40 Must-Visit Destinations Where Nature Has Created Mind-blowing Landscapes

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The natural elements of rain, wind and sun are so integral to life on Earth that we can sometimes take them for granted. But over eons of time, those same simple elements can exert tremendous force over the natural landscape, transforming it in ways that can hardly escape our notice. Nature, it seems, is an artist. And the following 40 destinations comprise some of her most inspired and surprising work.

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40. Great Barrier Reef, Australia

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is a kaleidoscopic wonderland of multicolored corals and shimmering marine life. Bigger than the Great Wall of China, the reef stretches for 1,430 miles – making it the largest of its kind on Earth. It is also the only organism on the planet that can be seen from outer space. Composed of billions of coral polyps – which together make up 3,000 systems – the reef is now gravely threatened by bleaching. Sea warming due to climate change is thought to be the main cause of recent bleaching events.

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39. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China

Shrouded in mist, the towering stone pillars of the National Forest Park in Zhangjiajie, China, have a dream-like quality. It’s almost as if they belong in a fairy-tale. The otherworldly formations resemble limestone pillars but are, in fact, composed of sandstone. The towers have been eroded by ice and vegetation over many millennia, leading to their unique appearance.

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38. Milford Sound Fiord, New Zealand

The fiord of Milford Sound is surely one of New Zealand’s best scenic treasures. Located on the South Island inside Fiordland National Park – which itself falls within the wider World Heritage site of Te Wahipounamu – Milford Sound is framed by a landscape of pristine rainforest, waterfalls and cliffs. The fiord is also home to exotic wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, New Zealand fur seals and two species of penguin.

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37. Giant’s Causeway, Ireland

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Composed of interlocking hexagonal stone columns, the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland is the subject of an ancient myth. Once upon a time, so the story goes, an Irish giant called Finn MacCool constructed the causeway so that he and another giant in Scotland could traverse the sea, meet up and have a fight. Charming though that explanation is, the causeway was, in fact, created when a plateau of molten lava cooled millions of years ago.

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36. Mount Kelimutu, Indonesia

Mount Kelimutu is an intensely mystical place. Located between the Nusa Tenggara islands and Bali in Indonesia, the mountain houses three unique lakes. Why are they unique? Because their waters appear to change color. Indeed, sometimes they appear to be blue, other times red, white, brown, black or green. Locals, in fact, consider the lakes to be the sacred space of the afterlife god Mae. As a result, each lake is devoted to disembodied souls: one for young people, one for general people and one for soothsayers.

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35. Kuang Si waterfall, Laos

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The pristine waters of Kuang Si waterfall cascade down three limestone tiers, feeding into a network of tranquil, turquoise pools. Located in Northern Laos, the waterfall is cloaked in rainforest, so not only is taking a dip here deeply refreshing, but it’s also as close to the beating heart of tropical nature as you can get. Lying back and listening to birdsong, tracing the luxuriant branches and vines, one must surely become attuned to the Earth’s natural rhythms.

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34. Han Son Doong, Vietnam

Son Doong Cave is the largest cave in the world by cross-section. Located in Central Vietnam, close to the border with Laos, it was discovered in 1990 by a local hunter called Ho Khanh, who then told two British caver explorers about it 19 years later. The cave runs for more than five miles and even contains a river. The ceiling has also collapsed in a couple of places, allowing sunlight to feed patches of vegetation. The cave has only been open to the public since 2013 – and solely on a strictly controlled basis.

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33. Caño Cristales, Colombia

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Known as “the river that ran away from paradise,” Caño Cristales dazzles with psychedelic colors. The multi-hued spectacle is only visible during the autumn, though. The vivid colors are nonetheless caused by vegetation on the river bed, which blooms bright red when the water level is low enough to permit sunlight to reach it. If you’re visiting, be warned: the river is in Columbia’s hard-to-reach Serranía de la Macarena National Park.

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32. Death Valley, USA

Subject to great extremes of heat and aridity, Death Valley is a sweltering and inhospitable no man’s land between the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin. Straddling the border between Nevada and California, it’s the lowest, driest and hottest National Park in America. But despite the extreme environmental conditions, it’s home to a wide variety of lifeforms. In fact, the region is a riot of colorful blooms after the uncommon occurrence of rain.

