Snow-capped peaks, lush sprawling forests, sun-drenched beaches and sweeping desert plains - the USA is a treasure trove of variety for nature-lovers. With big names like Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and the Redwood Forest, the country boasts some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders.
However, there is gold to be found beyond the USA’s usual suspects.
Whether it be around Washington’s wild coastline, rugged coves dotting California’s Big Sur, or tranquil Alaskan fjords, travellers in the US have plenty of room for exploration.
Below we dive into a few of the country’s famous natural marvels along with some lesser-known attractions for the adventurous Attenboroughs among us.
USA’s usual suspects: the ‘big three’ national parks
In 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first official national park.
Many travellers are surprised to learn that the national parks movement was born in the USA, spearheaded by presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Today, there are more than 400 areas under federal protection of the National Park Service, including parks, monuments, historic sites, recreation areas, scenic trails and seashores.
The ‘big three’ national parks are arguably the jewels in the USA’s green crown: Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Let’s explore each of these in more detail.
1. Yosemite National Park
According to the National Parks Service, over four million nature-lovers revel in Yosemite’s natural splendour each year. Yosemite spans 1,169 square miles, has over 13 designated campgrounds, 11 towering waterfalls and over 1,500 species of flowering plants.
Travellers visit Yosemite National Park all throughout the year, with the summer months being most popular for hikers and general campers. More serious adventurers brave Yosemite in the winter, enjoying cross-country skiing and challenging snow-covered hiking trails.
ackpackers are advised to monitor weather conditions carefully and pack for a worst-case scenario in winter, as frosty temperatures and even avalanches pose significant dangers. Camping in winter is restricted to areas with close access to plowed roads.
While beautiful, Yosemite National Park is a dangerous place to let your guard down. Each year, the National Parks Service responds to hundreds of medical incidents, motor vehicle accidents and conducts hundreds of search and rescue operations. A number of bear attacks and several fatalities are also recorded each year in Yosemite. All visitors to the park are urged to exercise proper food storage to avoid unwanted attention from bears, always follow park speed limits and never approach or feed wildlife.
First-time visitors to Yosemite are urged to “pack their patience” in the popular months of summer and autumn, when crowds and queues are common. If you plan to travel during these months, make your accommodation reservations well ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Travellers should also note that mobile reception is very limited and to plan accordingly.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park is often called “America’s Serengeti”, due to the staggering variety of animal life that roam the wilderness. Bison have become synonymous with the success of the park’s preservation after the species was brought from near extinction in the country. The last remaining herd of bison (just 24 animals strong) was found in the park and protected by the US army from the year 1902, and is now large enough to pose challenges for Yellowstone’s management.
Bison have a high survival rate because they are rarely preyed on by wolves (elk are a more vulnerable target). According to the National Parks Service, this means there isn’t sufficient habitat for the bison population to grow at its current rate. There are also concerns about the transmission of disease from bison to cattle.
Some travellers to Yellowstone have tried to snap a ‘bison selfie’ on their phone, with the large animal in the background of the photo, only to be gorged from behind. Park visitors are urged to keep their distance from bison, which are surprisingly fast and often unpredictable.
But Yellowstone’s star attraction is undoubtedly the explosive geyser affectionately named “Old Faithful”. And it lives up to its name, exploding roughly every 90 minutes since the year 2000, and rocketing gas up to 50 metres into the air. Old Faithful is just one of the many active geysers in Yellowstone, and visitors only need to follow the crowds to stake out for an imminent eruption. In fact, the park boasts approximately half of the world’s active geysers.
More than 20 Yellowstone visitors have died after falling into the park’s boiling hot springs. In June 2016 a 23-year-old man slipped from a designated park boardwalk and fell into a geyser, dying immediately. In November 2016, another man died after he decided to swim in one of the hot springs - a dangerous trend called “hot potting”. The man was walking in a prohibited area of the park.
Visitors to Yellowstone should always stick to designated park areas where hazards are clearly marked.
Yellowstone’s other geographic draw-cards include the Yellowstone Volcano, which was responsible for one of the largest known volcanic eruptions to have ever occurred. The serene Yellowstone Lake is another spectacular must-see for visiting nature-lovers.
Like Yosemite, Yellowstone hosts around four million visitors each year, with the summer months (May through September) being the most popular. Visitors are advised to prepare for crowds in the summer and plan their schedules accordingly. If you’re intending to see a wide range of wildlife, head out in the early morning and late evening, but be sure to pack adequate supplies as temperatures plummet in the night and soar in the daytime.
3. Grand Canyon National Park
The famous Grand Canyon in Arizona welcomes almost five million sightseers annually who flock to marvel at one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The 1.6 kilometre-deep Grand Canyon is split by the snaking Colorado River, which formed as a result of millions of years of erosion.
