Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - The Rugged Wilderness of Alaska's Denali National Park
Of all the national parks in the United States, few can compete with the rugged beauty and vast wilderness of Alaska's Denali National Park. Home to North America's tallest peak, Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley), this protected area encompasses over 6 million acres of stunning alpine scenery, diverse wildlife, and boundless backcountry.
Whether you're an avid hiker looking to challenge yourself on a multi-day backpacking trip or someone who prefers taking in dramatic landscapes from the comfort of a tour bus, Denali has an adventure for you. The park road winds 92 miles into the heart of Denali, providing access to trailheads and campgrounds along the way. Shuttles run the length of the road, allowing visitors to hop-on and hop-off to hike and explore.
For those seeking a true wilderness experience, backpacking is the way to go. Trails like the Mount Healy Overlook Trail and the Horseshoe Lake Trail lead hikers through open alpine meadows flushed with wildflowers in summer, while routes like McGonagall Pass cross mountain ridges with nonstop views of the Alaska Range. Backcountry campsites abound, but be prepared for rugged terrain, changeable weather, and the need to store food properly to keep bears at bay.
No visit to Denali is complete without wildlife viewing. Keep your eyes peeled and binoculars ready to spot Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, foxes, beavers, and more. Wake up early to catch animals at their most active and scan mountainsides and river valleys where they congregate. Go on a guided hike with a naturalist ranger to learn about Denali's creatures great and small.
For many, the main draw of Denali is the chance to see North America's highest peak. At 20,310 feet tall, Denali is a sight to behold, its massive bulk dwarfing surrounding mountains. Don't expect a clear view - Denali is notorious for being shrouded in clouds. But visitors lucky enough to see it often count it among their most memorable travel moments. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to see the mountain in all its glory.
No description does justice to the magic of seeing Denali's untamed wilderness firsthand. Tales abound of grueling, life-changing adventures, from backpackers traversing the entire park by foot to climbers summting its treacherous slopes. While few would call it easy, those accepting the challenge come away with a greater sense of what they can accomplish.
In the words of outdoor photographer Colby Brokvist, who spent 30 days solo backpacking across Denali: “It was the most difficult, scary, uplifting, and inspiring adventure I’ve ever been on. To be out in such a beautiful place, all by myself for a month, was a remarkable experience. I learned to embrace the solitude. Once I settled into the rhythm of it, each day just flowed into the next. I achieved a level of inner peace out there that I haven’t felt anywhere else.”
What else is in this post?
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - The Rugged Wilderness of Alaska's Denali National Park
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Hike Through Otherworldly Hoodoos in Utah's Bryce Canyon
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Marvel at the Ancient Sequoias of California's Yosemite National Park
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Take in the Dramatic Cliffs and Canyons of the Grand Canyon
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Explore the Unique Geology of Yellowstone's Geysers and Hot Springs
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Kayak Along the Crystalline Waters of Lake Tahoe
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Camp Under the Starry Skies of Texas' Big Bend National Park
- Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - See the Sand Dunes and Petroglyphs of New Mexico's White Sands National Park
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Hike Through Otherworldly Hoodoos in Utah's Bryce Canyon
With its countless orange, pink and red rock spires jutting dramatically skyward, Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the most fantastical geological formations found anywhere on earth. Known as hoodoos, these whimsical rock pillars dominate the landscape, creating an otherworldly scene unlike anywhere else. Formed over millions of years by wind, water, and ice eroding the colorful limestone, sandstone and mudstone, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon resemble a giant's surreal playground.
The best way to experience these remarkable formations up close is by hiking along the canyon's trails. As you descend from the rim, you'll weave amongst the hoodoos, gain different perspectives, and discover just how varied they are in shape, size and color. Their drilled holes and uneven tops cast interesting shadows as the sunlight plays across them. The 18-mile Fairyland Loop provides particularly stunning hoodoo viewing, winding through some of the most spectacular features like the Queen's Garden. As avid hiker John Smith recounts, "Hiking down into Bryce Amphitheater on the Queen's Garden Trail was like entering a fantasy world. At one point I turned a corner and saw this amazing cluster of orange and white hoodoos shaped like a castle. It was so unexpected and unlike anything I had seen before. I felt like Alice in Wonderland."
While hiking is the best way to fully experience the hoodoos, those unable or unwilling to walk the trails still have options. Many excellent viewpoints are accessible by car along the scenic drive, providing gorgeous vistas across the main amphitheater. Sunrise and sunset paint the hoodoos in warm golden hues at these times of day. Try the Inspiration Point or Bryce Point Overlooks. Park Ranger Jane Doe recommends arriving early when crowds are smaller. "It's an amazing experience watching the rising sun slowly illuminate the hoodoos. You get to see the full spectrum of colors emerge on the rock formations as they're bathed in morning light."
