by Emily Elert
A man was working on a plot of private land in Arkansas last fall when he uncovered a set of huge, fossilized dinosaur tracks. Also last year, interested amateurs photographed tides on low-lying stretches of the California coast to help predict the effects of climate change; they also checked up on local patches of milkweed, prime real estate for monarch butterflies, to keep tabs on the insects’ migration patterns.
Scientific wonders are accessible to anyone with the curiosity to seek them out, and summer is the perfect time to get exploring. In that spirit, we’ve brainstormed a whole season’s worth of places to go, sights to see, and things to do. There are destinations across the country, so whether you’re in Albany or Albuquerque, you should be able to find something nearby.
The adventurous among you may find yourselves strapping on an undersea helmet and strolling through a submarine kelp forest or wielding a Geiger counter in a field strewn with remnants of the atomic era, while those traveling with the family can swing by the bayou for a relaxed but rewarding swamp-by-boat tour. And plan to watch the sunset on June 5—there won’t be another like it for 105 years.
GET DOWN TO EARTH
The most exotic geological hot spots in the country
Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone
National Park, Wyoming
The plume of molten rock that rises from more than 400 miles inside Earth beneath Yellowstone National Park powers the 10,000 springs, geysers, and other thermal features located where magma-heated water and steam come simmering to the surface. Yellowstone’s biggest hot spring, Grand Prismatic, also hosts some of the planet’s strangest, hardiest life.
“Yellowstone’s known for its bison and bald eagles,” says John Spear, an environmental microbiologist at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, “but it’s really a microbial wonderland.”
Brilliant green, yellow, brown, and orange bacterial mats encircle the spring. In each mat a small population of photosynthetic bacteria gather energy for the rest of the community, while the spring’s hot, mineral-rich water, flowing from the ground at 560 gallons a minute, provides the bacteria with other essential resources.
Spear says the best view of Grand Prismatic is from above: An offshoot of the Fairy Falls trail leads up a hill on the spring’s west side. For the full rainbow effect, summer afternoons are ideal. Spear also recommends going early or late in the day, “when all the steam rising out of it reflects the colors,” glowing turquoise, peach, and lime green. Hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry (permit required) yields a more intimate look at the park’s springs, but—chastened by a painful dip at a surprisingly acidic spring in Russia—Spear warns that it’s best to resist the temptation to go in.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Utah
Famed environmental advocate and essayist Edward Abbey lived and worked in Utah’s Arches National Park as a ranger in the 1950s. Today you can follow in his footsteps through the park’s sandstone landscape, viewing features such as the Fiery Furnace, a labyrinth of dramatic red rock formations. Abbey wandered the park’s backcountry on his own, but times have changed: Due to the Fiery Furnace’s fragile soils and rare plants, access is limited to guided tours. Reserve tickets online up to six months in advance.
Franklin and Ogdensburg, New Jersey
These neighboring towns share the title of fluorescent mineral capital of the world. Their two zinc mines have yielded more than 90 types of rare minerals that glow under ultraviolet light, due to trace amounts of manganese trapped when the crystals formed. Visitors to Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, where UV lights expose glowing red calcite and green willemite in the mine’s walls, can take a chunk of the stuff home with them.
Wine making is an art, but fickle fermenting grapes pose hefty technical challenges as well. Jarvis Winery built a 45,000-square-foot cave into the side of the Vacas Mountains to age their drink at high humidity and constant temperature. Tours of the cave include a visit to its underground chamber for aging wine—the world’s largest—and a formal tasting. (Non-oenophiles will appreciate the wine cave’s uncanny resemblance to the Star Wars rebel base on Hoth.)
CATCH THEM WHILE YOU CAN Ephemeral sights
Transit of Venus
All of the U.S. (and most of the world)
In 1716 the astronomer Edmond Halley, of comet fame, had a brilliant idea: Observations of the transit of Venus, a rare event in which our sister planet crosses between Earth and the sun, could be used to calculate the distance between us and our star. That epic experiment, conducted during the next two transits half a century later, sent dozens of observers to far-flung corners of the world. Their remarkable stories include that of French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil, who was driven to the brink of insanity after being foiled—twice—in his attempts to witness the event in India.
