Eight Natural Wonders

Eight wildly divergent destinations have one thing in common: The elements have conspired to make them magical.

Yokohama Beach on Oahu, image

At Oahu's Yokohama Bay, the soft sand complements the gentle breeze.

A hiker staring up at huge boulders on the Balconies Trail at Pinnacles, image

A hiker on the Balconies Trail in Pinnacles National Park is dwarfed the huge volcanic boulders.

Alligators sunbathe along the Anhinga Trai in the Everglades, image

In the Everglades, alligators sunbathe along the Anhinga Trail, safe from handbag makers.

Salt Lake Valley seen from Snowbird Ski Resort in winter, image

The Snowbird Ski Resort in Cottonwood Canyons offers sweeping vistas of the Salt Lake Valley.

Sun sets behind the Soleri Bridge, image

Pedestrians commune with the setting sun on the Soleri Bridge in Scottsdale, Ariz.

whale sharks swim in the Sea of Cortez, image

From early winter to late spring, whale sharks swim in the Sea of Cortez.

a view from Rendezvous Bowl, image

The view from Jackson Hole's Rendezvous Bowl is a peak experience .

West Village Lodge and Pine Marten Express, image

The Pine Marten Express, a high-speed quad chairlift, whizzes past the West Village Lodge on Bachelor.

Oahu, Hawaii
It’s the air

When you land in Oahu, the first thing you may notice—before the umbrella in your mai tai, the sun, or the inviting beaches—is the soft air. Quietly intoxicating, the wafting trade winds brush the waves and cool off the sunbathers.

According to the state climatologist, Professor Pao-Shin Chu of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the secret to the 50th state’s natural air-conditioning is the northeasterly winds that caress Oahu on most days. “Without the trade winds,” Chu says, “Hawaii would not be a very good place to live.”

The trade winds begin in a subtropical region of the north Pacific and sweep down toward the islands. “The cold air is moderated by the relatively warm waters,” Chu says. The winds reduce the humidity, clear out pollution, and keep temperatures in the high 70s to mid-80s year-round.

On the east side of the island toward Kailua, the trade winds tend to roar. At the Nuuanu Pali Lookout five miles northeast of Honolulu, you can experience their full force. For gentler breezes, stick to the leeward side of Oahu—the west coast. At Yokohama Bay you can picnic and hike, watch surfers and body boarders when the waves are up, and simply breathe. —Bruce Anderson

Pinnacles National Park, Calif.
Gorgeous geology

It may be the country’s newest national park, but you can hardly call this amazing rock star a new kid on the block. As craggy and ancient as Keith Richards, the burntsienna buttresses and salmon-pink pillars that earned Pinnacles its moniker date back some 23 million years to the time when a hotheaded volcano spewed rhyolitic lava across a swath of what is now Los Angeles County.

How volcanic rock from Southern California ended up 80 miles southeast of San Jose is a powerful lesson in plate tectonics. “After the volcano died, the volcanic field was torn asunder by the San Andreas Fault, and the two halves moved almost 200 miles apart,” explains Rick Stanley of the U.S. Geological Survey. As the Pinnacles formation inched northwest atop the Pacific Plate, Stanley says, “it eroded into spectacular spires.”

Along the way, massive boulders—some as huge as houses—tumbled into Pinnacles’ narrow canyons and got stuck before hitting bottom, forming the roofs of two entrancing talus caves. Legend has it that Bear Gulch Cave once harbored a local bandit and his loot, but today visitors will find natural treasures: a subterranean waterfall and a colony of endangered Townsend’s big-eared bats. From the cave, hardy hikers can ascend the High Peaks Trail, where stairs cut right into the volcanic rock lead to expansive views and the chance to spot resident California condors roosting amid otherworldly rock formations that—inch by inch—continue their incredible North American tour. —Kristina Malsberger

Everglades National Park, Florida
Swamped with wildlife

You’ll find no geysers or glacier-hewn granite in this park. Its beauty and grandeur lie in its animals—among them panthers, flamingos, and manatees—and its flora, found in cypress groves, mangrove swamps, and woodsy mounds called hammocks, dense with palms, poisonwood, and gumbo-limbo. You’ll see alligators, of course. The park is home to tens of thousands of them. But don’t worry—their tastes run to careless wading birds and hapless marsh rabbits.

At the Shark Valley Visitor Center on the park’s north boundary, a 20-mile-wide river spreads south through Florida’s broad saw-grass prairie. A guide in an open tram calls out highlights: green-backed herons and white ibis—two of 366 bird species—spearing crayfish in a tree-lined canal. Snapping turtles lounging on logs. A snail kite soaring over the marsh.