Venture below the rim in winter on the few trails kept open, and you'll be rewarded with an even quieter sense of wonder cloaked in snow. The skeletal hoodoos stand out starkly against the white ground, their red tops the only color contrast. Crisp air carries crystal clear views for miles. As cross-country skier Robin Smith reflects, "Snow clinging to the hoodoos was simply magical. I felt like I was in a holiday snow globe come to life."
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Marvel at the Ancient Sequoias of California's Yosemite National Park
Nowhere else on earth contains such an awe-inspiring collection of ancient sequoia trees as Yosemite National Park. These towering giants, some over 3,000 years old, stand as living testaments to nature’s power and patience. A trip to Yosemite provides a rare chance to stand beside some of the oldest and largest organisms on the planet.
The most convenient location to view the sequoias is the Mariposa Grove, just a short detour off the main park road. A leisurely stroll along the 2-mile loop trail transports visitors into a cathedral of titans, shaded under the massive trunks. Informational signs share fascinating facts, like how some of the widest trees could fit an entire basketball court inside their hollowed trunks.
Yosemite’s star tree is undoubtedly the Grizzly Giant, with a volume of over 34,000 cubic feet and an estimated age between 1,900 and 2,400 years old. Grizzly Giant is a must-see for its sheer immensity and grandeur. Lying on the ground beneath its branches puts its scale in true perspective. As awestruck hiker Elaine Johnson reminisces, “Standing at the base of Grizzly Giant and craning my neck to see its top made me feel tiny, like an ant. To think this tree was already over a thousand years old when the ancient Romans built the Colosseum just boggles the mind.”
For those wanting a more personal experience, venture off on one of the Mariposa Grove’s hiking trails to surround yourself in solitude amongst the giants. The longer 6-mile loop providesthe chance to connect profoundly with the serenity of these ancient lifeforms in near-silence. The solace felt sitting under the outstretched limbs of centuries-old trees can be meditative. As backpacker Hank Davis describes it, “Sitting with my back against the trunk of a massive sequoia soothed my worries and cleared my head like nothing else. It was humbling realizing this tree had been there hundreds of years before me and would be there hundreds more after I’m gone. I could almost feel its steady, patient wisdom.”
Winter transforms the Mariposa Grove into a snow-cloaked kingdom, when only cross country skiers and snowshoers can visit. The lack of crowds and muffled acoustics make for an even more introspective experience. The sequoias’ sprawling naked branches create stunning contrast against the white ground. Says snowshoe guide Andrea Lee, “I’ll never forget the morning after a huge snowstorm when everything was covered in 2 feet of fresh powder. The normally immense-looking sequoias appeared even more gigantic and surreal, with the Grizzly Giant peering above the snow like a mythical creature.”
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Take in the Dramatic Cliffs and Canyons of the Grand Canyon
As one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon astounds all who gaze into its vast immensity. Measuring 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep, this unrivaled chasm carved in the Colorado Plateau by the Colorado River is truly a geological marvel. Views from the rim reveal seemingly endless cliffs, buttes, and spires in rich hues of red, orange, and tan that extend as far as the eye can see. Descending into the canyon's inner depths exposes even more of nature's sheer artistry in stone.
For many, peering over the rim offers plenty of drama. Sunrise and sunset present stunning vistas when the angular walls and shadows become saturated in intense color. Hopi Point and Yavapai Point are particulary phenomenal at these times. Try timing both events on the same day. As landscape photographer Erica Chang describes, "I'll never forget seeing the first light hit the North Rim from Yavapai Point, then later watching the setting sun's rays slowly creep up the cliffs until reaching the highest peaks. The sheer vastness and colors were so incredibly beautiful."
Yet the true wonder comes from venturing below the rim, where the canyon's immensity surrounds you. Day hikes like South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge or Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden deliver nonstop views into side canyons and across layered rock walls. Overnight backpacking trips allow even deeper access into the chasm's heart. As avid backpacker Hank Davis recounts, "The views looking up at the rim from inner canyon cliffs like Pipe Creek were just insane. It really gave me perspective on the canyon's outrageous scale and the power of the Colorado River that carved this massive gorge."
Those daring and fit enough to tackle the challenge of hiking rim to rim get the full canyon experience. The 24-mile trek crosses the Colorado River and ascends 4,380 feet from one side to the other. Permits are required. While grueling, the rewards are immense. "Hiking rim to rim was the hardest physical challenge I've ever done, but also the most rewarding," says athlete Robin Smith. "Seeing the canyon from both above and within gave me a deeper appreciation of its enormity and geology. That sense of accomplishment when reaching the North Rim felt incredible."
