United States national parks and natural attractions: 25 lesser-known highlights (and 10 classics)

It almost seems unfair. No one country should have such an abundance of riches. No single part of the world should be blessed with such a diversity of natural attractions, from the highest mountains to the lowest valleys, the deepest gorges to the most spectacular waterfalls, the widest rivers to the clearest lakes.

And yet, the United States has all of these things. This is a huge country with an almost limitless supply of natural "wow" moments, vista after vista that will take the breath away. Its landscapes and ecosystems run the gamut from flat, barren deserts to glacier-riven alpine ranges; from lush, dense forests to rocky tabletops and gorges.

The United States has been truly blessed, whether by God or by Mother Nature or by something else entirely. This place is made for outdoors enthusiasts, for those who love nature in all its shapes and forms.

Many of the US's natural wonders are world famous, the likes of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Yellowstone National Park. Yet still there are plenty that fly under the radar, plenty that are little-known outside their country or even their state of origin. This might be America's greatest attraction of all: the fact that you can return again and again and discover something new, that you can explore its outdoor wonders for a lifetime and never grow bored.

BLACK HILLS, SOUTH DAKOTA

The seemingly endless prairies of the US's central north come to a dramatic halt at Black Hills, a ruggedly beautiful range of high peaks and winding canyons, pine-covered hills and pristine lakes. Though you will encounter crowds at famous sites such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, this is also an area in which to get away from it all, and to enjoy nature whether it be hiking, biking, boating, skiing or even rock-climbing. See travelsouthdakota.com

HAWAII VOLCANOES NP, HAWAII

The US is home to one of the most active volcanoes on Earth: Kilauea, which forms part of the spectacular Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, on the archipelago's Big Island. As well as the visage of smoky Kilauea, visitors come here to see Halemaumau Crater, a sacred site to native Hawaiians and a place of constant seismic activity, and to drive Chain of Craters Road, a famous track that ends where it has been cut off by lava flow. See gohawaii.com

BRYCE CANYON, UTAH

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Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon, and it truly is spectacular. However, there's another formation that might be even more impressive: Bryce Canyon. This area in rocky Utah is actually a series of natural amphitheatres punctuated by ghostly rock towers called hoodoos, which give Bryce an otherworldly appearance. At dawn and dusk, the hoodoos glow red, orange and white – essentially, a photographer's paradise. See visitutah.com

FLORIDA EVERGLADES, FLORIDA

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Tear yourself away from the modern delights of Miami and Orlando for a few days during a trip to Florida and make your way to the Everglades, a vast region of tropical wetlands in the state's far south. There's more than 1.5 million acres to explore here, forests and rivers and flood plains filled with alligators and manatees, bobcats and foxes, and 347 species of birds. Explore by kayak, airboat, or even on foot via a series of boardwalks. See visitflorida.com

HUBBARD GLACIER, ALASKA

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska, USA - Sept. 11, 2016: This tidewater glacier is located in eastern Alaska and is part of Yukon Canada, off the coast of Yakutat—200 miles NW of Juneau Alaska. it is more than six miles wide where it meets the ocean. satmar7cover
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Picture a great wall of ice, something like the famous barrier in Game of Thrones: almost 10 kilometres wide and up to 130 metres high. This sheet of ice is moving too, groaning and shifting, great shards breaking off and crashing into the ocean below, forming icebergs up to 10 storeys tall. This is Hubbard Glacier, a tidewater glacier to the north-west of Juneau in Alaska, and it's a truly amazing sight, best accessed by cruise. See travelalaska.com

MOUNT RAINIER, WASHINGTON

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Most visitors to the US haven't even heard of the country's fifth highest mountain, Mount Rainier, despite its stunning appearance, rising as a great dome of rock and ice above the meadows and forests of the Pacific Northwest. Rainier is an active volcano, one that's easily accessible from Seattle. The national park area is riven with hiking trails, plus there's a loop road around the mountain for drivers, and keen climbers can tackle the challenging peak. See experiencewa.com

MENDENHALL ICE CAVES, ALASKA

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There are few sights as magical as the Mendenhall Ice Caves, these sometimes-huge caverns and tunnels formed underneath a glacier by flowing water. Here the bubbly, textured nature of the ice walls and ceiling is accentuated by its blue colour, a signature of glacial ice. Given the shifting nature of any glacier, the caves at Mendenhall are constantly changing, opening, closing and moving, but a visit to any will be memorable. See travelalaska.com

