You don’t have to be a geologist to know that the Grand Canyon formed over the course of millions of years, thanks to the erosive power of the Colorado River. But understanding the process makes it no less amazing. Give water, wind and other natural forces enough time, and they can create stunning landscapes that seem to defy explanation. Here are some surreal natural features in the U.S. that leave both scientists and laymen alike gaping in wonder.
10. Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
This national park in southern Colorado is home to the highest sand dunes in North America, with some towering up to 750 feet in height. The dunes were formed over thousands of years by winds that picked up sand from the Rio Grande floodplain; the Sangre de Cristo Mountains proved a natural barrier to the winds, causing the sand to pile up. The process continues to this day, with the dunes constantly growing and changing shapes.
9. Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona
The Navajo call this canyon in extreme northern Arizona Tsé bighánílíní, literally meaning, “The place where water runs through rocks.” That’s an apt description, as flash floods through the ages formed this slot canyon and smoothed out the walls into surreal shapes. A popular spot for photographers, access and tours to the canyon are controlled by the Navajo Nation.
8. Palouse Hills, Washington State and Idaho
These random, rolling hills cover about 4,000 square miles in eastern Washington State and central Idaho. Formed from loess, or wind-borne dust and silt, there is some mystery about the silt’s origin, but the soil’s fertile conditions are undeniable; the Palouse is the world’s leading producer of soft white winter wheat.
7. Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park’s most famous attraction, Old Faithful, gets all the glory, but this hot spring’s striking appearance makes it a must-see site for visitors. The largest hot spring in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, the rainbow-like colors ringing the crystal-clear water in the center are the result of bacterial growth viewed through the prism effect.
6. Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
Covering roughly 46 square miles in northwestern Utah, these salt flats are the remnant of a prehistoric body of water, Lake Bonneville (Great Salt Lake was once part of this lake as well). When the waters receded, they left behind halite (aka table salt) and other mineral deposits. Today, the salt flats are best known as the site of numerous world land speed records achieved at Bonneville Speedway. That’s ironic given the area’s history. Some early settlers headed west thought the salt flats would make a great shortcut. One such group of settlers, the Donner-Reed Party, tried the route in 1846, and got stuck in the mud underneath the salt layer. Behind schedule, the group became stranded in the Sierra Nevadas that winter and resorted to cannibalism in one of the grisliest sagas in American history.
5. Black Sand Beaches, Hawaii
Created by volcanic activity, it’s not surprising the Hawaiian Islands have many so-called “black sand” beaches, formed when lava flows meet the cooler ocean water, causing the hot lava to fracture into black, glass-like fragments. These erode over time into fine sand grains. For those who’ve only visited white-sand beaches, a visit to one of these beaches — such as Kehena Beach (above) — is an odd experience.
4. Lechuguilla Cave, New Mexico
The site that has had the geological community buzzing in recent years is Lechuguilla Cave, located near the more famous Carlsbad Caverns in southeast New Mexico. For years, it was a site of little note in Carlsbad Caverns National Park until 1986, when a group of spelunkers found the cave to be much larger than previously thought. How much larger? To date, scientists have mapped out almost 140 miles of passages, to a depth of more than 1,600 feet, making it the deepest cave in the continental U.S. Within this bewildering array of underground passages, scientists have discovered numerous rare formations and life forms. For that reason, access to the cave is open only to researchers.
3. Arches National Park, Utah
This southern Utah park boasts more than 2,000 sandstone arches, many with descriptive names: Delicate Arch (pictured above), Landscape Arch, Double Arch, etc. This landscape is especially surreal at night, when dark skies create otherworldly photo opportunities for crowds of stargazers.
2. Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah
Geologists get excited talking about this incredible region along the Arizona-Utah border, dropping phrases like “Permian Organ Rock Shale,” “DeChelly Sandstone” and “Moenkopi Shale overlain by the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation.” In laymen’s terms, wind and water formed these world-famous buttes and rock formations that have been featured in movies such as Easy Rider and Forrest Gump. Access to this spectacular scenery is controlled through the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. With a reasonable $10 admission fee ($20 per car), it’s one of the best values in American travel.
1. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
It’s not the deepest, widest or longest canyon in the world, but millions of visitors flock to the Grand Canyon each year to take in the sights at this natural wonder. Yet despite the fact it’s been the focus of numerous geological studies through the years, there is growing debate in the scientific community about the canyon’s age. Most estimates once dated the canyon at about 6 million years, but in 2008, a group of geologists proposed the canyon might be closer to 17 million years old. And in 2012, two researchers further muddled the debate with their theory that the canyon may be up to 70 million years old.
The author has traveled extensively across the United States in the past two decades.