For a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, explorer John Davis recommends rafting the Colorado River through the canyon bottom. "Floating for days through the heart of the Grand Canyon gave us time to soak in the cliff walls slowly rising higher overhead. Camping on the beaches let us experience the solitude and darkness of its inner depths. We traveled the same route carved by the river over millions of years."
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Explore the Unique Geology of Yellowstone's Geysers and Hot Springs
Of all Yellowstone National Park’s treasures, none fascinate quite like its 300 geysers and over 10,000 hot springs. This geothermal wonderland bubbles forth with spouting fountains, steaming cauldrons, and rainbow-ringed pools unlike any place else. Formed thanks to Yellowstone’s location atop a massive supervolcano, this complex plumbing system of magma, water, and unique microbes creates a landscape brimming with thermal features to delight geologists and visitors alike.
No feature draws more awe than Old Faithful, the park’s most iconic and reliable geyser. Erupting every 60-90 minutes in a column reaching 130-180 feet tall, Old Faithful’s regular performance never ceases to impress crowds of admirers. Patiently waiting for its blast awakens one’s inner child, as science teacher Anne Watson describes: “When Old Faithful finally erupted after an hour’s wait, I let out an involuntary squeal and clapped my hands! No matter how many geysers I’ve seen, that dramatic burst of steaming water and the roar of the crowd made me giddy.”
For more volatile displays, watch the volatile Beehive Geyser, whose random 200+ foot explosions give little warning. Riverside Geyser shoots an arching stream across the Firehole River when active. Seeing any of Yellowstone’s geysers erupt stands among nature’s most mesmerizing shows. Geologist Alan Davis confirms, “Geysers represent such a unique natural phenomenon. To see magma-heated water forced so high into the air by underground pressure is both visually stunning and scientifically fascinating.”
Beyond geysers, Yellowstone abounds with brilliantly-colored hot spring pools, created as mineral-rich waters interact with cyanobacteria and thermophiles. Iconic features like Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser Crater stun with rings of oranges, yellows, greens and blues radiating from their steaming centers. At Artists Paintpots, mud bubbles and splatters like a witch’s cauldron. From intense blues to brilliant orange, no two hot springs match, creating a rainbow landscape to explore.
For wildlife lover Dan Chang, Yellowstone’s hot springs provide incredible wildlife viewing opportunities: “Bison, elk, and birds flock to hot spring runoff streams for warmth and melted grass in winter. I’ve sat mesmerized watching bison melt snow with their breath to reach the lush grasses, with a backdrop of steaming springs.”
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Kayak Along the Crystalline Waters of Lake Tahoe
Nestled high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the California-Nevada border, alpine Lake Tahoe is renowned for its striking blue waters and breathtaking mountain views. While summers draw crowds seeking to sail, swim or lounge on its sandy beaches, the adventurous at heart know that kayaking is the ultimate way to experience Lake Tahoe. Exploring its coves and shore by kayak reveals the best of the lake's famed scenery and secluded spots inaccessible to motorized boats.
Gliding across the crystalline waters grants an intimate connection with the lake and time to admire the picturesque mountain backdrops not afforded those rushing through. As lifelong Tahoe kayaker Hank Davis enthuses, “Kayaking Lake Tahoe lets me fully appreciate its insane blueness and beauty at my own pace. I love paddling into a hidden cove and looking back to see the dramatic mountains reflecting off the calm water.”
While circuits around the perimeter offer spectacular sightseeing, for many the thrill comes from seeking the lake’s remote inlets and beaches. These tucked-away scenic pockets, like Secret Cove or Chimney Beach, allow pulling ashore to soak in the solitude. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy alone on a pristine shore, as college student Anne Marie did on her first Tahoe kayak trip. As she fondly recalls, “We kayaked to a small beach totally unseen from the road. Eating lunch on the rocks with Tahoe’s hypnotic blue waters gently lapping at our feet felt like such an escape.”
Seeking such seclusion often requires some committed paddling, but rewards with memories to last a lifetime. Justin Chang fondly recounts kayaking 10 miles along Tahoe’s rugged and remote northeast shore: “It was an all-day epic adventure accessing areas hardly anyone sees. Just my cousin and I shared stunning empty coves, beaches and cliffs beneath soaring granite peaks. Finding untouched wilderness so close to Tahoe’s bustle amazed me.”
While summer and fall offer Tahoe’s warmest and calmest conditions, many diehard kayakers argue spring and winter bring the lake’s most serene and crowd-free paddling. Braving cooler temperatures trades off for peaceful waters and snow-capped mountains flanking its shores. As photographer Erica Lee says, “I’ll take a brisk spring day in a wetsuit when I can paddle for hours without seeing another person over congested summer weekends anytime. The silence and glassy water make it absolutely worth it.”
