As wild and vivid as your imagination might be, it likely doesn’t hold a candle to that of Mother Nature. Scattered about our planet are phenomena of science so strange and beautiful that their very existence is wondrous. A good many of these magnificent sights may be found far off the beaten path, but every last one is worth the trek.
1. Banaue Rice Terraces of Ifugao, Philippines
As far as the impressive architectural efforts of ancient peoples go, the Pyramid of Giza is the unofficial MVP. At a comparatively young 2000 years of age, the Banaue Rice Terraces might not inspire the same degree of mystery, but the 4000-square-mile hand-carved agricultural system is nonetheless an incredibly striking scene.
2. Marble Caves, Argentina and Chile
Tucked into South America’s General Carrera Lake, immense structures of glimmering marble form the most welcoming cavern system you might ever be lucky enough to spelunk. The two largest formations in the lake are known as Marble Chapel, situated on the north end of the lake, and Marble Cathedral, closer to the peninsula of Chile’s Puerto Tranquilo.
3. The “Sea of Stars” on Vaadhoo in Raa Atoll, Maldives
If you’re in the market for a stunning nighttime spectacle, the beaches of Vaadhoo in the Raa Atoll island system are better than Vegas. Thanks to a particularly flashy community of bioluminescent plankton, the shores of this remote Maldives isle boast an electric blue glow after sundown. For a bunch of light-up sea critters, they can be awfully romantic.
4. Sagano Bamboo Forest, Japan
If anything can put to rest the stressors of city life, it’s a mid-afternoon stroll through a forest of sky-high, branchless bamboo tress. It’s hard to believe that this impossibly serene setting sits just outside of the major city of Kyoto.
5. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
While a 4086-square-mile stretch of salt might not sound like the most attractive backdrop, the bright white surface of Bolovia’s world record-breaking salt flat is an image to behold. It isn’t simply the unparalleled grandeur of the salt itself that will impress, but the animal locals—like the beautiful pink flamingos, which flock to this habitat in high volume—and varied institutions of human creativity, including hotels built entirely out of salt!
6. Champagne Pool of North Island, New Zealand
That last one make you thirsty? Try to hold off taking a gulp of New Zealand’s fluorescent hot spring. Despite bearing the name of a beverage best served cold, the geothermal Champagne Pool reaches a piping 167 degrees Fahrenheit, although it lives up to its moniker thanks to the bubbling created by the constant release of carbon dioxide. Though not suitable for sipping or swimming, the steaming body of water is a delicious drink for the eyes.
7. Buckskin Gulch, Utah
This 12-mile slot canyon situated at the end of the Paria offshoot of the Colorado River is nearly as much fun to gawk at as it is to navigate. You can thank the world’s greatest sculptor for this bona fide work of visual art: water, working patiently over a millennia-long timeframe.
8. Kakum National Park, Ghana
If you’re looking for a deep trek into the wilderness, the West African nation of Ghana offers a treetop foray that’ll put any past grammar school trips to the local zoo to shame. The quarter-mile canopy walkway offers an intimate immersion into the world of Ghana’s countless birds, monkeys, antelopes, elephants, and more—each creature ups the ante on sheer awe.
9. Angel Falls, Venezuela
Gushing from Bolivar, Venezuela’s Auyán-tepui mountain, Angel Falls more than deserves your absolute wonder: It stands strong as the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall at 3212 feet high. A testament to the sheer magnitude of this behemoth, a good majority of its outpouring evaporates well before making it all the way down the mountain.
10. Wulingyuan of Hunan, China
Spotted by 3,000 quartzite sandstone monoliths lurching overhead at over 650 feet tall, the Wulingyuan area gives off a vividly otherworldly ambiance. Between the pillars are ravines and gorges littered with waterfalls and streams, as well as two large natural bridges, and approximately 40 caves.
11. The Door to Hell in Derweze, Turkmenistan
No less disconcerting is the gaping hole of perpetual fire you’ll find in the middle of Turkmenistan’s Karakum Desert. A natural gas field that has blazed continuously since 1971, when it was first lit aflame by Soviet petroleum engineers, the surreally terrifying quality of the crackling crater is just exciting enough to risk the nightmares … not to mention that pungent sulfur odor.
12. Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
If a close look at the tallest freestanding mountain in the world isn’t enough for you, the neighboring grounds are riddled with the sort of exotic animals that’ll take your breath away. Striking colobus monkeys and the misleadingly named blue monkeys inhabit surrounding treetops, while giraffes and water buffalo can be found grazing nearby.
13. The Crooked Forest, Poland
For the distinct feeling that you’re ambling through a fairy tale, the befuddling flora of Northwestern Poland is nigh insuperable. The pine trees of Poland’s appropriately named Crooked Forest bear the shape of inverted question marks … again appropriate, as nobody to date can guess how these peculiar plants earned their unique curvature.
14. Eternal Flame Falls, New York
Rory Szwed, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Proving that a waterfall doesn’t have to soar hundreds of feet above the ground to be spectacular, this New York destination is splendid despite its relative puniness. It’s all in the glow. Like the Door to Hell, this diminutive grotto peeking out from below the cascading waters houses a bounty of natural gas, emitting a warm, enchanting glow … though it could be a little spooky if you’re out there by yourself at night. Either way, seeing the Eternal Flame is a special experience for any Erie County hiker.
15. Socotra, Yemen
The archipelago of Socotra doesn’t bare one particular natural anomaly that’ll blow your hair back; it itself is an entire community of them! Composed of one large and three much smaller islands, Socotra enjoys its solitude in the middle of the Indian Ocean—150 miles from Africa’s eastern coast, and approximately 240 miles from the southern tier of the Arabian Peninsula.
It might seem like a lonely existence, but Socotra has made the best of its isolation. The island system claims at least 700 plant and animal species that are found nowhere else on planet Earth. Among the most remarkable of Socotra’s natural denizens are the dragon’s blood tree, the cucumber tree, the Socotra bunting, and Christine’s mabuya (a type of skink lizard).