Natural wonders: The ultimate list of scenic splendor
Water, fire and ice have combined to make some of the most spectacular scenery in the world — from giant crystal caves to mud volcanoes and rock formations that look like works of art.
If your office and daily commute aren’t a fitting reminder of the extraordinary natural diversity of planet earth, get some inspiration from these incredible scenes.
1. Pulpit Rock, Preikestolen, Norway
With a 604-meter drop from a flat plateau down to Lysefjord with no safety railings, this is not a place for vertigo sufferers.
Keep well back from the edge and you can still enjoy the fantastic scenery over Kjerag peak, which itself drops 984 meters.
Preikestolen is south of Jorpeland. From the designated car park it’s a 90-minute hike to the viewpoint.
2. Gran Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
The Gran Salar de Uyuni in southern Bolivia takes in more than 10 square kilometers of salt. It feels more like a desert than a lake.
The flat, white landscape causes optical illusions and reflects colors. There’s even a hotel made almost entirely of salt and an island where giant cacti grow in the middle of the salt lake.
Gran Salar de Uyuni is 533 kilometers south of La Paz and 200 kilometers southwest of Potosi.
3. Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania
The Ngorogoro Crater is Africa’s Eden. Created when a huge volcano exploded 2-3 million years ago, the 300 square kilometer caldera now offers the best chances of seeing Africa’s wild animals.
Lions, rhino, leopards, elephant and buffalo are the “big five” present among around 25,000 animals, and nearly every species present in East Africa, which call the area home.
Besides that, the crater itself offers dramatic vistas, especially at sunrise.
From Kilimanjaro International Airport you can fly or drive the 55 kilometers to Arusha, from where you can organize tours and accommodation inside and outside the crater.
4. Paria Canyon, Arizona, United States
The Paria River in northern Arizona carved its own smaller version of the Grand Canyon. Some of the rock formations, including The Wave, are just as spectacular.
Visitors need a permit from the Bureau of Land Management — the permit for an overnight trek comes with a “human waste bag,” so if you want to visit this natural wonder, you’ll have to prepare to pack your waste.
The Paria Contact Station is 69 kilometers east of Kanab. You can hire a guide through the Bureau of Land Management.
5. Volcanic eruptions at Stromboli, Italy
Part of the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, Stromboli is a small volcanic island with several hundred brave inhabitants.
Unlike most volcanoes, Stromboli’s is constantly spewing lava fountains, gas and ash. Fascinating for volcanologists, but also great for day-trippers who fancy seeing live lava action.
For natural fireworks, take a boat trip around the island at night.
Arrange boat tours from harbors on the north coast of Sicily (Messina, Cefalu, Palermo).
6. Mud volcanoes of Gobustan, Azerbaijan
Mud lovers trek to Gobustan’s strangely Martian landscape, 65 kilometers south of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, where thick gray mud regularly spews from small volcanoes.
The mud is thought to have medicinal qualities, so don’t be surprised if you see people stripping down and lathering themselves in the goo. Look out for the area’s Roman inscriptions and the petroglyphic rock art.
About 70 kilometers west of Baku.
7. Jeita Grotto, Nahr al-Kalb Valley, Lebanon
Eighteen kilometers northeast of Beirut, Jeita Grotto is comprised of underground limestone caves were inhabited in prehistoric times and continue to attract human visitors with their vivid colors and stalactite formations. The biggest stalactite in the world is here.
The caves consist of a network of chambers — with an upper and a lower gallery — stretching out for nine kilometers and accessible by an underground river.
The nearest town is Juniyah, just a few kilometers away. Cave tours last two hours.
8. Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail, Wales
This path twists 300 kilometers from St. Dogmaels to Amroth in southwest Wales.
It’s often wet and windy, but if you strike lucky on a sunny day this is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Scented gorse and crimson heather brighten the way.
Look for seals in the waters below.
Paths are signposted — join the path on the coast between St. Dogmaels and Amroth. Details on guided walks and activities can be found on the National Trails website — including self-guided walks with baggage transfer.
