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50 states, 50 natural wonders: Most beautiful sights in the U.S.

10Best logo 10Best 10/15/2020 Lydia Schrandt, Special to USA TODAY 10Best
a canyon with a sunset in the background: Bryce Canyon © iStock / LordRunar Bryce Canyon

America the Beautiful

Katharine Lee Bates penned the poem “America the Beautiful” on a trip to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs in 1893. But the poem that would later become an American anthem could have been written from so many other spectacular settings in the United States. Travel across the country as we take a look at one magnificent natural wonder in each of the 50 states.

a close up of a rock next to a tree: Dismals Canyon © Alabama Tourism Department (ADT) / Chris Granger Dismals Canyon

Alabama - Dismals Canyon

This sandstone gorge tucked away in North Alabama earned National Natural Landmark status in 1975, and it remains largely under the radar despite its immense beauty. A 1.5-mile hiking trail winds along the canyon floor, through an old-growth sunken forest. At night, bioluminescent “glowworms,” called Dismalites, light up the canyon.

a man standing in front of a mountain: Denali © State of Alaska/Matt Hage Denali

Alaska - Denali

The vast expanses of wilderness in the largest state mean visitors have plenty of natural wonders to choose from, none quite so iconic as Denali. The “roof of North America” peaks at 20,310 feet. It’s only visible one out of every three days (due to cloud cover), but it’s well worth the wait to catch a glimpse of the Great One from Park Road.

background pattern: Antelope Canyon © Arizona Office of Tourism / Chadwick Fowler Antelope Canyon

Arizona - Antelope Canyon

Winding, wave-like walls, and light beaming down from above, make this sandstone slot canyon near Page, Arizona a favorite among photographers and artists. The Navajo name for the canyon, “Tse' bighanilini,” means “the place where water runs through rock,” speaking to its creation by erosion over millions of years.

a group of people standing next to a body of water: Buffalo National River © NPS Photo / T. Fondriest Buffalo National River

Arkansas - Buffalo National River

The Buffalo National River was established as the nation’s first National River in 1972. This natural wonder flows for 135 miles through the Ozark Mountains and remains one of the few un-dammed rivers in the continental U.S. During the summer months, visitors in canoes, rafts and kayaks take to the river, floating past its rock bluffs and waterfalls.

a tree in the middle of a park bench: Avenue of the Giants © Visit California/Myles McGuinness Avenue of the Giants

California - Avenue of the Giants

While taller redwoods exist in California, it’s hard to beat the awe-factor of the Avenue of Giants. This stretch of road that parallels historic Highway 101 winds for 32 miles through Humboldt Redwoods State Park with a veritable wall of towering trunks to either side.

Stop at one of several hiking trails along the way to feel the soft, spongy forest floor beneath your feet.

a canyon with Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in the background © NPS Photo / Patrick Myers Great Sand Dunes

Colorado - Great Sand Dunes

The tallest sand dunes in North America undulate beneath the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. This dune field, protected by its own national park, stretches for some 30 square miles, with individual dunes measuring up to 750 feet tall.

By day, park visitors come to sled down the soft sand; by night, the dark skies above the remote dunes set the scene for stargazing.

a waterfall in a forest: Kent Falls © iStock / Holcy Kent Falls

Connecticut - Kent Falls

Kent Falls State Park in the scenic Litchfield Hills of Connecticut gets its name from the 250-foot series of cascading waterfalls along the Housatonic River. Hike through the pine forest to the top of the falls, or cool off in the mountain water at its base.

a flock of seagulls standing next to a body of water: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge © iStock / bilbowden Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

Delaware - Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

This Delaware wildlife refuge protects one of the mid-Atlantic’s largest tidal salt marshes. It’s also one of the best spots in the nation for birdwatching, as hundreds of thousands of birds use it as a stop on their annual migration routes. Navigate the 12-mile wildlife drive to access the refuge’s walking trails, observation towers and other interpretive displays.

