HAWAI’I VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HAWAII
Instead of dragging yourself down to Mordor this summer to peer over the edge of Mount Doom, head over to Hawai’i Volcanoes Park. Not only are Kilauea and Mauna Loa real, they are two of the world’s most active volcanoes, largely responsible for Hawai’i’s continued physical growth. Volcanoes Park is vulcanism in action, and scientists study the processes closely here to find out why the ears are so pointy. From the northeast rim you can get a good look, and also make an offering to Pele, the goddess of Brazilian football, which is what ancient visitors used to do. The 1790 Footprints are still visible, but nothing to worry about as it’s unlikely the lid will blow off while you’re there like it did back then. As well as the tallest, Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on earth, taking up about 20,000 cubic miles. For an idea of how big that is, consider that more than 3,000 Mount St. Helens’s could fit inside.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
Bryce is the canyon that’s not a canyon, and is a protected area mainly because of its hoodoos, rock spires born from limestone erosion by ice and rain, which have created formations known as amphitheaters – because they look like amphitheaters – though it’s unlikely Shakespeare or any of the Greek classics were ever performed here. For scientists, Bryce is geological porn, transcending three climate zones to create a diverse habitat for many species of plants, birds, and mammals. The park is in a remote location, so unlike Yellowstone or Grand Canyon, it’s relatively free of visitors.
PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA
If you visit the Petrified Forest expecting a forest of trees that have been scared out of their pants and frozen in place like something from a Harry Potter movie, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a late Triassic forest, some 225 million years old. It’s fossils. Tree fossils, true, but hardly a forest by today’s standards. If it’s lush jungle forest you’re after, we suggest heading south a few thousand miles. But if it’s petrified wood you’re after, this is the place. Paleontologists find new species of plants and animals every year. The fossilized kind.
REDWOOD NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA
Visitors to Redwood go for one reason, to witness firsthand the tallest trees on earth. In the 1850s there were over two million acres of old-growth redwood forests. Within sixty years, that number had dropped to hundreds of thousands of acres. By 1920 preservationists had bought up around 100,000 acres to protect them from logging. Outside this area, logging continued until ninety percent of the original forests were gone. In 1968 Lyndon Johnson signed Redwood National Park into law. This is why if you visit the park today, you still get to see giant redwoods.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA
Aside from being the title of U2’s fifth studio album, Joshua Tree is a park comprised of two deserts, bringing together two different ecosystems separated by elevation. Below 3,000 feet at the east end of the park lies the Colorado Desert, whose specialty seems to be growing creosote bushes, which is what your dad painted the garden fence with to protect it from the rain. Good question, what is the Colorado Desert doing in California? Vacation? At the west end and the higher elevation is the Mojave Desert, where the Joshua tree grows. It sounds cool, but it’s basically a Yucca plant. A group of Mormons are supposed to have named it when they were crossing the Mojave. They thought it looked like Joshua raising his hands to heaven in prayer. Maybe the heat had got to them at this point.