9. Pangong Tso Lake, India-China
This saltwater lake deep in the Himalayas at an altitude of 4,350 meters lies astride a disputed border area between India and China-governed Tibet.
Don’t let that put you off — the rarefied air make the colors and clarity of the lake intense.
Pangong Tso is reached by a mountain road from the Indian town of Leh, but you’ll need to get a permit via a registered tour guide.
Get to Leh by road from Jammu, or by plane from Delhi. At Leh arrange a permit and travel by road 4-5 hours to the lake. Permits and tour guides can be arranged through reputable travel agents such as Kuoni
10. Geirangerfjord and Naeroyfjord, Norway
If you only have time to visit two fjords in your lifetime, make it the Geirangerfjord and Naeroyfjord in southwest Norway.
These are among the world’s longest and deepest fjords, with high vertical cliffs, deep waters and giddy waterfalls. Both are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Trips can be arranged from Bergen and Alesund.
11. South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona, United States
Most visitors view the canyon from South Rim viewing stations. Considering that it has taken the Colorado River the past 17 million years to carve this wonder out of rock, it seems only fair to take a closer look.
Built by the National Park Service in 1924, the South Kaibab Trail takes you to the wonderfully named “Ooh Ah Point” and, for the adventurous, further into the canyon’s depths. Plan carefully, heat stroke is no fun.
In the northwest corner of Arizona, visitors usually head to South Rim Village (120 kilometers northwest of Flagstaff on route 180) or the North Rim Village. Free shuttle buses service the South Rim in summer months. Ranger-led day hikes and walks take place throughout the year.
12. Mount Roraima, Guyana/Brazil/Venezuela
South America’s answer to Uluru, this impressive sandstone plateau is surrounded on all sides by 400-meter cliffs, creating an isolated and unique ecosystem.
If you want to follow in David Attenborough’s footsteps (he’s filmed several times here), organize a trek from the Venezuelan side.
Hiking up Mount Roraima is best done from Venezuela. The Paratepui Route is the easiest for non-technical climbers and trips can be arranged from San Francisco de Yurani.
13. Verdon Gorge, Provence, France
The gorgeous turquoise waters of the Verdon River flow through one of Europe’s most beautiful gorges for 25 kilometers.
Swim in the translucent waters of Lac de St. Croix and stare in awe at the 700-meter walls of the Verdon Gorge. If you’ve got a head for heights, it’s a popular destination for rock-climbing.
The Verdon Gorge is on the border of the departements of Var and the Alpes de Hautes Provence.
14. Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan Province, China
The three valleys that form this biosphere reserve contain a network of connected lakes, waterfalls and rivers — the most spectacular of which are the Pearl Waterfalls.
Spot the ancient tree trunks under the clear waters of Five Flower Lake. Wooden paths and shuttle buses help visitors get around.
In the north of Sichuan, the nearest town to Jiuzhaigou National Park is Songpan.
15. Lake Nakuru, Kenya
A streak of blue (and pink) in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, Lake Nakuru is home to thousands of pink flamingoes that flock here to feed on the lake’s algae.
A UNESCO Heritage Site, Lake Nakuru National Park is also home to hippos, white and black rhino, giraffe and buffalo.
Take a matatu 156 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, or a plane to the Naishi airstrip.
16. Uluru/Ayers Rock, Australia
Australia’s favorite giant sandstone mass is 350 meters high and more than nine kilometers in circumference.
It’s a sacred and spiritual site for its custodians, the aboriginal Anangu, so climbing the rock is considered disrespectful to them. It can also be dangerous.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is about 440 kilometers southwest of Alice Springs. Flights are available from most major cities to Ayers Rock airport.
17. Siwa Oasis, Egypt
This isolated oasis has natural springs and fertile land, providing access to spectacular stretches of Sahara desert. It’s a great spot for star gazing from your tent in the sand, but bring your bathing suit for a dip in its hot and cold natural pools.
