Here are six of the most striking geological features that you can find in America’s National Parks.
1. Arches National Park
If you’re heading to Utah to check out the Mighty Five, chances are Arches National Park is at the top of your list—along with Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. This park was aptly named for its more than 2,000 arches, the largest concentration in the world.
These landmarks formed from millions of years’ worth of seismic activity as the area shifted, wrinkled, and expanded leaving exposed sandstone to spread to the surface. The water eventually began eroding the sandstone into fins or narrow, thin rock faces. Then, water seeped into the cracks of the fins and froze and expanded which caused chunks of sandstone to fall out and form a window. Water and wind continued to erode the window until it became an arch.
Among the park’s best-known arches are the Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch—the largest of them all. Landscape Arch stretches 306 feet across or about the length of a football field. In 1991, hikers heard cracking and popping noises from the arch and suddenly a slab of rock about 60 feet long broke away and crashed to the ground below. A photo and a video of the event were recorded and no one was hurt.
If you decide to visit, be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water (there is little shade available) and check for timed ticket entry between April and October.
2. Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest certainly has a startling ring to it. Not to mention, Petrified Forest National Park isn’t actually a forest—at least not anymore. And it’s not necessarily a dangerous place … as long as you don’t attempt to steal the rocks.
Nearly 200 million years ago, coniferous trees such as pines grew in this lowland area of what is now Arizona though the climate was more tropical at the time. Fallen trees, some 9 feet in diameter and around 200 feet tall were covered in sediments as nearby rivers flooded from storms. Over time, multiple volcanic eruptions layered the area in volcanic ash, rich with silica.
The burial of these trees happened so quickly (by geological standards) that the wood evaded decay normally caused by insects and oxygen. As the groundwater mixed with the volcanic ash and silica, it layered over the wood and turned the organic material into stone also known as petrification.
The resulting fossils are a beautiful menagerie of reds, yellows, oranges, and whites. They somewhat resemble precious stones which makes them an enticing souvenir. But as with all National Park lands visitors are not allowed to take anything from the site including rocks, plants, and animals. And for good reason, since removing any of these items can harm the local ecosystem or degrade the geological features.
Legend has it that taking a rock from Petrified Forest National Park can bring about miserable luck. The park receives envelopes full of returned rocks each year often with letters begging for forgiveness for fossil theft and hoping their bad luck subsides. Some letters simply state, “You were right!” and some have detailed the years of misfortune that befell the burglar. These correspondences were even turned into a book, Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest.
When visiting Petrified Forest National Park (or any park) remember to take only pictures and leave only footprints.
3. Mesa Verde National Park
Designated a national park by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the park also holds UNESCO World Heritage Site status and has been the site of human inhabitation since approximately 7500 BC. About A.D. 550 some of the people living in the four corners region of the four states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico decided to move onto Mesa Verde; over 700 years these people raised families in communities of stone built into sheltered coves of canyon walls.
Not only did the cliff dwellings offer shelter from potential invaders but also from rain and snow allowing the ruins to be well preserved for more than 1,000 years. Over a generation or two in the late 1200s, these people left their homes and moved away to locations in Arizona and New Mexico.
The spectacular park includes more than 4,500 archaeological sites of which about 600 are cliff dwellings. Located just outside Cortez, Colorado, the main park road is open 24 hours, year-round. Alas, to see some of the most impressive cliff dwellings close up, Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House you must join a ranger-guided tour.
The main park road leads to numerous overlooks offering marvelous views of the cliff dwellings in the early culture. First on our circuit was Spruce Treehouse, perhaps the best-preserved cliff dwelling. Standing on the edge of the rugged canyon and looking down and across to the cliff dwelling gives one the eerie feeling that the residents just departed. Throughout our visit to these early outposts of humanity, one could feel the ghosts of the ancients looking back at us.
4. White Sands National Park
The largest gypsum dune field in the world is located at White Sands National Park in south-central New Mexico. This region of glistening white dunes is at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert within an internally drained valley called the Tularosa Basin. The park ranges in elevation from 3,890 feet to 4,116 feet above sea level. There are approximately 275 total square miles of dune fields here with 115 square miles (about 40 percent) located within White Sands National Park.
This dune field is very dynamic with the most active dunes moving to the northeast at a rate of up to 30 feet per year while the more stable areas of sand move very little. The pure gypsum (hydrous calcium sulfate) that forms these unusual dunes originates in the western portion of the park from an ephemeral lake or playa with a very high mineral content. As the water evaporates (theoretically as much as 80 inches per year!), the minerals are left behind to form gypsum deposits that eventually are wind-transported to form these white dunes.
Many species of plants and animals have developed very specialized means of surviving in this area of cold winters and hot summers with very little surface water and highly mineralized groundwater.
5. Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is an otherworldly destination that offers visitors an immersive experience of the natural beauty and geologic uniqueness of the region. The rugged canyons, towering spires, and colorful rock formations create an awe-inspiring landscape that is unlike anything else in the world.
Drive through the park and enjoy the breathtaking scenery that Badlands National Park has to offer. With several scenic drives available including Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road visitors can take in the stunning views and take their time experiencing the park.
Experience the park’s rugged beauty up close by hiking one of its many trails. With more than 60 miles of trails available, there are plenty of opportunities to explore the park on foot and discover breathtaking views, unique rock formations, and diverse wildlife.
Observe the park’s native wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Badlands National Park is home to one of the largest remaining undisturbed mixed-grass prairies in the United States making it an ideal location for wildlife viewing.
6. Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park has it all—vast amounts of open space, rivers, canyons, pictographs, and hot springs. Located in southwest Texas, the park can be wonderfully warm in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer offering year-round access to some of the most beautiful terrain in the state. Big Bend National Park is where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Chisos Mountains and it’s where you’ll find the Santa Elena Canyon, a limestone cliff canyon carved by the Rio Grande.
In the center of Big Bend lies the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States fully contained within a single national park. Given their relatively high elevation—the summit of Emory Peak stands at 7,835 feet—the Chisos are typically 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the adjacent desert and home to a wide variety of shady juniper, mesquite, and oak. Within the 20 miles of trails here it’s a fairly easy hike to a beautiful view at the summit of Emory Peak.
The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.