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31. Colca Canyon, Peru

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At nearly 11,000 feet, Colca Canyon in Peru is the world’s second deepest canyon. Believe it or not, this massive gap in the Earth – running for more than 60 miles – is almost double the depth of America’s Grand Canyon. The valley is also a quintessential Andean destination. The area is actually rich in pre-Colombian culture and well-populated by the Andean condor, also known as “the eternity bird.” Surely, then, the valley is one of the most stunning places in South America.

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30. Arches National Park, USA

The 2,000 stone formations inside Arches National Park formed over an unimaginably long epoch of 100 million years. And over that period, rain, wind, ice, freezing temperatures and extreme heat eroded the sandstone landscape in Utah to create a surreal exhibition of rock sculptures. Consequently, the park is home to enormous barrel organs, pinnacles and fins – the most concentrated collection of natural arches anywhere. Pictured above is the famous Double O Arch, consisting of a 71-feet-wide upper arch and smaller lower formation.

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29. Carlsbad Cavern, USA

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Surrounded by the arid flat-lands of the Chihuahua desert, the Guadalupe Mountains on the border with New Mexico and Texas are home to some 120 caves and caverns. They include Carlsbad Cavern, a cave system with spectacular limestone formations. The system’s largest chamber, the Big Room, is over 600 feet wide and around 4,000 feet in length. And at its deepest point, the chamber measures a whopping 255 feet from floor to ceiling.

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28. Bungle Bungles, Australia

Clustered inside Western Australia’s Purnululu National Park lies a distinctive set of natural structures. Known as the Bungle Bungles, they almost resemble a network of nests for giant termites. The dome-like formations, in fact, consist of numerous layers of sandstone, some of them darkened by a blue-green colored bacteria. Meanwhile, the surrounding area, which is the ancestral homelands of Aboriginal Gija and Djaru tribes, conceals vertiginous chasms and gorges as well as 130 types of bird.

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27. Khao Ta-Pu Island, Thailand

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According to an indigenous myth, Khao Ta Pu island was created when a Thai fisherman dropped half of an unwanted magical nail into the waters of Phang Nga Bay. The story goes that the nail then grew to form the island. Essentially a rock pillar rising 66-feet out of the sea, the landmass is also known as James Bond Island. That’s because it featured as a location in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun. The villain of the film, Scaramanga, used Khao Ta Pu as a base for a giant laser weapon.

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26. Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Area, USA

With sandstone formations that look like giant toadstools, the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area plays host to myriad dreamlike landscapes. Located in the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, the 6,500-acre protected area is composed of sandstone, mudstone, shale and coal, which have been spectacularly eroded over millions of years. Fairy chimneys, pyramids, tent rocks and other sculptures abound, as do dinosaur fossils. And in one location, it is possible to observe the petrified remains of prehistoric vegetation, including ancient tree roots and stumps.

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25. Atacama Desert, Chile

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The Atacama Desert is one of the driest – and eeriest – locations on Earth. Located on the Pacific coast of Chile, it covers a desolate area of approximately 600 square miles. One of its prime attractions is the unearthly Valley of the Moon. Set within the Salt Mountain range, the valley is punctuated with rock formations, caverns and sculpted salt deposits. Its rugged appearance is reminiscent of an alien surface or, indeed, the Moon.

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24. Kilauea, USA

Kilauea is one of five volcanoes on Hawai’i island in Hawaii. In recent history, it has been the most active of the island’s volcanoes. It started erupting in 1983, in fact, and didn’t stop until September 2018. But its last burst of activity, which began in May 2018, was more violent than usual. The eruption destroyed the state’s biggest lake, inundated several nearby areas with ash and caused parts of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to be closed. And with its 35-year eruption now over, it is not known when it might start again.

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23. Redwood Forest, USA

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Reaching heights of more than 350 feet, redwood trees are the tallest organisms on the planet. To flourish, they require the copious moisture of marine fog. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that their natural habitat is the northwest coast of California. Having said that, the trees did once fill more than 3,000 square miles of coastline from Oregon down to Big Sur. These beautiful plants have branches that can reach five feet wide and bark that grows up to 12 inches thick. Even more amazingly, their upper branches support an entirely separate ecosystem, while their natural lifespan is a whopping 2,000 years.

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22. Vinicunca Mountain, Peru

Vinicunca Mountain resembles a piece of enormous, multicolored candy. Also known as Rainbow Mountain, the peak is more than 17,000 feet high and lies within a remote area of Cusco in the Andes of Peru. In fact, it can take several days of hiking to get there. The coloration of the rocks is actually caused by the oxidation of minerals in the sedimentary layers. For example, iron turns red when exposed to the air, chlorite turns green and iron sulfide turns yellow.

