Image: Fisher Towers
37 Nord  /  Alamy
High above the rose-red landscape of southern Utah, Fisher Towers rise like sandstone sentries guarding one of the country’s most magnificent regions.
updated 8/23/2009 4:22:35 PM ET 2009-08-23T20:22:35

The first wagonloads of prospectors bumped into the valley on Christmas Day, 1849, drawn by tales of gold, silver and great fortunes awaiting them on the Western frontier. Hopes were high after small silver deposits were struck, but the success of the ‘49ers was short-lived. Food and water shortages left them on the brink of despair; many had to slaughter their oxen to stave off starvation, leaving behind their wagons and continuing their westward haul on foot. Nearly half the original settlement perished that winter. The survivors, lean and ragged after months of hardship, were happy to sing “Goodbye, Death Valley” as they left in search of better fortunes.

That first winter might not have played well on the tourist brochures of 19th-century California. Yet despite its grim past and a less-than-inviting name, Death Valley today is one of America’s great natural attractions. The hottest, driest and, at 300-feet-below sea level, lowest place in North America, it attracts legions of tourists each year to its unforgiving landscape — even in the brutal heat of summer, when temperatures can top 130 degrees Farenheit.

America’s top natural wonders are a study in extremes, from the lowest point in Death Valley to the highest peak atop Mount McKinley. Like everything in our super-sized country, they’re also rich in superlatives: the world’s most active volcano, Mount Kilauea, which has been spewing a flow of hot lava for nearly three decades; or the continent’s most powerful waterfall, Niagara Falls, which gushes more than 4 million cubic feet of water per minute.

For travelers, America’s iconic attractions are also places where memories are made. Casey Sheehan, now CEO of active apparel company Patagonia, remembers hiking across the Grand Canyon with a friend nearly three decades ago, cross-country skis strapped to their backpacks. After a stormy night spent huddled inside their tent, they woke to a glorious winter morning.

“We packed up our tent, and we hiked up to the top of the North Rim,” says Sheehan, “and there was this beautiful, glittering plateau of fresh powder. We skied around the North Rim, got out on some of the ledges and plateaus and took some pictures. It was an amazing trip.”

It’s a trip that Sheehan would be hard-pressed to repeat with such vigor today. “I was in much better shape then,” he concedes. He also worries that such iconic American landscapes won’t be around for his children to enjoy.

“We’ve lost so much through development all over North America,” he says, noting that with “every new golf course resort that pops up ... it’s a real step back.” He likes to paraphrase the words of a favorite writer, asking, “How often is it that you look out on a field of deer and elk and reflect wistfully that all this was once condos?”

Barringer Meteor Crater
Charles O'Rear  /  Corbis
It’s believed that the massive Barringer Crater in the Arizona desert — some 4,000 feet across, and nearly 600 feet deep — was formed by a meteor impact 50,000 years ago.

Fortunately, thanks to the work of conservationists and the National Parks Service, the dramatic landscapes of all the top wonders have been preserved, along with the lesser-known national treasures, like the shimmering shores of the Great Salt Lake or the subterranean marvels of The Lost Sea. Whether it’s a top wonder or a hidden gem, it’s worth remembering the words of Teddy Roosevelt, who looked with wonder across the Grand Canyon and remarked, “Keep it for your children, and your children’s children, and all who come after you.”

Photos: 7 finalists

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  1. Table Mountain

    Table Mountain and the city of Cape Town, South Africa, are seen on April 2, 2010, from Blouberg Beach on the city's outskirts. Table Mountain on Nov. 11, 2011, was named a provisional finalist in the New 7 Wonders of Nature contest. (Afp / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Puerto Princesa Underground River

    Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, center, sits with New7Wonders Foundation President Bernard Weber, third from right, and Director Jean-Paul de la Fuente, second left, on a boat as it passes under a mushroom-shaped rock formation Oct. 23, 2011, inside the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park at Kabayugan town, in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, western Philippines. The 5-mile-long Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Romeo Ranoco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Komodo

    A Komodo dragon searches the shore area of Komodo island for prey. Indonesia’s Komodo National Park, which includes the islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar as well as several smaller islands, was founded in 1980 to protect the Komodo dragon. (Romeo Gacad / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jeju Island

    Jeju Island in South Korea is one of the New7Wonders of Nature announced Nov. 11, 2011. The results are provisional until voting can be independently verified. (Jeju Provincial Government/hando / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Halong Bay

    Tourist boats are seen Dec. 8, 2007, anchored in Halong Bay on the northeastern coast of Vietnam. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Quang Ninh province, Vietnam, and features thousands of limestone karsts and isles in various sizes and shapes. (Afp / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Amazon

    Lake Condor, located deep within the Amazon jungle, reflects the sky August 20, 2001, in Peru. The vast Amazon Rainforest is 1.4 billion acres and is located within nine nations. (Anibal Solimano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Iguazu Falls

    Water flowing over Iguazu Falls leaves a cloud of mist between Brazil, foreground, and Argentina, background, as the sun sets Aug. 12, 2009, over the Iguazu National Park. (David Silverman / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A general view of the Table Mountain and
    Afp / AFP-Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (7) Wonders of Nature - 7 finalists
  2. Peter Hendrie / Lonely Planet
    Slideshow (27) Wonders of Nature - 28 nominees


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