You can enjoy the Everglades through a windshield—it’s just an hour from Miami—but leave your car for the many trails and boardwalks. You might pick out a wood stork, an endangered species, probing for fish between the buttressed roots of a mossy old cypress. —Sheridan Warrick

Cottonwood Canyons, Utah
Reliable snow

Ride the aerial tram above the vast winterscape surrounding Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and you’ll see why this part of the Wasatch Range receives worldwide acclaim. “We have the magic combination of quality and quantity of snow,” says Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah.

As Steenburgh explains, snow clouds arrive from every direction without any other mountains nearby to block their path. When the clouds collide with the 10,000-foot peaks around the Cottonwood Canyons, home to four resorts, the powder starts falling. The Great Salt Lake also creates lake-effect snows that can add a couple of extra feet.

Snowbird averages over 40 feet of snow each winter and got a whopping 65 feet in the whiteout season of 2010–2011. Quite simply, Steenburgh says, “It’s one of the most reliable places in North America for snow.” —Chris Woolston

Scottsdale, Arizona
Sun, sun, sun

Even in winter, the odds of rain in the Scottsdale-Phoenix area are slight, the chances of sun excellent. According to local meteorologist Paul Horton, those clear conditions are largely ensured by the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains, which guard the valley against the moisturebearing jet stream. A fitting civic landmark for this region, aptly known as the Valley of the Sun, is the Soleri Bridge in downtown Scottsdale. Designed by the late architect Paolo Soleri, the pedestrian span doubles as a solar calendar, celebrating the celestial body that shines in cloudless skies above the desert domain 200-plus days a year. —Josh Sens

Sea of Cortez, Mexico
Fishbowl fantasies

It’s a fish-eat-fish world in the Sea of Cortez, a Unesco World Heritage Site. A bouillabaisse of phytoplankton—fed by an upwelling of nutrients from the depths—supports an astonishing variety of marine life, from an A-list of whale species, tropical fish, leatherback sea turtles, and manta rays to a supporting cast of rare and endangered creatures found nowhere else on earth. This aquatic razzle-dazzle is an eye-popping treat for snorkelers, kayakers, and divers. From La Paz, hop a boat to Isla Espíritu Santo, don some flippers, and discover the wonders beneath the glimmering waves. —Leslie Endicott

Mount Bachelor, Oregon
Peak Snow

The snowbanks at Mount Bachelor can be high—like 30 feet. Why so big? Two words: elevation and location. “More than half of the skiable terrain is above 7,000 feet,” says Drew Jackson, a Mount Bachelor Ski Resort spokesperson who monitors snowstorms.

The mountain sits a mere 120 miles from the Pacific, which means temperatures tend to be moderate, allowing the air to hold more moisture. Winds roar in off the ocean only to confront Bachelor’s 9,065-foot summit. The air rises, cools rapidly, and wrings itself out like a suddenly squeezed sponge, sometimes with dramatic results. In January 2012, Bachelor received a record 35 inches of snow in 24 hours.

Being in central Oregon has its advantages, too. Storms track north: Bachelor gets walloped. Storms track south: Bachelor gets walloped. “It’s harder for them to miss us,” says Jackson.

The Clearing Rock Bar inside the West Village Lodge, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, is the perfect spot to admire the bounty of snow. Sit by the river-rock fireplace, warm your weary feet, and try a Wasabi Mary with a dollop of warming wasabi. –Tim Neville

Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Spoiled for Snow

Glide through the vast, deep powder of Rendezvous Bowl high in the Tetons, and you’ll know: The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is spoiled for snow. Nearly 32 feet of the stuff dumped here in the 2012-2013 season—five feet more than Vail Mountain Resort in Colorado, and 18 feet more than Sun Valley Resort in Idaho. For locals, it was a huge pile of ho-hum. When nature’s snow machine really gets cranking—like in 2010-2011—the resort can get over 45 feet of snow. From Christmas to Groundhog’s day, you can expect fine, dry powder, the kind that skiers dream of, says Jim Woodmencey, the meteorologist for Jackson-based mountainweather.com.

The bounty is no accident. As Woodmencey explains, the resort happens to sit at the end of a huge assembly line that brings moisture from the Pacific to the Continental Divide. Storms tracking up through the Snake River Valley position themselves to lift air up and over the Tetons and drop their powder payload. While much of the snow falls on the western slope, plenty more spills over to the eastern side, home of the Rendezvous Bowl and other Jackson Hole runs. The slopes rarely see winter rain or hailstorms that can muck up the snow, says Woodmencey. It’s just cold, dry, and ready for some turns. –Chris Woolston

Photography by Tony Novak-Clifford (Oahu); by David H. Collier (Pinnacles); by James Schwabel/Alamy (Everglades); courtesy of Scott Hughes/Wikimedia Commons (Snowbird Resort); courtesy of Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau (Soleri Bridge); by Reinhard Dirscherl (Sea of Cortez); courtesy of Ams100272/Wikipedia (Jackson Hole); courtesy of K50 Dude/Wikipedia (Mount Bachelor)

This article was first published in January 2014. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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