Framed by two oceans, bisected by the great Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, and home to such breathtaking sites as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, the United States has natural attractions in abundance. You can find gorgeous natural attractions to visit in all 50 states and U.S. territories, thanks to State and National Parks systems. But of course, some natural wonders in the USA are really worth traveling for and should be on your bucket list.
These are some of the most lauded natural attractions in the United States. Don't see your favorite? Indeed, there are too many of these sights to list. You may also want to check out USA UNESCO sites, which includes more than a dozen National Parks and/or natural wonders that have been hailed by UNESCO as worthy of preservation.
Admire the Grand Canyon
Located north of Phoenix, Arizona, the Grand Canyon is one of the USA's most impressive landscapes. According to the Grand Canyon National Park Service, this great chasm measures one mile deep, 18 miles wide, and stretches for approximately 277 river miles. In all, the Grand Canyon National Park covers 1,218,375 acres.
There are many ways to see the Grand Canyon, including from an overlook in your car or RV to the Skywalk, an extended see-through walkway built and maintained by the Hualapai Nation, a native people living in this region. Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk are not a part of the Grand Canyon National Park, but nevertheless, provide a stunning view of the area.
The Grand Canyon has two official National Park areas: Grand Canyon South Rim and Grand Canyon North Rim, which is less visited and closed in the winter.
If you are a true nature buff, the best way to see the Grand Canyon is via a hike down to the Colorado River or, if you are up to it, from Rim to Rim, as hikers call it.
More than five million people visit the Grand Canyon annually, which presents a difficult challenge for the park service to maintain a pristine environment. In fact, the National Park Service banned the sale of bottled water at the Grand Canyon, so as to prevent the site from being littered with millions of plastic water bottles.
Enjoy Niagara Falls
The cascades of Niagara Falls occur where the waters of Lake Erie drain into Lake Ontario. Located in northern New York along the United States' border with Canada, the Niagara Falls attraction is shared between the two countries. On the U.S. side, you'll find Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the United States. It was established by Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also responsible for the design of New York City's Central Park. The National Park Service also maintains the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, which is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of the Niagara Falls area.
Three main falls make up Niagara Falls: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. The best way to get a glimpse of the falls is to take a Maid of the Mist boat tour or visit the Cave of the Winds, which takes you close to Bridal Veil Falls, the smallest and therefore most easily accessible part of the Falls. Bring waterproof gear and prepare to get sprayed!
A favorite spot for honeymooners and daredevils over the years, Niagara Falls has become a massive tourist attraction. More than 20 million visitors on both the U.S. and Canadian side come to Niagara Falls each year, a fact that has unfortunately attracted tacky stores and chain restaurants. Yet, if you can see past these blights, you will no doubt be impressed by the sheer power and majesty of Niagara Falls.
Watch Old Faithful Erupt
If you could visit only one national park in the United States, Yellowstone National Park, located in Wyoming and parts of Montana and Idaho, would be a fine choice. As the first established national park in the world, Yellowstone contains spectacular mountains and canyons, the Yellowstone and Snake Rivers, living and petrified forests, and is teeming with wildlife.
Yellowstone is also the home of the world's largest collection of geysers—basically erupting hot springs—of which Old Faithful is the most famous. Erupting every 60 to 110 minutes for a duration of 1.5 to 5 minutes, Old Faithful was named by the explorers of the 1870 Washburn Expedition into Yellowstone who were impressed with the geyser's eruption consistency. Though Old Faithful is not the largest geyser in the park—that would be the Steamboat Geyser—it does erupt at the most regular intervals, making it a favorite for tourists who want to witness this hydrothermal wonder.
See Denali's High Peak
Standing at a height of 20,320 feet (6,194 meters), Denali is the highest peak in the United States and the highest peak in North America. It's also one of the "Seven Summits," the highest peaks on each of the seven continents including Mount Everest (in Asia, the highest peak in the world) and Mount Aconcagua (in South America). Denali is the central feature of Denali National Park, which is comprised of six million acres of Alaskan wilderness.
