From a fire hole nicknamed the "Door to Hell" to Superman’s ice cave, these 25 surreal landscapes will amaze you.
Who needs photoshop when our planet is full of vibrant colors and bizarre landscapes? Some are land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures millions of years ago, while others are man-made creations from not too long ago that have altered the planet in strange ways. Our round-up of the 25 most surreal landscapes on earth will show you places that have mesmerized visitors, baffled scientists, and inspired local legends for centuries.
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Best seen from above, Lake Helier on Middle Island in Western Australia appears in a bubble-gum pink hue in stark contrast to the blue water of the Pacific Ocean beside it. In 2016, researchers finally solved the mystery surrounding the lake’s color, attributing it to different microbes (including Dunaliella salina) which create pigment compounds called carotenoids to absorb sunlight. These compounds are thought to cause the algae to turn pink. Unlike other pink lakes worldwide, the water doesn’t change color when filled into a container.
The “Door to Hell” has been open for nearly 50 years. In 1971, a natural gas field in Derweze collapsed into an underground cavern. The borehole was set alight to prevent the spread of poisonous methane gas—despite the geologists’ hopes that the fuel would be used up in only a few days, it has been burning without interruption ever since. The crater, which is the size of an American football field and 65 feet deep, is best visited at night when the flames can be seen from miles away. The site is totally undeveloped for tourism and the Door to Hell is not shut off, so watch your step while there!
Calcite-laden waters have created a surreal landscape with sparkling white travertine terraces and warm, mineral-rich pools in southwestern Turkey, fittingly called Pamukkale (Cotton Castle). At the end of the 2nd century B.C., the ancient spa city of Hierapolis was built on top of the terraces, and people have bathed in the pools for centuries. With over two million visitors annually, Pamukkale is Turkey’s most visited attraction and measures have been taken to protect the site. Access to the terraces is now restricted and only the smaller pools, including the Antique Pool from Roman times, remain open to the public for bathing. Hierapolis-Pamukkale was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
It doesn’t get more inhospitable than the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, considered the hottest place on earth if measured by the average year-round temperature (reportedly 93.92 Fahrenheit). Located at the junction of three tectonic plates, this landscape, 410 feet below sea level and one of the lowest places on the planet, features bubbling lava flows, miniature geysers, and lakes of salt. The Danakil Depression is a kaleidoscope of colors from yellow sulfur fields to red iron oxides deposits and green water caused by copper salts. If you don’t mind the scorching heat and the lack of any modern convenience, this place is arguably one of the most fascinating in the world.
The Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park, also called the Eye Candy of Zhangye or the Rainbow Mountains, is famous for its colorful rock formations. The distinctive colors of the landscape, comprised of isolated mountains and steep rocks, are a result of red sandstone and mineral deposits piled on top of each other over 24 million years. Zhangye Danxia features a wide variety of geological forms like pillars, cliffs, and ravines, though if you have an imaginative mind you might see castles, towers, birds, and animals instead.
WHERE: New Zealand
Wai-O-Tapu, close to Rotorua in the center of New Zealand’s North Island, is the country’s most famous and beautiful geothermal attraction. Volcanic activity has created a landscape full of hot and cold springs, bubbling mud pools, and sinter terrace formations. The color spectrum ranges from bright orange to yellow, turquoise, green, and gray. The Lady Knox Geyser erupts every day at 10:15 am and reaches a height of up to 65 feet, while hot steam and mud bubbles speak volumes of the activity below visitors’ feet.
WHERE: Arizona, US
Every photographer’s dream is Antelope Canyon in Arizona. The upper and the lower section are respectively called “the place where water runs through rocks” and “spiral rock arches” by local Navajo Indians. Over time, rainwater has carved out narrow passageways, thus forming the distinctive flowing shapes in the sandstone. The best pictures can be taken between late March and early October when direct sunlight from above creates a natural masterpiece of color. Antelope Canyon can only be explored with a guide, in part because of the risk of flash floods.
Salar de Uyuni
As part of a prehistoric lake, the world’s largest salt flat sits at an altitude of 11,985 feet. The vast expanse (over 4,000 square miles), exceptional flatness and glistening white crust make Salar de Uyuni breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the surface is wet and reflects the clear sky. It might feel as if you’re walking through the clouds, as you won’t be able to distinguish where the horizon ends and starts. The crust, which is several feet deep, is extracted for salt and lithium-rich brine that contains 50-70 percent of the world’s reserves. Adventurous travelers can stay overnight in a salt hotel in which everything from the beds to the toilets and walls is built from bricks of cemented salt.
