Places You Have to See to Believe
Have you ever found yourself at a loss for words when trying to describe what you visited and witnessed? Maybe it was the bluest and most perfectly temperate water you’d ever dipped into, or a mountain so high it looked like it was touching the stars. Maybe it was an ancient city so well built into its surroundings that it appeared Mother Nature carved it herself.
Or maybe it was one of the following 30 places that boast amazing, almost otherworldly physical features. We’re talking about mountains painted with an artist’s palette, a pit that has burned continuously for decades, a city built entirely underground, a palace of mysticism and intrigue, a lake full of strawberry milkshake water, and much more.
Science has readily explained all of these awe-inspiring wonders. But sometimes Earth is incredible even, and especially, when it makes sense.
With their streaks of gorgeous color, you’d be forgiven for thinking these mountains in China, otherwise known as Danxia Landform Geological Park, were Photoshopped. In reality, you can thank Mother Nature for their creation.
The mountain range originally formed over 24 million years ago when many layers of colorful sandstone were pressed together. Rain and erosion over the millennia have created the flowing painter’s palette we see today.
In the middle of the Namib Desert, sand dunes reach as high as 1,312 feet — nearly as tall as the Empire State Building.
It's not a setting where one would expect to see a forest. But in an area known as Dead Vlei, or "dead marsh," 1,000-year-old trees, blackened and scorched by the sun, still stand. The result is a truly otherworldly tableau.
Great Blue Hole
The great Jacques Cousteau was the first to explore the Great Blue Hole in Belize, discovering its abundant marine life and significant depth at 400-plus feet. And he’s the one who confirmed that it originally formed above the waterline during a global glacial period of lower sea levels starting more than 150,000 years ago.
Considered the largest marine sinkhole in the world, the Great Blue Hole is one of the world’s best diving locales, though recommended for experts only.
Door to Hell
Not literally a door to hell, in case you were wondering, this gas crater in Turkmenistan sits atop the world’s largest natural gas reserves. Knowing this, Soviet engineers came to the area in 1971 hoping to set up a drilling rig. Instead, their rig and camp collapsed over a gas pocket and were buried. In hopes of containing a potentially harmful and massive gas leak, the crater was set on fire and has been burning ever since.
Now a burning testament to the green movement, the flame might never go out. That means you have plenty of time to book a wild desert camping adventure at the Door to Hell.
If you want to see this beach in Panjin, China in its full glory, you'll have to go in the fall, when the distinctive seaweed that fills it (called sueda) turns from green to dazzling red.
Salar de Uyuni
What happens when it rains on top of the world’s largest salt flat? It becomes the world’s largest mirror.
Salar de Uyuni is located in southwest Bolivia near the Andes, and for most of the year it’s a barren wasteland of bright-white salt. But after a rare rainstorm, a thin layer of calm water sits on the surface and creates an extraordinary sight: a perfect reflection across a seemingly endless plain. This makes for a stunning backdrop for even the casual photographer.
Flora and fauna are sparse in the area, but the salt flats are popular with pink flamingos. When in large groups, their presence makes for a striking color contrast with the surroundings.
No, that's not a painting; this geothermal geyser in Washoe County, Nevada, really is that brightly multi-hued. The unusual coloring is the result of an energy company drilling a test well at the site, causing geothermally heated water to rise through the cracks.
The geyser is situated on Fly Ranch, a parcel of land purchased by the organizers of the famed arts festival Burning Man in 2016. Since then, it has been open to the public for tours.
Few things on this vast planet are as strange as the alkaline waters of Lake Natron, a natural feature so striking, it should put Tanzania on your travel radar.
The lake gets its mysterious reputation for the almost stone-like petrified bodies of animals that die there, which has also earned it the name Petrifying Lake. The water is incredibly acidic at a pH of 10 to 12, and the lake sits in a climate that often exceeds 100 degrees (the water itself can reach 140 degrees). This makes it inhospitable for most animal and plant life, although flamingos breed here and it does support nearby wetlands and salt marsh ecosystems.
The organisms that can survive its harsh conditions give it a deep red hue that fits perfectly with its reputation as a fauna graveyard.
Along the Utah-Arizona border, this red sandstone formation wows with its swooping lines of gold, yellow and rusty red.
