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Weird and Wonderful

Five natural wonders in the United States you’ve got to see to believe.


Sure, you’ve heard of the Grand Canyon, seen pictures of Niagara Falls, maybe even visited Yellowstone National Park. Instead of fighting the lines at over-traveled tourist destinations, why not take a drive on the wild side and discover some lesser-known, but equally deserving, natural wonders? 

Thor’s Well, Oregon 

The state of Oregon has so many scenic sites that its tourism board has launched a travel campaign, Travel Oregon, that encourages travelers to visit its “seven natural wonders.” The eighth “wonder” may be announced soon, with the buzz rising around a saltwater fountain called Thor’s Well. 

Located along the Cape Perpetua coastline that extends into the Pacific Ocean, photographers and thrill-seekers alike have been flocking to this magnificent, yet dangerous, natural oceanic crater that releases jets of water, which are pumped high into the air by the powerful waves. The Huffington Post recently ran an article titled “Thor’s Well In Oregon Is Straight Out Of A Comic Book,” because the force with which the saltwater is pulled in, churned around, and ejected does seem like the stuff of superhero movies.

This spectacle has become a photographer’s dream, but don’t worry, you don’t have to wade out to it. You can see Thor’s Well from the safety of the coast. The nearby Cape Perpetua Visitor Center provides information on other activities like camping, picnicking, hiking, sightseeing and even whale watching. But for people who come just to see Thor’s Well, the best time to see it in full splendor is approximately an hour before high tide to an hour after high tide.

Getting there: Cape Perpetua is located about three hours south of Portland and 128 kilometers from Eugene on Highway 101, a must-drive route to experience the beauty of the rugged Oregon Coast.

Where to stay: Though there isn’t any lodging inside the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, the nearby coastal town of Yachats offers ample hotel options—everything from romantic seaside resorts like The Overleaf Lodge and Spa to quaint inns like The Ocean Cove Inn.

 

Eternal Flame Falls, New York 

Who says that fire and water don’t mix? A waterfall in New York has turned that adage upside down.

Eternal Flame Falls is a small waterfall located in Chestnut Ridge Park in western New York state. Sure, a 30-feet waterfall isn’t that wonder-inducing—especially when Niagara Falls is only about 56 kilometers away—until you look a little closer and see the constantly burning flame that sits on a rocky ledge right behind the falls. Legend goes that Native Americans lit it hundreds of years ago, but scientists are still unsure about the reason behind the flame. 

Several other natural burning flames around the world are surrounded by boiling hot water and extremely high-temperature rocks called shale. While the Eternal Flame Falls’ structure is also made of shale, here’s the strange part:  both the rocks and the water aren’t very hot at all. In fact, scientists have called the water temperature near the ever-burning flame similar to the warmth in “a cup of tea.” Eternal Flame Falls is “a new type of geologic process that hasn’t been recorded before in nature,” says Arndt Schimmelmann, a researcher at Indiana University.

Getting there: Chestnut Ridge Park is about 32 kilometers south of the city of Buffalo. But since it’s only a 45-minute drive from Niagara Falls, one can drop by Eternal Flame Falls during the same visit. The Eternal Flame hiking trail leading to the falls takes you through a forest of beautiful foliage. 

Where to stay: There are several no-frills lodging options in the nearby town of Hamburg like the Holiday Inn Express Suites, Motel 6 and Days Inn. But your best bet is to stay in Buffalo at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue and take a day trip to the Eternal Flame Falls for some picnicking and hiking.

 

Fly Geyser, Nevada 

Sure, Mother Nature has created some rather epic natural wonders, but people are getting the hang of it as well, if only by accident. Take, for example, Fly Geyser in Washoe County, Nevada—about two hours from Reno. This man-made geyser was created in 1964 when people well-drilling for geothermal energy didn’t plug the hole they created quite right. It resulted in a still-growing mound of rock that may be only 12-feet-tall, but packs quite a watery punch. 

When it erupts, the geothermic geyser sends mineral-filled water not just five feet into the air, but more impressively over a soaking 70 acres, filling 40 pools with its output, coloring every rock within reach in vibrant shades of deep orange and green. The reason this geyser has such bright-colored surroundings is due to the thermophilic algae which flourish in hot, moist environments and escape with each blast of the geyser’s steamy water.

