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Fascinating Geological Features in U.S. National Parks

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The sheer size of the United States provides for a dizzying array of natural landscapes within its borders — from open prairie to mountain ranges, desert island beaches, and Arctic forests. These landscapes also hold an impressive geological history, with many of them resulting from millions of years of ongoing growth, erosion, and change. Others are more recent in their formation but no less fascinating. Best of all, many of these landscapes are protected and preserved by the U.S. national park system. Take a look at 10 stunning geological features you can see in national parks around the country.

Sailing Stones, Death Valley National Park

A moving rock of Death Valley in California.
Credit: georgejurasek / iStock

Death Valley National Park is a place that thrives amidst extremes — it’s the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. It’s also home to a geological mystery that stumped scientists for years. Some of the large rocks on a dry lakebed nicknamed “Racetrack Playa” appear to move of their own accord, leaving long tracks behind them. No one has witnessed their bizarre movement; however, a series of experiments finally concluded that the movement is caused by temperature changes as the sun rises. The sun’s heat melts a paper-thin layer of ice between the rocks and the ground surface, allowing them to glide freely.

The World’s Longest Known Cave System, Mammoth Cave National Park

Cave Formations lit up at Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Credit: Zack Frank/ Shutterstock

The world’s longest cave system winds its way beneath much of western Kentucky, and, fortunately, a portion of it is open to visitors. To date, more than 412 miles of Mammoth Cave has been mapped, but experts say it may well extend more than 1,000 miles in total. Several new miles of the cave system are discovered each year. The cave structure is particularly stable thanks to a layer of sandstone that caps the limestone beneath. There are numerous impressive cave structures on display, including stalactites, stalagmites, and a type of gypsum formation called “gypsum flowers.” The dry, cool environment of Mammoth Cave also makes it an ideal habitat for several endangered forms of bat and cave shrimp.

The Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park

The Grand Canyon under a dramatic Sunset, in Arizona
Credit: Jad Limcaco/ Unsplash

Those adventurous enough to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon will find themselves walking through millions of years of history. More than 40 distinct layers of rock lead down to the Proterozoic Era (which took place over 1 billion years ago). The igneous and metamorphic rocks at the base lie below strata of sedimentary rocks, each with their own story to tell. For millennia, the Colorado River has carved its way through the rock, and it’s a process that continues even today. Given its incredible geological history, it comes as no surprise that the Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.History4ptsTest Your Knowledge!What is the only place outside Europe that has an Irish language name?PLAY!

Mount Kilauea, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Molten lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean on Big Island of Hawaii at sunrise.
Credit: agaliza / iStock

The Hawaiian archipelago, made up of 137 islands, is a hotbed of volcanic activity. The islands formed as the result of eruptions, due to the constant motion of the Pacific plate beneath the ocean. Mount Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and has been erupting continuously since 1983. Molten lava from the eruption pours down the sides, eventually cooling to add to the landmass of the Big Island. But some lava streams flow directly into the sea, creating impressive vapor clouds when the two meet. Kilauea is also known as the home of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes.

Inverted Hoodoos, Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon Amphitheater at sunrise in Utah.
Credit: FilippoBacci / iStock

If you’re not sure what hoodoos are, all it takes is one visit to Utah’s Bryce Canyon to find out. Some of these thin, alien-like rock columns might be as tall as a human; others rival a 10-story office building. Typically, younger hard rock stands atop older softer layers of rock, protecting it from erosion. However, you’ll also find some inverted hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, in which softer rock remains at the bottom of the columns, but the hard rock on top is older than the rock below it. This is due to tectonic pressure pushing the older rock up and over the newer layers. Eventually, erosion will win, and the hoodoos will collapse — but for now, both forms make for an unforgettable landscape.

Badlands, Badlands National Park

Late afternoon colors on display in the Yellow Mounds region of Badlands National Park.
Credit: Dean Fikar / Shutterstock

Wild and desolate, the Badlands of South Dakota have been featured in many classic Westerns for a reason. Some 70 to 75 million years ago, much of the Great Plains was a huge inland sea. As the waters retreated, layers of rock were deposited by tides and wind. This was then followed by a period of erosion — as rivers wound their way through the region, they created canyons between the rock. The result is the strikingly colorful, rugged landscape we see today. Meanwhile, the erosion continues at an estimated rate of one inch per year. In another million years, the Badlands will likely be no more.

Fossil Discovery Exhibit, Big Bend National Park

Sunset at Big Bend National Park, Texas
Credit: zrfphoto/ iStock

Frequently referred to as both a “geologist’s paradise” and a “geologist’s nightmare,” Big Bend National Park in Texas contains vast evidence of the region’s geological history. Multiple strata, dry lakebeds, faults, and volcanic rock all raise as many questions as they do offer answers about the past. But of all these features, Big Bend is perhaps most notable for its fossils. The fossil record here is one of the most diverse in the U.S. and covers an extensive time range — an estimated 130 million years. At the Fossil Discovery Exhibit, visitors can see pterosaurs, dinosaurs, crocodiles, mammals, and plant species, all preserved for eternity.

Natural Sandstone Arches, Arches National Park

Double Arch in the evening at Arches National Park in Utah.
Credit: Checubus / Shutterstock

Vibrant red-tinged rocks frame a brilliant blue sky in many an Instagram photo taken by visitors to Utah’s Arches National Park, home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches — more than in any other spot on Earth. Arches, bridges, and windows dot the desert, providing geologists with a fascinating view of millennia gone by. Over a period of about 65 million years, the area’s geologic plates shifted, and wind and rain also played a hand in shaping the rock into nature’s own sculpture garden. Arches grow and widen until they eventually collapse, leaving columns in their stead. As with many of these park features, in another million years, the landscape may be completely different than what we see today.

A Supervolcano, Yellowstone National Park

Close-up of a geyser in Yellowstone National Park, United States
Credit: Angry Monkey/ Unsplash

Crowds flock to Yellowstone to see the famous eruptions of Old Faithful, but the entire park is an active geothermal area of hot springs and geysers — not to mention a supervolcano that’s thousands of times more powerful than a regular volcano. Approximately 2 million years ago, a massive volcanic eruption triggered a push of magma to Earth’s surface, through a thin spot in the crust at the present-day location of Yellowstone. Much of the continent was left covered in ash. Hot lava still ripples below the ground throughout the park today, its heat causing the constant bubbling of springs and mud. But worry not: The last time the supervolcano erupted was 664,000 years ago, and some scientists think it may never happen again.

Arctic Sand Dunes, Kobuk Valley National Park

Kobuk River in Kobuk Valley National Park in Alaska with sand dunes in the distance.
Credit: Lloyd Wallin Photography / Shutterstock

Kobuk Valley National Park may be located in Alaska, but surprisingly, it is home to massive sand dunes —  the largest in the Arctic. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes were left over after the last Ice Age. As glaciers formed in the surrounding mountains, the advancing ice ground rock into sand, which the winds blew down into the valley below. The sands formed extensive dunes, and while forest has reclaimed most of the land, an estimated 16,000 acres of dunes remain. Some tower as high as 100 feet, offering an unexpected taste of a sandy beach, albeit 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Portrait of Fiona Young-Brown

Written by Fiona Young-Brown

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