a waterfall surrounded by trees: Buffalo National River © VISIT FLORIDA Buffalo National River

Florida - Three Sisters Springs

If you want to see manatees in the wild, spend some time at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Three Sisters Springs serves as a winter habitat for these gentle giants, who migrate to the springs to keep warm in the 72-degree waters. See the manatees from the boardwalk, or get a closer look by swimming, snorkeling or paddling in the turquoise water.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: Providence Canyon © iStock / Michael Warren Providence Canyon

Georgia - Providence Canyon

Stand above Providence Canyon, one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders, and you’ll quickly see why it’s nicknamed the “Little Grand Canyon.” Erosion of Georgia’s Coastal Plain from poor farming practices created the canyon. Come in the summer to see the rare Plumleaf Azalea in bloom.

a canyon with Waimea Canyon State Park in the background © Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Ben Ono Waimea Canyon

Hawaii - Waimea Canyon

“The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” might be smaller and newer than its Arizona counterpart, but at 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and 3,600 feet deep, it’s still spectacular. Come on a sunny day after a spell of rain for the best views of the Kauai canyon and its gushing waterfalls.

Aldeyjarfoss with a mountain in the background: Shoshone Falls © iStock / Chris Roth Shoshone Falls

Idaho - Shoshone Falls

This waterfall along the Snake River, near the edge of Twin Falls, Idaho, is 212 feet tall – taller than Niagara Falls. The 900-foot-wide Shoshone Falls is at its most impressive in spring, when snow melt rushes through its gorges.

a tree in a forest: Pomona Natural Bridge © iStock / tacojim Pomona Natural Bridge

Illinois - Pomona Natural Bridge

This natural sandstone bridge extends 90 feet across a verdant ravine inside Shawnee National Forest. The easy hiking trail leading to the Pomona Natural Bridge passes through a forest of beech, oak and hickory trees along the way.

Ricketts Glen State Park in a forest: McCormick’s Creek © iStock / Kenneth Keifer McCormick’s Creek

Indiana - McCormick’s Creek

McCormick’s Creek State Park, Indiana’s first, protects the eponymous creek as it flows through a spectacular limestone canyon. Hike along the creek to see its impressive waterfalls.

a wooden bench sitting next to a body of water: Loess Hills © Travel Iowa Loess Hills

Iowa - Loess Hills

Near the end of the last ice age, winds formed dunes of soil along the Missouri River flood plain on the western border of Iowa. Today, the hills cover more than 1,080 square miles, accessed by the 220-mile Loess Hills Scenic Byway (and an additional 185 miles of scenic loops).

a man sitting on a rock: Monument Rocks © Kansas Office of Tourism & Travel Monument Rocks

Kansas - Monument Rocks

Considered one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas, the Monument Rocks are comprised of Cretaceous chalk formations, some standing up to 70 feet tall, that look a bit like a natural Stonehenge. The rocks contain a plethora of fossils dating back to when the area was underwater (part of the Western Interior Seaway).

a flock of birds standing on top of a cave: Mammoth Cave © iStock / zrfphoto Mammoth Cave

Kentucky - Mammoth Cave

Below the earth’s surface in Kentucky lies one of the world’s longest known cave systems. Mammoth Caves comprise more than 400 miles of mapped subterranean passageways that have been explored by humans for more than 4,000 years.

The caves, protected by Mammoth Cave National Park, are also a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve.

a group of palm trees on the side of a river: Atchafalaya Basin © iStock / JLFCapture Atchafalaya Basin

Louisiana - Atchafalaya Basin

Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin covers 14 parishes in the state, providing an enormous natural habitat of swamps, lakes and water prairies rich in wildlife.

