When vacationers think of travel, they often imagine a drop-and-flop sunbathing getaway on the beach. For others, however, a vacation is the perfect opportunity to expand our horizons and learn about the planet on which we live.
If you fall into the latter category, read on to learn about some of Earth’s most unusual places — wonders that challenge our ideas about nature, from pink lakes and rainbow springs to chocolate-colored mountains and trees that curl into the sky.
These landscapes are so unique, you might think you’ve awakened in a sci-fi film.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
Well known and still worth your time, this scalding hot spring is the largest in the United States and the third largest in the world (after Frying Pan Lake on New Zealand’s North Island and Boiling Lake on the island nation of Dominica).
The Grand Prismatic is so named because it shows all the colors of the rainbow, just like light bending through a prism. The water’s center is a deep, deep blue, while its outer rings vary in colors across the spectrum depending on the time of year.
Go in the spring to see the deepest blues, in the summer to see outer rings of microbial mats that turn red, orange and yellow, or in the winter when the rings display a variety of greens.
Mendenhall Ice Caves, Alaska
Only a hop, skip and jump from downtown Juneau, trekkers can experience water in all its glorious stages at the Mendenhall Glacier. The ice formation itself radiates a deep and milky blue from its frozen stance, and visitors can actually get underneath the glacier in the ice caves that have formed over the millennia.
While the glacier itself is fairly accessible, you’ll have to take a sea craft up to the entrance of the caves, and a kayak is the best approach. Once inside, you can explore a series of pathways and alcoves (for safety purposes, an escorted tour is recommended).
There’s a sense of urgency about Mendenhall — it’s receding over two miles a year due to rising average temperatures as a result of climate change.
Danakil Depression, Ethiopia
In northeastern Africa, visitors will find the Dallol sulfur hot springs gurgling up through the earth, offering a display of psychedelic colors: indigos give way to chartreuse and pea green, all surrounded by orange rocks in the Danakil Depression in the Great Rift Valley.
The climate here is intimidating, as it’s one of the hottest (if not the hottest) places on the planet. Situated in the appropriately named Afar region on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, you’ll find not only the gorgeous and smelly hot springs, but — because the region is the meeting place of three separate tectonic plates — an actual lava lake and scorched earth. Surprisingly, the harsh landscape is accessible with the help of tour guides.
Koekohe Beach, New Zealand
On South Island’s Otago coast, mysterious round rocks are littered across a beach. These Moeraki Boulders, as they’re known, are almost perfect spheres, ranging in size from just under 2 feet to nearly 8 feet in diameter. Not your average marbles, for sure.
The rocks, formed of mudstone, are visible due to erosion of the coast and eventually will erode themselves. Striations on the outside of the orbs make the boulders appear to be giant soccer balls.
Some of the largest have broken apart, revealing hollow centers perfect for poking your head inside.
Where the Gulf of Aden spills into Arabian Sea lays the Socotra Archipelago, a chain of six islands that extend the Horn of Africa.
On the main island, also known as Socotra, you’ll find a unique biome — nearly 40 percent of plants and almost all of the reptiles and snails exist nowhere else on the planet. Due to its biodiversity, which includes rare birds and marine life, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. On land, you’ll find the bizarre Dragon Blood tree, sort of an upside down broom with tight clusters of branches fanning upward in a bulbous cone. The tree takes its name from the blood-red sap that seeps when its bark is injured. When dried, its resin is used as pigment and as medicine.
Chocolate Hills, Philippines
Somewhere between 1,200 and 1,700 pleasantly plump mounds are scattered across nearly 20 square miles of land in the Bohol province in the Philippines. Tropical rains give these karst hills a lush cover of grasses and ferns for most of the year, but when dry season arrives, the greenery turns a deep brown, dotting the landscape with hundreds and hundreds of chocolate kisses.
They’re a wildly popular tourist attraction, and it’s possible to stay cheaply in the small towns of Batuan, Carmen and Sagbayan in Bohol, which all offer easy access to viewing areas. Go between November and May for optimal impact.
Crooked Forest, Poland
A mystical woods lies just outside of Gryfino in northwestern Poland, its tree trunks twisted like an Elvish rune found in the pages of a Tolkien novel. Nearly 400 pines take a surprising turn from vertical growth to a sudden swooping J before righting themselves again nearly eight feet above the forest floor.
An area legend claims that carpenters wanted to build furniture from the pine trees, so they stunted their growth to create the curve soon after planting them in the 1920s. World War II interrupted their curious experiment, and the pines course-corrected on their own, leaving the unique and uniform swoop in this copse of woods.
Other theories claim that an intense blizzard damaged the pines, or that a strange gravitational pull was the culprit.
Thor's Well, Oregon
Head to the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, a few miles south of Yachats in Oregon, to discover a magical sinkhole in the Pacific Ocean. Just beside an old-growth forest, Thor’s Well is a giant mouth that appears to swallow the sea as waves crash against the coast.
