8 Incredible U.S. Geological Formations Without the Crowds
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Over millions of years, factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, and cooling molten rock created incredible rock formations and geological wonders across the U.S. While the spectacular geological formations in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Wyoming’s Devils Tower, or Utah’s slot canyons are some of the most well-known, they also can be a little overrun with visitors. We found eight remarkable, underrated geological formations in the Lower 48 that are worth checking out.
Wheeler Geological Area, Colorado
Colorado is home to many stunning natural wonders, such as Great Sand Dunes National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, but far fewer visitors make it to the Wheeler Geological Area located near Creede, an old mining town in southwestern Colorado. Millions of years ago, volcanic ash from massive eruptions settled over the area, and over time, erosion created magnificent structures resembling castles, minarets, fortresses, towers, and columns.
To see it, you’ll need to hike or mountain bike about seven miles (one way) or traverse a bumpy 14-mile 4×4 track in a rugged, high-clearance vehicle. However, your efforts will be suitably rewarded with incredible sights. You can make the trip in one vigorous day, but a better option is to camp nearby overnight. Watching the sunset and sunrise’s kaleidoscope of colors and unparalleled stargazing only add to the appeal of this beautiful, remote place.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get all the attention — and about 4.4 million annual visitors. Lassen Volcanic National Park, approximately 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, offers similarly spectacular sights and only about a half-million yearly visitors. Volcanic activity still abounds here — around 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. It was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades until Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. Lassen Peak is only one of about 30 volcanoes in the park.
When you arrive at the park, you’ll probably smell before you see the first hydrothermal feature you’ll pass — the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs, but are fascinating to watch. Be sure to see the park’s largest hydrothermal area via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk. You’ll pass over thumping mud pots, bubbling turquoise pools, and roaring steam vents — including the park’s largest, Big Boiler.
Once you’ve had your fill of hydrothermal activity, check out the park’s many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.
Providence Canyon, Georgia
While the mountainous West contains the lion’s share of remarkable geologic formations, the East Coast offers more than a few of its own. Providence Canyon State Park, also known as “Little Grand Canyon,” offers towering sandstone pinnacles, colorful 150-foot-deep ravines, and meandering streams.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, which formed without human influence, Providence Canyon’s massive gullies are the result of careless agricultural practices almost 200 years ago. In the 1800s, cotton farmers plowed the hillsides, which removed the top layer of soil and the supporting roots of trees and plants. Underneath the topsoil lies loose sand, so over the next several decades, water flowing down the hillsides eroded the plowed rows and carried away the sand. Ditches, then deep gullies formed as more sand washed away. The erosion continues today, and the canyon deepens by about three to five feet per year from rainfall.
When you visit, one of the first things you’ll notice is Providence Canyon’s vibrant colors. Due to the multiple types of exposed sand, soil, and clay, you’ll see white, yellow, pink, red, purple, and orange hues. The rare plum leaf azalea also grows here, blooming in July and August, much later than other azalea varieties. Additionally, the 1,003-acre park offers miles of scenic hiking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and a museum, all about 150 miles south of Atlanta.
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Blanchard Springs Caverns, Arkansas
When we think of spectacular caverns, Virginia’s Luray Caverns and Arizona’s Antelope Canyon probably come to mind first. However, Arkansas’ Blanchard Springs Caverns is one of the most fascinating cave systems found anywhere. Located about 110 miles north of Little Rock, this three-level network of limestone caves is considered a “living cave,” which means its formations continue to grow and change as water continually drips mineral deposits.
Glistening 60-foot stalagmites and colorful stalactites greet visitors, as U.S. Forest Service interpreters lead guided tours through two levels of the cave system’s network. (Exploring on your own is prohibited.) The half-mile Dripstone Trail is wheelchair- and stroller-friendly and travels through two huge rooms, past sparkling flowstone, delicate soda straws, and towering columns.
The longer Discovery Trail explores the breathtaking middle level, passing through water-carved passageways along the cave stream. Handrails help guide you along this slightly strenuous 1.2-mile trail that traverses almost 700 steps. A third tour option is the Wild Cave Tour, which takes small groups to underdeveloped sections of the cave — be prepared to get muddy, because you’ll have to crawl through some narrow areas.
Black Canyon Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Often overshadowed by Colorado’s better-known national parks — Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes — Black Canyon Gunnison National Park received its name because a lack of sunlight creates sections so dark, they look black. One 2,722-foot-deep and 40-foot-wide part of the gorge sees only about 30 minutes of sun per day, creating a spooky vibe. Another intriguing feature: The Gunnison River that runs through the canyon drops at a rapid 43 feet per mile on average and, at one point, descends 240 feet per mile. In comparison, the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River drops at about 7.5 feet per mile.
The canyon splits Black Canyon Gunnison National Park into two halves, so access is from either the North Rim or the South Rim. The North Rim has limited services compared to the South; however, the South Rim never sees larger crowds. If you hike the Cedar Point Natural Trail on the South Rim, you’ll see the magnificent 2,250-foot Painted Wall, Colorado’s tallest cliff (and the Lower 48’s third tallest). No roads within the park connect both sides, so it’s best to decide which side you want to see before you arrive. Both entrances are about 75 miles from Grand Junction in southwest Colorado.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Canyonlands. If you want to avoid the crowds you typically encounter at the “Mighty Five” but still see impressive geological formations, head to Natural Bridges National Monument. Known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water (instead of the erosion of arches), it’s also a fantastic place to gaze at the night sky — the monument became the first certified International Dark Sky Park in 2007.
Located in Utah’s southeast corner, Natural Bridges National Monument receives only about 88,000 annual visitors. (In comparison, nearby Canyonlands and Zion see about 734,000 and 4.5 million, respectively.) Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge, while the smallest, is the most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Illinois
You might be surprised to learn that the Midwest also has its share of dramatic rock formations and cliffs. Closer to Nashville and Louisville than Chicago is Illinois’ Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest. Unlike many rock faces that show relatively straight layers of sediment, the rocks here display reddish-brown Liesegang bands, which are swirled and ring-shaped. Groundwater mixed with iron and saturated the sandstone while it was still underground, creating more durable bands within the rock that resist weathering.
If you’re short on time or stamina, you can stroll along the quarter-mile-long Observation Trail that leads to bluffs overlooking Shawnee Hills and the surrounding Garden of the Gods Wilderness. Watch for rock formations along the way, such as Camel Rock, Anvil Rock, and Mushroom Rock. If you’re up for a more adventurous hike, the area contains almost 17 miles of interconnected hiking and equestrian trails.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Unlike the tan-shaded dunes in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, the dunes in White Sands National Park are, unsurprisingly, white. However, calling them white is doing them an injustice, as these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun, creating a breathtaking, sparkling wonder.
Shaped like giant waves, the dunes in the park are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. What makes this special is that gypsum usually dissolves upon contact with water, so it doesn’t stick around long enough to form huge mounds. Here, however, the arid climate and lack of rainfall of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert prevent the gypsum from dissolving. The area was once part of the Permian Sea, where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.
Tucked away in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers plenty to do. If you just want to see the dunes without getting dusty, you can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. But the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking — and don’t miss out on the thrill of sledding down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).