Wildlife enthusiasts will get their fix of desert curiosities, including a short-horned lizard that shoots blood from its eyes to ward off predators.
Rim-to-rim hiking trails are popular for more adventurous visitors to the Grand Canyon, however extreme heat, dehydration, exhaustion, sunburn and rattlesnakes are ever-present dangers for hikers. According to the National Park Service, more than 250 hikers need emergency assistance each year from the Grand Canyon.
Hiking incidents in the Grand Canyon are so common that The National Park Service has designed ‘Hike Smart’ guides for summer and winter adventures. “The difference between a great adventure in the Grand Canyon and a trip to the hospital (or worse) is up to YOU,” they say.
USA’s lesser-known natural marvels
Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon may be the USA’s star natural attractions, but they’re far from all the US has to offer nature-lovers. After all, they’re just three of more than 400 designated wildlife areas.
The incredible geographic diversity of the USA means the country can satisfy all natural appetites. Skiers will flock to the mountains of Colorado, surfers will flock to the dreamy waves of Santa Barbara, nature photographers will find inspiration in California’s Big Sur and the particularly daring will leave the mainland in search of Alaskan solitude.
Below we explore some of the USA’s lesser-known natural wonders in more detail.
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula
The Olympic Peninsula on Washington’s west coast contained many of the USA’s last unexplored areas. Today, the Olympic National Park has 117 kilometres of wilderness coast, almost 5,000 kilometres of rivers and streams, 300 bird species and 60 named glaciers. The Olympic Peninsula also has a rich history of Native American settlement, with over 650 protected archaeological sites and 130 historic structures.
The travellers who venture to the Olympic Peninsula often focus their efforts on Rialto Beach, with its naturally-formed “Hole-in-the-Wall” rock arch and offshore islands called “sea stacks”. Camping options and bountiful salmon and trout fishing can be found at the town of Forks, just half an hour drive away.
Port Angeles is the most populous town in the Olympic Peninsula area and features a picturesque harbour and exquisite seafood. Travellers should pack for the cold as Washington state temperatures fall below freezing in the winter months.
Exploring the Alaskan fjords
The USA bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million (which equates to roughly $122 million today) in 1867. To say that it was a smart investment would be an understatement. Alaskan tourism employs more than 50,000 people, generates more than $2 billion in visitor spending and contributes over $4 billion to the US economy.
Explore the monumental glaciers, pristine fjords and ancient mountain ranges, and it’s easy to see why Alaska had the US reaching for its wallet all those years ago.
Cruises are by far the most popular way to enjoy the breathtaking surrounds of Alaska. Common cruise routes include the Inside Passage from Seattle, glacier spotting in the famous Gulf of Alaska, and further-flung journeys into the Bering Sea. Travellers are advised to research cruise operators thoroughly and select an itinerary that best suits their interests.
Driving through California’s Big Sur
California’s Big Sur coastline is regarded as one of the most rugged, attractive and compelling natural sights in the world. While not unknown by any means, Big Sur is expansive enough to give travellers a real sense of adventure.
Any guidebook to California will likely include a photograph of the McWay Falls - a 25 metre-high waterfall that plummets from granite cliff faces onto a secluded beach. The waterfall is in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is easily accessible off Highway 1.
Travellers to Big Sur should be prepared for a truly secluded natural adventure where mobile reception is scarce and road conditions can be treacherous. The Highway fringes a fragile coastline where rock slides are common, causing regular road closures. Travellers can monitor current road warnings for Highway 1 on the California Department of Transportation website.
To get the most out of your trip to Big Sur, do your research before you go and dedicate some time to exploring properly without racing to the main attractions.
Surfing in Santa Barbara
Californians have an intimate love of surfing to rival anywhere else in the world, and thankfully for travellers there are plenty of waves to explore. From the big name breaks like Malibu and Huntington Beach to lesser-known spots dotting the entire California coast, visiting surfers will find a great variety of consistent breaks to hone their craft.
Arguably some of the best waves in the state can be found in Santa Barbara. The ‘Queen of the Coast’ is Rincon, a long and perfectly-shaped wave that can be the ride of your life when the swell is right. However, chances are you’ll need a heavy wetsuit to survive Rincon at its best, as swells are most common in the colder months.
For beginner surfers, further South in California offers some more forgiving waves to suit all skill levels. The iconic Malibu Beach is the perfect place to hone your skills, with gentle rolling waves and easy access to the Pacific Coast Highway. However, Malibu can become dangerously crowded. If you’re only a beginner surfer, book in a surf lesson to get the right advice on how to survive a sea of heavy surfboards.
The USA may be home to some of the world’s most appealing cities, but it has natural splendour in equal measure. It’s clear that nature enthusiasts of all tastes will satisfy their appetite in the American wilderness, whether that be in the snow, the sea or the sweeping desert plains.