America is home to majestic landscapes—rolling plains, rugged mountains, and deep canyons—but there are also strange and lesser known geologic formations.
Speleothems, grabens, and upheaval domes may not be household names, but these unusual landforms provide some of the most striking—and, in some cases, downright bizarre—scenery in our national parks.
Do You Hoodoo? Bryce Canyon National Park
These tall, irregular spires of rock created through erosion usually protrude upward from dry bottomland, and Bryce Canyon National Park offers the most abundant concentration of them in the U.S. Hoodoos range in stature from 6 feet to as tall as a 10-story building, but Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos are actually being slowly worn away by the same forces of erosion that formed them. Hike the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden trails to get the best view.
Fancy Boxwork: Wind Cave National Park
The boxwork at Wind Cave National Park is a type of speleothem, or a cave formation created by mineral deposits. Resembling a crisscrossed honeycomb of rock protruding from the cave walls and ceiling, Wind Cave’s boxwork consists of thin blades of calcite that forms a continuous network. While formations of this type exist elsewhere in the world, there may be no other place where they are so abundant.
Get Immersed in Caves: Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The National Park Service manages some of the world’s most amazing places. This includes over 4,700 caves with at least four of these that extend for more than 135 miles and are so complex that the casual visitor would be lost among the hundreds of passages to choose from.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 119 limestone caves that are outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations. Take a self-guided walk through the Big Room chamber of the cavern or experience the cavern with a park ranger on a tour of the beautifully decorated King’s Palace.
Born to be Badlands: Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park includes a dizzying maze of unique and colorful geologic formations, from buttes and mesas to spires and hoodoos. Once a flat and relatively featureless floodplain of soft sedimentary rock, the Badlands were carved by thousands of years of flowing water. They are still eroding at about an inch per year, which means they may be gone entirely in 500,000 years or so.
Up the Upheaval Dome: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park encompasses a wide range of geologic formations, including needlelike spires and fields of thrust-up rocks known as horsts, but the most perplexing is the upheaval dome. Appearing like a mountain of rock in the center of a bowl-shaped depression, the upheaval dome’s origins are unknown. Some geologists suggest the movement of salt beneath the rock strata may have created the dome, while others suspect a meteor impact. Whatever the explanation, the upheaval dome is one of the strangest sights in a park filled with obscure formations.
Stone Cold Arches: Arches National Park
Naturally-occurring stone arches don’t form just anywhere, so why are there more than 2,000 of them in Arches National Park? The answer lies in a complex set of variables coexisting here. Start with porous sandstone, crack it along parallel lines through subterranean forces, and then add just the right amount of rain. The result is a particular type of erosion that creates hollowed-out spaces in each segment of sandstone. Arches form over thousands of years as these hollow spaces widen until they eventually collapse.
Sculpted By Water: Natural Bridges National Monument
Since natural bridges are formed by running water, they are much rarer than arches, which result from a variety of other erosion forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden, whereas arches are usually high and exposed, as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges. The pinyon and juniper covered mesa is bisected by deep canyons, exposing the Permian Age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Where meandering streams cut through sandstone walls, three large natural bridges were formed.
America is infinite and various. The infinity shows up in our odometer. As for variety, what more can I say.