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11 Hidden Natural Wonders in the United States

SmarterTravel

They don’t call it America the Beautiful for nothing. The most beautiful places in America include some little-known yet bucket-list-worthy natural wonders across the U.S. and its territories. These 11 lesser-known spots include lush forests, tropical islands, and towering mountains—and are sure to inspire your travels.

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

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You probably already know about otherwordly American national park landscapes like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone’s geysers, but what about sand mountains akin to the ones on Mars? The giant desert peaks of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve include Star Dune, which stands 750 feet tall. Located in Colorado, Great Sand Dune is a hiking or horseback-riding challenge that’s also home to kid-friendly offerings like sand boarding and Medano Creek’s swimming hole.

Vieques, Puerto Rico

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Tropical American beauty in the Caribbean is on full display in Vieques, a small island in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Accessible via plane from San Juan on the mainland, Vieques is a well-preserved island with few waterfront hotels where you can hike to hidden beaches like Vieques National Wildlife Refuge’s Pata Prieta. The island is also home to friendly wild horses that roam protected areas and sometimes wander into more tourist-frequented spots. Vieques also has one of the world’s few bioluminescent bays, Mosquito Bay.

Bar Harbor, Maine

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Whether you’re more at home in the 47,000-acre Acadia National Park or its cozy coastal town of Bar Harbor, Acadia’s signature New England beauty combines evergreen-capped mountains with sandy beaches and rocky coastlines. Its peaks include the highest on the East Coast, Cadillac Mountain. If you’re more of a beachgoer than a hiker, though, there’s plenty to choose from as well, including Jordan Pond and Sand Beach Park.

Devil’s Bridge Trailhead, Arizona

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Arizona’s Grand Canyon aside, one of the most beautiful places in America is the adrenaline-spiking hike in Sedona that includes the natural wonder of Devil’s Bridge. SmarterTravel’s Ashley Rossi says of the precarious spot and its accompanying hike: “Devil’s Bridge is a scenic, intermediate loop with an optional but daring bridge cross. You can also combine it with the Chuck Wagon Trail for a slightly longer hike.”

Napali Coast, Kauai

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Hawaii is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in America thanks to its unique topography and isolation in the Pacific. But one stretch of island in particular stands out: Kauai’s Napali Coast.

“Unlike some other Hawaiian islands, you can’t circumnavigate Kauai by car. You’ll run out of road in the northwestern corner of the island, where steep, jagged green cliffs plunge precipitously into the sea,” SmarterTravel’s Sarah Schlichter says. “This is the famed Napali Coast (na pali means ‘high cliffs’ in Hawaiian). You can catch a glimpse of the cliffs from viewpoints in Kokee State Park, or take the strenuous, 11-mile Kalalau Trail into the heart of the wilderness park, with incredible views of beaches, waterfalls, and fluted cliffs.”

(Editor’s note: At press time the Kalalau Trail was closed due to flood damage on Kauai’s North Shore. The Napali Coast is viewable, however, via helicopter tours around Kauai.)

Lost River Cave, Kentucky

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You’ve probably heard of Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest underground cave system in the world, but what about Lost River Cave, also in Kentucky? An underground river in Bowling Green, the Lost River Caves are a natural wonder with intriguing history: The cave is where fugitive Jesse James hid out on his run from the law, and are believed to have also functioned as shelter to Native American tribes.

“You’ve got the choice to explore the cave by boat tour, kayak, or—if you’re willing to get down and dirty— a cave crawl, but above ground there’s still plenty to see in the 60-acre park filled with walking trails, campgrounds, and nature-focused activities for the kids,” says SmarterTravel’s Jamie Ditaranto. “No trip to Bowling Green can be considered complete without a trip to this remarkable place, which is not only a natural wonder, but a cornerstone of the community and a monument to its history.”

The Florida Barrier Reef

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The only living coral barrier reef in the Continental United States is Florida’s, which stretches from the Florida Keys to the Marquesa Keys, making it the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world. But it’s a natural wonder in danger: Florida Keys officials recently banned non-biodegradable sunscreens in an effort to save the reef from damage caused by both climate change and toxic chemicals in our oceans.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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Yellowstone-adjacent Jackson Hole, known for its cowboy landscapes and snowy peaks, is one of the most beautiful places in the U.S. The forest-nestled valley is marked by Grand Teton National Park’s mountains, massive elk herds of the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, and rushing whitewater rapids on the Snake River that are perfect for rafting. In winter, Jackson Hole is also a favorite for skiing dramatic peaks like Corbet’s Couloir, one of the world’s most famous (and dangerous) ski runs.

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

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A list of the most beautiful places in America has to include the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area’s Multnomah Falls. Tourists flock to the forest-nestled Benson Footbridge halfway up the misty falls to get close to the rushing water. Heading to the gorge early and in the rain is best, because it means you’ll get the perpetually crowded Multnomah Falls almost entirely to yourself. Pedal Bike Tours Portland offers easy morning and early-afternoon scenic tour options from downtown Portland.

Denali National Park, Alaska

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A favorite among National Parks Service rangers, Denali National Park is home to North America’s tallest peak. Its six million acres of Alaskan wilderness include tundra, forest, and glaciers. The park is as visited for its sprawling vistas as it is for its abundant Alaskan wildlife, from moose and grizzly bears to sheep, caribou, and 165 species of birds.

National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa

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Don’t forget Samoa, a Pacific U.S. territory that’s home to a wealth of natural wonders ranging from volcanic peaks to aqua-blue swimming holes. American Samoa is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in America, and stretches over five islands and two atolls, which are accessible without a passport if you fly direct to the capital of Pago Pago. Surround yourself with natural beauty on rainforest hikes, humpback whale watching cruises, and coral reef snorkeling at the National Marine Sanctuary via Fagatele Bay.

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Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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