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If death engenders a clearer understanding of life, then Death Valley's appellation is powerfully apposite. The region's extreme aridity, emptiness, and temperatures (a record-breaking 134 degrees Fahrenheit) provide visitors with a lucidity as articulate as the perfectly delineated rock strata—layers that illustrate a snapshot of the earth's history in one fell panorama.  
Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten 
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Like the legendary Greek labyrinth of Knossos, Utah's Canyonlands National Park—divided into three regions, including one named the Maze—will swallow the ill-equipped within its sandstone folds. Any 21st-century Theseus, though, will only face self-inflicted Minotaurs, be they whitewater rapids, precipitous spires, or sheer canyon rims.  
Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten 
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Kenai Fjords' mountains are slowly being dragged into the sea by the collision of two tectonic plates. Looking at them, you'd never know; still almost a mile high, they shadow water plied by families of humpback, orca, gray, and fin-tail whales. Most of the park is a glaciated icefield measuring 35 miles long by 20 miles wide, interrupted only intermittently by protruding nunatak—an Eskimo word meaning 'lonely peaks.'  
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The National Park Service tallies more than nine million annual visits to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, making it the most-visited national park in the United States. Saddled over the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the park is one of the most accessible in the country and arguably the most extensive on the East Coast, but with over 850 miles of hiking trails, it is possible to ditch the crowds.  
Credit: West Stock 
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About 14 centuries ago, the Anasazi people settled in Colorado's Mesa Verde, building a complex network of cliff dwellings within the surrounding walls. In 1978, UNESCO named Mesa Verde a World Heritage Site, and today, the park is one of the world's most important archaeological preserves—a lesson in ancient history that's best absorbed while hiking, biking, or even skiing.  
Credit: Corbis 
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Sixty percent of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands is protected parkland, preserving a landscape—first inhabited as early as 710 B.C.—with all the hallmarks of paradise: golden beaches, exotic plant life, and vibrant coral reefs. In fact, a third of the park is viewable only by donning mask and fins, revealing such underwater treasures as Buck Island Reef National Monument, the most elaborate marine garden in the Caribbean.  
Credit: Corel 
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The eighth wonder of the world and an international icon, the Grand Canyon is a two-billion-year-old scar that plunges one mile down and runs over 200 miles long. Whether rafting the Colorado River's rapids beneath looming limestone walls, moseying the mile-deep descent astride a mule, hiking beside thunderous falls, or catching sight of a soaring bald eagle, the Big Ditch's topography rarely disappoints.  
Credit: Photodisc 
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Yellowstone (the world's first national park, established in 1872) is a geological boiling pot. Even when snow-covered, hot springs periodically erupt, spewing scalding water hundreds of feet into the air and causing the earth to tremble—a reminder to us all that a volcanic pulse churns barely below the surface.  
Credit: Corel 
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The fantasist would describe Utah's Arches National Park as a giant's jungle gym painted in fiery sandstone-orange. For those of us with less gargantuan visions, this menagerie of arches, spires, fins, pinnacles, balanced rocks, and pedestals is still a scattered toy box of exhilarating, eminently climbable obstacles.  
Credit: Abrahm Lustgarten 
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Mount Rainier (14,410 feet) presides 8,000 feet above the surrounding Cascades range, and it is the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. The peak has long been a rite-of-passage for North American climbers. Over 9,000 climbers attempt the ascent each year, but only half are successful—the other 50 percent turn back due to severe weather, route conditions, or, for the more unfortunate, illness or injury.  
Credit: Corel 
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Yosemite pays for its exquisite, glacially-carved architecture with teeming crowds in peak tourist season. Nevertheless, the valley's Half Dome is monumentally impressive, and there's always the less populated high country for those seeking solace and much-needed cooler temperatures.  
Credit: Photodisc 
 
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