GARDEN OF THE GODS, COLORADO

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Colorado is well-known for its natural delights, from ski resorts such as Aspen and Vail to the hiking and camping country around outdoorsy Boulder. One of its most interesting sites, however, lies just south of Denver: the Garden of the Gods, an area of fascinating rock formations, so spectacular that it inspired one of its original surveyors, Rufus Cable, to exclaim that it was "a fit place for the Gods to assemble". These days it's more a place for hikers and mountain-bikers to assemble, and it's easy to see why. See colorado.com

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE

Don't let the name fool you: this is no desert. Mount Desert Island is a rocky outcrop off the coast of Maine, a place of rugged cliffs battered by the Atlantic Ocean, of charming New England villages huddled around beaches and bays, of 18 mountain peaks that are the highest seaside Atlantic summits north of Rio de Janeiro. The island is filled with charming B&Bs and boutique hotels, restaurants serving lobster dinners, and local people who greet each other by name. It's easy to love. See visitmaine.com

CRATER LAKE, OREGON

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Rarely are lakes as perfect as this. Set in Oregon's only national park, Crater Lake is as the name suggests: a body of water filling a vast volcanic crater, the result of the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama. In its place is a pristine lake of deep, mesmerising blue, the deepest lake in the United States, the ninth deepest in the world, a flawless expanse that on calm days perfectly reflects the hills and cliffs of the caldera around it. Visitors come here to hike, to swim, to camp and to gaze. See traveloregon.com

MONUMENT VALLEY, UTAH

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You know Monument Valley, even if you don't think you do. From a thousand movies. From a hundred TV shows. Set foot in this desolate area of Utah and you immediately recognise the towering sandstone buttes, these red-rock fortresses that rise sharply from the desert floor. This is Indiana Jones; it's Forrest Gump; it's Mission Impossible; it's Westworld. It's an epic place that the camera loves, and you will too. See visitutah.com

MAMMOTH CAVE, KENTUCKY

Just how long is the aptly named Mammoth cave system? At least three times longer than any other known cave in the world. This underground network stretches almost 650 kilometres, a phenomenal area marked by cavernous spaces and narrow holes, dripping-wax rock formations and impossibly deep voids. A guided exploration of Mammoth is a must and can last anything from an hour to an entire strenuous day. The claustrophobic, meanwhile, can enjoy hiking above ground in the national park. See kentuckytourism.com

ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

When it comes to national parks, Utah is the big state that could – only Alaska and California have more of these reserves. One of the best of Utah's riches is Zion National Park, named in honour of spectacular Zion Canyon, with its high cliffs and rushing river. It's also the home of Angels Landing, an infamously steep hiking trail, and The Narrows, a 25-kilometre backcountry trail that takes in some seriously beautiful terrain. See visitutah.com

CARLSBAD CAVERNS, NEW MEXICO

Here lies more proof that some of the US's most amazing natural attractions lie below ground. Carlsbad Caverns is a deep subterranean complex that's reached by taking an elevator that drops, from ground level, the height of the Empire State Building. That lift deposits visitors in a vast underground cavern, the chillingly beautiful Big Room, an area the size of 11 football fields, home to the world's largest stalagmite, and the freakish Bottomless Pit. See newmexico.org

THE MISSISSIPPI, VARIOUS STATES

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The enormous length of the Mississippi is difficult to comprehend: this famous waterway stretches 3730 kilometres, draining 32 states and two Canadian provinces. It winds languorously in some places, rushes excitedly in others. It's at its most memorable where it snakes through buzzing New Orleans, where it passes mansions in Oak Valley, Louisiana, where it calls past Civil War sites in Mississippi, and skirts Graceland in Tennessee. See visitusa.com

NEW RIVER GORGE NATIONAL RIVER, WEST VIRGINIA

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This is a bit of a mouthful and also a complete misnomer: New River is actually one of the five oldest rivers in the world. This beautiful waterway crosses the Appalachians, via a steep gorge lined with a diverse range of flora and fauna. The main attraction is perfect for keen whitewater-rafters and kayakers who can tackle world-class rapids; for those who prefer dry land, there's plenty of great hiking. See wvtourism.com

