North America is made up of rich landscapes with natural wonders ranging from unusual geological formations to massive icy glaciers. The National Park system protects and preserves these Earth wonders where visitors can marvel at Mother Nature's great displays of beauty.
Niagara Falls may not be world's largest waterfall--that distinction goes to Africa's Victoria Falls--but it's the most popular with more than 12 million visitors each year. Climb aboard the Maid of the Mist to view Horseshoe Falls on the Canada side where 600,000 gallons of water plunge down the 185-foot drop every second. The force of Horseshoe Falls and its stateside partner the American Falls creates giant whirlpools that can be viewed from a cable car high above the swirling water.
Redwood National and State Park
Stretching for 37 miles along the pristine Pacific coastline, the Redwood National and State Park protects 157,000 acres of the majestic redwood trees. Visit at dawn when a thick mist hangs over the trees creating a scene reminiscent of the prehistoric days when the trees flourished in California and Oregon. You nearly expect to see a dinosaur turn the corner as you stroll through Fern Canyon where fallen trees crisscross the valley floor with a lush carpet of velvety moss and swaying ferns. The largest trees in the park can be found in Stout Grove in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park where redwood giants measure as much as 26 feet around the tree's base.
The world's most famous geological wonder is the massive gorge of the Grand Canyon cutting through northern Arizona for 277 miles. Americans followed President Theodore Roosevelt's lead and set their sights on the Grand Canyon in the early 20th century when the El Tovar Hotel was constructed to serve the swelling crowds. Today, more than 5 million visitors stop by each year--some simply gaze down into the colorful canyon while others follow the winding switchbacks into the gorge along the Bright Angel Trail, ease the trip with a mule ride, ride the rapids below in the Colorado River or explore the park on a jeep tour.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is filled with sprawling flower-filled meadows, the thunderous Yosemite Falls and stands of redwoods and pine trees, but the most popular attraction are the dramatic granite cliffs that reach nearly 9,000 feet into the sky defining the edges of the valley. The rounded Half Dome is made of granite that is believed to be 87 million years old, while El Capitan is a favorite spot for skilled rock climbers who take between 4 and 8 days to ascend to the top of the sheer rock face. Check into the Ahwahnee Lodge, the 1920s hotel that was built with timber and granite from the area.
Glacier Bay National Park was only uncovered as the ice melted and the glacier retreated in the past 250 years giving way to a vibrant marine landscape, dense forests, tall mountains and beautiful glaciers. Intrepid adventurers set out in helicopters and kayaks to explore the icy masses like Mendenhall Glacier, braving the elements and the calving glaciers that expand and contract and break apart in the process. If you're brave enough to explore this treacherous territory, you'll be rewarded with an amazing display of wildlife including humpback whales, sea lions and sea otters.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is a vision of curved natural sandstone arches in the midst of Utah's desert land. These decorated beauties defy gravity with twisted spires, fins and precariously balanced rocks atop the stone arches that soar up to 100 feet in the air. It took some time for Mother Nature to create this natural oddity that has been a work in progress for millions of years. With over 2,000 identified arches, highlights include the sweeping Landscape Arch, the precarious Balanced Rock, the Double Arch and the often-photographed gentle slope of the Delicate Arch.
The landscape of Monument Valley, straddling the border of Utah and Arizona, became the iconic setting for many classic American western movies with dramatic rock formations rising out of the barren desert. The area is most striking at daybreak when the rising sun reveals the sandstone formations towering over the landscape dotted with flat mesas and towering buttes. Visitors can navigate the rugged terrain on horseback or ATVs, or cruise the open road along nearby Route 163.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is an oasis in the middle of Utah featuring towering sandstone rock formations that were named by the state's Mormon settlers for their resemblance to temples of God. The fast-moving Virgin River cuts through the National Park, creating deep canyons and unique monoliths along the way. Daredevils traverse the 2.5-mile trail up to Angel's Landing through narrow rocky paths and steep ridges that reward the brave hikers with stellar views of the canyon below.
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone was the world's first National Park, gaining this esteemed title in 1872. The Old Faithful Inn was quickly built to cater to the guests who came to marvel at this site, a caldera formed when the super-volcano last erupted 600,000 years ago. There are over 300 geysers in the park, but the most famous is Old Faithful, which spews 8,000 gallons of boiling water every 90 minutes. In addition to its many natural glories, Yellowstone is a wildlife sanctuary that serves as home to free-roaming bison, grizzly bears, moose and elk.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is relatively small but it fills this small space up with immense beauty. The park's unusual pointy rock formations create a whimsical landscape like something straight from a children's book. These craggy limestone spires, known as hoodoos, line the hillsides creating slot canyons and amphitheatres with swirls of brilliant colors ranging from rich red to bright orange.
The Rocky Mountains roll on for a thousand miles with snow-capped peaks, thick forests and clear glacial lakes. Banff was the first of the Rockies' National Parks established in 1885 and still welcomes visitors for outdoor adventures on foot, skis and mountain bikes. Drive along the Ice Field Highway from Banff to Jasper National park for a scenic pathway through the mountains and gorges. If mountain-climbing isn't your thing, enjoy the picturesque lakes including Lake Louise, originally named Emerald Lake as a tribute to its glittering blue-green waters, or Peyto Lake, a sparkling body of water surrounded by lush fir trees.
With 150 square miles spread across the elevated plateau, the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park is the largest area of ice in the Rockies. Visitors can road-trip along the 143-mile-long Ice Field Parkway, or Highway 93, making stops along the way to admire the towering mountains, still lakes and waterfalls. Athabasca Falls, with its deep gorge, is a favorite of white-water rafters. Continue on to the Athabasca Glacier, which can be explored on foot or in a specially designed vehicle with super-sized wheels perfect for traversing the icy terrain.
Glen Canyon is a geological wonder that is part of the same rock formation that makes up the Grand Canyon. It's known for its smooth sandstone cliffs that rise 1,000 feet above the Colorado River and popular Lake Powell, which was created after the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963. Visitors head to the area in houseboats to water-ski, fish and ride power boats on the enormous lake.
Maui is made up of 2 volcanoes--the West Maui Mountains and the expansive Haleakala, the world's largest dormant volcano, which last erupted in the early 16th century. Today the deep crater is lush with thick tropical plants that meet the sea and its vibrant coral reefs. Travelers journey along the area's famed Road to Hana, exploring the great surfing spots, rich forests and barren desert land that make up this unique landscape.