More than 300 bird species have been spotted in the basin, including the largest population of wintering American woodcock on the continent and the largest concentration of nesting bald eagles in the south central United States.

a large waterfall over some water: Gulf Hagas © iStock / dypics Gulf Hagas

Maine - Gulf Hagas

The Appalachian Trail leads to Gulf Hagas, "The Grand Canyon of Maine." This 400-foot-deep gorge features waterfalls, swimming holes and chutes amid an old-growth pine forest. Visitors can explore the area via an 8-mile loop, where it’s sometimes possible to spot moose and deer.

a body of water: Chesapeake Bay © iStock / flownaksala Chesapeake Bay

Maryland - Chesapeake Bay

The Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary, offers serene beauty in spades, whether you’re exploring its marshes, sandy beaches, wetlands or open waters. Nearly a million waterfowl stop on the bay during their annual migration, making it an excellent spot for birdwatching along the Atlantic Migratory Bird Flyway.

a man standing on a rocky hill: Monument Mountain © Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism Monument Mountain

Massachusetts - Monument Mountain

Literary giants the likes of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne drew inspiration from the views at the 1,642-foot peak of Monument Mountain. Some 20,000 hikers walk in their footsteps to enjoy the scenery each year. Three trails offer views over the Catskill Mountains all the way to Mount Greylock.

water next to the rock with Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the background © NPS Photo Pictured Rocks

Michigan - Pictured Rocks

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (the first National Lakeshore in the National Park System) gets its name from the towering sandstone cliffs along the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These cliffs, measuring between 50 to 200 feet tall, stretch for nearly 15 miles, with the most colorful section just east of Miners Beach.

a large waterfall over a river: Minnehaha Falls © iStock / JoeChristensen Minnehaha Falls

Minnesota - Minnehaha Falls

The stunning Minnehaha Falls plummets 53 feet into a gorge in Minnehaha Falls Regional Park. This urban park, one of the most popular in the Minneapolis area, features views of the Mississippi River, as well as trails passing through oak, elm, maple and cottonwood forests.

a wooden bench near a bridge: Greenville Cypress Preserve © iStock / Pgiam Greenville Cypress Preserve

Mississippi - Greenville Cypress Preserve

This 16-acre cypress preserve, near the town of Greenville, Mississippi, offers a quiet place to walk amid meadows, cypress brakes and bottomland hardwood forests. The preserve protects three stands of cypress trees that are absolutely enchanting.

a rocky island in the middle of a field: Johnson's Shut-Ins © iStock / ginosphotos Johnson's Shut-Ins

Missouri - Johnson's Shut-Ins

Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park in Missouri gets its name from the series of private pools formed over thousands of years as the Black River gradually eroded the volcanic stone. This natural water park in the Ozarks makes the ideal setting for summer swimming and splashing.

a herd of sheep grazing in a field with a mountain in the background: Chinese Wall © iStock / mtnmichelle Chinese Wall

Montana - Chinese Wall

Montana has no shortage of natural wonders, but one of the most alluring (and least crowded) is the Chinese Wall. This limestone spine stretches for 22 miles along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, towering more than 1,000 feet at points. The wall, located inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, makes up part of the Continental Divide.

a close up of a green field with a mountain in the background: Scotts Bluff National Monument © iStock / LIKE HE Scotts Bluff National Monument

Nebraska - Scotts Bluff

For much of America's history, the rocky formations within Scotts Bluff National Monument served as a landmark for travelers along the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, Pony Express and California Trails. The bluff towers 800 feet above the plains of western Nebraska.

a person standing in front of a mountain: Cathedral Gorge © iStock / Sara Edwards Cathedral Gorge

Nevada - Cathedral Gorge

A narrow valley in southeastern Nevada is home to an impressive gorge carved into the soft bentonite clay. Cathedral Gorge State Park offers numerous walking trails for enjoying the spires, cave-like formations and scenic canyons.

a large waterfall over a rocky cliff with Flume Gorge in the background © iStock / littleny Flume Gorge

New Hampshire - Flume Gorge

This natural gorge at the base of Mount Liberty extends for some 800 feet, with walls rising as high as 90 feet, at points as narrow as 12 feet apart. Visitors can explore the gorge by hiking a one-way, two-mile loop trail through the fern and moss-filled Flume Gorge.

