12 Most Breathtaking Rock Formations in America
From the country's deepest canyon to sacred volcanic towers in the sky, these rock formations are as mesmerizing as they are grand.
Sure, you know the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Zion. But what about the incredible sites and breathtaking rock formations that lie beyond our country’s ever-popular national parks? In our pandemic world, outdoor pursuits require fewer crowds and more space, and there are plenty of places in the country where you can find that, along with some of Mother Nature’s greatest creations.
You might not have considered these 12 spots—but you should. Each offers myriad opportunities for head-turning road trips, quiet outdoor getaways, unforgettable adrenaline rushes, and plenty of time spent in awe. But the stars of the show are the most amazing rocks you’ll ever see. From ancient volcanic explosions to the nation’s deepest canyon to towers popping out of the prairie, America’s geologic story is a stunner. Of course, America isn’t the only place with amazing natural wonders.
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
Forty thousand acres of orange-red Aztec sandstone give this hard-to-believe state park its name with a 150-million-year-old landscape that puts most parks of its class to shame. An easy day trip from Las Vegas, rock formations like Pink Canyon and the Beehives look like they’ve popped right out of Mars. This is Nevada’s first and oldest state park for a reason.
A 1.5-mile round-trip trek will take you out to the impossibly scenic Fire Wave, which is beautiful enough for your desktop’s wallpaper. And the short-and-sweet Petroglyph Canyon Trail, which is under a mile, is lined with incredible Puebloan rock art—some of which is more than 2,000 years old. You can visit both Craters of the Moon and the Valley of Fire on a Route 93 border-to-border road trip.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico
About an hour from Albuquerque, gigantic cones of pumice, ash, and tuff deposits spring up out of the landscape, the result of volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago that blanketed the land in 1,000 feet of earthen debris. The rocks look like perfect tents, some towering up to 90 feet tall.
For an easy-yet-scenic trek, look to the Cave Loop Trail. For something more difficult—and rewarding—aim for the 1.5-mile Canyon Trail, which winds upward through a slot canyon to the mesa’s top, where views of three different mountain ranges (Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, and Sandia) steal the show. For a different type of mile-high experience, check out these mountain towns that look straight out of a storybook.
Colorado National Monument, Colorado
Rising right out of Grand Junction, Colorado National Monument is a smorgasbord of the Southwest’s best rock formations. Whether you’re hiking, biking, or driving, you’ll see plenty of red-rock canyons, sandstone towers, and spectacular tunnels. For more incredible sights, nearby McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area boasts the second-highest concentration of rock arches in the world, along with countless spires, hoodoos, and alcoves.
The 23-mile Rim Rock Drive takes you deep into the monument, along canyon walls, and then descends into the valley—it’s an impossibly scenic drive. Stretch your legs on one of the half-dozen trails that are less than a mile long, making for varied experiences and incredible views, without the need to test your limits. Next, find out the most historic landmark in Colorado—and every other state.
Monument Rocks, Kansas
The nation’s first National Natural Landmark, the Monument Rocks in western Kansas, showcases the kind of surprise the prairie is capable of. Seventy-foot blocks of chalk somehow landed right in the middle of scrubby ranchlands, remnants of an ancient sea that filled middle America 80 million years ago. The rocks—don’t touch them, as they erode easily—are chock-full of fossils, too.
Where will you find them, exactly? Drive up Gove County Roads 14 and 16 (largely packed gravel) until you see the Stonehenge-like structures. Snap a few photos, try to make out which formation is “Charlie the Dog,” and see if you can spot any fossils with your naked eye. You’ll also want to see these perfectly timed nature photos that look fake but aren’t.
Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah
Bryce Canyon’s smaller, higher-elevation cousin (about 1,500 feet higher, at 10,000 feet) offers much the same experience as Bryce—but without the crowds. Cedar Breaks’ red-rock amphitheater is a half-mile deep, with hoodoos and spires cascading downward until the painted cliffs turn into spruce and fir forests. To avoid snowshoeing in (the main road closes to cars come winter), visit from June through October.
While you can’t hike down into the amphitheater, you can hike along the rim and through the meadows and forests. Catch the sunset at one of the viewpoints, and stick around for one of the ranger-led star parties—the skies up here are bright, bright, bright. Can’t get to Utah anytime soon? Take a look at these 15 breathtaking views of the night sky you rarely get to see.