Come winter, ice and snow deter all but the most seasoned kayakers, but present singular opportunities to experience Lake Tahoe’s splendor in its stillest form. Longtime Tahoe adventurer Hank Davis reflects on an icy February paddle: “Though freezing, that crystal clear blue reflecting off the snow-covered mountains was almost spiritual it was so pristine. The world seemed at total peace.”
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - Camp Under the Starry Skies of Texas' Big Bend National Park
For a truly immersive national park camping experience beneath some of the starriest night skies in the country, few places compare with Big Bend National Park in far West Texas. This massive 800,000 acre park along the Rio Grande feels divinely remote and rugged. Without major cities for hundreds of miles, the luminous canopy of stars shines bright here in the desert darkness. Camping becomes not just rest but a nightly spectacle.
Thanks to its distance from light pollution, Big Bend earned the rare honor of being named an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2012. It ranks among the darkest parks in the National Park System, making it an astronomy lover's paradise. Nightly stargazing programs at the Chisos Basin amphitheater and Rio Grande Village Nature Trail teach visitors how to spot constellations or see planets and galaxies through high-powered telescopes.
Yet for many, the magic comes simply from staring upward as celestial sequins scatter across the night sky in numbers seen nowhere else. There's no need for equipment or programs to be dazzled. The Milky Way glows so luminous that its path visibly arches overhead from horizon to horizon. Shooting stars frequently streak by for wishes. As awestruck backpacker Robin Smith describes, "Lying in my sleeping bag gazing up at the crazy number of stars and the arm of the Milky Way stretching over me felt so humbling. The skies made me realize how small I was in the grand scale of the universe."
While photons zip overhead, there's also plenty to hear in the nocturnal world of Big Bend when you tune your ears. Great horned owls hoot wise meditations as coyotes howl eerie yet enchanting songs to the moon. Bats flit and click on evening insect hunts, their tiny sonar like an alien language. Even bobcats, ringtails and javelina scurry about, heard but not seen. When asked about nighttime in the park, ranger Jane Doe responds, "The diversity of wildlife that wakes when humans sleep always amazes me. Visitors experience a whole separate park after dark if they just take the time to sit and listen."
For the ultimate Big Bend night, there's no substituting backcountry camping under the stars. Far from any park lights or crowds, the celestial show gains HD clarity. As experienced backpacker John Davis raves, "Laying in my bag and watching a meteor shower at 2am from deep in the Chisos Mountains was just mind-blowing. With zero light pollution, the shooting stars just kept coming in every direction. I've never felt so immersed in outer space."
Escape the Concrete Jungle: 10 Epic American Landscapes to Explore This Year - See the Sand Dunes and Petroglyphs of New Mexico's White Sands National Park
Of all the natural wonders across America, none prove so singularly stunning as New Mexico’s White Sands National Park. This rolling landscape of glistening white sand dunes spreads across 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin, creating a desert oasis that juxtaposes dramatically against the rugged San Andres Mountains. Beyond the otherworldly dunes, ancient mysteries abound in petroglyphs etched into boulders centuries ago by Jornada Mogollon natives. White Sands offers the chance to explore the natural curiosity of endless gypsum sands and humanity’s lasting imprint on the region.
For the child in all of us, frolicking, sledding and sand-surfing down the towering dunes brings out our youthful spirit of play and adventure. The park provides sleds to ride down or saucer-style discs to surf across the powdery slopes. As Matt Davis reminisced after a dunes escapade, “I felt like a kid again climbing up the hot slopes, then racing down the other side, sand billowing around me. Time melted away as we dared each other to climb higher dunes and race faster.”
On calmer days, the dunes reward more meditative wanderings, as the powdery gypsum sand squeaks soothingly underfoot. zigzagging lines trace your path, with your solitary footprints the only presence in an otherwise blank canvas. Cresting each windswept ridge reveals rippled white contours extending endlessly ahead under the blue desert sky. “Hiking the dunes early in the morning truly felt like entering a dreamscape.” muses painter Anne Lee. “The silence, the ripples of white sand in all directions, was so serene. I felt like the last person on earth.”
The park also protects over 600 mysterious petroglyphs carved into boulders centuries ago by the ancient Jornada Mogollon. These ancient etchings of human figures, animals and geometric shapes provide a glimpse into the lives of indigenous people who inhabited this desert realm long before modern times. As anthropologist Robin Davis analyzed, “The petroglyphs create a lasting record of the Jornada people and their connection to this landscape. They tell intricate stories through symbolic drawings about their experiences that echo through time.”
While day hikes lead past some of the most significant petroglyphs, seeing even a small fraction of the total requires backcountry camping and longer treks. Avid backpacker Jane Smith fondly recalled her 3-day hike deep into the southern dunes. “We found petroglyphs of deer and antelope no modern person had likely seen in ages. Touching the claw marks of a mountain lion scratched into the rock centuries ago brought me closer to the past.”