a large waterfall over a bridge: Great Falls of the Passaic River © iStock / iShootPhotosLLC Great Falls of the Passaic River

New Jersey - Great Falls of the Passaic River

The Great Falls of the Passaic River is second only to Niagara Falls for waterfalls by volume east of the Mississippi. The 77-foot-tall falls is of historical importance as well; it was here that Alexander Hamilton founded the city of Paterson in 1792 as the first planned city built around a hydropower system.

a body of water: Bisti Badlands / De Na Zin Wilderness Area © iStock / harryhayashi Bisti Badlands / De Na Zin Wilderness Area

New Mexico - Bisti Badlands

This 60-square-mile expanse of badlands in the Four Corners area of New Mexico features hoodoos of all shapes and sizes formed by erosion of the sandstone, shale and mudstone layers over thousands of years. The Bisti / De-Na-Zin Wilderness looks truly extraterrestrial.

a large waterfall coming out of the water: Niagara Falls © iStock / Orchidpoet Niagara Falls

New York - Niagara Falls

Some 3,100 tons of water flow over Niagara Falls each second. Today, the falls sit within Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the U.S. and among the most popular. Whether you’re viewing the falls from the U.S. or Canadian site, they’re nothing short of magnificent.

a tree with Chimney Rock State Park in the background © iStock / ehrlif Chimney Rock

North Carolina - Chimney Rock

One of the most identifiable landmarks in Western North Carolina sits within Chimney Rock State Park. The 315-foot rocky outcrop affords phenomenal views of Hickory Nut Gorge and the Rocky Broad River for visitors who climb the 499 steps to the top (or ride the elevator).

a close up of a rock: Cannonball Concretions © iStock / jtstewartphoto Cannonball Concretions

North Dakota - Cannonball Concretions

If you’re driving through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, be sure to pull over to see the Cannonball Concretions. These geologic oddities, set just off the road, measure nearly 10 feet in diameter and were created by centuries of river erosion.

a close up of a rock: Rock House © iStock / Kenneth Keifer Rock House

Ohio - Rock House

Hocking Hills State Park is home to some of the most spectacular natural scenery in Ohio. The Rock House, the only true cave in the park, sits midway up a sandstone cliff. The corridor-like cave features cutouts that serve as windows looking out over the surrounding landscape.

a close up of a pond: Mountain Fork River © iStock / Frank DeBonis Mountain Fork River

Oklahoma - Mountain Fork River

Oklahoma’s Mountain Fork River ranks among the best whitewater streams in the state, offering a year-round destination for trout fishing, rafting, canoeing and kayaking.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: Smith Rock © Satoshi Eto / Travel Oregon Smith Rock

Oregon - Smith Rock

Popular with rock climbers, Smith Rock State Park outside of Bend, Oregon features a series of red-orange volcanic crags jutting up from a river canyon. One of the Seven Wonders of Oregon and the birthplace of American sport climbing, Smith Rock is also a stunning setting for hiking, biking and trail running.

a close up of a lush green hillside: Pine Creek Gorge © iStock / Matt Anderson Pine Creek Gorge

Pennsylvania - Pine Creek Gorge

Pine Creek Gorge, better known as the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania," measures more than 50 miles long and over 1,000 feet deep. The area is popular not only for its spectacular views, but also for its abundant wildlife, including numerous species of migratory and breeding birds.

a wooden bench sitting next to a body of water: Mohegan Bluffs © iStock / Michael Ver Sprill Mohegan Bluffs

Rhode Island - Mohegan Bluffs

The 200-foot-tall Mohegan Bluffs stand guard over one of the most beautiful beaches on Block Island. Views from the tops of the cliffs often extend across the Atlantic all the way to Montauk. A set of 141 steps leads down to the sand, a popular spot for swimming and surfing.

