How 11 Legendary Outdoor Destinations Formed

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Hardcore adventurers will really go the distance in order to ski, surf, swim, or soar in Earth’s most incredible landscapes, but the places themselves have come a long way, too—here’s a few examples of some of their most radical geologic journeys.


The gorgeous views one can enjoy walking the many hiking trails in Badlands National Park were formed by a pair of simple processes: deposition and erosion. First, many layers of sedimentary rock began to form some 75 million years ago, and continued to pile up with everything from volcanic ash to alligator fossils. Then, about 500,000 years ago, the Cheyenne River brought waterways flowing from the nearby Black Hills into the Badlands and began to carve away at the rock, creating the incredible landform we see today. It’s estimated that in another 500,000 years, the process will be complete, and the Badlands will have been completely chipped away.


Located on the southwestern side of the Bukit Peninsula, this famed beach is one of the best-known surf destinations in the world. It’s surrounded by limestone cliffs that were formed as a result of the subduction of the Indo-Australian Plate under the Eurasian Plate (or possibly the Australian plate under the Sunda plate), bringing it above sea level. The imposing cliffs looming over the surf mean that this isn’t just one of the best places to catch a wave, it’s also one of the most beautiful.


Devils Tower is one of the go-to destinations in the world for serious rock climbers, but it’s also a geological formation worth simply marveling at. The rock rises up 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River, and began its formation over 200 million years ago. The oldest sediment was laid when the area was covered in a shallow sea, and more layers continued to form as bodies of water came and went. The tower itself was formed from magma: About 50 million years ago, molten rock pushed toward the earth’s surface and forced its way into the sedimentary rock layers. Geologists don’t agree on exactly what occurred beyond the introduction of igneous material, but it’s likely that magma simply cooled, crystallized, and contracted while hardening to form the hexagonal columns. After many years of erosion, the soft sedimentary rocks disappeared, leaving behind the much sturdier igneous rock that makes up Devils Tower. And as time goes by, more and more of this amazing feature will be exposed at the surface until it too erodes away.


This archipelago of 13 major islands is still being formed to this day, and as a whole, is considered relatively young in geologic terms: The oldest existing island is around five million years old and the youngest is around 700,000 years old. The chain is formed from hotspot volcanism; the Nazca tectonic plate is moving over a hot area of the mantle, and so it continuously forms volcanoes that rise to the surface and create new islands. And once the new island has moved past the hotspot, the process starts all over again and a new island forms. Truly a dynamic landscape, about 50 eruptions have occurred there in the last 200 years. It’s those eruptions that give the islands their conical shape.


Best known for skiing, the Alps are also a famed destination for mountain bikers who hit the trails on wheels instead of skis. The awesome (in the truest sense of the word) mountains are part of an orogenic belt of mountain chains that runs through Europe and Asia. The African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided, causing sediment in the ancient Tethys Ocean to get pushed up. Later on during the Ice Age, glaciers traveled down the valleys, carving out space along the way, then created the alpine lakes as they melted. We imagine the skiing would have been really spectacular then.  


The other Alps live across the equator and make for another epic skiing site. Geologically speaking, the Southern Alps are young—only about five million years old, and are still in the process of changing. Similar to their northern brethren, the Southern Alps are a result of tectonic plate action, this time at the Pacific and Australian plates. The mountains continue to rise as the plates collide and push up the land; in some areas, they’ve risen as much as 65,000 feet in the last three million years. As they rise, high rainfall and glaciers, which sculpted valleys and filled them up (along with large deposits of rock and debris) as they melted, caused erosion.


For those who want to adventure underground, there’s Mammoth Cave—a system of subterranean tunnels, the oldest of which formed around 10 million years ago. Rewind back even further to about 325 million years ago, and you’d see a massive sea that covered much of what is now the heartland of the United States. This sea deposited 600 feet of limestone over the area, and eventually it was covered by sturdier sandstone and shale. After millions of years of erosion, the soft limestone began to peek through the covering layer, and rainwater did the rest to hollow out the cave.


For the best white water rafting in South America (or arguably the world), brave souls venture to the Futaleufú in Northern Patagonia. Much of the region was shaped by glaciers that worked the terrain over the last 800,000 years, forming the Andean lakes and many of the area’s high-octane rivers. The gorgeous blue waters of Futaleufú are the result of glacier runoff, and are part of a vast system of waterways, fed by waters from Argentina and flowing out (eventually) into the Pacific Ocean.


We’ve touched on a few “new” geographical features, but Alaska’s Glacier Bay is like a brand new baby in comparison to those other guys. The magnificent kayaking and sightseeing spot wasn’t even there when Captain George Vancouver toured the coast in 1794 because it was underneath a sheet of glacial ice. Since then, it’s retreated 65 miles, creating a new bay and revealing new swaths of land. The bay is also where the American and Pacific tectonic plates have been colliding for over 100 million years. This impact has led to accumulation of “terranes,” which are fragments of crustal material. It’s one of the most dynamic areas on the planet, resulting in breathtaking landscapes that literally change every single day (though at a rate you won’t be able to spot with the naked eye).


This area is a treasured spot for bikers, hikers, climbers, and campers, and it’s all thanks to a series of geological process hundreds of millions of years in the making. Rock layers began forming around 300 million years ago when Utah was covered in an ancient sea. Water levels rose and fell in a cycle for years, leaving massive salt deposits that, under great pressure, rose up into a dome and became the basis for the unique rock features in the area. Later on, sandstone deposits and sand dunes formed, then mudflats, which continued to see the oceans flood and recede, all before the area became a desert, with cliffs carved out from wind and ice erosion. Sediment continued to deposit and erode (which by now, you can see is a common origin story), and today, the terrain is still quite fragile despite its imposing grandeur.


Costa Rica kind of hit the geological jackpot. It has the Caribbean Sea to the east and the North Pacific Ocean to the west and about 800 miles of coastline, with rain forests, coastal plains, and rugged mountains. It also happens to be the site of subduction of the Cocos tectonic plate under the Caribbean Plate, which has resulted in a chain of mountains that includes Arenal Volcano. There, you can zip line for two miles through the jungle, over a lake, and swoop by the volcano for a quick hello. It last erupted in 2010, and is still active, though constant monitoring means you won’t even see lava as you glide by.

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