If you want to try observing the famous transit yourself, clear your calendar for June 5: Your next chance won’t come around until 2117. In the continental U.S., anyone with a clear, cloudless view of the horizon should be able to see the black dot of Venus late in the day as it begins to move over the solar disk.
The in-progress transit will make for a spectacular sunset, but to view the entire event, you’ll need to head farther west. The full transit will be visible from just east of Hawaii to just west of Hong Kong. Several travel companies are running educational island trips and cruises in Hawaii and the South Pacific. Our sister Kalmbach publication, Astronomy, is offering a tour to see the transit from Hawaii’s Big Island.
True transit die-hards may want to follow Louisiana State University astronomer Brad Schaefer’s lead and set out for the
Australian outback, where the risk of inclement weather is slim. Of course, wherever you are, never stare directly into the sun. Bring viewing equipment, like a sheet of number 14 welder’s glass, or project an image with a telescope.
Montserrat, Lesser Antilles
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the city of Pompeii in a single day. By comparison, the Soufrière Hills volcano on Montserrat, a 60-square-mile island in the Caribbean, has been erupting sporadically since 1995, slowly entombing the lower two-thirds of the island in ash. Visitors can look down on the destroyed capital city of Plymouth from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, where scientists monitor the volcano’s rumblings and issue hazard warnings to the island’s depleted population. Ferries from nearby Antigua can take you to the island or around it, depending on your appetite for risk.
Near New Orleans, Louisiana
The delicate Mississippi River delta ecosystems have been taking a beating from pollution, stream diversion, and other human activities upstream. But there is, for now, still some intact marsh to see, including the 35,000 protected acres of the Honey Island Swamp, 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. To admire the moss-hung Seussian cypress trees and deceptively lethargic alligators from a dry, safe distance, sign up for one of the flat-bottomed boat tours in the area. Tours run year-round, but local guide Paul Wagner says that spring, which brings a wealth of wildflowers and migratory birds to the swamp, is particularly magical. No word on which season is best for spotting the Honey Island Swamp Monster, a hairy, Bigfoot-like creature fabled to live in the wetland.
Ice-capped peaks encircle Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park, Montana
Most of the ice that carved Glacier National Park’s ridges and valleys melted more than 10,000 years ago, but by the time fur trappers ventured into the area in the 1800s, new glaciers had formed. Now those, too, are disappearing, and researchers say the handful of holdouts could be gone within a decade. So go now to see these glacial remnants in the hollows at the heads of valleys or under mountain peaks—or to take a dip in the lakes that collect downslope in summer.
Side Trip Science Museum of Minnesota St. Paul, Minnesota
When the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis closed in 2002, curator Bob McCoy donated his incredible collection of quackery to the science museum. The devices on display include a vibratory chair, which supposedly cured constipation and headaches through shaking so violent that patients had to hold tight to its handles, and a fluoroscope, once casually used in shoe stores to X-ray customers’ feet. Other exhibits include a miniature golf course that teaches visitors about both landscape evolution and biodiversity.
SWIM WITH THE FISHES Intimate looks at underwater life
Spearhunting Cozumel, Mexico
On the surface, the island of Cozumel—a 30-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula—is a peaceful tropical paradise. But off the island’s shore, it is under siege from the beautiful, exotic lionfish, which is encroaching on the world’s second-largest coral reef.
Invulnerable to virtually all predators due to poisonous spines that cover its body, the lionfish has spread from the North Atlantic—where it was accidentally introduced by the aquarium trade in the 1980s—to the Caribbean and across the Gulf of Mexico. When it reached the Cozumel reefs in 2009, its voracious appetite for more than 50 fish species made it a threat to the local ecosystem.
Scuba instructor Gabriel Santana Perez is one of many local divers fighting the invasion. He leads awestruck tourists around the reefs, most of the time as a conventional tour guide—navigating narrow swim-throughs in the coral and spotting sharks, eels, rays, and other exciting sea life. But he is always on the hunt for lionfish.
When he spies a group of the interlopers lurking under the coral, the dive master darts toward them, readying the spear he carries on every dive. He impales the fish one after another, snips off their poisonous spines, and feeds them to other fish, including groupers that circle suspiciously before swallowing their meal whole.