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, MONTANA

Glacier is astonishing, there's no other way to put it. This place should be as famous as Yellowstone, as popular as Yosemite. And yet outside of the US it has nowhere near the recognition factor. What people are missing is a pristine nature reserve in the heart of Big Sky Country, a rugged landscape of peaks and valleys, forests and lakes, where grizzly bears roam and eagles soar. And there's almost 1200 kilometres of hiking trails in which to enjoy it. See visitmt.com

HELLS CANYON, IDAHO

What's the deepest gorge in the US? The Grand Canyon? In fact, it's Hells Canyon, a 2436 metre-deep gash in the Idaho and Oregon landscape, an area carved by Snake River, which flows through its entirety. Admittedly, Hells Canyon doesn't have the majesty of the Grand Canyon, but it does have only a fraction of the visitors, and plenty of spectacular scenery, particularly around Hells Canyon Dam. See visitidaho.org

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, UTAH

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If you think you'll be impressed with the sight of a natural arch of solid rock, we've got the place for you. Arches National Park, in north-eastern Utah, is home to more than 2000 rock arches that vary in size and grandeur, though each is something special. Highlights include Delicate Arch, a 16 metre-high arch in a stunning location; Landscape Arch, with a span of 88 metres; and Fiery Furnace, with its maze-like passages. See visitutah.com

DENALI, ALASKA

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Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is a savage and spectacular Alaskan peak that reaches more than 6000 metres into the sky. It's not just its altitude that's impressive, but the fact it rises from a base of just 600 metres, giving a true feeling of just how colossal this mountain is. Most visitors admire Denali from afar, keeping the peak in their sights while they roam the national park in search of moose, caribou and bears. See travelalaska.com

McWAY FALLS, CALIFORNIA

California's Big Sur has no shortage of impressive natural landmarks, from soaring granite cliffs to deep canyons to deserted beaches. For true postcard perfection, head straight for McWay Falls, a 25 metre-high cascade that appears from out of the forest and drops via a steep cliff directly onto one of Big Sur's pristine stretches of sand. It's an adventure just to get here, hiking via a rugged 2 kilometre loop. See visitcalifornia.com

CITY OF ROCKS NATIONAL RESERVE, IDAHO

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The US has its fair share of memorable rock formations, plenty of which are mentioned in this article. And here's one more to add to the list: the City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho, an area of magnificent rock spires that draws climbers from around the world. For those who prefer to stay grounded, there's Old West history to explore here, plus myriad opportunities for hiking, biking and horse-riding. See visitidaho.org

HAMILTON POOL PRESERVE, TEXAS

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Here's the scene: a natural swimming pool bathed in sunlight, bordered on one side by dense forest, ringed on the other by a deep grotto, with a waterfall crashing into the lake just to finish the picture. That's Hamilton Pool Preserve, a favourite destination for Austin residents looking for a pretty place to cool off and/or fill their Instagram feed in the warmer months. It's worth joining the crowd to see a place as special as this. See traveltexas.com

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS, TENNESSEE/NORTH CAROLINA

Surprise: this is the USA's most popular national park. More popular than Yosemite. More visitors than the Rocky Mountains. In fact, more than those two combined. Americans flock here to take in the mist-shrouded mountain peaks (smoky, to some), the extensive forests, the charming Appalachian communities. Each season brings something new, from the riot of colour in autumn to the blankets of snow in winter, the wildflowers of spring to the shimmering days of summer. Gorgeous. See nps.gov

MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, COLORADO

The delights of Mesa Verde are part natural and part man-made. This area's God-given attractions include the eponymous flat-topped mountains surrounding grassy valleys. Mesa Verde's status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, however, comes courtesy of the extensive cliff dwellings left here in the 1300s by the departing Ancestral Puebloan people, whole villages that can still be explored today. See colorado.com

FIVE NATURAL WONDERS YOU'VE DEFINITELY HEARD OF

GRAND CANYON, ARIZONA

Grand by name, grand by nature: one of the world's most famous sights lives up to expectations, a rugged canyon running 446 kilometres through the otherwise barren Arizona landscape, creating stunning vista after stunning vista. People hike here, they raft, they ride, they fly. It's all amazing. See nps.gov

NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK

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Name the world's most famous cascades and you probably come up with Victoria Falls, Iguacu, and of course Niagara. This isn't the tallest in the world and it isn't the most voluminous but still, it's a sight to behold, as an average of 2400 cubic metres of water per second is tipped into the lower Niagara River. See niagarafallsstatepark.com

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

A list of Yosemite's highlights reads like a who's who of the USA's natural attractions: the soaring El Capitan cliff; the raging Bridalveil Fall; the majesty of Half Dome; the soaring sequoias of Mariposa Grove. The park's easy access from San Francisco makes it all the more desirable. nps.gov

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYOMING

This large and majestic park stretches across three states, reaching into parts of Idaho and Montana. Yellowstone is big and it's beautiful, the world's first ever national park, and still one of its finest. Come here to see Old Faithful, the famous geyser, the Morning Glory Pool, with its rich colours, and much more. See yellowstonenationalpark.com

ROCKY MOUNTAINS, COLORADO

Though the Rockies reach more than 3000 kilometres from New Mexico all the way up into Canada, they're at their most spectacular, in the US at least, in Colorado, where names such as Aspen and Vail roll so easily off the tongue. This might be a popular destination but the scenery is spectacular and the welcome always warm. See colorado.com

FIVE NATURAL URBAN WONDERS

PUGET SOUND, SEATTLE

Seattle is the ideal destination for those who love the outdoors: not only are there some 44 state parks within easy access, but the city itself is bordered on two sides by Puget Sound, a gorgeous body of water that makes this area a hotspot for sailors, kayakers, and other recreational boaters. See visitseattle.org

FOREST PARK, PORTLAND

Portland, Oregon is known for several things: its craft beer, its music scene, its hipster fashion, and perhaps best of all, Forest Park, a 2000-hectare urban forest on the hills overlooking Willamette River. There are more than 100 kilometres of hiking trails here, plus plenty of wildlife and flora. See travelportland.com

FLATIRONS, BOULDER

The residents of Boulder, Colorado love getting into the great outdoors, and that's handy, because the great outdoors begins right at the edge of town. The Flatirons is a series of five jagged rock formations that are a five-minute drive from Boulder and form the perfect backdrop to many a hiking and camping trip. See colorado.com

BOSTON COMMON, BOSTON

Boston Common is the USA's oldest park, having been established in 1634, and you can feel plenty of history in this 20-hectare reserve, particularly at the Granary Burying Ground, established in 1660, and the Boston Massacre Monument, dedicated in 1888. See bostonusa.com

GOLDEN GATE PARK, SAN FRANCISCO

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Here's another impressive urban nature reserve, one that's larger than New York's Central Park, and receives fewer visitors. Golden Gate Park is a long, rectangular space in the city's west, home to a botanical garden, several lakes, a bison paddock, and, it is estimated, more than 100 wild coyotes. sftravel.com

FIVE TIPS FOR VISITING US NATIONAL PARKS

FILL THE CAR UP

It bears reminding that mainland US is about the same size as Australia, with plenty of wide-open spaces and limited access to petrol, particularly if you're entering a national park. Before setting out on your adventure, ensure you're topped up and know where you'll next find a gas station.

CHECK IN WITH PARK RANGERS

Before you enter a national park, call into the visitors centre and chat to the rangers there. They'll be able to fill you in on weather conditions, update you on any road closures, recommend the best hiking trails and tell you about any wildlife to be wary of, and how to deal with a close encounter.

MONITOR THE WEATHER

While it's a good idea to ask the rangers about current weather conditions, it's also essential to keep an eye on forecasts for any changes, particularly if you're hiking long distances or planning to camp. Use a weather app on your phone, if you have coverage, or check for updates at lodges and campgrounds.

CARRY APPROPRIATE GEAR

This should go without saying, really. If you're heading into the great outdoors, you need great outdoor gear. You need a rain jacket. You need warm clothes. You need good boots. You need a head torch, a sleeping bag, a tent, food, and something to cook it with. Be prepared for any situation, and you won't be surprised.

CONSIDER A PARK PASS

The US National Parks Service offers an America the Beautiful pass, an annual ticket allowing access to more than 2000 federal recreational sites. It costs $US80 and covers entry for you, your vehicle and three adult passengers. For those planning multiple national park visits, this is definitely the way to go. See nps.gov

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