5. Northern Lights
You don’t have to understand the science behind the Northern Lights to be awestruck by their appearance, but here’s a quick lesson: This spectacular cosmic light show frequently visible in Alaska occurs when the solar wind collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. The colors vary between shades of red, green and blue, depending upon which element, oxygen or nitrogen, interacts with the solar wind. Similar light displays are visible on other planets in our solar system, making them truly otherworldly. The lights make an occasional appearance in the far north Midwestern and Western U.S., but are more easily seen a couple of hundred miles into Canada, or in Alaska. The problem with planning a trip to Alaska to see the lights is that they are hard to predict, although a University of Alaska Fairbanks website offers both short-term and long-term forecasts for the aurora borealis. Also, the peak times for viewing are around the spring and fall equinoxes, which is out of season for travelers who book summer trips to Alaska to visit Denali and the other Alaskan national parks. Mid-August might be the best time to take in a treasure like Denali and catch the Northern Lights as a bonus.
4. Antelope Canyon
Slot canyons are some of the most awe-inspiring geological features of the Southwestern United States. The limestone and sandstone rock formations in the region are riddled with such canyons, none more beautiful or famous than Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona. Other canyons may be deeper or narrower, or even more strangely sculpted, but Antelope boasts the perfect mix of depth, color and lighting to produce a photographer’s dream. Antelope Canyon is a Navajo Tribal Park and is open year-round, but spring and summer provide the best lighting conditions. The canyon is accessible only by guided tours. While you’re in the area, plan to spend a day or two on Lake Powell, where you can rent everything from a jet ski to a houseboat.
3. Haleakala Sunrise
The most popular attractions on Maui are the beaches and the scenic Hana Highway. They’re both great fun, but the otherworldly splendor of seeing a sunrise atop the dormant volcano of Haleakala is well worth the effort. Sure, you’ve got to get up in the middle of the night to drive up a torturous road — it’ll be dark, so you won’t see the sheer drop-offs — but you won’t regret it. Get there an hour or two before sunrise, to catch a spectacular star-filled night sky so dark, you’ll quickly realize why professional astronomers do research there. And after seeing the sunrise, you’ll immediately understand why natives named the volcano Haleakala, or “House of the Sun.”
2. The Everglades
Man spent the better part of a century trying to destroy the Everglades before finally realizing the crucial role the region plays in Florida’s ecosystem. The Everglades are essentially a vast, sawgrass-filled river, some 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, covering much of South Florida below Lake Okeechobee. The Seminole Indians dubbed the area pa-hay-okee, or “grassy water,” but the region also includes swamps, prairies and hardwood stands. Monumental efforts were made to drain the region — one former Florida governor promised to “drain that abominable pestilence-ridden swamp” and create an “Empire of the Everglades.” Draining continued unabated into the mid-20th century before signs of eco-disaster sparked conservation efforts. One of the conservation results is Everglades National Park, dedicated in 1947. Guided boat and walking tours are probably the best way to take in this 2,500-square-mile park that has been named a World Heritage Site. If you’re more adventurous, strike out on your own on a hike or in a rented boat.
1. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
There are several places in the U.S. where you can take a short walk and find yourself surrounded by towering sand dunes that would look right at home on an alien planet. Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado probably tops the list, followed by Death Valley National Park. But nowhere else in America can you find the surreal juxtaposition of huge sand dunes and water you’ll see at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The park features 64 miles of shoreline, highlighted by sand dunes hundreds of feet tall plunging at a steep angle to the sparkling blue water of Lake Michigan. The area is a relative secret to many travelers, but that’s changing — in a 2011 online poll, ABC Good Morning America viewers voted Sleeping Bear Dunes the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” The area is about a five-hour drive from Detroit, but another travel option might be to fly into Milwaukee and drive through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to take in some of the wonders there, like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls and the Soo Locks.
One More: Mono Lake
Located in California just east of Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake is unique in so many ways. First, at more than 700,000 years old, it’s one of the oldest lakes in North America. Then there’s the strange feature that draws professional and amateur photographers like moths to a light, limestone formations known as tufa that tower above the surrounding water, giving Mono Lake its unique appearance. This is the only site on this list that isn’t a destination in itself, but it’s located only a few miles from Yosemite National Park’s East entrance, via the 10,000-foot Tioga Pass, a drive well worth taking. If you visit Yosemite — itself one of the most otherworldly national parks — be sure to check out Mono Lake.