Rising up from the earth, protruding like fingers up out of the ground are giant formations that change color with the sun and give an otherworldly appearance to the craggy terrain and surrounding desert and woods. A massive volcanic eruption created this unique landscape, which was then shaped over the centuries through erosion, weathering, and earthquakes. Deep narrow gorges and shear fractures give way to large-scale talus caves under the surface while creeks run through fault lines responsible for the ongoing seismic activity in the area. Prairie falcons and California condors soar overhead, nesting on cliff edges. Located 40 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and south of San Jose, the the area is famous for the Mediterranean climate shared by John Steinbeck's beloved Salinas Valley to its east. This is America's newest national park. This is Pinnacles.
The ninth of California’s national parks, Pinnacles is the 59th national park in the country though it is hardly the federally protected land. The area was created as Pinnacles National Monument in 1908 under the purview of President Theodore Roosevelt, the president responsible for the national park’s system as it exists today. However, it wouldn’t be for another 105 years until President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of the national monument as a park. Today, Pinnacles is just a three and a half hour drive from Yosemite, the land that began the national park movement and the nation’s second national park.
While native peoples, cowboys, homesteaders, miners, emigrants, and moviemakers have all passed through Joshua Tree, much of what is known about the park’s history and the efforts to conserve it are thanks to two women, early leaders in the national park movement. Today, the park is a favorite place for musicians and artists to gain inspiration as well as for stargazers to view the uninhibited night sky. Geologists and rock climbers are both drawn to the millions-of-years-old cliffs, formations and outcroppings that make up the park’s unique scenery.
A geological wonder, Death Valley stands out from other national parks in several ways. It is the hottest national park by record as well as the driest. It also reaches the lowest point of any national park in the Lower 48. While its name conjures up images of deserts and badlands, it is also home to one of the most beautiful wildflower displays each spring and is often covered in snow throughout the winter. While the heat of the day can be unbearable, the freezing temperatures of the night can be even harder to survive. Despite the rough conditions, plants, animals and humans have still been able to survive and thrive here. Those willing to overlook its name have always found Death Valley to be one of the most awe-inspiring sites in America.
The year 1980 was a banner year for the National Parks System with nine national parks opening that year - more than any other on record. Channel Islands became the first of those nine national parks, and bolstered the conservation and preservation efforts of America's growing environmental movement. Today, visitors still come to tour the five of the seven Channel Islands preserved within the park's boundaries while researchers and scientists have been able to use the area's endemic species to learn more about the natural world.
Preservation of Redwood National Park wouldn’t be complete without the three California state parks that join it. Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks all date from the 1920s and all help preserve the old-growth forests the national park is famous for. Today, both the three state parks and the national park are jointly administered to help preserve the various natural resources found here, including various endangered and threatened plants and animals. Together, these parks preserve one of the most biologically diverse and archaeologically significant sites in all of northern California.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks are administered jointly as Sequoia splits Kings Canyon from its visitor’s center, making Kings Canyon one of few non contiguous parks in the U.S. Despite being jointly administered, some might expect a sibling rivalry to emerge between these two parks. Though Sequoia has more visitors per year, Kings Canyon still beats its big sister in terms of acreage. While Sequoia is named after the trees themselves, Kings Canyon is also home to the largest remaining sequoia grove in the world as well as one tree dubbed “America’s Christmas tree.” It can be hard to separate the two parks from each other, but they each have unique stories that helped them become national parks.
In fact, the last time this mountain erupted was the year before it received its national park designation. Before that, it erupted three times in one year after an estimated 27,000 years of dormancy. While hot lava may have spewed from its top more than a century ago, today Lassen Peak is known as the area that receives the highest known winter snowfall amounts in the entire state of California. While not the most famous of the nine national parks located in the state of California, Lassen Volcanic National Park might be the state's most explosive.
Perhaps one of the most famous of all the American national parks, Yosemite will be celebrating its 125th birthday beginning in October 2015. Even so, a mere quasquicentennial is just a blink of an eye in the history of this remarkable land. Visitors here can explore ancient places and learn about the people and animals that have long called it home. As John Muir once described it, Yosemite is full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings.
Run alongside its sister park, Kings Canyon, Sequoia preserves these trees that were once on the literal chopping block, nearly destroyed by logging interests. The first of California's eight national parks, Sequoia has become a legend in its own time. Now, celebrating its 125th birthday, Sequoia has given generations of visitors the gift of walking among the giants, learning from their wisdom and enjoying the breathtaking splendor of one of the most beautiful and uniquely American landscapes.
From a valley that reshapes its trees into strange formations to a desert where rocks seem to magically move to some of the strangest colored waters in the world to the giant remnants of lost ancient civilizations, North America is home to some unique sites. In addition to those man-made wonders, the varied landscape of this region ranges from the wintry, dense forests of Canada to the diverse ecosystems of the U.S. to the Mexican desert, coastal Caribbean islands and dense jungle of Central America help make it an awe-inspiring place to visit.
Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave
Rediscovered in 1989, the cave is located within Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve and in order to get a look inside, visitors must swim in and then wade through water for nearly three-fourths of a mile. Once inside, visitors can see remnants left behind by the ancient Maya, who researchers believed used this cave either as a burial ground of a place for sacrificial victims. Several skeletal remains have been discovered - and permanently left - in the cave that are believed to be thousands of years old. Of the 14 bodies discovered, the most famous is the Crystal Maiden.
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