Destinations 9 US Natural Wonders to Rival Europe’s and Inspire Your Next Trip

by Nneka M. Okona | June 06, 2023

Majestic mountain views, rushing waterfalls, otherworldly caverns — sure, you can trek to Europe to experience splendors like these, but you can also skip the international-travel expenses and hassle by visiting other incredible sites right here in the U.S.

From alpine peaks in Colorado and awe-inspiring falls in North Carolina to thousands of underground caves you can explore in Tennessee, plenty of stateside destinations are so scenic they’ll take your breath away. Here are nine standouts. 

If you’re interested in: Oslo, Norway
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Fairbanks, AK

Journey just below the Arctic Circle for the ethereal night-sky spectacle that is the aurora borealis. The horseshoe shape is made of electrically charged particles from the sun entering Earth’s magnetic field, and Fairbanks, which lies within the Aurora Oval, is the ideal place to view it. (It’s known as the “Golden Heart of Alaska,” in fact.)  

Schedule your trip between mid August and mid April, when you can count on visibility as often as five nights per week. By contrast, your chances to catch the dazzling stream of lights in Oslo are more hit or miss unless you tack on an additional flight or train trip to a town north of Norway's capital city for a more reliable view.

The Aurora Borealis

If you’re interested in: the Swiss Alps in Switzerland
Visit this U.S. spot instead: the San Juan Mountain Range in Ouray, CO

Rising before the quaint city of Ouray (near Telluride), you’ll find the San Juan Mountain Range, a collection of stunning snow-capped peaks just like those in the Swiss Alps. In the 1850s and ’60s, miners flocked to this region to search for gold and other minerals.

Today, precious metals are no longer the draw (although you can play the prospector part on a tour of a former working gold and silver mine); instead, the natural abundance of alpine lakes and streams, trails and cliffs are what attract hikers, bikers, rock climbers and other visitors. Unwind after an activity-packed day with a leisurely dip in one of Ouray’s natural, sulfur-free hot springs. You may want to visit outside of June, July and August, when the area is the busiest and hottest.

If you’re interested in: Gorges du Verdon in France
Visit this U.S. spot instead: The Grand Canyon North Rim in Arizona

France’s deepest gorge, the Gorges du Verdon, was formed thousands of years ago by the Verdon River that now runs through the middle of its canyons. It’s a striking sight, to be sure, but you can catch equally scenic vistas without leaving the U.S. at another river-forged geological marvel carved over millions of years: The Grand Canyon.

For a new spin on this much-visited attraction, head to the North Rim, a fantastic and less-frequented vantage point. During its short May-to-October season, the area sees only 10% of all Grand Canyon visitors. Take your time and drink in the panoramic views of the North Rim’s more than 8,000 feet of elevation by walking along the Bright Angel Point trail. If campgrounds aren’t your kind of accommodations, consider one of the refined-rustic Grand Canyon National Park Lodges.

If you’re interested in: Lamprechts Cave in Austria
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Appalachian Caverns in Blountville, TN

Fun fact: Tennessee is the most cave-rich state in the country; according to the Nature Conservancy, it’s home to 10,000 documented caves to explore. One standout among those is Appalachian Caverns — a site similar to Austria’s Lamprechts Cave, known as Europe’s largest cave system and one of the world’s biggest multiple-entrance caves. Visitors to Appalachian Caverns can see the varied rock formations (and, at times, bats) on guided tours outfitted with gloves, helmets and helmet lights.

If you’re interested in: Mount Etna in Italy
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Haleakala National Park in Maui, HI

Want to check out an epic volcano? You could venture out of the States to Sicily, but a trip to Hawaii’s Haleakala National Park may be equally exciting. You can hike near inactive volcanic craters or bask in the shifting scenery (which runs from lush tropics to rugged desert) on horseback. Cap your day at the 10,023-foot summit where you can watch a dreamy sunset leaving thousands of stars in its wake.

If you’re interested in: Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island, ME

The lush, green rolling hills and plentiful seafood of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way of County Clare share similarities with the craggy coastal peaks and 158 hiking trails of Acadia National Park, though you can find way more lobster dinners at the Maine locale, of course. You can also navigate the park’s trails on bike or horseback, explore the ocean in a kayak or paddle your way across more than 20 different ponds throughout the park. Plan your visit for the spring or fall months to hit all the highlights minus the photo-snapping crowds.

rocky cliffside

If you’re interested in: Lake Bled in Slovenia
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Duluth, MN

With a picturesque island at its center, charming Lake Bled is one of Slovenia’s most popular vacation destinations, and Boundary Waters in Minnesota could be considered America’s version of this pristine oasis (without the crowds). Soak up the serenity 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, where you can drift off to sleep to the soothing sound of a chorus of grasshoppers.

If you’re interested in: Skradinski Buk in Croatia
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Pisgah National Forest in Asheville, NC

Skradinski Buk is Croatia’s most famous and frequently photographed waterfall system with its 17 gushing steps and vast swimming pool. Not nearly as congested with visitors are the many waterfalls within North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. You’ll find 500,000 acres of hardwood forests and waterfalls (Moore Cave Falls, Twin Falls, Looking Glass Falls and others), and more than 1,600 miles of hiking trails.

If you’re interested in: the Desierto de Tabernas in Spain
Visit this U.S. spot instead: Moab, UT

Besides the badlands of southeastern Spain, deserts are hard to come by in Europe, but the U.S. offers easy access via the eastern Utah expanse of the Moab. There, you can explore the more than 2,000 sandstone arches of Arches National Park, which glow in various shades of red at sunset, and spend the rest of your time fishing, bird-watching or hot air-ballooning. Don’t miss the iconic Mesa Arch at nearby Canyonlands, the state’s largest national park. It’s set amid a forested area framed by brooks that ebb and flow near La Sal Mountains.


— With additional reporting from Life and Money by Citi editors.

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.