As summer travel ramps up, travelers are searching for destinations far, far away from their home offices. Luckily, the U.S. contains awe-inspiring national parks and preserves that resemble lunar landscapes and the rocky terrains of Earth's planetary neighbors. Here, a few places on our home planet that might just make you feel like you’re on another one.
Death Valley National Park
Nevada / California
Despite its name, Death Valley is full of life—from the blooming fields of wildflowers to the small oases that provide a refuge for birds, fish and mammals. You may have seen the ethereal hexagonal shapes formed in the salt flats of Badwater Basin. Or maybe this national park reminds you of a galaxy far, far away. It wouldn’t be such a stretch of the imagination, considering many of the Tatooine scenes from Star Wars were filmed here. In actuality, Death Valley is much closer than it appears—just a two-hour drive west of Las Vegas.
Haleakalā National Park
Take in the landscape 10,023 feet below the peak of the dormant volcano Haleakalā (“house of the sun” in Hawaiian). According to local legend, the demigod Maui lassoed the sun from the volcano’s summit to slow its descent and lengthen the day. However, you might wish there were more hours at night for the stunning stargazing: the lack of light and environmental pollution create ideal viewing conditions.
White Sands National Park
Inducted just last year, White Sands is the most recent addition to the country’s National Park System. Located about a three-and-a-half-hour drive south of Albuquerque, this sprawling desert is home to more than 600 species of invertebrates. Its namesake bright sand is composed of gypsum, a mineral that dissolves in water, but the unique weather patterns in the Tularosa Basin prevent that from happening, making White Sands the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Located just 20 miles northeast of Flagstaff, this dormant volcano was named for the pink-tinged rocks that surround its crater. All of the astronauts who would later walk on the moon spent some time training on this lunar-like landscape. Visit the Bonito Lava Flow, where astronauts tried out sampling techniques and tested field equipment such as the Lunar Roving Vehicle.
Goblin Valley State Park
Though you may not encounter aliens in this state park, you will come across hundreds of goblin- and gnome-like structures. Often compared to Mars, Goblin Valley’s landscape is full of bright orange sandstone that has been worn away into formations resembling mythical creatures and mushrooms. The towering hoodoos create a perfect playground for all ages about 200 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
The 13-mile long Mendenhall Glacier is a fascinating site to explore if you’re visiting Alaska’s capital. Even more impressive are the hidden blue ice caves in the partially hollow glacier, accessible only by kayak. Visit with caution, however: Each summer, collected meltwater bursts from the glacier.
Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve
More than 50 years ago, astronauts Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan and Joe Engle explored Idaho's Craters of the Moon while training to land on the actual moon. You, too, can traverse the more than 53,000 acres of volcanic formations that make up the biggest lava field in the contiguous United States. While you’re surveying lava tubes and tree molds, be sure to look up—these fields can be seen from space.