Rumbling volcanoes that spew rivers of red-hot lava into the ocean, giant glaciers at the end of the world and gaping holes in the sea floor — the list of nature’s wonders could go on. Here are some of the most astonishing places in the world that continue to astound and mystify explorers and scientists alike to this day.
Coyote Buttes (“The Wave”) – Arizona, USA
If Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí did nature, then this would be one of his seminal works. Ochre and amber shades, layered on top of one another from the Jurassic age form an undulating backdrop that has become something of a dream for photographers and hikers alike.
You will, however, require a permit to visit this protected monument and this is not the easiest thing to get a hold of, due to the lottery system employed by the Bureau of Land Management, so start your application early. If your permit application fails, fear not. Arizona is a land endowed with many other astonishing wonders such as Antelope Canyon and The Upper Grand Canyon.
Derweze ‒ Karakum Desert, Turkmenistan
The small village of Derweze, Turkmenistan, was put on the map 40 odd years ago by the work of Soviet geologists who burrowed into a cavern filled with natural gas. To stop the discharge of poisonous gas, a fire was lit to empty the cavern of its content which the geologists thought would burn for a few days.
Fast forward 40 years and the inferno rages on — a 70-metre wide spectacle in the middle of the desert that has been dubbed the ‘Door to Hell’ by locals.
Mendenhall Glacier – Tongass National Forest, Alaska, USA
Glaciers have been likened to human beings for their ever-changing qualities. As the Mendenhall glacier’s ice composition changes due to global warming, so too do its ice caves, formed as a result of meltwater flowing beneath the ice layers and eroding them. The thinner the ice of the roof cave gets, the lighter its blue colour — the sole source of illumination in these cavernous parts.
These chambers do require an effort to see them though —you’ll have to hike or kayak to the glacier first, then scramble over it wearing crampons, before tiptoeing your way into its subterranean depths.
Salar de Uyuni ‒ The Andes, Bolivia
It doesn’t rain here often, but when it does this giant salt flat turns into an ethereal mirror that seems to run on into oblivion, stretching over an area that is slightly smaller than Jamaica. Salar de Uyuni is also one of the flattest places on the planet, a trait that has often been exploited in optical illusion (forced perspective) photography. You will find the salt flat near the crest of The Andes mountains, 3,656 meters above sea level (which means that it can get cold and the air here is thin, so come prepared.)
Grand Prismatic Spring – Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
The vibrant colours of this geothermic hot spring are the same as the mini rainbow you see when light passes through an optical prism; hence the name. The red, orange, yellow, green, and blue colours are caused by different types of bacteria living in the mineral-rich hot water, whose peak temperature reaches 85C. Spanning a diameter of 370 feet, the hot spring is the third largest of its kind in the world.
Deadvlei – Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia
Deadvlei is a portmanteau of the English word dead and the Afrikaans word, vlei, which translates as ‘a marsh or a valley in between dunes.’ The acacia trees that are strewn across the decadent landscape here have stood lifeless for over 600 years, torched skeletons who mother nature has not granted the luxury of decomposition in one of the driest spots on earth. This parched corner of the globe is also close to some of the tallest sand dunes in the world, which tower up to 383 metres above the desert floor.
The Pinnacles – Nambung National Park, Australia
‘The Pinnacles’ at Nambung National Park have been likened to tombstones, termite mounds, fingers and other body parts. These limestone formations radiate an air of mystique that is most prominent at dusk or under the cover of darkness as the moonlight paints an eerie, other-worldly landscape in this geological bewilderment. Scientists are not entirely sure how they came to form but they do contend that millions of years’ worth of geological forces have been at work here.
Perito Moreno Glacier – Los Glaciares National Park, Santa Cruz, Argentina
At 28 km long and 4.8 km wide, Perito Moreno is one of very few glaciers in the world that are growing. During the summer, it is not uncommon to see massive chunks of ice fall into the waters of Lake Argentino, while in the winter, its imposing, behemoth-like structure casts a haughty shadow over the chilled landscape. An eerily-quiet, mystifying place of wonder in the sparsely populated region of Patagonia, Perito Moreno is a towering example of nature’s sacred awe.