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21. Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

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The vertiginous Cliffs of Moher, composed of shale and sandstone, run for five miles along the west coast of Ireland. Climbing to heights of more than 700 feet, they are a natural rampart against the tempestuous Atlantic Ocean. And in this remote and wild location, Atlantic puffins, dolphins, minke whales, razorbills and porpoises are among the local wildlife. Meanwhile, the cliffs have been used as a location in several films, including Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and The Princess Bride.

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20. The Grand Prismatic Spring, USA

Located in America’s Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Prismatic Spring is so-called due to the dazzling array of colors encircling its banks, said to resemble the effect of a prism. The colors are, in fact, caused by a combination of bacteria, carotenoids, chlorophyll and varying water temperatures. Measuring 370 feet across, the spring is the third largest on the planet and consequently releases a whopping 33,600 gallons of water every hour.

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19. Cenote Ik-Kil, Mexico

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Revered by the ancient Maya, cenotes, also known as sinkholes, are a characteristic feature of the landscape of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. But it’s easy to see why Cenote Ik-Kil is thought to be such a spectacular example. Located near the famous ruined city of Chichen Itza, the cenote is only reached after a descent of 85 feet. Like other cenotes, its pool also contains exceptionally clean groundwater that has been filtered by the surrounding limestone.

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18. Uluru, Australia

Uluru, once known as Ayer’s Rock, is a giant sandstone monolith in central Australia. Its mysterious beauty is only enhanced by the play of sunlight on its surface. Over the course of the day, the rock famously goes from pink to orange to red in color. Punctuated with caves, springs and ancient artwork, Uluru has been part of the cultural geography of Australia’s indigenous Pitjantjatjara people for thousands of years.

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17. Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

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Standing in the Uyuni Salt Flats is like standing in an interminable void. Indeed, there seems to be no end to the bright white, relentlessly flat landscape. Sitting around 12,000 feet above sea level on the plateau of the Bolivian Altiplano, Uyuni covers an area of just over 4,000 square miles. It is, in fact, the largest salt flat in the world. Its size, combined with the fact that it is almost entirely level, also means that it is sometimes used as an altimeter calibration point for satellites.

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16. Jeita Grotto, Lebanon

In 1836 a missionary from America discovered a very special cave while in the Nahr el-Kalb valley just outside of Beirut in Lebanon. Yet it was only after the missionary fired his gun into the darkness that he realized how large it was. Running for more than a mile into the surrounding mountains, Jeita Grotto is an underground other-world filled with eerie stalactites and stalagmites. The grotto is actually thought to be one of the country’s finest natural treasures.

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15. Blue Hole, Belize

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The mysterious Blue Hole sitting off the Belize coast in Central America has the appearance of a giant eye. Lying within the Belize Barrier Reef, it is in fact a 1,000-foot wide sinkhole. The hole is filled with eerie formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. French diver and marine explorer Jacques Cousteau visited the Blue Hole in 1971 and declared it to be among the best diving sites on the planet.

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14. Dead Sea

Nearly ten times saltier than the ocean, the Dead Sea, perhaps unsurprisingly, is highly inhospitable to plants and wildlife. People, however, have been visiting the Middle Eastern lake for health and recreation for centuries. Flanked by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank, the Dead Sea sits 1,412 feet below average sea levels. This makes it the lowest terrestrial point on the entire planet.

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13. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

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The riverine wonder of Plitvice Lakes in Croatia consists of more than 16 lakes. They are joined by cascades and form one upper and one lower system. And as if they weren’t incredible enough on their own, at their conclusion the lake system empties into Sastavci waterfalls. Plitvice Lakes National Parks is, in fact, Croatia’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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12. Panjin Red Beach, China

Red is considered a lucky color in traditional Chinese culture so that must mean that Panjin Red Beach is considered an exceptionally auspicious place. This scarlet beach is actually swathed in Sueda – a type of red succulent. The plant is uniquely adapted to the local soil, which is both salty and incredibly alkaline. And although other plants can grow there, the Sueda has inundated the area with its vivid crimson tones.