Nearby is the Spouting Horn (a 50-foot-high spray of salty brine shooting out of a blowhole), and the Devil’s Churn, the results of the angry sea smashing about the coastal rocks. It all makes for a wet and watery delight as the earth and sea mix to show their full power.
Giant’s Causeway, Ireland
Legend has it that the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged Irish giant Finn MacCool to a battle, so MacCool built a passage from Ireland to Scotland for the duel. Depending upon who’s telling the story, MacCool won (if you’re Irish) or he lost (if you’re Scottish).
Myths aside, the Giant’s Causeway stuns visitors with over 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns jutting up at the northern edge of County Antrim in Northern Island near the North Atlantic. Visitors can traipse carefully across the rising and falling steps that formed during the Paleocene Epoch some 60 million years ago.
And there might be some truth to the giant's legend — identical basalt columns form the walls of equally mythical Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish coast, where the giants were suppose to meet for their duel.
Lake Retba, Senegal
Ah, who doesn’t want to swim in waters the tint of Pepto Bismal?
Lake Retba, lying 27 miles northeast of Dakar in Senegal, sports a truly amazing deep pink. (No wonder it’s also known by the name Lac Rose.) The tint is attributed to Dunaliella salina, a microscopic algae that thrives in the high salinity of Retba’s waters. The algae’s color helps boost its photosynthetic abilities.
Not to worry, though: the Instagram-pink water is safe for humans to swim in. In fact, you’re likely to encounter Senegalese salt collectors, who guide skifts out into the fairly shallow waters to scoop salt off the lakebed with their hands to sell.
If Senegal is a place too far for your travels, you can seek out similar strawberry milkshake wonders such as Hillier Lake in Western Australia and Dusty Rose Lake in British Columbia.
Sea of Stars, Maldives
On warm sultry nights in the Indian Ocean, it’s possible to see the night sky come to life in the ocean itself. On Vaadhoo Island in the Maldives, tiny plankton glow a bright and heavenly blue on the water’s edge as the ocean laps against the shore.
What causes this strange light? Bioluminescence, of course. The tiny creatures emit a toxin that lights up when it hits oxygen, warning off would-be predators from eating the plankton. Think of it as a celestial STOP sign.
If you can’t make it to the remote Maldives, Vieques in Puerto Rico and Tomales Bay in Northern California also sport these magical lights.
Lake Kliluk, British Columbia
As summer heats up, the waters of Lake Kliluk evaporate, leaving behind a stunning series of smaller ponds that together create a polka-dot pattern. Imagine a lemon-lime leopard print stretching for nearly half a mile, and you’ll begin to get the idea.
Kliluk, as it’s called by the Okanagan First Nation, is an endorheic lake — meaning it’s fed by neither the ocean or rivers, and in its isolation, several minerals build up to create its array of colors — greens, yellows and blues. To the First Nation people, the body of water is a sacred healing location, rich in minerals like calcium, magnesium sulfate and silver.
You’ll find it near Osoyoos, just north of the border between Canada and the United States. It’s viewable from a nearby road — but do not trespass through the mineral ponds, since they’re considered sacred.
Travelers to Cusco should add a trip to Vinicunca, aka “Rainbow Mountain,” to their itinerary. The peak is striated with mossy greens, purply wines and travertine, and has only been recently added to western travelers’ must-see lists after global warming melted away the remaining ice on the Ausengate mountain region, a subset of the Andes.
Well-prepared and intrepid tourists can trek the terrain with the help of local expert guides, but at an elevation of 16,000 feet above sea level, you’ll need to take your time acclimating to the climb’s high altitudes. The curious can find similar rainbow mountains in China at the Zhangye National Geopark.
Tianzi Mountains, China
Rising 1,200 feet into the air, and shrouded in mist, stand the sentinels of the Tianzi Mountains. Located in the Hunan Province in southern China, these pillars of sandstone and quartz formed over a few hundred million years as they rose above the receding ocean, leaving behind mighty columns.
In the summer, they’re dotted with trees and plants that cling desperately to the rocky outcroppings all nestled in a blanket of fog, giving the popular tourist destination an otherworldly appearance.
They’re so delightfully unusual that they served as the inspiration for Pandora, the planet where much of the action takes place in the movie “Avatar.”
Lake Natron, Tanzania
The soda lake that sets in East Africa’s Rift Valley is a macabre example of the extremes we can experience on our earth. Natron has a pH level of nearly 12 during the dry season when alkaline concentrates increase due to water evaporation, creating a harsh environment where few things can survive.
But some things do live here. Microorganisms thrive in the saline swamps, giving the water a deep red hue, and some fish and plants live in abutting wetlands. The lake is famous for being home to a huge flock of flamingos that dine on the algae. The harsh waters also form a protection for the birds, since larger predators avoid the area.