. Here can be found two points with an elevation of 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, making it the lowest, hottest, and driest place in America, and the eighth lowest in the world. The glaring white expanse is made up of billions of crystals of almost pure table salt that formed when Lake Manly — once 80 miles long and 600 feet deep — dried up 3,000 years ago. (About every five years, heavy rains create a temporary lake but it quickly evaporates, redepositing the salt.)
In the top photo, the delicate salt crystals, subject to repeated freeze-thaw and evaporation cycles of shallow floodwaters, gradually push the salt crust into a surreal repeating polygonal pattern of rock-salt ridges, each “salt polygon” enclosing micro-salt flats just a few feet across. A small highly saline spring-fed pool below the visitor car park is home to native Badwater snails.
The dramatic scene is made even more so by the Black Mountains jutting above in the distance.
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