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11. Paria Canyon, USA

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Paria Canyon is a symbol of the Old West, the epitome of rugged grandeur and a stark natural monument that evokes a sense of boundless freedom. The canyon itself is located in the wilderness that covers parts of Arizona and Utah and is punctuated with dramatic geological formations. Indeed, arches, cliffs, arroyos, domes and terraces dot the canyon, while the colorful sandstone swirls, pictured above, can be found in the hilariously named Coyote Buttes area.

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10. Victoria Falls, Zambia

Straddling the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls represents the Zambezi river at its most awesome. Thundering over a 360-feet-high cliff, the falls are approximately one mile wide and are the second-largest waterfall in the world after Iguazu Falls in South America. In fact, an unbelievable 17 billion cubic feet of water passes through it every minute in the wet season.

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9. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

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Ha Long Bay consists of approximately 2,000 jungle-cloaked islets scattered across the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. Forged from limestone over millions of years, most of the clustered islets are, in fact, narrow, steep-walled towers. Many of the formations also conceal hidden caves and grottoes, while others are blessed with fine beaches. Unsurprisingly, the beautiful bay is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam.

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8. Pamukkale, Turkey

Pamukkale, or Cotton Castle, is a collection of 17 hot springs in the valley of the Turkish Büyük Menderes River. According to local legend, the formations were created by a giant drying out his cotton harvest. In reality, though, the pools were actually formed by water depositing limestone on to rock terraces over thousands of years. The resulting warm springs have been used by local populations since antiquity. Hierapolis, an ancient settlement, was constructed in close vicinity to it too.

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7. Marble Caves, Chile

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Millennia of continuous wave erosion created the Marble Caves, an enchanting grotto filled with curving arches and swirling, marbled patterns. The caves are, in fact, situated within a marble peninsula overlooking a glacial lake in the Patagonian Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile. As a result, the color of the lake changes with the seasons, with September to February considered the best months. During that time, the lake turns a striking turquoise.

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6. Bryce Canyon, USA

Bryce Canyon in southern Utah is not, in fact, a canyon. Rather, the area is a vast plateau crowded with unusual rock formations known as “Hoodoos.” Resembling fiery spires and jagged pillars, the hoodoos formed over millions of years through water erosion. Native American tribes such as the Fremont and Anasazi have inhabited the region itself for at least 12,000 years. However, what exactly the ancient Americans thought of the structures is a mystery.

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5. Richat Structure, Mauritania

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The Richat Structure, which is also known as the Eye of the Sahara, is an enormous, 25-mile-wide rock dome. So large that it’s visible from space, the formation is situated in Mauritania on the Adrar plateau in the Sahara Desert. Due to its highly varied rock composition, the structure is of special interest to geologists and geographers. For the common traveler, however, seeing the dome from the air is far better than from ground level.

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4. Chocolate Hills, Philippines

The Chocolate Hills in the Philippines look, as their name might suggest, just like a field of giant chocolates. Dotted around a 20-square-mile area, they include more than 1,260 conical mounds and domes. On average, the hills are 98 to 164 feet high, though the tallest is a whopping 390 feet. The grass-swathed hills, however, are only the color of cocoa when a lack of rain causes their vegetation to parch.

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3. Wave Rock, Australia

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Resembling a cresting wave, the rolling face of Wave Rock is more than 300 feet across and 50 feet tall. Believe it or not, the wave forms the northern edge of Hyden Rock, a hill in Western Australia. Hyden Rock is technically an inselberg, though, which is a solitary peak rising from an otherwise featureless area. Meanwhile, the rather beautiful geological term for Wave Rock is a “flared slope.”

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2. Cave of the Crystals, Mexico

Replete with giant blocks of selenite, the Cave of the Crystals in Mexico resembles the set of a sci-fi movie. In fact, these enormous structures formed over 10,000 years inside a u-shaped cavern, which is around 1,000 feet deep. The air inside is also highly acidic, deeply humid and, at 136 °F, extremely hot. For that reason, visiting the cave, which was first found by miners in 2000, once required special protective clothing. These days, though, the caves are once again inaccessible, filled with flood water to allow the natural process to continue.

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1. Mount Roraima, Venezuela

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Mount Roraima is the highest in a string of towering South American table-top mountains. Its sheer cliffs climb to 1,300 feet, while its starkly vegetated summit covers an area of 12 square miles. With its almost primeval appearance, the site was unsurprisingly the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s prehistoric adventure novel The Lost World.

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