Not surprisingly, it's on the bucket list of many, so much so that you need to apply for a special permit to explore the attraction. (Worth it? Most definitely.)
Across the world from The Wave, Wave Rock in Australia touts a similar color palette and sweeping natural design. The natural rock formation is nearly 50 feet high and more than 360 feet long.
Just off the southern coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean is a stunning natural occurrence in which there appears to be a waterfall tumbling down into a marine trench. The optical illusion can only be seen from above, but is startling and beautiful nonetheless.
The appearance of water flowing down in water is due to sand and silt moving around at the very edge of the giant plateau that is the island of Mauritius. This plateau extends from zero to about 500 feet in most places, but then dramatically drops off into a deep trench where the waterfall illusion occurs.
This Ethiopian volcano is not only the hottest place on Earth, but one of the most striking. Its mix of burning salt, volcanic rock and sulfuric acid creates a colorful landscape unlike anything else in the world.
Hang Son Doong
This cave in Vietnam is remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps the most incredible thing about it is that it’s only been open to the public since 2013 — because its original explorer couldn’t find it again for almost two decades.
A local resident named Ho Khanh first discovered the cave — formed by the strong Rao Thuong River eating away at the limestone — in 1990, but didn’t record its location. It then took him 18 years to find it again. Originally, Khanh said he’d found the opening in the vast limestone cliffs because he could hear the sound of water running and the whistle of wind whipping out of a small opening, and could see clouds pouring out of the rocks.
Now officially on the map, the cave remains relatively unspoiled as incredible worldly natural wonders go. It’s also the largest cave known to humankind and makes for some memorable spelunking.
In the western Turkey town of Pamukkale, you'll find turquoise thermal pools set against stark-white travertine terraces. It's easy to see why, in Turkish, "Pamukkale" translates to "cotton castle."
More spectacularly still, the site also contains the preserved ruins of the the Greek-Roman city of Hierapolis.
What's to account for the bubble-gum-pink coloring of this unusual Australian lake? Scientists believe it has to do with a unique form of microalgae that populates its waters.
In any case, Lake Hillier's unusual hue — especially when seen from above, situated beside the deep-blue sea — is breathtaking.
Eye of the Sahara
Also known as the Richat Structure, this eroded dome in the western Sahara Desert in Mauritania is a geological wonder spanning 25 miles in diameter. It’s so vast, it can easily be viewed from space.
The structure was originally thought to be the impact crater from a meteor, but further study ruled that out. Now, scientists believe it was formed sometime in the Cretaceous age 145 million to 66 million years ago, and that its alternating soft and hard rock layers caused its unique erosion.
Also fascinating: The rim of the dome is rich with Acheulean artifacts dating back over a million years, made by Homo erectus humans.
Tunnel of Love
See those people way in the distance? They provide some sense of the scope of this Ukrainian tunnel, made by a railway passing through a forest of trees.
A train continues to make it way through the tunnel three times a day. But when it's not on the tracks, lovers are known to take a stroll through the undeniably romantic landscape.
This aptly nicknamed "liquid rainbow" in Colombia features aquatic plants that, during certain times of the year, turn a dazzling array of colors, including red, blue, green, yellow and black.
If you want to see this river at its multi-hued best, visit between June and November.
Lencois Maranhenses National Park
On the Brazilian coast, this park showcases the meeting of two features not often found in the same place: aqua rainwater lagoons and sheer white sand dunes. Together, they look like something from another planet.
This California lake is one of the oldest in North America, dating back over 1 million years. With its mineral structures, called "tufa towers," reflected in the calm blue water, it's also one of the most beautiful lakes in North America.
Yes, as indicated by the name, this Egyptian desert touts a blunt white color that impresses. But it's the desert's calcium rock formations — some as high as 15 feet — that really make it stand out from the crowd.
Confluence of the Rhône and Arve rivers
In Geneva, Switzerland, two distinctly-colored mountain rivers meet.
On the left is the Rhone, which gets its blue-green color from the lake, Lehman, that feeds it. On the right is the Arve, which gets its muddy hue from the melted glacier water of the Chamonix valley, mixed with a high level of silt.
Eternal Flame Falls
These falls are far less famous than their New York counterpart in Niagara, but what they lack in popularity, they make up for in sheer strangeness.
