North America's Most Fascinating (Non-Eclipse) Natural Phenomena

 Staring at the eclipse while Old Faithful explodes in the background.
Staring at the eclipse while Old Faithful explodes in the background. Yellowstone National Park
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In the late summer of 2017, a great cosmic shadow steamrolled across the contiguous U.S. in the first total solar eclipse to hit coast-to-coast in the country since 1918. From Oregon to South Carolina, observers in the 71-mile-wide swath of totality saw the sun’s fireball snuffed out by the moon, creating one of the more gobsmacking spectacles viewable on terra firma: a black circle where our home star should be, rimmed with coronal flame and glaring down from an eerily shrouded daytime sky. The Great American Eclipse, they called it, and the couple minutes of its maximum totality capped what felt like an unprecedented crescendo of pre-eclipse coverage.

You can’t beat Annie Dillard’s account of the 1979 total solar eclipse (the last one seen anywhere in the U.S. before 2017) in her Teaching a Stone to Talk for a description of the sheer strangeness of totality. I sure as hell won’t try approaching its incantatory power. I will heartily second this early passage: “Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”

Having experienced the Great American Eclipse on the northern frontier of the path of totality, I can attest to the basically indescribable (well, unless you’re Annie Dillard) dream-world fleetingly made inside the umbra. Our out-in-the-sagebrush eclipse vantage revealed such primal happenings as a gang of turkey vultures winging to roost in the gathering day-darkness; a swarm of mosquitoes materializing demonically with the ebbing temperature; and one mountain range in the umbra’s heart black-rimmed against the southwest sky during totality, and another outside the shadow to the northeast shining as at daybreak. And, of course, that smoldering black sun-hole, a sight that’s literally burned into the gray matter.

A total solar eclipse—one of the more gobsmacking spectacles viewable on terra firma.
A total solar eclipse—one of the more gobsmacking spectacles viewable on terra firma. NPS / Jacob W. Frank

It’s only seven years until the next total solar eclipse will cast its pall over the U.S., and given the clockwork predictability of this celestial show (and the clockwork predictability of the umbraphilic hordes it’ll attract), consider ironing down some travel plans for it now. (Check out NASA’s map of the April 2024 total solar eclipse right here to start strategizing.)

It’s certainly worth tracking down a total solar eclipse if you can, no question—whether or not you’re the sort who’ll go to the far ends of the Earth to witness it. But hey, here’s a friendly reminder that, while the moon’s silhouette engulfing the sun is truly awesome in the oldest sense of the word, it isn’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to stirring natural wonders.

Here, we’ve pulled together a motley lineup of equally cool phenomena you might put on your bucket list. Most of these are much more regularly seen than a total solar eclipse; some you can appreciate in many different places, while others have a more restricted geography. They’re random as can be, running the whole animal-vegetable-mineral gamut and claiming no common thread aside from their singular awesomeness.

Let these "common miracles" be an inspiration to seek out awe on the trail each and every day of the year—and in as many forms as possible.

Alpenglow

Alpenglow clinging to a jagged mountain peak.
Alpenglow clinging to a jagged mountain peak. Shahid Durrani

Campers and climbers in the mountains know alpenglow well, even if it’s sometimes mistakenly applied to more general, garden-variety sunrise and sunset ambience. Strictly speaking, alpenglow is the reflection of sunlight along the skyline opposite the just-set or nearly risen Sun. (If the Sun’s up, in other words, it isn’t alpenglow.)

This ethereal salmon-pink or pale-fire red is best appreciated on bare rock walls, crags, and snowy horns, or on a giant rampart of twilight cumulus. Not an unusual sight by any means—yet every time you experience it, it seems (for a moment) like the most flat-out gorgeous thing ever.

The Green Flash

The Green Flash in all its glory.
The Green Flash in all its glory. Christian Obermeier

A more rarely seen vision around dawn or dusk, the green flash is a fleeting disk, blotch, or bolt of emerald color wrapping up sundown or heralding sunrise. Caused by atmospheric refraction, this brief, cosmic signal flare is most easily seen along a level horizon from an elevated vantage (an ocean skyline being among the most promising stages for green-flash spectacles) and under clear, stable atmospheric conditions.

Word to the (hop-loving) wise: The phenomenon also gives its name to a mighty fine San Diego craft brewery. Nothing better with which to toast a sunset—even one sans green flash.

Floating Totem: The Old Man of the Lake

The Old Man of the Lake bobbing above the surface of Crater Lake.
The Old Man of the Lake bobbing above the surface of Crater Lake. jlmaxw

You can see alpenglow and green flashes all over the world; the Old Man of the Lake, by contrast, has a specific zipcode. Crater Lake in the Oregon Cascades is lauded among the most beautiful bodies of water in the world: a pristine, startlingly blue tub occupying the self-destructed crown of Mount Mazama, which formed the caldera—subsequently flooded by snowmelt—during a drama-queen eruption roughly 5,700 years ago.