Between late December and mid-March, juhyo, or snow monsters, are a surreal sight in the ski resort of Zao Onsen. Trees coated with ice and snow are a rare winter phenomenon worldwide, but nowhere will the monsters give you more chill than in Japan. The formation of a juhyo is caused by a combination of high winds, extremely low temperatures, and snowfall on fir trees around the peak of Zao Onsen resort. After dark, during the Zao Juhyo Festival, the frozen trees are illuminated and visitors can take a gondola up the resort top to see them.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but man-sized crystals are nothing to sniff at either! In 2000, stunned geologists discovered some of the largest crystals ever found in the then-working Naica Silver Mine in Chihuahua. Nearly 1,000 feet underground, selenite crystals as large as 4 feet in diameter and 50 feet long grow in an atmosphere of 136 degrees Fahrenheit and 90-99 percent humidity. Only a handful of people has ever entered one of the five crystal growing caves. In 2015, the mine ceased operation and was closed to the public after a worker suffocated in the inhospitable environment while trying to steal some of the selenite.
WHERE: California, US
Mono Lake in California is North America’s second-oldest lake, formed some 760,000 years ago, and famous for its white-gray tufa formations that rise of out the water and adorn the shore. Reminiscent of drip sand castles, tufas form when carbonate-rich source waters emerge into alkaline soda lakes under water. The reason the limestone formations are visible at Mono Lake is that water was diverted from the lake beginning in 1941, therefore exposing the tufas, which can grow to heights of over 30 feet. The best views and formations are in the South Tufa Area just off Highway 120 East.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re lost, make sure to ask for “too-fah,” not “toe-foo” (that’s tasty bean curd).
For most of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river, but for a short period of time it turns into what is nicknamed as “river of five colors,” “the liquid rainbow,” and “the river that ran away from paradise.” From late July through to November, the river bed blossoms in an explosion of colors. A unique species of plant called Macarenia clavigera turns a brilliant magenta, and the shingled bottoms of circular rock pools, known as giant’s cauldrons, appear to glow yellow and then green. Add to that the blue color of the water and you have “the most beautiful river in the world.”
WHERE: Namibia/Angola/South Africa
Meaning “immense” or “vast place” in the Nama language, the Namib Desert stretches for more than 1,200 miles along the Atlantic Ocean and across three southern African countries. It encompasses the world’s highest sand dunes, up to 980 feet high and 20 miles long. Although the Namib is, at 55-80 million years, thought to be the oldest desert in the world, it is nearly empty of human habitation but full of natural resources like diamonds and salt. The landscape is varied with yellow grass, scattered mountains, gravel plains, and orange sand dunes, the color of which show their age (just like rusty metal, the brighter, the older).
WHERE: Louisiana, US
The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river swamp in the United States: a combination of wetlands, bayous, and marshes at the confluence of the Atchafalaya River and the Gulf of Mexico. This eerie swamp encompasses eco-systems including salt marshes, but the central area features Louisiana’s iconic cypress-tupelo swamps. If you dare to take a boat ride through the swamp in fog or darkness, the sight of the moss-covered trees that tower high above the water might haunt you. Add to that beavers, bears, and alligators, which all live in the Atchafalaya Basin, and you might be in for a unique but hair-raising experience.
If Superman’s crystal fortress were real, it would look just like Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland. In summer, when the ice melts, subterranean glacial water cuts through the ancient ice cap and shapes a crystal blue underground network. In winter only, visitors can enter this labyrinth of frozen chambers in Europe’s largest glacier mass which covers more than 8 percent of Iceland. The ice takes on many shapes, often looking like frozen cathedrals or waves suspended in time. The sunlight is reflected in the caves’ ice walls and ceilings, turning these yellow or even orange at times.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park gained international fame in 2009 as the film crew of the 3D blockbuster Avatar drew inspiration for Pandora’s magical “floating peaks” from the forest in northern Hunan Province. In honor of the film, one of the more than 3,000 quartz-sandstone towers, the “Southern Sky Column,” had its name changed by the government to “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in 2010. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park features pillar-like formations that have a small oasis of trees grow on them.
Lake Natron: the deadly lake that turns animals into stone. The salt and soda lake calcifies misfortunate birds, mammals, and reptiles, and only extremophile fish adapted to the harsh conditions can survive in the hostile waters (temperatures can reach 140 degrees with alkalinity up to pH 10.5). The ghastly lake, which takes its name from the chemical natron, has water flowing in but not out. The evaporated water leaves behind high concentrations of salt and other minerals, thus creating a deadly trap. When drained, it reveals a blood-red lake floor. Surprisingly, Lake Natron is the only breeding area in East Africa for 2.5 million flamingoes, which feed on the algae that grow in the lake.
