Sometimes Earth looks like a whole 'nother planet.
Utah’s Paiute Indians call them Legend People, humans stuck forever in rock form. To the Blackfoot and Cree in Alberta, Canada, they’re stone giants that come to life after darkness falls. Around the globe, wind, water, and sand have sculpted these alien worlds made of stone.
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Bryce Canyon National Park
One of the most spectacularly bizarre landscapes in the world, Bryce Canyon National Park has been slowly carved from the limestone Paunsaugunt Plateau by winter ice and spring thaws for millions of years. The Paiute Indians, who seasonally hunted and gathered in the Canyon, call its spire-shaped rock formations “Legend People” — humans punished by Coyote and turned forever into stone. The best views of Bryce’s formations can be seen from several look-out spots on the Park’s main road, but to experience the Canyon without the crowds, try a hike on the 8-mile Fairyland Loop.
INSIDER TIPAt sunrise and sunset, the Canyon comes alive with color.
WHERE: New Zealand
So taken with the eerie beauty at Castle Hill during his 2002 visit to New Zealand’s south island, the Dalai Lama declared this spot a “spiritual center of the universe.” Named for their resemblance to a crumbling stone fortress, these monolithic limestone outcroppings erupt from a bucolic landscape of grazing sheep. Located less than two hours west of Christchurch— whose historic stone church’s facade was procured from Castle Hill―this unusual corner of the world is a favorite bouldering spot for rock climbers.
INSIDER TIPThe castle formations can be glimpsed from the highway, but the short walk up the hill is well worth it for the opportunity to walk among and climb upon the stones.
Located at the crossroads of the Classical world, Cappadocia appears in some of the region’s earliest texts, including the Bible. These days, though, Cappadocia’s geological past is arguably more recognizable than its socio-political one: fairy chimneys, conical towers up to 130 feet high formed by the erosion of ancient lava beds, virtually cover the landscape. At Göreme National Park you’ll find a dense concentration of the spires, many of which still bear the marks of human habitation dating as far back as the 4th century A.D.
INSIDER TIPThe modern town of Göreme, the hub for Cappadocia tourism, boasts a number of underground cave accommodations that stay cool when temperatures outside are high.
At night, the sandstone hoodoos of Alberta’s Drumheller Valley come to life to protect their land from intruders, at least according to Blackfoot and Cree Indian traditions. By day, mortals can safely walk among the stone giants. Remarkably fragile (geologically speaking), these 5-7 million year old formations nestled in Canada’s badlands are capped by hard rock that slows their disintegration by the forces of wind and water. You’ll find the most spectacular spires at the protected site, but the giants’ smaller brethren can be seen all along Highway 10, dubbed the Hoodoos Trail.
Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument
WHERE: New Mexico
Around 6 million years ago, volcanic eruptions blanketed this area of northern New Mexico in lava, pumice, and ash. Since then, the elements have slowly whittled these remnants down to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument’s distinctive cone-shaped “tents”. Some of the formations here reach up to 90 feet in height and their alien appearance isn’t lost on anyone: in the mid-90s it was used as a set piece for the short-lived sci-fi series, Earth 2.
INSIDER TIPYou won’t see much from the road here. Hit the Slot Canyon Trail to explore the formations in all their glory.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
The ethereal green capped stone world of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the Hunan Province of China was the inspiration for the land of Pandora in James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar. In real life, too, this forest of sandstone and quartz is a place of legend, a crossroads for three ethnic groups―the Tujia, the Bai, and the Miao―and a home for monkeys, birds, plants and flowers. The formations “grow” over hundreds of miles of landscape but those at Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Huangshizhai-Yellow Stone, Tianzi Mountain and Yuanjiajie Scenic Area are among the most impressive.
Valley of the Moon, Ischigualasto Provincial Park
In Quechua, Ischigualasto means “dead land” but millions of years ago, these badlands were teeming with life— home first to dinosaurs and, later, some of the world’s earliest mammal species. Along with its impressive paleontological record, the barren Valley of the Moon is dotted with a variety of oddly supernatural formations including hoodoos like “The Submarine” and “Sphynx” and the Cancha de Bochas, a mysterious field of spherical stones. This provincial park and the neighboring Talampaya Natural Park were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000.
Goblin Valley State Park
At Goblin Valley, wind and water have carved a labyrinth from the red sandstone. Along with its neighbor Bryce Canyon National Park, this southern Utah state park has more formations, locally dubbed “goblins,” than almost anywhere in the world. So alien is the landscape that it was used, well, as an alien world in the 1999 movie Galaxy Quest. Recently the victim of vandalism by a Boy Scout leader who knocked over one of the multi-million year old goblins, Goblin Valley and its distinctive mushroom-cap shaped hoodoos remain open for (gentle) exploration.
Sahara el-Beida (White Desert Park)
Sahara el-Beida’s bizarre calcium rock formations rise out of the desert floor like abstract sculptures left behind by an alien race. Gleaming brilliant white, the desert’s massive “boulders,” “mushrooms,” and “tents” have been sculpted by wind and sand over millions of years out of a prehistoric sea-bed. In 2002, the 1500 square kilometer site was dubbed a natural wonder of Egypt.
INSIDER TIPIf you’ve only got a few hours to visit, go by 4WD vehicle. If you can stay longer, camping overnight in this ghostly world with Bedouin guides is an unforgettable experience.
Chiricahua National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument’s eerie rhyolite rock formations are all that remains of a volcanic eruption 27 million years ago. Protected back in 1924, this south-eastern Arizona park is famous for its balancing rocks, massive boulders precariously positioned atop another formation. It’s also one of the least visited National Parks in the west due to its remote location, a fact that lends to Chiricahua’s other-worldliness.
INSIDER TIPChiricahua can be seen via an eight-mile scenic drive or from its 17 miles of hiking trails. The park’s campground at Bonita Canyon accepts reservations.
The Pinnacles, Nambung National Park
Three hours north of Perth, Nambung National Park’s stone pinnacles stand sentinel over the Australian desert. Exactly how the formations were shaped is a matter of debate. Some geologists believe extreme weathering of Tamala limestone deposits created the spires; others theorize that they were formed around ancient trees or root casts. Sprouting from the yellow sand dunes of the Coral Coast, this dry desert is nonetheless inhabited year-round by grey kangaroos and emus, which frequently make appearances for visitors.
There is no lodging or camping in the National Park. Continue to the town of Cervantes if you plan to stay overnight.
Shilin National Scenic Area
The stone forests of Shilin grow over 150 square miles of China’s Yunnan Province. Resembling massive cave stalagmites or petrified trees, you’ll get the best views of these 270 million year old limestone pinnacles at the Greater and Lesser Stone Forests (also known as the Lizijing Stone Forest) and the Naigu Stone Forest, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.