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Natural wonder

What better place to “stand still and consider the wondrous works of God,” as directed in the book of Job, than to look up at 3,160 tons of plummeting water at Niagara Falls, or feebly try and hug a 22-foot-wide redwood tree at Redwood National and State Parks? Miraculous natural wonders in the United States can create the perfect mood for spiritual retreats and often come with the bonus of proximity to other great attractions, such as religious plays, historic churches and other parks.

Natural Bridge of Virginia
Natural Bridge, Va.

To explain a peculiar 230-foot-high stone bridge, the Monacan Indians’ legend says the Natural Bridge of Virginia originally appeared to help the tribe escape from an advancing enemy.

“One of the great parts about Natural Bridge is its history,” said Craig Corwin, associate director of marketing for the site. “It has ties to the Monacan Indians, Thomas Jefferson, and was one of the top two most popular natural attractions in early America.”

The massive rock retains reminders of its historical impact with markers such as George Washington’s initials, which he carved into the stone while surveying the area in 1750. Just four years later, Jefferson purchased the bridge from King George III for 20 shillings.

During the day, many groups follow the Cedar Creek Nature Trail under the bridge’s sheer walls, and at night, they watch as the bridge bursts into brilliant colors for the seasonal Drama of Creation. The choreographed light show unfolds the Genesis story with narration and musical accompaniment.

Garden of the Gods
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Inexplicably, from out of

Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation

the flat plains leading to the Rocky Mountains, 300-foot-tall red sandstone formations jut out of the ground in Colorado Springs. In 1859, surveyors thought the red rock scenery, with Pikes Peak in the backdrop, seemed a worthy place for gods to congregate and named it Garden of the Gods.

Now a National Natural Landmark, the park remains free to the public, with a visitors center, 15 miles of trails and guided tours.

“Geologists come from all over to study the millions of y

The downpour of water at Niagara Falls, left, and the magnificent peaks of the Garden of the Gods, above, continue to inspire visitors from around the globe.

Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center

ears of history standing on end,” said Bonnie Frum, director of operations for the Garden of the Gods Visitors Center. “Scientists also come because of the great plant and animal diversity. You have the plains, foothills and the mountains all in one view. It’s really a 3-D picture where all these different ecosystems come together.”

Guests should always be on the lookout for bighorn sheep, bears and other wildlife that have made the gods’ garden their home.

Redwood National and State Parks
Crescent City, Calif.

At first, it may feel like an experience out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, with immense trees soaring over people’s heads. The Redwood National and State Parks’ 300-foot-high redwood trees remain the tallest trees in the world and one of the most massive species on earth.

These ancient giants started the size of tomato seeds yet can grow to a width of 22 feet and live as long as 2,000 years. Walking through the enchanted forest, guests can muse about what historic figures, from Julius Caesar to Shakespeare, might have lived during the trees’ lifetimes.

Tours of the 131,983-acre park can involve scenic drives, hikes and stops at one of the parks’ five visitor centers. To see as many of these mammoth beauties as possible, drive the 31-mile Avenue of Giants and the 10-mile Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, which curve along old-growth redwood forests; stop along the way to see particularly sizable trees, such as Big Tree Wayside. For an extra fee, you can travel some routes that run directly through a redwood tree, like a tunnel carved through a mountain.

Clingmans Dome
Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.

Standing at the summit of a windblown ridge top on a clear day, you can see the rolling Smoky Mountains stretch out for an incredible vista that spans 100 miles and seven states. But even on a hazy day, the view from the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi astounds visitors to the Great

Natural Bridge of Virginia

Smoky Mountains National Park’s Clingmans Dome.

To reach the 6,643-foot peak of Clingmans Dome, groups can ride up the mountain to the observation tower. From there, a half-mile paved trail leads to the summit for 360-degree views of the Smokies’ deciduous and spruce fir forests.

Views of natural wonders come from all angles, whether looking over Tennessee at Clingmans Dome, above, or gazing up the 230-foot-high Natural Bridge of Virginia, left. State of Tennessee Photographic Services

“We have a lot of church retreats here,” said Kay Poole, sales manager for the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. “It can be a very spiritual thing to look at the views from Clingmans Dome. You can see the beauty of God’s work from up there.”

A step-on guide often conducts groups along the Newfound Gap Road while describing the park’s history and ecology. The musical theater production The Miracle plays seasonally at Pigeon Forge, with singers, dancers and live animals telling the story of Jesus’ life.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The 3,160 tons of water falling per second over Niagara Falls produces a deafening roar that has kept artists, writers and influential people coming to the falls in search of inspiration. Visitors can experience the humbling intensity of the raging torrents more fully through lookouts, boat rides and a trolley ride around the state park.

Many guests start at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center for hands-on exhibits, a 40-minute Imax presentation and information about Niagara Falls State Park’s 1885 founding. Afterward, numerous lookouts provide views of the falls so close that a cool spray will douse visitors on the Crow’s Nest outlook at the Niagara Falls Observation Tower.

The tower also serves as the boarding location for the Maid of the Mist boat ride that sails underneath the crashing waters to see the rock formations on the other side. Another tour doles out souvenir rain ponchos to groups before they follow a guide over a wooden walkway to the Hurricane Deck, which stops 20-feet from the rushing falls. Just standing on the deck seems an adventure, with winds full of water simulating a storm.

Fantastic Caverns
Springfield, Mo.

Amazing stalagmites, stalagtites, tiny soda straws, cave pearls and massive columns were formed drop by drop over thousands of years beneath Missouri’s Ozarks at Fantastic Caverns. The Fantastic Caverns tour stands out from the state’s other bizarrely beautiful cave tours, because it remains America’s only ride-through cave tour.

Both protective of the cave environment from thousands of humans and convenient for passengers who could not have trekked the entire mile tour, Fantastic Caverns’ propane-run jeeps curve around the flowstones and delicate draperies of the cave for a relaxing ride.

In 1867, 12 women from Springfield first explored the cave by answering a newspaper ad seeking adventurers willing to walk through the dark cave.

“The cave today appears much as it did 100 years ago,” said Kirk Hansen, public relations director for the cave. “We were fortunate [that] when the cave was forming, it left behind a bed of mud on the floor that we could put gravel on. The ride drives right beside the formations.”