Fly Ranch Geyser – Nevada, USA
Rewind to the year 1916. A ranch owner digs a well. Unwittingly, he breaks the seal on a pocket of geothermal water. The man then abandons the well, leaving nature to take its course. 101 years of hot spring action later, and we’re left with this delightful geyser that has been splurging brightly coloured minerals forth from deep underground ever since.
Now part of the 3,800-acre parcel of Fly Ranch, owned by the organizers of the Burning Man Festival — talk is rife of the long-term possibilities of the geyser and its environs as catalysts of the festival’s cultural impact beyond its Black Rock City base.
Lake Hillier – Recherche Archipelago, Australia
Lake Hillier, also known as Pink Lake, is a curiously coloured body of water on Middle Island — the largest of the isles that constitute Recherche Archipelago off the coast of Esperance, Western Australia. The 600-metre long lake borders the Southern Ocean, separated by a short strip of sand dunes lightly covered by vegetation. And while the exact reason for its pink shade continues to flummox many, there is a strong notion that it comes from a dye created by bacteria inhabiting its salt crusts. The water, though safe to swim in, contains salt levels comparable to those of the Dead Sea, which makes it easy to float in so take a dip if you’re feeling brave.
Kilauea – Big Island, Hawaii
The indomitable Kilauea volcano has been erupting intermittently since 1983, pouring rivers of molten lava into the Pacific, which meet the water in one of nature’s most dramatic marriages. This vehement clash is visible from afar, compliments of several tours that provide expert guides to chaperone you across the charred pastures and as close as possible to it. It is not advisable to wander into the area on your own, due to the ever-changing nature of the volcanic eruption.
The Great Blue Hole – Belize
Belize’s giant submarine sinkhole was formed during the ice age – carved to near-circular perfection by the force of nature. In addition to being a treat for the eyes when viewed from above, The Great Blue Hole is also a great diving spot, drawing scuba divers from far and wide with its rich concentrations of marine life.
You’ll have to have logged more than 24 dives to attempt it though, due to the dexterity needed to navigate the dark, stalactite-strewn cave of water. Alternatively, grow gills and draw inspiration from freediving guru, Guillaume Néry, who has descended and re-surfaced from these depths on numerous occasions.
Shetani Lava Flow – Tsavo National Park, Kenya
According to local legend, these recently formed lava flows are the work of the devil (“Shetani”) himself, who emerged from the earth a few hundred years ago. Stretching over 60 km across the savannah, this eerie landscape is about as wild as it gets in the remote depths of Tsavo National Park, in itself, a vast area shrouded in myth and superstition. The predatory animals here do not take kindly to being disturbed, so if you do leave the safety of your off-road vehicle, only do so in the company of a pre-hired park warden.
Pamukkale – Denizli, Turkey
Pamukkale, which poetically translates to ‘Cotton Castle’ is one of Turkey’s great natural spectacles. Hot springs and gargantuan white calcium terraces that etch themselves into the hillside make for a sight that looks like a page out of a great dream. Tread warily though (barefoot) — the calcium terraces here are easily eroded by footwear and bring your swimsuit along for a dip in the limpid waters of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. While you’re in Pamukkale, you may also want to pay a visit to the nearby well-preserved Roman ruins and museum in Hierapolis, a site that was once an ancient holy city in close proximity to the natural baths.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – Hunan, China
You would be forgiven for thinking that the tall stone pillar formations in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park are in a galaxy far away from our own. The 2009 box office sci-fi, Avatar, featured scenes that were inspired by rock pillars such as those in the Hunan province, a depiction that resulted in the renaming of the 1,080-metre Southern Sky Column.
Now known as “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain,” this towering beauty is one of many formations that hug the skyline here. Stand in awe of it all atop the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge — the longest and highest pedestrian glass bridge in the world, which as you may expect, will put your fear of heights to the ultimate test.
Reynisfjara – Vik, Iceland
In addition to making for a beautiful natural spectacle, the black sand beach by the village of Vik, Iceland is also home to rich birdlife in the form of puffins, fulmars and guillemots, all of whom have made it their humble abode. And with good reason — the beach radiates an otherworldly quality with its unique black colour, flanked columns of pale-toned basalt that cling to the cliff face.
If you’re looking for more icy exploration, check out our ultimate Iceland road trip guide