You don’t need a rocket ship, passport or even an airplane ticket to visit these out-of-this-world natural treasures. They’re all just a drive away.
The name Antelope Canyon comes from the fact that antelopes once roamed this corner of the Southwest. And while that little tidbit might enthrall only the animal archaeologists among us (Bueller? Bueller?), the beauty of this place is hard to deny. Formed by the eroding effects of wind and water over thousands of years, this revered Navajo canyon is made of sandstone, which reflects an incredible array of colors when sunlight shines through. And for those who love photography, Antelope Canyon also plays host to Peter Lik’s most famous works.
Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, Calif. – Approx. 4 hours NE of Los Angeles
Nope, this sure isn’t the sea most people picture when they think California. But the Mesquite Flat Dunes’ rolling sand waves make for such an otherworldly landscape that they played a role in the original Star Wars movie, standing in for the dunes of Tatooine. That means, if you’re more sci-fi geek than hiking nut, it’s still worth the drive — for the DIY Star Wars tour, obviously.
Sequoia National Park, Calif. – Approx. 4 hours SE of San Francisco
Some people are obsessed with teeny-tiny miniatures. Others like to be reminded of how small they are in the grand scheme of things. If you fall into the latter camp, a walk among the giants in Sequoia National Park will put things into perspective. With a height of 275 feet and circumference of nearly 103 feet, the ancient General Sherman is the largest living tree in the world, according to the National Park Service. Equally impressive is Fallen Monarch, a toppled giant whose hollowed trunk has served as a hotel, saloon and stable. Sadly the bar is now closed for business. Also, if you’re into huge trees and perhaps want to keep the Star Wars thing going, check out Muir Woods just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s home to excellent hiking and the exquisitely tall Redwoods. It also happens to be where the filmed the Speeder Bike Chase from Return of the Jedi.
Pawnee Buttes, Colo. – Approx. 135 minutes from Denver
Rising out of a sea of grassland, Pawnee’s two rock formations are all the more dramatic for their flat surroundings. Beloved by hikers, they’re perhaps even more appreciated by predatory birds; hiking trails are closed from March through June to protect nesting falcons, eagles and hawks — or the hikers from nasty mama birds.
Caverns of Sonora, Texas – Approx. 3.5 hours W of Austin
With more bling than your typical natural wonder, the Caverns of Sonora is considered one of the most beautiful caves in the world. Filled with naturally occurring crystal formations, it offers plenty of adventure as well. Among other activities, visitors can rappel down 50 feet into a cavern known as the Devil’s Pit.
Near or far, what’s the most jaw-dropping natural site you’ve seen this summer? Let us know in the comments.