Natural wonders abound in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, from waterfalls and iceberg-carved canyons to steep peaks and jagged cliffs. Some, like Niagara Falls, are well-known around the world. Others are just as spectacular, even if less famous.
Here are five natural wonders to bring out the adventurer’s heart in explorers of all ages.
Pennsylvania Grand Canyon State Park
Carved by glaciers more than 20,000 years ago, the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, or Pine Creek Gorge, is over 45 miles long and nearly 1,500 feet deep. The area’s timber was heavily cut in the late 1800s to provide wood for houses in Philadelphia until a government official discovered the canyon and said, “This is a natural wonder. People will come from miles around to look at it. I think we should make it a state park,’” recounted Colleen Hanson, executive director of Visit Potter-Tioga Pennsylvania.
Two state parks offer canyon experiences: Colton Point on the west rim of the canyon and Leonard Harrison on the east rim. Both offer spectacular views of the canyon. A brand-new visitor’s center is being built on the east rim and is scheduled for completion in a year and a half. In the meantime, several nice hiking trails stretch along the rim.
The Rim Trail is an easy one-mile loop trail in Colton Point State Park that offers several beautiful vantages overlooking the canyon. Turkey Path is a strenuous 1.5-mile hike down to the floor of the canyon. A highlight of the hike is a 70-foot cascading waterfall about a half mile down.
The Barbour Rock Blue Overlook Trail is a 1.3-mile out and back trail. It features the most iconic view of the canyon and is popular for birding and hiking. On the floor of the canyon, an old railroad bed is now a 64-mile trail perfect for hiking, biking or horseback riding. Groups can take a draft horse-pulled covered wagon tour of the canyon with a historian. Tour groups can be split into two wagons for the two-hour tour.
Palisades Interstate Park
Alpine, New Jersey
Visitors to New York City might notice beautiful cliffs soaring across the Hudson River with a canopy of trees at the top and bottom. New Jersey’s Palisades Interstate Park was a bi-state effort to conserve natural lands. As governor of New York in the 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt helped negotiate the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which predates the creation of the National Park Service.
Before the area was preserved, it was industrial, and the cliffs were being quarried for concrete.
“It went from being an industrial landscape to what it is today: a magnificent slice of nature,” said Joshua Laird, executive director of Palisades Interstate Park. “Nature is reasserting itself on the landscape after decades of destruction.”
The park was dedicated in 1909, encompassing about 2,500 acres on the clifftops and at the base near the waterfront. A 12-mile shoreline path runs along the base of the cliffs and creates a network of trails to hike. Several paths and roads crisscross the park, giving visitors many opportunities to climb from the top of the cliffs down to the water’s edge and its amazing views of New York City.
Fort Lee Historic Park is under the management of Palisades Interstate Park at the southern end of the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. The original fortifications are gone but groups can explore the visitor center and a living history area with a collection of recreated soldier and officer huts, battlements and replica cannons. The Alpine Pavilion is a historic open-air stone structure perfect for picnics.
Palisades Parkway is a National Scenic Byway with three scenic pull-offs. The State Line Lookout has a snack bar and is a great spot to hike. More adventurous groups can take a hiking trail to the base of the cliffs and then scramble up the Giant Stairs, a boulder field that spills down the cliffside.
Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park is one of the most visited destinations in Maine, attracting 4 million visitors annually. Located on Maine’s Atlantic coast, a large part of the park is on Mount Desert Island and encapsulates much of Maine’s natural beauty, including rugged rocky coastline and Cadillac Mountain, the tallest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard at 1,527 feet in elevation.
The east side of the island is the most visited part of Acadia, with the 27-mile Park Loop Road offering amazing views and access to some of the park’s highlights, including Sieur de Monts, Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, Otter Cliffs, Jordan Pond, Cadillac Mountain, Eagle Lake, Bar Island and Compass Harbor. There are also 158 miles of hiking trails and 48 miles of historic carriage roads in the park.
Larger groups require a special use commercial permit to visit, especially during the busy season, as some motorcoaches are too large to access all locations in the park. Smaller groups can leave their vehicles in a parking lot and take the free Island Explorer shuttle, which travels around the island, stopping at several top park destinations, including trailheads.
The Hulls Cove Visitors Center is a great starting point for visitors to the park. Groups that want a more structured visit can book tours with several local organizations, including Down East Nature Tours in Bar Harbor, that offer birdwatching and nature tours of Acadia, and the Natural History Center, which can organize birding, tide-pooling, hiking or kayaking adventures. In the winter, groups can take guided cross-country skiing or snowshoeing trips through the park. The organization also teaches groups about the natural and cultural heritage of the park on sightseeing tours along the historic Park Loop Road.
New Hampshire Flume Gorge/Franconia Notch State Park
Lincoln, New Hampshire
Flume Gorge is a narrow slice of heaven at the base of Mount Liberty in Lincoln, New Hampshire. According to New Hampshire State Parks, the walls of the flume are made of Conway granite that started out as molten rock. As the rock cooled, the granite was broken by closely spaced vertical fractures.
Years later, small dikes of basalt were forced up along the fractures. Neither form of rock was visible until erosion eventually exposed the dikes. Because the basalt layers are a softer material, they eroded faster than the granite due to water and ice, creating the beautiful gorge visible today. The granite walls are 70 to 90 feet tall and are separated by only 12 to 20 feet. The state park service built a two-mile gravel trail and boardwalk through the gorge to make the crossing easier. The path is steep in some places and includes many stairs. The gorge is covered in flowers, ferns and bright green moss.
Group visitors to the gorge can take the short hike, which takes about an hour and a half, and watch a 20-minute video about Franconia Notch at the visitor center. The center sets the stage for what visitors will see when they hike the gorge and visit the park. Franconia Notch State Park encompasses 7,000 acres and has several other natural features worth seeing, including the Basin, a glacially formed pothole with a waterfall that goes into it and swirls around. Boise Rock is a large glacial erratic boulder that was randomly dropped there as glaciers moved through the area. At the northern end of the park, Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway is an 80-person cable car that takes visitors up more than 4,080 feet to the summit of Cannon Mountain.
Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls, New York
Niagara Falls State Park, founded in 1885, is America’s oldest state park. It is made up of three distinct waterfalls, including Horseshoe Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and American Falls, and attracts more than 9 million visitors a year. In the past decade, New York State has invested $150 million into revitalizing the landscape, renovating, and redesigning viewing areas and walkways.
A new welcome center, which is scheduled to open by the end of 2023, will highlight the park’s daredevil history and indigenous culture and will offer hands-on experiences to enhance a visit to one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks.
Niagara Falls is open year-round and is free to visit. At night, the waterfalls are illuminated. During the summer months and on special occasions, the park will shoot off fireworks above them. Group visitors can take guided hikes of the park or partake in educational programming led by the park’s interpretive staff.
Boat tours take groups to the base of Horseshoe Falls, and Cave of the Winds is a series of platforms that allow visitors to get up close to Bridal Veil Falls. Rain ponchos and waterproof footwear are a must. Visitors to Cave of the Winds can also view the World Changed Here Pavilion, an indoor multimedia experience that highlights the natural and cultural history of Niagara Falls. Groups that want to cross over to the Canadian side of the falls will need to bring their passports for the border crossing.
To see other popular attractions in the area, visitors can pick up the Discover Niagara Shuttle, a hop-on/hop-off bus that stops at 15 destinations from the falls to Old Fort Niagara.