Hells Canyon, Idaho and Oregon
Ten miles wide and 7,993 feet deep, Hells Canyon is the country’s deepest river gorge—far deeper than the Grand Canyon. It was carved by the powerful Snake River only a few million years ago, and no bridges cross its expanse, a remote and wild area. The Hells Canyon Scenic Byway follows the Idaho side of the rift and offers a few great vistas, but the true Hells Canyon experience is found at the river bottom, on a jet boat or whitewater raft zooming across the water. You won’t want to miss these stunning river photos from around the world.
Craters of the Moon, Idaho
Boasting 618 square miles of nothing but lava, Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve does nothing if not live up to its name. Some 2,000 to 15,000 years old—practically fresh in geologic terms—this Idaho monument contains nearly every volcanic rock formation possible: cinder cones, lava rivers, lava tubes, spatter cones, tree molds, and nearly endless lava beds.
When you visit, climb up Inferno Cone for great views, explore the half-mile Caves Trail to wander through lava tubes, and scope out the North Crater Flow Trail near the visitor center. And definitely make sure to set up shop at Lava Flow Campground. Craters of the Moon is the country’s only dark-sky preserve, with unparalleled views of the Milky Way every cloudless night. Here are another 8 spectacular national parks that are even more incredible on starry nights.
Garden of the Gods, Colorado
Just outside Colorado Springs, 300-million-year-old, 300-foot-tall sandstone rock formations jut out of pinyon-juniper woodlands, drawing you and your eye away from nearby Pikes Peak. Paths wind up, around, and in between them, like a true “garden” you can meander, contemplate, and touch. The park has 15 miles of trails, each leading you to red giants that will dwarf you in size and grandeur. A seven-mile scenic loop—with multiple parking lots and picnic areas—gives you a 360-degree look at this natural wonder. It’s free to the public, so go early to beat the crowds.
Cathedral Spires, South Dakota
Tucked into one of the country’s best state parks, the Cathedral Spires of South Dakota’s Custer State Park couldn’t be further in appearance from the Great Plains. Part of the larger Needles complex, these immense granite spires stand like a singing congregation, rising 500 feet out of the dense greenery of the Black Hills.
Want to immerse yourself in this heavenly scenery? A difficult 1.5-mile hiking trail takes you in amongst the high towers of granite, the trailhead found just off the aptly named Needles Highway. Bring a light picnic for the end of the trek and watch for wildlife. The 7.4-mile hike up Black Elk Peak offers similarly fantastic views.
Devils Tower, Wyoming
Devils Tower is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians, and you’ll know why when you see it. It looks like little else on the planet—hexagonal columns of phonolite, once molten lava, climbing nearly 1,000 feet into the air. It was the first national monument in the country, and it was also the backdrop for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 1.3-mile Tower Trail circumnavigates the base, and four other trails provide unique perspectives on the laccolith. Visit in summer and you’ll notice intrepid climbers tackling its vertical walls. For more real-life movie moments, here are 65 movie and TV filming locations you can actually visit.
Mono Lake, California
California’s Mono Lake is unique in a few ways: It’s one of the oldest lakes on the continent; it has no outlets; it’s saltier than the ocean; and it’s full of tufa towers, solid calcium carbonate spires that form where freshwater springs meet the lake’s alkaline waters. It’s also full of brine shrimp, which means the bird watching here is glorious.
What should you do there, besides enjoy the scenery? Launch your kayak in between the tufa towers at Navy Beach, go for a stroll along the boardwalks of the South Tufa Area, relax on the beach and wait for the bird show, or hop in the water—because of the dense saltwater, you might just float like an ice cube.
Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, Utah and Arizona
The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness is one of the country’s last great wild refuges, a 112,500-acre maze of backcountry canyons, cliffs, deserts, and plateaus untouched by man. You’ve probably seen pictures of The Wave—it’s so popular, there’s a lottery to obtain access—or even Buckskin Gulch, one of the world’s longest slot canyons. Avid hikers, campers, and photographers know this area is a goldmine for off-grid adventures. Don’t expect any facilities here!
You’ll need a permit for day-hiking or overnight trips in Paria Canyon or Buckskin Gulch. Only 20 permits are administered per day, and they need to be reserved four months in advance. When you’re here, often there will be no trail—you just hike, and hike, and hike to your heart’s content. These 15 incredible American campsites should also be on your bucket list.
Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go.