5 Must-See Natural Wonders of the U.S.

Sea to shining sea, the United States boasts an abundance of diverse natural beauty. And yet most Americans say they haven’t seen enough of it, according to the “State of American Vacation 2018” by Project: Time Off, a program of the U.S. Travel Association. If you’re among them, and you want a little travel inspiration to jump-start your American adventure, join us on our journey to five of the most breathtaking natural wonders of the U.S.

Big Sur, California

Why it’s wonderful: Big Sur has a big reputation for some of the most marvelous vistas in the West. With rugged coastlines, panoramic views and picture-perfect sunsets, this 72-mile stretch of highway south from Carmel makes for a spectacular driving tour.

How to get there: Catch a flight to Monterey Regional Airport (7 miles north) or Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (78 miles north) and get ready for incredible views along the winding two-lane Pacific Coast Highway, aka state Route 1.

What to do: Though any time of year is good to visit, December and January offer the opportunity to experience the sun portal at Pfeiffer Beach — an ethereal glow cast through Keyhole Arch during sunset. In January, you can also catch the annual migration of monarch butterflies from Andrew Molera State Park. And December through April, keep your eyes peeled for the majestic California gray whales, who swim close to the shoreline heading south and then (starting in February) return north with their babies by their sides.

Every December and January, sunlight streams through Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California, creating an ethereal glow.

 

Monument Valley, Utah

Why it’s wonderful: The magnificent beauty of Monument Valley — within the Navajo Nation Reservation in Utah — was largely unknown due to its remoteness until the 1930s, when director John Ford featured the vast landscape in several of his films. Now, it’s a bucket-list destination for nature lovers and film buffs alike.

How to get there: Start off at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport or Albuquerque International Sunport in New Mexico, both roughly 320 miles away. From either direction, access the Monument Valley Tribal Park from U.S. Route 163, just north of the Utah-Arizona border.

What to do: Once you’re in the park, cruise the 17-mile Valley Drive past some of the valley’s most popular sites, including the Mitten Buttes and John Ford’s Point. Or, if you wish to explore the monuments further, hike the Wildcat Trail (a moderately difficult 4-mile loop) on your own, or join one of the many guided tours of the area, including on foot, on horseback or in a jeep.

West Mitten Butte is a permanent exhibit of Monument Valley, which visitors can see from the road as well as more intimately from the Wildcat Trail, a moderately difficult 4-mile loop.

 

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Why it’s wonderful: At Badlands National Park, millions of years of erosion have left behind a sharp maze of buttes, pinnacles and spires, as well as one of the world’s largest fossil beds, attracting globe-trotters to the striking South Dakota landscape.

How to get there: Arrive at Rapid City Regional Airport, get to Interstate 90 east — via state Route 44 west and Radar Hill Road north — and travel about 44 miles to Badlands Loop Scenic Byway (state Route 240), where you’ll head south about 7 miles to the park entrance.

What to do: Continue on SR 240 to experience unique rock formations, steep canyons and mixed-grass prairie, and see if you can spot some of Badlands’ exotic resident wildlife — black-footed ferrets, bison, mule deer, black-billed magpies and pronghorns. If you need a stretch, pull off the road at any of the eight hiking trails and explore the area on foot (hikes range from a quarter-mile to 10 miles). At the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, channel your inner paleontologist by visiting the working Fossil Preparation Lab (open daily from the second week of June through the third week of September).

Buttes, pinnacles and spires draw visitors to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Explore the sights along eight hiking trails — ranging from a quarter-mile to 10 miles — accessible from state Route 240.

 

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Why it’s wonderful: Mammoth Cave National Park is home to the world’s longest known cave system, spanning over 400 miles underground, which you can explore in cool comfort during guided and self-guided tours.

How to get there: Start at Louisville International Airport in Kentucky or Nashville International Airport in Tennessee, both about 90 miles from the park entrance. Follow Interstate 65 and take exit 53 for state Route 70 (heading south from Louisville) or exit 48 for state Route 255 (heading north from Nashville). Download driving directions from your preferred navigation app in advance for offline access, as GPS can be unreliable in this area.

What to do: From the visitor center, you’ll go several hundred feet under the earth’s surface to view the immense caverns filled with stalagmites, stalactites and flowstone deposits. While the Passage Tour is a good, short introduction, other tours, like the Grand Avenue, are more physically demanding. (Reservations are recommended, as tours frequently sell out.) Above ground, you can participate in a variety of outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, kayaking and horseback riding.

Explore a fascinating subterranean world on a tour of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, which spans more than 400 miles underground.

 

National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Why it’s wonderful: A visit to our nation’s capital, with its many museums and monuments, is special for U.S. citizens as well as foreign travelers. Each spring, the place becomes even more extraordinary with the blooming of pink and white cherry blossoms surrounding the National Mall’s Tidal Basin.

How to get there: Fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport or Washington Dulles International Airport and drive into the heart of the capital (the Jefferson Memorial is a good destination). Plan to arrive before 10 a.m. to avoid the heaviest crowds; get up and go as early as 6 a.m. and you might be rewarded with a sunrise through the cherry trees.

What to do: Seeing the cherry blossoms in D.C. is all about timing — the blooming period is different from year to year because of weather variations. (The average date of peak bloom is April 4.) Through 2021, the National Cherry Blossom Festival begins March 20 and runs about three weeks. Events include the Blossom Kite Festival, Petalpalooza (live music, games and fireworks) and the National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade. Although walking is a popular way to get around, consider a guided tour by bike, boat or bus.

Early risers arriving at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., during the National Cherry Blossom Festival enjoy stunning sunrise views as well as lighter crowds.

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About the Author

Cynthia Beisiegel is a writer and editor based in Dallas specializing in sharing travel tips and tricks. A native of New York, she has also lived in central Florida, Southern California and the island of Oahu. She travels extensively throughout the world, stamping her passport so far in five of the seven continents. Follow her adventures on Instagram @lalabicicleta.