Fascinatingly, the falls feature a blazing flame surrounded by water, a phenomenon caused by the natural gas emanating from the rocks that the falls wash over. Despite the water, the flame stays burning almost continually (it can easily be relit when it occasionally extinguishes).
Researchers determined that this gas emission is something of a marvel. Unlike other such hydrocarbon “seeps,” this one has a high concentration of methane and was likely opened by tectonic activity. Eternal Flame’s shale is also younger, cooler and shallower than most gas-producing shale.
Located within the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire, known for its ubiquitous earthquakes and active volcanoes, is an island within a lake that’s within a volcano that’s within a larger lake that’s within a larger island. (Yes, we read that over several times for mistakes.)
All of this is inside the Philippines archipelago of the Pacific Ocean, and the volcano there is one of the most active in the country. It’s erupted dozens of times since 1991. And its caldera, or crater, is filled with water, making it the largest crater lake on Earth.
The Hand in the Desert
Unlike most other marvels on this list, the Hand in the Desert (aka Mano del Desierto) was crafted by man, not nature. Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal built the provocative, borderline-creepy sculpture in the middle of the barren Atacama Desert in 1992.
At 36 feet high, it's an impressive sight to behold.
The Hochschwab Mountains in the middle of Austria are a hiker’s paradise and a snowy wonderland in winter. But it’s what happens after winter that really makes them special.
Come June, when snow from the mountains melts, a lake called Grune See forms, completely submerging a pedestrian park below. Trees, pedestrian bridges, benches, grassy knolls — all become flooded with greenish but mostly clear water, making for the most unusual diving experience around.
The lake is quite fleeting, lasting usually no more than a month. So plan accordingly if you want to lounge around in Underwater Park.
The discovery of Derinkuyu in Turkey sounds like the stuff of fiction. Workers renovating a home in 1963 broke through a wall to reveal a room the owner didn’t know existed, and this room contained an opening to a tunnel that led to an ancient city that once housed 20,000 people and their livestock and food supplies.
But the story is true and the city is real. In fact, the region of Cappadocia has many underground dwellings, with Derinkuyu being the largest. It’s unclear exactly when it was built and for what purpose. It could be as old as 1,200 BCE, although the earliest written mention of underground cities in the region is from 370 BCE.
It’s believed the city was used as refuge from foreign invaders, as indicated by clues like rollable stone doors with peepholes and passageways so narrow, only one person could pass at a time.
Note: Derinkuyu is 18 stories deep, but only eight are available for tours due to safety concerns.
Scientists believe these falls in Antarctica are the color of blood because they feature oxidized iron in brine saltwater.
The result is rather disturbing, but also undoubtedly spectacular.
Quinta da Regaleira
As far as estates go, few in the world are as mystical and eccentric as Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal. Here, you will find a mind-boggling array of gardens, caves, towers, grottos and fountains, as well as architectural styles ranging from Roman and Manueline to Renaissance and Gothic. Most intriguing of all, the site also includes hidden symbols evoking the Knights Templar, Masons, alchemists and Rosicrucians.
The property contains numerous pathways through lush gardens, an intricate cave system connecting various buildings, a palace, a chapel and a park. There are two wells that are actually spiral, stone staircases that descend more than 80 feet into the Earth. The number of steps and the placement of landings in one well correlate to Tarot mysticism. An aquarium on the property was built to look like a natural formation.
There is, in other words, more than enough to occupy visitors for a few days.
The estate is a UNESCO World Heritage site designed by Italian architect Luigi Manini, and completed in 1910 after six years of work.
Palais Ideale, France
This wild structure is the culmination of 34 years of diligent building by a French postman named Ferdinand Cheval, who was inspired to build his palace in Hauterives about 30 miles south of Lyon after tripping over a uniquely shaped rock while walking his mail route.
Many styles and eras of Chinese, Algerian and Northern European architecture blend together to create something only dreams are made of. Cheval was a humble man who made sure to leave his mark on the world in more ways than just the palace. He inscribed a message on the building’s walls that reads, in part, “Everything you can see, passer-by, is the work of one peasant, who, out of a dream, created the queen of the world.”
Cheval also wanted to be buried in his palace, but the authorities wouldn’t allow it. He instead built his own tomb at a local cemetery at the age of 80.