The world is full of spectacular natural wonders that have drawn us in since ancient times. Just seeing a photo of these breathtaking sites is enough to induce wanderlust in even the staunchest homebody. Sadly climate change, pollution, and a host of other factors are threatening many of the Earth’s most enchanting locations. Here are our top picks for the natural wonders to visit in 2013. Some are disappearing and some are simply timeless, but all of them are well worth a trip this year.
The world's largest tropical rainforest, the Amazon in South America is spread out over 5.5 million square feet across nine countries. The Amazon's unparalleled biodiversity makes it an amazing place for nature lovers. Visit during the dry season, from July through December, when it is hot but activities like hiking and fishing are possible (the rest of the year is the wet season and it is wet). But the natural splendor of the rainforest is at risk; new roads, dams, increased pasture area for cattle, deforestation, illegal natural resource extraction, and climate change are just some of the things threatening the thousands of species that call the river and rainforest home.
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are like something out of a dream. The result of millions of particles and atoms colliding, nature puts on a spectacular light show for lucky viewers in northern latitudes. For the ultimate romantic bucket list experience, rent a glass-roofed igloo in Finland where you can view the phenomenon from the thermal warmth of your own private cabin. Viewing conditions are best September through March in places like Northern Canada, Alaska, and the northernmost parts of the Nordic countries.
Make the journey to Israel or Jordan to the lowest point on Earth to visit the Dead Sea (technically a lake), one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. The salinity combined with an unusual mineral composition has made the Dead Sea one of the premier natural spa destinations in the world since ancient times—even Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra made pilgrimages from Africa to visit. Of course the Dead Sea is most famous for its incredible buoyancy caused by the high salt levels, meaning that you don't swim in the Dead Sea…you float. No description can prepare you for the actual sensation of feeling absolutely weightless in the water. Sadly, due to tributary divergence, mineral mining, and environmental factors the Dead Sea is shrinking at an alarming rate—so go float in its ancient waters while you still can.
Glacier National Park
Located in Montana, just south of Canada, Glacier National Park was established in 1910 and is famous for its mountain ranges, exquisite collection of flora, fauna, and animals, and, of course, its glaciers. Visitors to the park—known as the "Crown of the Continent"—enjoy hiking, camping, fishing, and, in the winter, cross-country skiing. But, despite the best preservation efforts, the famous glaciers in the park are melting. While the area was home to 150 glaciers in 1850, today that number has decreased to 26. Some predict that if things continue to proceed this way, the glaciers may be gone as soon as 2020.
When things are talked up too much the real thing can sometimes be a disappointment. Not so with the Grand Canyon. This 277-mile long fissure in Arizona is a colorful, breathtaking natural wonder that's well worth the hype. Join the 5 million other annual visitors to the natural wonder to enjoy some of the cleanest air in the US, plus hiking, camping, and rafting on the Colorado River below. For those who don't want to exert themselves, you can enjoy the view from the top and take some memorable photos. The Colorado River has been flowing through the Canyon for at least 17 million years, and fortunately it doesn't look like the canyon or the river are going anywhere any time soon.
Great Barrier Reef
Located in Queensland, Australia, the world's most famous barrier reef is at risk of disappearing within the next 15 to 20 years. Home to the biggest collection of coral reefs on Earth, the Great Barrier Reef has been recognized as a World Heritage Site since 1981. It boasts a whopping 4,000 kinds of mollusks, 1,500 species of fish, more than 400 types of coral, and many, many more creatures, making it a mecca for marine scientists and underwater enthusiasts. But rising ocean temperatures, increasingly acidic water, commercial fishing, and a host of other factors have negatively impacted the reef, causing it to deteriorate rapidly. Make the trip sooner rather than later to see the full glory of the Great Barrier Reef.
Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border may have Niagara Falls beat when it comes to size (it's twice as tall and wide), but it's hard to surpass the romantic nostalgia of the Canadian-American falls. The famous site is made up of three falls (Horseshoe, American, and Bridal Veil) that were formed after the last ice age and today are a major hydroelectric power source. Walk across the famed Rainbow Bridge between Canada and the US to boast that you've stood in two countries at the same time. And Niagara Falls isn't just for honeymooners—go alone, with your family, friends, or a sweetheart to enjoy the views, take a boat ride, and take advantage of all the man-made activities (wine tasting anyone?) that have sprouted up around this natural tourist attraction.