Getting there: This one’s a little tricky, since Fly Geyser is located on private property—a ranch named Fly Ranch. Luckily, you can see the geyser, its arc of water and the many pools it fills from State Route 34—a photo op for your mid-desert pit stop.

Where to stay: Fly Geyser is located on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, a 2590-square-kilometer geothermic collection of lava beds which was a major thoroughfare for fortune-seekers on their way to San Francisco during the gold rush of the 1840’s, and today is home to the alternative art and music festival called Burning Man. There aren’t many hotels around, but plentiful campsites for adventurous nature-lovers. If you’re not up for sleeping among the lava beds, visit Fly Geyser on your way to Reno.

 

Racetrack Playa, California 

Usually the words “dry lake bed” don’t elicit squeals of excitement, but in the case of Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed in Death Valley, California, there’s more going on than meets the eye. Racetrack Playa showcases a very unusual phenomena:  sailing stones. Rock slabs of dolomite and syenite, ranging from a few hundred grams to hundreds of kilograms in weight, inscribe visible tracks as they slide across the surface of the dry lake bed, without human or animal intervention. 

How do these stones leave behind trails in the form of long, smooth streaks in the otherwise cracked desert earth? It can’t be rain, because this huge, dry expanse of land receives, on an average, just three inches of rain annually. The sailing stones are reported to move only once every two or three years, and their tracks usually last up to four years. 

There were a few theories on how these rocks actually move, and until 2014, no human had ever seen them in action. The first theory is that gusting winds of up to 144 kilometers per hour are able to slide them around the smooth lake bed if there has been enough rain to create a slick, clay-covered surface. Another related theory is thin sheets of water freeze on the ground’s surface during winter and create ice floes that slide the sailing rocks around, courtesy of the wind. The mystery was put to rest when a study published in August 2014 described how researchers used time-lapse photography and the global positioning system to discover that rocks move when ice sheets, just a few millimeters thick, start to melt during periods of light wind. But just because we know how they move doesn’t make the sailing rocks any less mesmerizing.

Getting there: Death Valley National Park is on the border of California and Nevada, a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. The park is full of hiking and camping options, as well as historical sites like the nearby Scotty’s Castle, a two-story Mission Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival-style villa where park rangers dress in 1930’s style clothes to take the more than 100,000 annual visitors back in time.

Where to stay: A popular hotel in Death Valley is the Furnace Creek Resort, or you can stay in an authentic old Western town hotel in Stovepipe Wells. Or if you’re brave enough to endure the heat, there’s always camping, though it isn’t called “The hottest place on Earth” for nothing.

 

Mount Grinnell, Montana  

Glacier National Park in Montana is a regal, million-plus acre area of mountains, rivers, valleys and, of course, glaciers. And the most magnificent of them is the Mount Grinnell peak, the highest point in the state that has fascinated both tourists and photographers for years. This 8,855-feet peak was formed thousands of years ago and named after George Bird Grinnell, an American anthropologist, historian, naturalist and writer.

Mount Grinnell is said to have a “false peak,” which means it has an often-photographed peak that appears to be the pinnacle of the mountain, but upon reaching, it turns out the summit is higher. The mountain and the surrounding ones began forming 170 million years ago when ancient rocks were forced up over much younger rock strata.

Today Mount Grinnell towers above Swiftcurrent Lake and is known for sometimes changing color depending on the direction of the sunlight. In 2012, photographer Harry Lichtman happened to shoot a picture of the peak during sunrise in which the mountain appeared a brilliant orange color. Mount Grinnell’s grey rocks, when lit up by sunlight, appear bright orange at times. But no matter the color of the mountain, its beauty definitely commands attention.

Getting there: Located in the northwest corner of Montana, along the spine of the Rockies, it is best to fly to Glacier Park International Airport near Kalispell, about 64 kilometers west of the park entrance in West Glacier, Montana.

Where to stay: Glacier National Park has a number of lodging options, including quite a few within the park itself, like Glacier Park Lodge and the historic Prince of Wales Hotel.

 

Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.