Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders


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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

Think you've seen America's most amazing natural attractions? If you've been to Arches in Utah, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, or the Muir Woods in California, then you've seen the highlights. As our friends in television advertising like to say - but wait, there's more. So much more, when you look at the natural wonders that are lesser known, a bit off the beaten path, or simply hiding in plain sight.

These spots aren't just underrated gems, they're also less crowded during peak travel seasons, and often less expensive than the big names - making them well worth visiting.

Here are 10 of our favorite, under-the-radar American wonders that deserve a place on your must-visit list this summer.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: The sugary white sand and the vast dunes are just the icing on the cake, which is the almost-deserted, three-mile stretch of beach along the Gulf of Mexico. Beyond the beautiful beach, this northwest Florida treasure offers boardwalks over the protected dunes, cute bungalows for rent on a weekly basis, miles of hike and bike paths that are also open to roller-bladers and fishing. Ranges are plentiful and offer various classes that are both educational and fun - like how to fish in the surf.

Consider in place of: Nearby Destin, Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola - all wonderful beaches in their own right but way crowded during the high season. Topsail's beach is rarely crowded anytime of year.

Insider tip: If you're seeking pure isolation, visit in October when the weather and the water are still warm and the crowds are nonexistent.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: The contrasting environs are spectacular, with elevations ranging from sea level to over 2,000 feet and climate varying from warm and sunny up high and damp and foggy down low - all on the same day. The park has more than 18,000 acres of ancient redwood trees guide hikes along 80 miles of trails.

Consider in place of: The nearby Muir Woods, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but without the crowds and the per-person fees of $5 for everyone over 15.

Insider tip: It's a long hike to the top of the basin, but well worth it for the spectacular ocean views.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: A 120-mile long canyon in the Panhandle plains of Texas, Palo Duro offers a vista worthy of a blockbuster movie - a huge, wide canyon dotted with mesquite and juniper trees that changes color throughout the day. Deer and antelope do play around here, as does an abundance of other creatures. Hiking, rock climbing and back-to-basics camping await adventurous travelers.

Consider in place of: The Grand Canyon. After its "grander," more famous sibling, Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the United States. It's about half as long and half as tall as the Grand Canyon, but approximately the same width and just as breathtaking.

Insider tip: If you're not that keen on roughing it overnight in the wilds of the park, consider staying in relative comfort just 30 miles away in Amarillo.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: Sixty miles of beach along the Gulf of Mexico, this national seashore is a rarity for its virtual isolation. If you want to drive on the beach, you'd better come with a revved-up four-wheel drive vehicle, as the going can be extremely tough. A long stretch of beach near the visitor's center is closed to vehicles - a perfect spot for camping or just a relaxing day at the beach. Endangered sea turtles make their nests here, and the dunes are ripe for exploring, but tread carefully - the area is also home to rattlesnakes.

Consider in place of: Believe it or not, nothing compares to this hidden gem. No national seashore is as long or as isolated but still accessible by car.

Insider tip: Windsurfers and kayakers should head to challenging waters of the Gulf; those seeking calmer waters should head to the more sedate and shallow Laguna Madre on the park's western shore.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: The largest cavern in Texas, Natural Bridge entices with its ancient history and grand caverns. The dramatic lighting inside the caves showcases the living limestone formations - the perfect setting for shutterbugs. Visitors enter under the beautiful natural bridge that towers above the caverns and travel more than a half-mile underground for prime viewing of stalagmites and stalactites that are still being formed today from the continual - albeit slow - flow of rainwater into the caverns today.

Consider in place of: Mammoth Cave, even though it is not nearly as large. Natural Bridge offers just a few tours compared to the many available at Mammoth, but the dramatic lighting, massive formations and small groups make for a more intimate tour.

Insider tip: Wear lightweight clothing - the caverns are 70 degrees and they feel even hotter thanks to the 99 percent humidity.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: The V-shaped indentation in the Cumberland Mountains is just north of where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet, creating a spectacular valley floor and mountain views above. The pass was a trade route for the earliest Americans, and Daniel Boone led the crew hired to widen the passage for settlers heading to Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 1700s.

Consider in place of: The nearby and much more crowded Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The nine million visitors who pay their respect to the Smokies annually mean serious traffic jams on holiday weekends and during the summer and fall foliage season. Cumberland Gap's similar charms like Pinnacle Overlook and the Hensley Settlement are visited by a mere fraction of the crowds at GSMNP - about 1.5 million people annually.

Insider tip: Call ahead to sign up for one of the ranger-led tours to Cumberland Gap's many caves to explore stalagmites and flowstone cascades.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: The ancient cliff dwellings of the Mogollon people are at once intriguing and astonishing; the artful blending of homes into the cliffs and the mastery of the work gives modern travelers pause as they contemplate how the structures were made more than 700 years ago. The dwellings are reached by a half-mile uphill hike, and guided tours are offered twice daily. The dwellings are part of the huge (3-million acre) Gila National Forest.

Consider in place of: The famed Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Although Colorado has the best-preserved dwellings, the walls of the dwellings at Gila are much thicker than those in Mesa Verde.

Insider tip: Come prepared to hike - the cliff dwellings cannot be seen from the ground, so the half-mile uphill hike is a must.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: Dozens of sandstone 'chimney' formations rise from the basin floor, some as tall as a man, others towering above hikers. All the formations constantly change from one brilliant hue to the next as the sun moves through the sky - hence the name Kodachrome, borrowed with permission from Kodak.

Consider in place of: A miniature Arches National Park, easy to hike and explore.

Insider tip: Consider bringing or renting a mountain bike - two-wheeling it through the park is one of the best ways to access some of the more remote territory, where you can appreciate the area's beauty in solitude.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

The "wow" factor: An astonishing collection of ancient pictographs drawn by hunters and gatherers a thousand years ago, and even those drawn by their more modern counterparts - are such treasures that visitation to Hueco Tanks is limited to under 100 people daily. But the advance planning is worth the effort; beyond the vast collection of pictographs, visitors can boulder, bird-watch and hike.

Consider in place of: Petroglyph National Monument. Hueco Tanks is a vaster, picturesque version of Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, which itself offers a very different style of ancient drawings on the black rocks in a desert setting.

Insider tip: Take advantage of the park's free tours, which include pictograph tours, bouldering and hiking tours, and birding tours. Call the park's main number at least one day in advance to reserve.

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Top 10 Underrated Natural Wonders

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