The natural wonders of the USA are breathtaking in scale and diversity. Some of them are among the biggest examples of their kind on Earth. The interest they hold for scientists, explorers and sightseers is probably immeasurable. Want to know why?
Redwood National Park is one of the most famous UNESCO sites in the USA, perhaps ranking only second after Grand Canyon in terms of international media coverage and visitor numbers. Situated in the mountainous region that lines the Pacific Ocean coast of North San Francisco, this national park is home to the planet's tallest trees, which many experts claim to be among the world's oldest living organisms. Redwood National Park is home to a stunning array of rare flora and fauna, including endangered bald eagles, sea lions and pelicans. Although the redwood forest dominates the park, there are also ponds and streams and marshes that provide a much needed habitat for more than 75 species of animals. The park spans almost 16,000 hectares of ancient redwoods - the only redwood forest still standing on the planet and therefore of huge scientific importance.
Situated in the Guadalupe Mountains in New Mexico, the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is home to one of the world's largest and most stunning cave systems. More than 119 caverns have been discovered so far and they exhibit a staggering diversity of mineral formations and one, Lechuguilla Cave, even sports an underground laboratory for geological and biological processes. The Carlsbad Caverns National Park is not just a great place to visit for troglodytes - there are several amazing reef sections that rank among the best preserved on the planet, drawing scientific researchers from all four corners of the globe. So far ca. 800 species of plants have been identified, three of which are cacti registered on the international "endangered" list. Visitors with a keen eye might even catch a rare glimpse of cougars and cave swallows, as well as 357 other species of birds.
Frankly, one visit to the Grand Canyon National Park is not enough to take in the enormity of its scale, the abundance of wildlife and flora and magnificence of this landscape! With a staggering depth of almost 1,600 meters, the Grand Canyon is one of the world's deepest gorges. Just shy of being half as old as our planet, this natural wonder of Arizona is more than 2 billion years old and home to more than 1,000 already identified plant species. Bird watchers can test their mettle here, for the Grand Canyon National Park is also home to ca. 300 bird species as well has habitat for around 100 mammals and reptiles. Most astounding of all, the Grand Canyon shows traces of 2,600 documented prehistoric ruins, where once early human settlements existed for native peoples like the Cohonina and Anasazi. At its widest point the gorge is 29 km wide, spanning 446 km in length. Not a one-day tourist attraction by any stretch of the imagination!
Although all the natural UNESCO sites in the USA contain endangered or threatened plant or animal species in one form or another, the Everglades National Park is the only one currently under threat as a whole. This exceptional water-logged habitat is home to an abundance of reptiles, birds and mammals like the endearing manatees. The park protects around 800 species, of which 14 are threatened, among them two types of butterfly. The national park is home to the American crocodile and the rare Florida panther. There are ca. 400 species of birds, 24 mammals and around 60 reptiles, insect and amphibian species visitors could potentially catch a glimpse of. Archaeologists are also excavating for traces of human occupation in the Everglades - more than 200 sites are documented already. If you're very, very lucky, you might spot a manatee among landscape of grass that sway back and forth in the Everglade's gentle currents.
Many endangered species have found a refuge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park today, among them the largest variety of salamanders anywhere in the world. Almost as many different species of trees grow in the 200,000 hectare park as there are in the whole of Europe. Located along the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, this is a UNESCO site which boasts quite possible the richest variety of plant and animal life anywhere in the USA. Stretching for more than 800 square miles in the Southern Appalachian Mountains and enjoying a largely temperate climate, the park various considerably in altitude, which accounts for the exceptional biodiversity of this site. Already more than 17,000 different species have been documented, but scientists predict there may be as many as 80,000 more living in this park.
Unlike the other natural UNESCO sites in the USA, this one poses a considerable threat to life as we know it - it is home to two of the world's most active volcanoes, the 4.1 km high Mauna Loa and the equally grumpy 1.25 km tall Kilauea volcano. Neither of them are to be trifled with and tourists should not attempt to get too close without a knowledgeable guide. Flowing lava streams may look very pretty as they dissect the verdant forests of giant ferns growing at the feet of these giants, but the stinky gases that accompany lava flow can wipe the smile of a tourist's face permanently! This UNESCO site is not just a threat because of volcanic activity. It holds up a mirror to mankind and says "J'accuse" for here mankind's worst excesses against the environment are evident everywhere. Native animals have all been wiped out, their habitats were taken over by imported pigs, goats and mongoose. The flora didn't fare much better, as logging, pineapple and sugar plantations have taken their toll on the biodiversity of this area, where Malaria is wide-spread and man-made erosion a fact of life. Mind your carbon footstep, human, for it has devastating effects!
The limestone formations of the Mammoth Cave National Park will keep Kentucky's scientists occupied for many decades to come. The nation's largest network of underground passageways and natural caves contain more than 560 kilometers of cave trails, "carved out" by hordes of scientists who come here to study the Earth's secrets and to document the different types of endangered species that live in this rather inhospitable environment. Forty-two of the documented 200 species, which are predominantly invertebrates, thrive in total darkness. The BBC's explorer-extraordinaire, Sir David Attenborough, would certainly be in his element documenting the bats, crabs, glow-worms and strange critters that live in the Mammoth Cave system. The cave walls often read like a pre-historic book of the species that once lived during the Mississippian era, including coral life and fossils of reptiles and crustaceans. More than 70 species of endangered, threatened or state listed species inhabit this national park, which allows visitors to take a step back into the dawn of time.
Have you visited any of these incredible places?
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