Five travel writers share their most magical moments exploring America’s great natural wonders.
When I moved to San Francisco from New York, I was overcome with a surprising sense of nostalgia for the chaotic city I thought I so desperately wanted to leave. Did I miss Manhattan’s electric energy? The taxi horns that jolted me awake me at night? I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I longed for until I made my first trip across the Golden Gate to Muir Woods National Monument. It was early New Year’s Day. The park, which attracts a million visitors a year, was quiet. As I wandered the moss-covered trails amongst the ancient redwoods I realized what I’d been missing. Nature’s skyscrapers made me feel small in that very humbling way that puts life in perspective. Here, in this place that famed naturalist John Muir once called “the best tree lovers monument that could be found in all the forests of the world” I found my connection to New York. I’d return many times to these trails and over the years, my awe of nature replaced my awe of the big city. — Jen Murphy
The sun was approaching the horizon when I started pedaling my bike along a narrow ribbon of pavement in Saguaro National Park in southern Arizona. That late in the day, the traffic thins and the desert transforms. The dying light bathes the arid hills in warm hues and long, slim shadows. The creatures that take shelter from the sun all day — mice, javelinas, songbirds — now prowl and flit. Just outside of the bustle of Tucson, the eight-mile loop curled, dipped and banked through the washes. The brawny figures of the saguaros, the nation’s largest cacti, reached more than 40 feet into the sky and dotted the hills in the hundreds. Icons of the American West, they appeared like an audience of serene giants. Below them, prickly pear cacti erupted in yellow blooms, so beautifully incongruous in their thorny homes. Even though the light was disappearing, I couldn’t help but cruise slowly, savoring a stillness broken only by the soft whirr of rubber on asphalt, the whoosh of bird wings through the dry spring air, and the rhythmic sound of my own breath. — Kate Siber
Though most people go to the island of Maui for the flaxen beaches and secret waterfalls, the thing that takes me back year after year is State Highway 378, also known as Haleakala Highway. This thread of asphalt clambers up 23 switchbacks through five ecosystems to a barren, rocky, 10,023-foot shield volcano that lords over the island’s sole national park. Haleakala is a sacred peak, “the house of the sun” to Hawaiians, who believe that Maui, the Polynesian demigod for whom the island is named, lassoed the sun from atop this summit in order to lengthen the day. Ascending the mountain can feel like a pilgrimage.I made the journey not once, but three times during my first weeklong visit to Maui, most memorably one evening on a bicycle I rented on the coast. The ride, a journey unto itself, took nearly as long as the flight from the mainland. I pedaled from lush sugar cane fields up into a canopied rainforest that was wrapped in a cloak of rain. As I climbed higher, I emerged from the gloom into arid shrublands that glowed bright white in a diaphanous curtain of cloud. Higher up, the mist evaporated completely, revealing fleecy brown cinder cones like mushrooms below the crater’s crisp black horizon. At the summit, the sun, which was preparing to set, turned the Pacific into a glimmering blanket of diamonds below the crimson horizon.Like Maui, the demigod of lore, I wished I could lasso the rising sun and make the moment last, at least long enough for the 28-mile rollercoaster joyride back down to the sea. — Aaron Gulley
The sparkling blue water lapped against the boat. It was a clear day, and I had to squint while looking out across the waves of the bay. Two smooth, gray bodies slowly bobbed up and over the water’s surface. The dolphins had come to greet our boat, which was touring the spectacular waters of Everglades National Park. Just a few miles from shore, the area felt deep and untamed, yet teeming with wildlife. All manner of spectacular bird species clustered on tiny islands and perched atop the peaks of perished trees. It’s no wonder this habitat feels wild — Everglades National Park comprises the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. This spectacular landscape is a one-of-a-kind area that is the ultimate habitat for numerous rare and endangered species, from the Florida panther and American crocodile to the manatee. Back on dry land, at the Shark Valley Visitor Center, I visited the Shark Valley observation tower, which offered a stunning 360-degree view of the Everglades. Soaking up the pure, natural landscape, I looked down to a waterhole filled with alligators, turtles, fish and birds. Sundrenched and wild, the essence of the park was irresistible. — Erinn Morgan
After a long, gray Virginia winter, the bright light of spring illuminated a fresh, new world: bright with apple blossoms and tulips surrounding our little home in Arlington. And, of course, for a fisherman, thoughts drifted by of the nearby Potomac River. But now I was married and now there was a baby. So, Laurie and I packed a picnic and Olivia and headed for Great Falls. In that historic spring flood now more than 20 years ago, over 100,000 cubic feet of water muscled each second between 500 million-year-old rocks, plunging 76 feet in a single mile. My normally gentle giant thundered not so much in rage but in wild, heedless celebration, leaping from the storied Piedmont to the vast Atlantic plain. We unpacked our wicker picnic basket and I laughed; my fly rod was useless today. Instead, we just marveled at the brave rock climbers dangling from River Trail and those courageous kayakers pounded in the plunge pools. And at that magnificent river bursting forth, unbridled like spring. Like life itself. — Richard Parker