Although it is remote and is known for its extremely cold weather, Denali is a huge draw for climbers and adrenaline seekers. Approximately 1,200 climbers attempt to reach Denali's summit each year. Meanwhile, about 400,000 people visit Denali National Park each year to see Denali and to enjoy the nature of one of America's most remote and pristine parks.
As for the name of the peak and park, the state of Alaska officially named it Denali in 1975 after its name in the language of the indigenous peoples of this area. A gold prospector seeking political favors named the mountain Mount McKinley after the Ohio-born politician William McKinley, who would become the 25th President of the United States. In 2015, the Obama administration officially renamed the mountain Denali at the Federal level.
Visit Monument Valley
One of the most evocative landscapes in the American Southwest is Monument Valley, consisting of sandstone buttes, mesas, and spire rock structures in the Colorado Plateau. The area stretches between the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico and includes the Four Corners area where these four states meet.
While Monument Valley is situated where the states of Utah and Arizona converge, the area is actually managed by the Navajo Nation as it is on Navajo land. The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park includes hiking trails, camping areas, and a 17-mile scenic route for driving around the park. There is an admission fee and National Park passes are not accepted here.
Some of the best-known rock formations in Monument Valley include the East and West Mittens, which indeed look like mittens; the Three Sisters, which appear to be a nun facing two pupils; Elephant Butte; Camel Butte; the Totem Pole; and John Ford Point. The best time to visit Monument Valley is during monsoon season which lasts from July to September because the ever-changing clouds are exciting to watch and make for amazing photographs.
Hike Devils Tower
Designated as the first National Monument in the United States by President Theodore Roosevelt on September 24, 1906, Devils Tower is a 1,267-foot rock formation that juts dramatically out of the Wyoming prairie. The rock is sacred to many Native American tribes in the area, including the Lakota Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone, who typically hold religious ceremonies in celebration of the monument in June.
Climbers also revere the challenging monolith, and thousands attempt to scale the monument via 150 routes. The federally designated park that surrounds Devils Tower covers 1,347 acres. For the less adventurous, it's fun to walk the trail around the base of the tower.
Oregon's Crater Lake National Park has water such a deep blue it often looks as dark as ink. The cliffs of the crater tower over 2,000 feet and most visitors walk the rim and look down into the quiet lake.
The lake was formed when the volcano, Mount Mazama, erupted in about 5700 B.C. leaving the crater to fill gradually with water. The lake, the deepest in the United States, measures 1,900 deep.
Crater Lake National Park is closed in the winter due to snow but when it melts, you can enjoy the scenery, hiking trails, and the historic lodge and restaurant on the crater's edge.
Yosemite National Park, in central California, is one of those amazing places that attracts so many visitors it can affect the plant and animal life adversely. When the National Park Service was formed in 1916, Yosemite became one of the first national parks.
It is internationally recognized for its granite cliffs, biological diversity, ancient trees, and enormous waterfalls. Half Dome, often photographed by Ansel Adams, is a sheer granite cliff that has become a hallmark of Yosemite.
The highest waterfall in North America—Yosemite Falls, at 2,425 feet—is also a visitor favorite. You can stay at accommodations in Yosemite or camp in this very popular park.
Cape Perpetua, a large forested headland on the central Oregon Coast, towers 800 feet over the protected Marine Garden shoreline. While many are used to sandy beaches and flatlands on the coast, Cape Perpetua represents the most rugged of coastlines.
The Cape Perpetua Headland, where you can see the steep forested, rocky cliff cascade into the rough water below, is the highest viewpoint accessible by car on the Oregon Coast.
The Columbia River Gorge area most visited is located at the point where the river cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range forming part of the border between Oregon and Washington State.
The Gorge, as it's known, is easily accessible as a day trip from Portland, Oregon. It is known for its fern and wildflower-laden hillsides flowing with waterfalls, many of them named and widely known.
Driving the Old Columbia River Highway to Multnomah Falls a favorite thing to do. The most famous of the Columbia River Gorge waterfalls, Multnomah Falls, is grand two-tiered falls cascading 611 feet down to eventually flow into the Columbia River. You can walk up to a bridge overlooking the falls or even to the top where the falls start.
