Scientific Wonders at National Parks

From ancient rivers to a sleeping volcanoes take in scientific wonders at national parks

Interest in national parks is booming, with crowd-wary Americans drawn to wide open spaces and natural beauty. But the preserves are also a great place for learning, fantastic laboratories for getting up close to the natural world. Here are some of my favorite sites.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Great Diversity of Life: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Steady rain and a long growing season have created a dense forest in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Variations in elevation, rainfall, temperature, and geology in these ancient mountains provide ideal habitat for over 1,600 species of flowering plants including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species.

Palm Oasis in Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Where Earthquakes Begin at the San Andreas Fault: Joshua Tree National Park, California

The geological formation responsible for many California earthquakes passes by the south side of this desert park and connects with many of the region’s faults. Visitors can see evidence in small fan palm oases which formed when seismic activity dammed groundwater and forced it to the surface. When you see water, it’s the result of massive underground activity.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Climb a Grand Staircase: Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, Arizona and Utah

The Grand Staircase is an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. What makes the Grand Staircase worldly unique is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on our planet.

Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be Transported into a Painting: Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

While many national parks around the country are home to vast forests this preserve comes with a twist—the trees here have all been dead for hundreds of millions of years transformed into colorful slabs of stone. A broad region of rocky badlands encompassing more than 93,500 acres, the Painted Desert is a vast landscape that features rocks in every hue—from deep lavenders and rich grays to reds, oranges, and pinks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

See Ancient Rivers and Mammal Ancestors: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Not only is the geology and scenery dramatic at this park, but so is its fossil history. The area includes the remains of an ancient river system. This is one of the richest fossil assemblies on the face of the planet. You can walk down almost any trail and if you can see little bits of fossils everywhere, lots of fragments and teeth.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go Birding and See Cave Swallows: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Carlsbad is famous for its nightly bat emergence, but the mammals aren’t the only ones who call the grotto home. Cave swallows living just inside the cavern can be seen swooping around during the day, but must get home before the bats crowd the cavern on their way out. You can easily see them in the warmer months. And 750 feet underground, the stalactites hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites rise up from the ground.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike 500 Miles of Trails: Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Stretching more than a hundred miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, Shenandoah National Park offers a patchwork quilt of wilderness and pastoral landscapes. Skyline Drive rides along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through the heart of the park. Along the 105-mile stretch which climbs to 3,680 feet above sea level, you’ll have the opportunity to pull off the road at 75 scenic overlooks and take part in an array of recreational activities—from hiking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come for the Turbulent Landscape: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape decorated by jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears, reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

Worth Pondering…

There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

Visual Marvels: America’s Seven Natural Wonders

The Seven Natural Wonders of America are a list of the most astonishing natural attractions

Ever since the list of the Seven Wonders of the World was first inked by either Antipater of Sidon (second half of the 2nd century BC), Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–220 BC, Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), or Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–240 BC)—depending upon which ancient historian you believe—all manner of “Seven Wonders” lists pop up from time to time including the New Seven Wonders of the World, of the Natural World, of the Modern World, of the Architectural World. Well, this could go on for a while.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it is that original collection of wonders, now referred to as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Great Pyramids of Giza (the only one that still exists), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis (at Ephesus near the modern town of Selçuk in present-day Turkey), the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in present-day Turkey), the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandra—that sparks the imagination, stirs the soul, and stokes the curiosity. These are the finest creations of the ancient world and at the very least inspire wonder in their sheer archaeological greatness.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That much can be said of any wonder, whether natural or manmade, and then add into the mix the almost obsessive need for the world to categorize and break down everything into parts. That’s how these types of lists came to be in the first place. Often for reasons to promote tourism, numerous countries have tallied their own wonders as have almost all the United States.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

One of the world’s great natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is a true marvel of nature. John Wesley Powell said it best, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.” A powerful and inspiring landscape, Grand Canyon overwhelms our senses through its immense size.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A deep gorge carved by the Colorado River about seventeen million years ago, the Grand Canyon stretches for more than 250 miles and is up to 18 miles in width and more than a mile deep in some areas. Just about everywhere you look the views are amazing and the sheer size of it can be overwhelming. One look over the edge and it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, this is America’s most visited national park.

Great Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. The park is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The horseshoe-shaped, russet rock hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park are a true sight to behold. This is one of the world’s highest concentrations of hoodoos and their colors alternate between shades of purple, red, orange, and white.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sunset, Sunrise, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints are the spots to hit for the best views in the shortest amount of time. There are several easy trails located near the rim of Bryce Canyon to hike as well as ranger programs that take you on guided hikes through the park.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee Swamp

The Okefenokee, whose name means “Land of the Trembling Earth” in the Creek language, is now part national wildlife refuge, part privately-owned park (Okefenokee Swamp Park) that is widely known for harboring an incredible cache of biological and ecological wonders. The swamp’s dark, coffee-colored tannic water is the base for a living jumble of pine, cypress, swamp, palmetto, peat bog, marsh, island, and sand ridge.

Okefenokee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A hodgepodge of animal and bird life, among the hundreds of species are black bear, alligators galore, snakes galore, deer, anhinga, osprey, and sandhill crane call the swamp home.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches

Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of, yes, sandstone arches. There are more than 2,000, all of which took millions of years to form via erosion. And the arches are just one of an infinite number of absolutely jaw-dropping formations within the 120-square-mile park—Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, Fiery Furnace, Landscape Rock, The Windows, it goes on.

Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches is one of the most distinctive, alien-looking landscapes in America, and you should take advantage of the hiking trails like Devil’s Garden to really get the full experience.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black Hills

Driving through the Black Hills takes you through some of the most rugged, distinctive, and beautiful land in America. It’s hard to stick to the main road in this rugged land of canyons, cliffs, and caves.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills are home to some of the most majestic scenery you can imagine from the winding Spearfish Canyon to the mountain lakes that surround Mount Rushmore—rivers, mountains, caves, and more make it ideal for hikers and climbers and everybody in between.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns

The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Carlsbad Caverns © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Most of the formations—or speleothems—found inside Carlsbad Cavern today were active and growing during the last ice age when instead of a desert above the cave, there were pine forests.

Worth Pondering…

We carry within us the wonders we seek without us.

—Thomas Browne