Destinations No Passport Required: US Natural Wonders to Rival Europe’s

by Nneka M. Okona | August 30, 2018

Majestic mountain views, rushing waterfalls, otherworldly caverns — sure, you can trek to Europe to experience such gifts from Mother Nature...

But don’t let the draw of far-flung destinations blind you to the splendors lingering right in your own backyard.

Those alpine peaks? They're in Colorado. Awe-inspiring falls? In North Carolina. Thousands of underground caves? You'll discover then meandering under Tennessee. So before you pack your passport, consider the many stateside destinations ready to take your breath away — starting with those below. Take that, jet lag.

The Aurora Borealis

Northern Lights in Fairbanks, AK, instead of Oslo, Norway

Journey just below the Arctic Circle for the ethereal night-sky wonder that is the aurora borealis. Fairbanks — dubbed the “Golden Heart of Alaska” — lies within the Aurora Oval, making the city a perfectly positioned (and accessible) perch from which to take in the Northern Lights. Go see this natural marvel from mid-August to mid-April, when you can count on visibility as often as five nights per week. By contrast, in Oslo your chances are more hit or miss for catching the dazzling stream of lights (unless you opt to tack on an additional flight or train trip to a town north of Norway's capital city for a more reliable view).

Autumn sunset over the San Juan Mountain Range

San Juan Mountain Range in Ouray, CO, instead of the Swiss Alps in Switzerland

Rising before the quaint city of Ouray (often overshadowed by nearby Telluride), you’ll find the San Juan Mountain Range — a collection of snow-capped peaks as stunning as what you find in the Swiss Alps. In the 1850s and ’60s, miners flocked to this region following the promise of gold and other minerals. Today, the draw is no longer precious metals (although you can play the prospector part on a tour of a former working gold and silver mine), but rather the natural abundance of alpine lakes and streams, hiking and biking trails, and cliffs that beckon rock climbers. Unwind after an adventure-packed day with a relaxing dip in one of Ouray’s natural, sulfur-free hot springs. Opt to visit outside of June, July and August when the area is the busiest and hottest.

The Grand canyon

The Grand Canyon North Rim in Arizona instead of Gorges du Verdon in France

France’s deepest gorge and one of its most show-stopping natural sights, the Gorges du Verdon was formed thousands of years ago by the Verdon River that now runs through the middle of its canyons. Not to be outdone, the U.S. boasts its own river-forged geological marvel carved over millions of years: The Grand Canyon. For a new spin on a much-visited attraction, head to the North Rim, a fantastic and less-visited vantage point. During its short May-to-October season, the area sees only 10% of all Grand Canyon visitors. For those who really want to take their time and drink in views of the North Rim’s more than 8,000 feet of elevation, walk along the Bright Angel Point trail for a panoramic vista. For longer stays, campgrounds and the Grand Canyon Lodge are available for overnight guests.

Appalachian Caverns in Blountville

Appalachian Caverns in Blountville, TN, instead of Lamprechts Cave in Austria

According to the Nature Conservancy, with 10,000 documented caves to explore, Tennessee is the most cave-rich state in the country. A standout among those underground wonders is Appalachian Caverns — a site similar to the popular Lamprechts Cave in Austria, which is Europe’s largest cave system and one of the world’s biggest multiple-entrance caves. Visitors to Appalachian Caverns can explore this underground attraction on guided tours outfitted with gloves, helmets and helmet lights. Watch out for bats and pay close attention to the varied rock formations. To make a longer trip of your caving expedition, a nearby campground can accommodate campers.

sunrise over Heleakala park

Haleakala National Park Maui, HI, instead of Mount Etna in Italy

Want to behold an epic volcano? No need to trek to Sicily or amble through mud; instead visit Haleakala National Park in Maui, where you can hike near inactive volcanic craters, or choose to bask in the shifting scenery – which runs from lush tropics to rugged desert — while touring the area on horseback. Cap your day by watching the sunset from the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala (meaning “house of the sun”), which leaves behind thousands of stars in its wake.

Canoe in a lake in Minnesota

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Duluth, MN, instead of Lake Bled in Slovenia

Slovenia’s wondrous Lake Bled — complete with a charmingly picturesque island at its center — draws in throngs of visitors on holiday, making the body of water one of Slovenia’s most popular vacation destinations. Boundary Waters in Minnesota is America’s version of this pristine, enthralling oasis — yet without the crowds. Nature-lovers can soak up the serenity while navigating along more than 1,200 miles of canoe routes and various hiking trails. At the end of the day, set up camp at one of the 2,000 designated campsites to watch the sunset and drift off to sleep with a chorus of grasshoppers lulling you off to dreamland.

Sunset over mountain range

Pisgah National Forest in Asheville, NC, instead of Skradinski Buk in Croatia

Skradinski Buk is Croatia’s most famous, photographed and visited waterfall system, consisting of 17 gushing steps and a vast swimming pool. Not nearly as congested with visitors: the many waterfalls located within North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. The site offers 500,000 acres of hardwood forests and waterfalls, and more than 1,600 miles of trail for hikers. From Moore Cave Falls to Twin Falls to Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah is a veritable paradise of bracing cascades and idyllic swimming holes.

rock formation in the desert

Moab, UT, instead of the Desierto de Tabernas in Spain 

Besides the badlands of southeastern Spain — an area filled with massive grass-covered steppes and hedgehogs wandering to and fro — deserts are hard to come by in Europe. In the U.S., look no further than the eastern Utah expanse of the Moab for a diverse desert getaway. Explore over 2,000 sandstone arches of Arches National Park which glow in various shades of red at sunset. Nearby Canyonlands, the state’s largest national park, is a forested area framed by brooks that ebb and flow near La Sal Mountains. The park’s iconic mesa arch is a must-see. Visitors to Moab can also fish, bird watch or take a hot air balloon ride.

rocky cliffside

Acadia National Park, Mount Desert Island, ME, instead of Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland

The lush, green rolling hills and plentiful seafood of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way of County Clare share a kinship with the craggy coastal peaks and 158 hiking trails of Acadia National Park. Bonus: way more lobster dinners to be had in Maine. Navigate the park’s trails on bike or horseback, explore the ocean in a kayak or paddle your way across over 20 ponds throughout the park. Plan your visit for the spring or fall months to take advantage of all the park has to offer with fewer photo-snapping crowds.

Nneka M. Okona

is a food and travel writer based in Atlanta who prefers to get her nature fix in the mountains over the beach any day. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine and The Washington Post.