I had different plans for 2018. I thought I’d spend my days strolling through manicured gardens, oohing and aahing at the delightful plant combinations. Life doesn’t always go as planned, however. Instead, my travels took me to the remote corners of the United States-far from cities and people. High in the mountains, you don’t find many gardens, at least not man-made ones.

Luckily for me, nature creates vignettes more beautiful than you can find in many gardens. Tall pines frame beautiful vistas. In wild meadows, grasses and wildflowers layer like brushstrokes on a living canvas. Wildflowers cascade down mountain slopes, softening rugged landscapes. An expansive carpet of ferns adds tranquility to a forest.

This year, I was a careful observer of the patterns in nature and found inspiration in its diverse environments. Reflecting on 2018, these are five places that captured my heart.

Sequoia National Park //  Crescent and Log Meadow

I went to Sequoia National Park for the giant trees, but I found so much more beauty in these mountains. From atop spectacular granite cliffs and domes, vast canyons sprawled at my feet. Everywhere I gazed, tenacious wildflowers flourished in the most unlikely places. Their blossoms tumbled down mountain slopes, painting them magenta, lavender, and blue. Nestled in valleys, I found beautiful verdant meadows that teemed with life. In the dark forest, they glowed like emerald beacons.

Any visit to Sequoia National Park needs to include the Giant Forest. A network of trails meanders through the park’s most picturesque trees and several lush meadows. Make sure your route includes Crescent Meadow, which John Muir affectionately dubbed the ‘Gem of the Sierras.’ If you find Crescent Meadow too crowded, it’s just a short stroll over to Log Meadow. It’s not as well-visited, so you’ll be able to enjoy the beauty alone.

At dusk, the meadows become alive and a persistent hum fills your ears. Find a rock or log to sit on and listen to the Earth’s pulse.

20 Lakes Basin

Many of the most beautiful places on Earth are somewhat inaccessible. To reach them, you may have to hike for days, cross treacherous waters, or command a helicopter. Luckily, in the 20 Lakes Basin, you’ll find a lot of beauty without a tremendous amount of effort.  The 8-mile loop trail has moderate elevation gains, especially compared to some of the trails in nearby Yosemite National Park.

This isn’t one of those trails where you walk miles through boring terrain to an overlook or a waterfall. Incredible beauty surrounds you throughout this hike. You’ll meander through lush wet meadows brimming with colorful wildflowers. Snow-capped mountains dominate the horizon. In every direction you look, there is water: a pristine alpine lake, a gurgling stream, or mounds of glittering snow. It’s all right there. Including the mosquitoes. The wet meadows are a fertile breeding ground for hordes of bloodsuckers. Arm yourself with bug spray and you’ll be fine.

I backpacked in for one night, but I could have easily spent days exploring this place. If you’re looking for an intimate experience with nature, head to the 20 Lakes Basin.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park // Brown Creek Loop

Like their relatives, the giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), these are big trees. In fact, the coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest trees in the world. They soar towards the heavens like living skyscrapers.

Their branches create a dense canopy that casts a deep shadow on the forest floor. In this moist and dark environment, ferns and mosses thrive. Walking through an old-growth coastal redwood forest is like stepping back in time. At any moment, I could imagine a dinosaur emerging and wading through the ferns.

If you’re looking for solitude in the park, consider hiking the Brown Creek Loop. I spent hours hiking this trail and I never saw another person. The trailhead is on the Drury Parkway, near the Big Tree wayside. The 4-mile loop consists of the Brown Creek Trail, the Rhododendron Trail, and the South Fork Trail. 

It’s a quiet trail with a stillness that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. You don’t hear any cars or people. It’s just you and the trees.

Big Cypress National Preserve // Roberts Lake Trail

Cypress trees, hanging gardens, and dark mysterious waters define this wild place. While it’s not as well-known or visited as its neighbor, Everglades National Park, it’s equally as beautiful. I was smitten the moment I gazed on the cypress trees and their knobby knees poking out of the water. I highly recommend you add it to your bucket list.

Sloshing through knee-deep waters and heading into the wild is an exhilarating experience. I haven’t really found anything that compares. After just a few steps, you feel as if you’ve been transported to another world. Overhead, air plants cling to every branch. In winter, with their branches bare of leaves, the cypress trees take on a ghostly appearance.

Swamps often get a bad rap as bug infested pits not worth visiting. I couldn’t disagree more; they’re magical, diverse ecosystems with so much to discover. But if you’re worried about bugs, make sure you visit in the winter.

Olympic National Park // Ozette Triangle

In the far northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, you’ll find Lake Ozette, which is part of Olympic National Park. It’s a significant drive to this distant corner but your time will be well spent exploring this beautiful place. Hiking the Ozette Triangle will take you through open prairie, dense coastal forest, and on a rugged rocky coast. For much of this hike, you’re walking on an elevated boardwalk. Swamps and wet prairies are difficult areas to explore, and trails that take you to these hard-to-reach places are always a favorite of mine.

As you approach the coast, the trail gradually ascends. The wet prairie is replaced by a dense evergreen forest of Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar. Dense fog drifts in from the ocean and hugs the trees in a salty embrace. Before long, the sound of crashing waves will fill your ears.

While this trail is long, it’s an easy hike with little elevation gain. Enjoy the walk and take in all the beauty that the Olympic Peninsula offers.

To be honest, this list could have been a lot longer. I was fortunate to visit many beautiful places this past year. There’s an abundance of beauty and wonder in this world. If you keep your eyes and mind open, you can find beauty almost anywhere. You don’t have to travel far; there’s beauty in your backyard. Study the way light filters through trees or get lost in the gentle swaying of grasses in the breeze. Spend time in nature and you’ll be rewarded. 

If you do have the opportunity to travel and are looking for places to go, these places are worth a visit.