Shibazakura near Lake Motosu
Every spring near Lake Motosu in Yamanashi Prefecture, Mother Nature produces a pink carpet with Mt. Fuji as a spectacular backdrop. Around 800,000 shibazakura, or moss phlox (of six different varieties), turn the ground into a vast field of magenta, pink, light purple, and white covering 2.4 hectares of land. The pink on the ground against the blue sky and Japan’s iconic mountain is an unforgettable sight. When the first flowers bloom each year, around mid-April, the popular Fuji Shibazakura Festival is held at the Fuji Motosuko Resort. The best time to see the flowers differs every year, though it’s usually in the first three weeks of May.
Tsingy de Bemaraha
What seems like an impenetrable labyrinth is Tsingy de Bemaraha, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Massive limestone obelisks with jagged spears called tsingy, the Malagasy word for “walking on tiptoes,” create a landscape similar to spiked fences. In between the knife-edged towers lie wet caves and slot canyons that harbor an astonishing richness of species, including larger animals which have not been completely recorded. It is estimated that close to 50 percent of the flora, largely untouched forest, and fauna found in Tsingy de Bemaraha is endemic.
Also known as “Valley of the Moon,” Wadi Rum in southern Jordan has stood in as Mars for quite a few movies already. Notably, Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Prometheus, and of course, The Martian, were all filmed here depicting the rather unearthly landscape of the fourth planet. Wadi Rum, a 278-square-mile protected area, is included in many Jordan itineraries and fascinates visitors with its sandstone mountains, granite rocks, dried-up riverbed, and natural arches. Actor Matt Damon called the site “one of the most spectacular and beautiful places I have ever seen, and like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else on Earth.”
Described by some as the most alien-looking place on earth, Socotra, an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean, is home to nearly 700 endemic species of flora and fauna. Just like the Galapagos Islands, its isolation some 240 miles south of the Arabian Peninsula has resulted in a unique biodiversity of which the dragon’s blood tree might be the most striking. Resembling the shape of a giant green mushroom or umbrella, the tree’s resin, called “dragon’s blood” for its red color, is a highly coveted dye, medicine, and paint by the locals. Other distinct plants are the cucumber tree and the desert rose.
Cappadocia in central Anatolia is a result of both natural forces and human intervention. Volcanic eruption and erosion formed clefts, caves, folds, boulders, pinnacles, and the distinctive “fairy chimneys” with some stretching up to 130 feet high. Meanwhile, people utilized the region’s soft stone to seek shelter or escape persecution. They carved into the soft volcanic rock and developed a network of underground caves and tunnels. There are entire underground cities, the biggest being Derinkuyu, cave churches, and “rock houses.” While the majority of these dwellings have been abandoned, some houses are still occupied by the locals. Others serve as hotels, providing a unique experience in 21st-century cave living.
WHERE: The United Kingdom
Located on the northern coast of Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is famous for its 40,000 polygonal columns of layered basalt. Resulting from a volcanic eruption 50-60 million years ago, the rugged symmetry of the columns has attracted visitors for centuries and inspired legends of giants striding over the sea to Scotland. The basalt columns are interlocked, forming stepping stones which around half a million visitors enjoy each year and making it one of Northern’s Irelands most popular attractions. Most of the columns are hexagonal with the tallest reaching heights of up to 39 feet.
WHERE: New Mexico, USA
The White Sands National Monument in New Mexico is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. Comprising an area of 275 square miles, the field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals looks like a blanket of snow. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes have adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). Visitors can enjoy three short nature trails and a longer hiking path, though many only come for recreational activities such as picnicking, sunbathing and sand sledding. When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a red-pinkish hue, and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.
Rice Terraces in Yunnan
The terraced ride paddies of Yuanyang in Yunnan Province are breathtaking, with curving lines and vivacious colors. Orange, purple, yellow, and blue hues of natural light cascade down the terraces which sit at elevations as high as 6,500 feet. The Yuanyang Rice Terraces were built by the Hani over thousands of years of history. In some places, nearly 3,000 terraces form a network of ditches and canals that move rainfall and spring water from one place to another. When the sun rises, the terraces become reflective mirrors of the clouds and sky, making the scenery look like a stairway to heaven.