a close up of a tree: Angel Oak © iStock / Michael Ver Sprill Angel Oak

South Carolina - Angel Oak

This massive, ancient Southern live oak tree near Charleston towers above the ground at nearly 70 feet tall and about 25 feet in circumference. It’s named for its expansive, draping branches, whose canopy looks almost otherworldly – angelic, even. Some consider the Angel Oak the oldest thing in existence east of the Rockies, at an estimated 1,500-plus years old.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: Badlands © NPS Photo / Mackenzie Reed Badlands

South Dakota - Badlands

The geologic deposits of the South Dakota Badlands contain one of the world's richest fossil beds. Visitors to this 244,000-acre national park can often spot bison, bighorn sheep and other wildlife on the mixed grass prairie; visit a working paleontology lab; or enjoy ranger-led night sky programs.

a waterfall over a body of water: Fall Creek Falls © iStock / RichardBarrow Fall Creek Falls

Tennessee - Fall Creek Falls

Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee's largest and most visited state park, gets its name from the 256-foot cascade – one of the highest in the eastern United States – that numbers among the park's many other waterfalls and gorges. The park has several other notable waterfalls as well, including Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls and Cane Creek Cascades.

a canyon with a mountain in the background: Santa Elena Canyon © iStock / LeongKokWeng Santa Elena Canyon

Texas - Santa Elena Canyon

The Rio Grande River passes through Santa Elena Canyon, a jewel in Big Bend National Park, wending between walls that tower some 1,500 feet above the water. While it’s possible to hike into the canyon on foot, the better way to see it is on a raft trip.

a canyon with Bryce Canyon National Park in the background: Bryce Canyon Amphitheater © iStock / FilippoBacci Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

Utah - Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

Some of the most famous structures within Bryce Canyon National Park can be found within the Amphitheater. Viewpoints along the rim – Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce Points – look down into the network of cliffs and hoodoos. Both the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop Trails descend into the Amphitheater for a closer look.

a path with trees on the side of a mountain: Quechee Gorge © iStock / Kirby Matthess Quechee Gorge

Vermont - Quechee Gorge

Quechee Gorge State Park is home of Vermont's deepest gorge, formed by glacial activity over 10,000 years ago. Viewing points along Route 4 let visitors gaze down at the flowing waters of the Ottauquechee River 165 feet below.

a group of people on a cave: Luray Caverns © iStock / JacobH Luray Caverns

Virginia - Luray Caverns

These Shenandoah Valley caves were discovered in 1878 when air rushing out of a limestone sinkhole blew out the candle of Andrew Campbell, the town tinsmith. Campbell soon uncovered part of the largest cavern complex in the Eastern U.S., complete with cathedral-like chambers 10 stories high and pristine calcite formations.

a tree in a forest: Hoh Rain Forest © iStock / RomanKhomlyak Hoh Rain Forest

Washington - Hoh Rain Forest

The Hoh Rain Forest inside Olympic National Park receives an average of 140 inches of rainfall annually, giving it the lush canopy and verdant carpet of mosses and ferns that make it so recognizable. The rainforest, one of four on the Olympic Peninsula, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.

a view of a mountain: New River Gorge © iStock / Sean Pavone New River Gorge

West Virginia - New River Gorge

Watch a sunset from Grandview in West Virginia's New River Gorge National River, and it's easy to see how the area got its name. The Main Overlook is 1,400 feet above the New River, offering some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the park (and in the state).

a pile of snow next to a rock: Apostle Islands © NPS Photo Apostle Islands

Wisconsin - Apostle Islands

The windswept shore of Lake Superior is home to the stunning Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Comprised of 21 islands and 12 miles of mainland, the park is known for its rocky shoreline and sandstone cliffs, best explored by kayak.

a blurry image of a night sky: Old Faithful © NPS / Neal Herbert Old Faithful

Wyoming - Old Faithful

Half of the world's known geothermal features and its largest concentration of geysers can be found within the bounds of Yellowstone National Park. None is so famous as Old Faithful. People from around the world come to see this geyser erupt, and it's one of only a handful in the park that park rangers can predict with some measure of accuracy.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network, providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world, in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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