A stunning natural area near quaint and historic Carmel, California, is the Point Lobos Natural Reserve.
At Point Lobos, you can walk the perimeter and see craggy rock formations plunge into Monterey Bay with ocean waves crashing against the rocks. The often turquoise-colored waters are stunning.
There's a rare stand of the photographed original-growth Monterey cypress trees at the point, one of only two such groves left in the world. It's a fantastic place to get away from the weekend crowds on the streets of Carmel.
Washington's Mt. Rainier National Park, established in 1899, is another popular park designed to make access for those traveling by car easy. You can drive right up to the snow line, the altitude where there's still snow in summer, at Paradise.
Mt. Rainier, visible from all over the Seattle Puget Sound area, is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and stands almost three miles high.
Visitors to the park can stroll through fields of wildflowers in spring and see fall foliage later in the year. There are trees over a thousand years old. But the most beautiful part of Mt. Rainier is its snowy cap.
You don't need a sailboat to sail through the San Juan Islands of northern Washington, because the ferry that takes you to the islands from Anacortes provides you with scenic vistas and, sometimes, whale watching. The Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia provide visitors with sights of islands, near and far, and rugged coastlines filled with driftwood and wildlife like deer and bear. Pods of Orca call these waters home.
San Juan Island is the largest of the 172 islands that are part of the state of Washington and has a lovely city, Friday Harbor. You can relax in a comfortable inn, dine on seafood, and take a driving tour to view historical sites and a large lavender farm.
Everglades National park, an International Biosphere Reserve, is a place to see wildlife unique to the swampy habitat of southern Florida. An iconic thing to do is to tour by airboat where you'll get a sense of this dense swamp and encounter rare species such manatees, American crocodiles, a variety of birds, Florida panthers, and alligators.
You can also paddle the swamps yourself in certain areas or take a 2-hour guided tram tour along a paved loop trail that runs 15 miles through the Everglades from the Shark Valley Visitors Center.
In spring, especially after a wet winter, the wildflowers in Death Valley, California, are stunning. The park's famous super blooms may only happen every five to 10 years when the weather has been just right.
When that happens, the stark desert landscape just pops with color.
The perfect combination of conditions aligns to bring the flowers out usually between mid-February and mid-April.
Death Valley National Park is worth a visit even in a non-super bloom season. The landscape is stark, full of geological oddities and towering sand dunes and you can find out about the valley's quirky former inhabitants.
Stare at Massive Saguaro Cacti
In Arizona's Saguaro National Park, you'll walk among the iconic Saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American Southwest. This park is one of the few National Parks dedicated to protecting one plant. The multi-armed Saguaros can grow up to 50 feet high and it takes about 100 years for them to reach 25 feet. Their maximum life span is about 200 years. A special time to visit is in May when they bloom with waxy yellow and white flowers.
In Northern California, Redwood National and State Parks, made up of four parks, are the ideal place to find the world's tallest species of tree. California has 31 redwood state and national parks but these parks are popular for visitors. The coastal environment is refreshing with shady fern-lined trails and water from the mist often dripping from the tips of the redwood branches.
You can walk the Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail, which meanders through old-growth redwood groves on a casual 2.4-kilometer hike. This is where Lady Bird Johnson, a noted nature-lover, dedicated Redwood National Park in 1968.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, is an amazing system of limestone caverns that tourists can see in Mammoth Cave National Park.
There are more than 365 miles of a five-layered cave system mapped and more are being discovered. As the world’s longest cave system, this park has much to offer its visitors.
Tours take you down inside the earth, where you can see stunning limestone formations located 200 to 300 feet below the surface. There are large rooms filled with formations and winding tunnels.
Seeing a majestic blue-tinged glacier in person and even hearing the cracking sound as a piece breaks off is a once in a lifetime experience.
There are a number of ways to experience Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Some visit Glacier Bay as part of an Alaska cruise and some take a cruise from a local harbor. Adventurers can even kayak in the bay. While touring the area you'll often see harbor seals, humpback whales, birds, and orca.
The area around the town of Gustavus, accessible by air and boat, is where the park headquarters, visitor center, and accommodations are located.