As the U.S. continues to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, geological formations offer great opportunities for adventures that don’t involve crowds — and for some outstanding RV destinations.
I'm talking about geological attractions where you can see formations formed over millions of years due to the impact of factors such as weather, erosion, volcanic ash, once-molten rock, and more.
Well-known formations include some of the more well-known options: Grand Canyon, Devils Tower, Utah’s slot canyons, and so on.
The folks at Travel Trivia recently put together a list of “8 Incredible U.S. Geological Formations Without the Crowds.” A great list, I put together a recap below. As always, we’d love to know if you have as additions to the list…simply add in the comments below.
Wheeler Geological Area, Colorado
Compared with popular Colorado destinations, such as Great Sand Dunes National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, far fewer visitors make it to the Wheeler Geological Area located near Creede, an old mining town in southwestern Colorado.
Here’s how the area was formed: Millions of years ago, volcanic ash from massive eruptions settled over the area, and over time, erosion created magnificent structures resembling castles, minarets, fortresses, towers, and columns.
But this one is for our more adventurous RV Fellow Travelers because to see it, you’ll need to hike or mountain bike about seven miles (one way) or traverse a bumpy 14-mile 4×4 track in a rugged, high-clearance vehicle.
In the end, though, the efforts will be suitably rewarded with incredible sights.
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
While Yellowstone National Park’s spewing geysers and steaming hot springs get plenty of attention, some travelers may want to consider the similarly spectacular sights of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Located about 150 miles north of Sacramento in the Cascades, volcanic activity still abounds here. That’s because about 100 years ago, the park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, erupted for three years. Until Mount St. Helens in 1980, it was the most powerful series of blasts in the Cascades.
When you arrive you’ll know it because the bubbling mud pots of Sulphur Works give off an unappealing odor like rotten eggs, but they are fascinating to watch.
Other park features include a large hydrothermal area accessible via the Bumpass Hell Trail, a 1.5-mile trek across a meandering boardwalk as well as many beautiful frigid lakes, waterfalls, and flowering meadows. The park is open year-round, but due to its 8,000-foot elevation, snowpack limits access to some areas during the winter and spring months.
Providence Canyon, Georgia
Providence Canyon State Park, also known as “Little Grand Canyon,” offers towering sandstone pinnacles, colorful 150-foot-deep ravines, and more.
Providence Canyon's massive gullies are the result of careless agricultural practices almost 200 years ago. The erosion continues today, and the canyon deepens by about three to five feet per year from rainfall.
Visitors will undoubtedly notice Providence Canyon’s vibrant colors. As a result of multiple types of exposed sand, soil, and clay, visitors see white, yellow, pink, red, purple, and orange hues. Further, the 1,003-acre park offers miles of scenic hiking trails, campgrounds, picnic areas, and a museum, all about 150 miles south of Atlanta.
Blanchard Springs Caverns, Arkansas
Arkansas’ Blanchard Springs Caverns is among the most fascinating cave systems. It’s located about 110 miles north of Little Rock. It’s a three-level network of limestone caves and considered a “living cave,” which means its formations continue to grow and change as water continually drips mineral deposits.
Visitors are greeted by glistening 60-foot stalagmites and colorful stalactites, as U.S. Forest Service interpreters lead guided tours through two levels of the cave system’s network. (Exploring on your own is prohibited.) There’s also the half-mile Dripstone Trail – a wheelchair- and stroller-friendly path through two huge rooms, past sparkling flowstone, delicate soda straws, and towering columns.
The Discovery Trail explores the breathtaking middle level, passing through water-carved passageways along the cave stream. Handrails guide visitors along this slightly strenuous 1.2-mile trail that traverses about 700 steps. A third tour option is the Wild Cave Tour that takes small groups to underdeveloped sections of the cave. Be advised that visitors should be prepared to get muddy, because crawling is required through some narrow areas.
Black Canyon Gunnison National Park, Colorado
Black Canyon Gunnison National Park received its name because a lack of sunlight creates sections so dark, they look black. One 2,722-foot-deep and 40-foot-wide part of the gorge sees only about 30 minutes of sun per day. The Gunnison River that runs through the canyon drops 43 feet per mile on average and, at one point, descends 240 feet per mile. By comparison, the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River drops at about 7.5 feet per mile.
The canyon splits Black Canyon Gunnison National Park into two halves, so visitors must access from either the North Rim or the South Rim. Visitors who hike the Cedar Point Natural Trail on the South Rim see the magnificent 2,250-foot Painted Wall, Colorado’s tallest cliff. Be advised: No roads within the park connect both sides, so plan ahead for the side you want to see before you arrive. Also, both entrances are about 75 miles from Grand Junction in southwest Colorado.
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Sure, Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular national parks: Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and Canyonlands. But if you want to avoid the crowds head to Natural Bridges National Monument. It’s known for its three natural rock bridges formed by water instead of the erosion of arches.
Sipapu Bridge, the monument’s largest, has an impressive 268-foot span and a height of 220 feet. The monument’s second-largest bridge, Kachina, was named for the petroglyphs and pictographs that adorn the base. Owachomo Bridge is the smallest and most accessible, requiring only an easy half-mile round-trip hike to see it.
Garden of the Gods Recreation Area, Illinois
Located closer to Nashville and Louisville than Chicago is Illinois’ Garden of the Gods Recreation Area in the Shawnee National Forest. The rocks here display reddish-brown Liesegang bands, which are swirled and ring-shaped. Groundwater mixed with iron and saturated the sandstone while it was still underground, creating more durable bands within the rock that are resistant to weathering.
The quarter-mile-long Observation Trail leads to bluffs overlooking Shawnee Hills and the surrounding Garden of the Gods Wilderness. Rock formations can be found along the way, such as Camel Rock, Anvil Rock, and Mushroom Rock. More adventurous hiker will be happy with almost 17 miles of interconnected hiking and equestrian trails.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
The dunes in White Sands National Park are, of course, white. That’s because these majestic dunes are made of gypsum that glitters in the sun and creates a breathtaking wonder.
The dunes in the park are shaped liked waves and part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Once upon a time, the area was part of the Permian Sea, where an ancient lake evaporated and left the gypsum deposits behind.
Located in southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, the park offers visitors plenty to do. You can drive the eight-mile-long Dunes Drive. Some say the best way to explore is by hiking, horseback, or biking. You can even sled down the soft white sand (you can bring your own plastic snow saucers or buy them at the gift shop).
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