were guests of US Ambassador Mark Gilbert and Brand USA last week for a special IMAX screening of
, a film created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the United States' National Park Service.
Narrated by Academy Award winner Robert Redford and featuring some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on the continent, it left us steadily adding to our bucket list of must-see US sites.
Here are a few of them:
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah: Splintered sedimentary rock formations known as hoodoos are the showstoppers here. In winter, melting snow runs into fissures within the stone before freezing overnight and forcing the rock apart even further. Weathering from the area's slightly acidic rainwater helps sculpt the exterior of these otherworldly columns too, making for an arid and craggy wonderland.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming: Another rock formation — this one the core of an ancient volcano — is the centerpiece of this landscape. Famous as the bridge between Earth and space in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a magnet for crack climbers, Devils Tower rises eerily above the surrounding plains ... though the prairie dogs who live there add a cuteness factor.
Everglades National Park, Florida: Long a haven for flora and fauna, the Everglades found themselves in trouble in the late 19th century as developers set to draining the swamp system and poachers hunted its native birds for their feathers. Protection as a national park led to regeneration of this unique ecosystem where alligators and egrets are once again free to roam.
Glacier National Park, Montana: Way up in the north of Montana, right on the border with Canada, this area packs an impressive punch on the large-scale scenery front. Nestled among the Rocky Mountains are the rivers of ice that give the park its name and if you've ever wanted to see a grizzly, a wolverine or a lynx, you're in the right place.
Grand Canyon National Park, Nevada: Many visitors to The States tick off this world famous wonder via helicopter from Las Vegas. Nothing wrong with that, but there are so many more options if you'd like to linger in this stupendous canyon. For starters: climb aboard a raft and ride the Colorado River through one of the most remarkable landscapes on earth.
Katmai National Park, Alaska: The photography director of National Parks Adventure, Brad Ohlund, managed to capture one of the movie's most amazing scenes with slow-motion shots of brown bear cubs learning to fish for salmon at Katmai's Brooks Falls. Indeed, this is one of the best places in the world to see bears in the wild, with an estimated 2200 calling the park home.
Redwood National Park, California: We're no strangers to mighty trees in New Zealand but the Sequoia sempervirens of Redwood National Park are the largest species in the world. These 2000- 3000-year-old giants are the survivors of a logging industry that saw 95 per cent of California's redwoods felled from the mid-1800s onwards. Pay your respects with a hike through one of the groves and marvel at their towering, leafy canopies.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan: This is one best left to the extreme sportspeople but the movie footage of three climbers crossing the frozen lake to explore a cave glistening with icicles and attempting to scale a frozen waterfall were simply remarkable. Located on the southern shore of Lake Superior, it's a punishing but spectacular landscape in winter. For less adventurous types, there are hiking and forest trails aplenty to be explored inland.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho: For pure spectacle, you can't go past Yellowstone's spewing geysers, vivid, sulphurous pools and lumbering bison. Lying across the Yellowstone Caldera — the largest supervolcano on the planet — this was the first national park in the world when it was established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872 and it remains one of the most-visited wilderness areas on the planet. Visit any time of the year to take in its geological marvels . . . just be sure to obey the signs and stick to the paths!
Yosemite National Park, California: This is where it all began. In 1903, beneath a mighty sequoia in Mariposa Grove, President Theodore Roosevelt met with conservationist John Muir to discuss the protection of the United States' wilderness areas. It was to be another 13 years before the National Park Service was established but the seed of an idea was planted as the two men camped out under a starry Californian sky. "The first night was clear," Roosevelt later recalled in his autobiography, "and we lay down in the darkening aisles of the great Sequoia grove. The majestic trunks, beautiful in color and in symmetry, rose around us like the pillars of a mightier cathedral than ever was conceived even by the fervor of the Middle Ages". The sequoias are still there, and so — thanks to a great vision — are the glaciers and the waterfalls, the granite monoliths, the mountain meadows and the bears.
The National Park Service manages more than 400 natural, historical, recreational, and cultural areas throughout the United States.