The craggy caldera maw, sapphire depths, and volcanic isles (Wizard and Phantom Ship) grab your immediate attention upon cresting the Mazama rim, but there’s an equally tantalizing component of the Crater Lake tableau: a sodden driftwood bole in a preposterously upright position.

The Old Man in the Lake, as he’s called, has been continuously bobbing around the lake since at least 1896, when a geologist, Joseph S. Diller, first sighted him close to Wizard Island. The driftlog’s jagged top end juts roughly four feet above the surface; there’s another 26 or so feet of deadwood underwater.

The Old Man is the floating skeleton of a mountain hemlock reckoned at some 450 years old that—at some indeterminate point (but obviously before 1896)—entered the lake. Some speculate he skidded down roots-first in a landslide off the sheer walls of the caldera, though how he’s managed to stay vertical so long without any stabilizing rootball left—and why there aren’t other similarly oriented Old Men of the Lake rafting about—is a bit of a mystery.

Boat tours of Crater Lake typically make time to pay their respects to the venerable buoyant spar, which legend says commands the mountaintop weather.

Woodcock Wooing

An American woodcock, aka a timberdoodle.
An American woodcock, aka a timberdoodle. Fyn Kynd

From the Midwest to the Atlantic coast, spring daybreaks and evenings in the woods and fields come marked by the impressive courtship displays of that otherwise retiring, long-billed gamebird called the American woodcock, aka timberdoodle. To seduce discerning ladies, a male woodcock announces his forthcoming show with nasal “peents,” then spirals a few hundred feet into the crepuscular sky, the air over his wings making a distinctive “twittering.”

At the summit of his flight, he abruptly drops as if stricken (“like a crippled plane,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote in his classic A Sand County Almanac). Just above the ground, the bird recovers himself for a controlled landing—hopefully winning the respect and affections of an onlooker hen in the process.

Stake out in a likely spot—the edge of a woodland clearing or old field, say—at dawn or dusk, and if you’re lucky, you’ll not only hear the buzzy and twittery sonics of the affair but perhaps spot the wacky trajectory of the male silhouetted flirtatiously against the sky.

Storm Streaks: Looking for Red Sprites

Storm streaks in rural New Mexico.
Storm streaks in rural New Mexico. Mike Lewinski

A fork of lightning is an impressive-enough common miracle, but turns out some crazy stuff goes on above the stormcloud at the same time. A number of high-altitude electrical discharges—“transient luminous events,” in science-speak—mark certain thunderstorms in a kind of mirror to the cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning below. While these are best observed from airplanes or spacecraft, one variety, the so-called “red sprite,” is sometimes spotted by lucky terrestrial observers who have a clear, faroff view of a vigorous nighttime storm: Watch for ghostly red plumes, veins, or torches split-second pulsing in the dark above the thunderhead.

Hangin’ Out in Iceberg Alley

Near the mouth of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, "Iceberg Alley" awaits those that want to see behemoth blocks of ice floating through the sea.
Near the mouth of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, "Iceberg Alley" awaits those that want to see behemoth blocks of ice floating through the sea. KimManleyOrt

Head for the coast of Labrador or Newfoundland in late spring or early summer, and you might just see a frozen behemoth of an Arctic nomad cruising offshore. This North Atlantic reach near the mouth of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence is called “Iceberg Alley” for good reason, as every year currents transport flotillas of “’bergs” calved off the Greenland Ice Sheet and (to a much lesser extent) Ellesmere Island glaciers in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago down to these waters (and sometimes beyond—The Titanic, anyone?). The gleaming masses come in all shapes and sizes (some of them are real honkers).

There’s a healthy iceberg tourism industry here, with plentiful viewing opportunities from both land and sea. (You can also track ‘bergs in the Alley online.)

Beast Mode: The Rut of the American Bison

A herd of bison on the move at sunrise in Lamar Valley.
A herd of bison on the move at sunrise in Lamar Valley. NPS / Jacob W. Frank

A bull American bison (“buffalo”) is a commanding beast any time of year, but never more so than when the carnal urge overcomes him. Pay a midsummer visit to one of the tiny remnants of our continent’s once-epic buffalo range—Yellowstone, say, or Badlands, or the American Bison Range—and you’ll be treated to the randy, rowdy, raucous show of the bison rut. One-ton bulls with shaggy horned mop-heads, billowing pantaloons, and towering humps crank up the swagger: looking for cows, squaring off with potential rivals, and bellowing grotesquely all the while.

If drawn-out intimidation rituals don’t work to establish dominance between a pair of bulls, an actual fight may ensue: furious charges, butting heads, and hooking horns. You can spot these contests at a distance by the dust clouds they raise. A closer look will (a) conjure the feral spirit of the continent like few other sights; and (b) remind you there’s a world of difference between a bison and a Black Angus.

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