When I was a kid, I wrote an essay about how I thought "America the Beautiful" should be our national anthem instead of "The Star-Spangled Banner." To support my argument, I researched the natural wonders in the U.S. I made a list, hoping I would get a chance to see all of these amazing natural places in my lifetime. I've definitely covered a few places on my original wishlist, but what I've realized is that it's not just about going somewhere to say you've gone; it's about having a memorable experience while you're there.
That prompted me to make a new list of experiences, some I've had and some I'd like to have. For me, the "wonder" part of the natural wonder means being in it somehow — watching an animal move in its native habitat, feeling the earth under my fingernails, smelling damp green moisture, or hearing the crunch of snow under my hiking boots.
Unlike my first overwhelming list from third grade, I tried to keep this list more specific to spectacular wonders that are often overlooked. Some of these are obvious, while others are nearly secrets.
Wild tour of Mammoth Caves
People have been visiting Mammoth Caves in Kentucky since 1816, but it has only been a national park since 1941. The limestone capped by sandstone makes for perfect (and remarkably stable) cave formations. It's believed to be the largest in the world, with more than 400 miles of rooms, tunnels, cracks and crevices and new areas being discovered every year. The National Park Service offers a "wild" six-hour cave tour that's real spelunking. According to the NPS site, visitors get down and dirty to: "Climb, crawl, squeeze, hike and canyon walk in the realms of Mammoth Cave." This is the real deal. You have to wear special gear (a jumpsuit and helmet) and no part of your body can be wider than 42" because if you are, you just won't fit through some of the tight spots.
Olympic National Park's old-growth trees
This trail winds through the Hall of Mosses in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park. (Photo: Kgrr/Wikimedia Commons)
I've been lucky enough to visit plenty of tropical rain forests, and I love the crazy growth and incredibly abundant plants and animals that call those zones home. But there's something about the more rare temperate rain forests that puts me in a mood like no other. Feeling the mist against my cheeks during a woods ramble is amazing. They are just incredibly romantic and dreamy. Maybe it's because I'm a northern-grown human who loves the quality of the light further away from the equator, or the fact that I'd prefer to be chilly than sweaty, but being under the canopy of the well-protected ancient trees of the Pacific Northwest (I spent time in Quinault) is one of my favorite activities in the world.
Acadia National Park's shores
I don't want to downplay the Atlantic Coast's highest point. Cadillac Mountain, located within Acadia, is an incredible viewing spot from which to see the sunrise on the East Coast. But the thing about Acadia that's especially memorable is those rocky, dramatic ocean shorelines. Hiking along them is so different than walking on a beach (the relationship of ocean to land is completely different), it just has to be experienced. A great place to start is Ocean Path, which will take you past many of the local oceanside marvels like Thunder Hole and Otter Cliff.
Everglades' pink flamingos
There's something for everyone in the Everglades, from crazy fan-boat rides, to easily observed wildlife for animal lovers, to tranquil pathways of brackish water, and even ocean kayaking for the adventurous. But there aren't many places in the world to see pink flamingos in their native habitat, and watching these odd-looking birds lifting their long legs as they hunt the shallows for their lunch is a treat. It's not hard to view them if you go to the nonprofit Flamingo Gardens, which rescues and rehabs injured birds. And of course you can look for them in the wild at some of their favorite spots within the park.
Sea kayak out to Alaskan glaciers
From Glacier Bay National Park, you can get up close to glaciers that are more than 4,000 years old. While many of the more than 100,000 glaciers in the 3.3 million-acre park are melting, a couple of them are growing, including the Johns Hopkins and Marjorie glaciers. To see one of them up close from the vantage point of one of the glacier's edges would be like looking history right in the face. Kayak trips depart from the Park's headquarters at Bartlett Cove.
Wizard Island in Crater Lake
Oregon's Crater Lake is the caldera of an extinct volcano that blew up violently about 7,700 years ago. Subsequent smaller eruptions later formed cinder cones on the floor of the caldera. Wizard Island is the tallest of these and the only one to break the surface of the lake, which is the deepest in the United States at 4,000 feet. Public access is only allowed during the summer via boat. There are a couple of hiking trails that one can walk up to the top of the cinder cone, from which the views — from inside an ancient volcano, looking around at its sides, which must be amazing. The island and surrounding area were used by the local Klamath Indians for vision quests and tests of strength, but a hike to the top and a refreshing swim in the lake sound like a good enough quest to me.
Wild ponies of Assateague
I love the idea of horses roaming free, and the population on Assateague Island is split between Maryland and Virginia, with each state managing half the island and half the horses. About 300 ponies live on the island, and they are feral, with some on the Virginia side receiving basic veterinary care and those on the Maryland side treated as any other wild animals are. They're not particularly hard to find and I think it would be amazing to just watch horses behave completely naturally.
Canoe ride in the Boundary Waters
The large wilderness area known as the Boundary Waters is so named because it straddles the border between the U.S. and Canada (between Minnesota and Ontario). A huge network of bogs, lakes and other waterways, it can be navigated for days with a canoe. You will have to carry your canoe and gear for short distances between bodies of water — called portaging — depending on your route. If you paddle quietly, you will likely see at least some of the animals native to the area, including moose, bobcat, bald eagles, wolves, bears, falcons and loons.
Dig for diamonds in Arkansas
Crater of Diamonds is one of the most accessible places for modern day diamond prospecting. (Photo: Doug Wertman/Wikimedia Commons)
Crater of Diamonds State Park's claim to fame is that it produced the United State's largest diamond ever — the Uncle Sam, which was more than 40 carats. Perhaps more interesting than that though, is that 37 acres of the park are open for digging for a small fee, and plenty of people have found good-sized diamonds there, which are theirs to keep. The park has other types of semi-precious and precious stones (amethyst, peridot and garnet) available to those with a keen eye. Talk about a feel-good diamond: You get a great story to tell, and you can avoid the possible slave labor and environmental issues common to conventional diamond mining.
Run with the mountain goats of Glacier National Park
If you visit Glacier in Montana in the summer, the chances are good that you will see a baby mountain goat — one of the cutest baby wild animals out there. The mountain goats are pretty habituated to human beings, and even though you are supposed to stay 25 yards away from any wild animal at the park, I found it hard to maintain that distance. The goats would meander close to me as I was hiking or running on a trail. A baby goat seemed to follow me along for a few yards when I was trail running there, then it bounded off up a nearly vertical hill. They are as quick and nimble as their reputation suggests. It was one of my favorite memories of all time.
Big Island lava flow
Seeing new land being born right in front of your eyes is pretty mind-blowing, and you can watch all the drama in person at Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea has been regularly erupting since 1983, and it's pretty easy to be able to see lava from a safe distance by either hiking into designated areas, which change regularly and are monitored by the park service, or taking a boat tour to where the flow meets the Pacific. Either way, the time to go is sunset so you can see the colors of the lava burning at dusk while watching the stars come out at the same time. Magic.