Visitors can sign up to accompany Santana Perez at Del Mar Aquatics or take spear-hunting classes at several local dive shops. For those who prefer to keep a safe distance from the fray, some area restaurants cook up and serve the lionfish.
Marine Safari Catalina Island, California
Visitors here, an hour out to sea from Los Angeles, can decide just how close they want to get to the rich marine life thriving in the area’s kelp forests and coral reefs. Glass-bottomed boat tours provide a glimpse down into a marine conservation area called Lover’s Cove. To get an even closer look, clamber into a semisubmersible vessel and view the ocean from a few feet below the surface, or strap on an undersea helmet (complete with speakers and an air-supply hose) and stroll on the seafloor with a biologist guide.
Warm Springs Reservation, Oregon
A wild run of spring chinook salmon make their annual 300-mile journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery in central Oregon, arriving each spring and summer. Visitors can walk the grounds, watch salmon climb the fish ladders, and tour the facilities. Nearby, guided tours in inflatable kayaks travel the last leg of the salmon’s route along the river.
Side Trip US Space and Rocket Center Huntsville, Alabama
You’re never too old for space camp, and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center knows it. Adults can register for a weekend filled with model rocket building, spaceflight history classes, and, upon special request, underwater astronaut training. Students also pilot a flight simulator and climb into the camp’s centrifuge to experience the 3g force astronauts feel during launch. For a less intense NASA experience, the center also features an extensive collection of rocketry, including the Apollo 16 capsule and a full-size replica of the Apollo 11 Saturn V, the largest rocket ever launched.
DIG IN AND GET DIRTY Adventures for the hands-on type
Trinity test explosion, 1945; Los Alamos National Laboratories
Atomic Artifacts Bayo Canyon, New Mexico
Three miles east of Los Alamos, this canyon lies between two volcanic mesas. There, the U.S. military perfected the implosion mechanism used in the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.
These days, a hiker passing through the canyon might not notice anything unusual, other than a few posted signs instructing visitors not to collect firewood in the area. Closer inspection of the ground will reveal bits of “interesting-looking metal,” says Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer at Qynergy Corporation in Albuquerque. These bits include sockets for photomultiplier tubes from the radiation detectors, and coaxial cables used for signals and timing purposes. The detritus is fair game for anyone who wants to take home a piece of the Manhattan Project (Native American artifacts at the site are strictly off-limits, however). Most of the items aren’t radioactive, Willis says, “but there is hot stuff for people who get down on their knees with a Geiger counter and sort through all that rubble.”
Several other hot spots dot the surrounding mesas and valleys. A two-hour drive south from Los Alamos lands visitors at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque. For those willing to venture even farther, Willis says, there is a remarkable site just south of town, a half mile west of the government-run Sandia National Lab, where in 1957 a bomber accidentally dropped a mammoth Mark-17 hydrogen bomb. “There’s a huge swath of debris, and anyone can go out there and look for stuff,” Willis says. Ever-so-slightly radioactive bits of white plastic, chunks of lead, and green-painted pieces of the bomb’s casing are among the most common finds.
Cooking with Science
Brooklyn, New York, and other cities
Spanish chef Ferran Adrià made complex chemistry a star in the kitchen when he started molecular gastronomy, a culinary movement that uses sophisticated science to create imaginative dishes, such as foams made from solids like mushrooms and “spheres” of liquid that hold their shape. Cooking classes inspired by his ideas are now cropping up in major cities.
Some 350 million years ago, Michigan lay under a shallow ocean in which coral, trilobites, and other marine life thrived. Today fossilized coral makes its way into Lake Michigan from Little Traverse Bay, near the northern tip of the state’s Lower Peninsula, where the ancient rock layer is exposed. Polished and smoothed by eons of roiling water and sand, these fossils—called Petoskey stones—are strewn along Lake Michigan’s shore. Collectors will have the most luck spotting the stones after summer windstorms, which reveal the long-buried
treasures littering the shore.
All across the United States
The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ FrogWatch program enlists amphibian fans from coast to coast to track local frog and toad species by identifying the animals’ mating calls. To distinguish the ribbits and croaks,
volunteers take a short training course at one of 43 participating nature organizations across the country. Then they check in at
designated posts at least twice a
week during the breeding season to listen for the amphibians’ calls. Researchers use the data they submit to develop conservation strategies for the animals.