A 10-hour drive west of Cairo. Public buses take much longer. Desert safaris can be arranged in Siwa.
18. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, Iceland
Waterfall connoisseurs agree it’s not size that counts. The biggest and the highest may be impressive, but when it comes to cascading water, Iceland’s Seljalandsfoss has style.
The sight of the Seljalandsa River dropping 62 meters down the sheer cliff face has made it a must-see Iceland attraction. There’s a path that goes behind the cascade, so bring your waterproof camera.
On Road 1, it’s 125 kilometers southeast of Reykjavik.
19. Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina
This 30-kilometer glacier in Patagonia’s Los Glaciares National Park (not to be confused with the Perito Moreno National Park) grows and contracts, often forming a natural ice dam on the “elbow” of Lago Argentino.
The force of the trapped water causes a spectacular rupture every four to five years. Even when the ice isn’t exploding, the sight of the glacier’s blue peaks is a lifetime attraction.
Fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate in Patagonia. The alternative is a very long bus journey.
20. Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Moraine Lake — together with its sister Lake Louise — is one of the most photographed landscapes in Banff National Park.
It’s known as the jewel of the Rockies for its deep crystalline waters that mirror pine forests, soaring mountains and endless sky.
Drive or take a direct bus 128 kilometers west from Calgary to Banff.
21. Cascate del Mulino, Saturnia, Tuscany, Italy
Steaming hot spring water comes out of the ground at 37.5 C and cascades over a series of small waterfalls into dozens of pools on consecutive levels.
Niagara Falls it ain’t, but the cascading thermal springs at Saturnia are a lot of fun. Soak in the natural sulfurous mineral water and just maybe cure ailments from rheumatism to muscle ache.
About 10 kilometers north of the small Tuscan town of Manciano, northeast of Orbetello.
22. William Bay, Western Australia
A five-hour drive south of Perth, William Bay in Denmark, Western Australia, has turquoise waters that lap around white sands and the Elephant Rocks, which shelter an area of rock pools and granite terraces called Green’s Pool.
The calm waters are perfect for snorkeling, while the more adventurous have the Great Southern Ocean on the other side.
Fifteen kilometers west of the town of Denmark.
23. Jeju Island Lava Tubes, South Korea
This volcanic island in Korea — it’s on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list — has mountains, stunning coastal rock formations and the finest system of cave lava tubes in the world.
The Jeju caves have towers of petrified lava, while the Cheju-do cliffs have tube-like formations similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
Jeju Island is 130 kilometers off the southern coast of South Korea. It’s accessible by boat from Busan or air from Gimpo airport in Seoul.
24. Angel Falls, Venezuela
The highest waterfall in the world, the water at Angel Falls travels 979 meters, which includes a free fall drop of 807 meters.
It cascades over one of the biggest table-top mountains in the Canaima National Park in southern Venezuela, known to the local Pemon people as Devil’s Mountain. Most of the water evaporates as mist before reaching the bottom.
Angel Falls is in remote jungle near the Canaima airstrip, which can be reached by plane from Ciudad Guayana or Ciudad Bolivar. Local Pemon people work as guides.
25. Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
Deep in the Swiss Alps the Lauterbrunnen Valley, or Lauterbrunnental, is a deep cleft cut in the topography running between steep limestone precipices.
The waterfalls that dot the rift often disappear into wisps of spray before hitting bottom, and include Staubbach Falls, one of Europe’s highest unbroken waterfalls at 270 meters.
Get to Lauterbrunnen, the village in the valley, by narrow-gauge train from Interlaken Ost station in the Bernese Highlands.
26. Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
South of the village of Doolin in County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher rise 213 meters above the Atlantic Ocean and stretch for eight kilometers.
They are one of Ireland’s biggest natural tourist attractions, but they also attract Atlantic puffins, razorbills and other wild birds.
Don’t miss the spectacular views of the Arran Islands, Galway Bay and the Burren.
The Cliffs of Moher are an 80-kilometer drive southwest of Galway.
27. Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
Formed over millions of years by volcanic eruptions, rivers and glaciers, the Skaftafell National Park in southern Iceland has a variety of striking landscapes.
These include an overhanging wall of geometric black basalt rocks on the Svartifoss waterfall, which inspired the architecture of Reykjavik’s National Theatre, and the majestic Skaftafellsjokull glacier that seems to have frozen in mid-flow.
Drive Road 1 for 326 kilometers east of Reykjavik. Buses from Reykjavik run to the park in summer. Self-guided hikes of Skaftafell are outlined on the official website.
28. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia/Peru
At an altitude of 3,811 meters above sea level, Lake Titicaca is one of the largest lakes in South America by volume.
It is also the highest commercially navigated lake in the world and is home to indigenous people including the Aymara and the Quechua. Its vast expanse of water is often cloaked in light mist and has inspired numerous local legends.
Lake Titicaca can be visited from the Peruvian town of Puno or from Copacabana on the Bolivian side, 150 kilometers from La Paz.
29. Wadden Sea, Germany and the Netherlands
UNESCO describes the Wadden Sea as “the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world.” In other words, it’s a surreal hinterland along the coast of Germany and the Netherlands that combines wide-open stretches of sand and shallow seas.
It’s also home to migratory birds. Go there and you’ll feel a million miles from anywhere else on earth and about as small as one of the clams at your feet.
This 600-kilometer stretch of coast lies between the towns of Den Helder in the Netherlands and Niebull in Germany.
30. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, Palawan, Philippines
Nominated as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River runs for 8.2 kilometers underground and boasts limestone karst formations, stalactites and stalagmites.
You can cruise down the river in a canoe. Watch out for the Palawan stink badger, an adorable little skunk that lives in the area.
The underground river is 76 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princesa city on the western coast of Palawan.
31. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
This series of shallow lakes in the heart of Croatia are a nature lover’s paradise, with clear waters pooled in between rocky canyons and dramatic waterfalls gushing over cliff edges.
Wooden walkways make access to Plitvice Lakes for visitors. Swimming is forbidden inside the national park, but there are places for a dip outside, such as Korana Village. Look out for freshwater fish and brown bears in the surrounding hills.
The park is a two-hour drive north of Zadar. There are also good bus services. Guided tours for groups are available on request — see website.
32. Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls, Zambia, Zimbabwe
The Zambeze River cascades over a cliff stretching more 1.7 kilometers, making Victoria Falls, known by its local name as Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders), a stunning sight.
With its highest-ever recorded flow rate of 12,800 cubic meters per second, a lot of water makes the 108-meter drop into the Zambeze’s gorges.
Swimmers can take a dip in Devil’s Pool when water levels aren’t too high — it’s right on the edge of the waterfall. Check safety notices first.
Visit the falls from Livingstone in Zambia.
33. Finistere, France
The remote headland in Brittany really does feel like the end of the world (its name is derived from the Latin finis terrae).
In front lies the Atlantic Ocean, while along the coast natural rocky harbors and inlets create a rugged landscape.
Tourists flock to Pointe du Raz, which points like a craggy finger at a lighthouse in often choppy waters, but on sunny days the abers are peaceful and protected from the elements.
Accessible from Brest, Brittany.
34. Fernando De Noronha, Brazil
Fernando De Noronha is an archipelago of 21 tropical islands, 350 kilometers from mainland Brazil, is famed for its idyllic sandy beaches, marine life and hiking trails.
It’s now a marine national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, where hawksbill turtles, dolphins, sharks and endangered species are protected.
The island life wasn’t always a paradise. Between the late 18th century and 1957 there was a prison on the main island.
35. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia
Made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland extends for 2,600 kilometers and is the world’s largest structure made of living organisms. It’s even visible from space.
A favorite on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, this delicate ecosystem is home to porpoises, green sea turtles, whales and dugongs. But the reef is threatened by climate change and coral bleaching that occurs when water temperatures rise.
Base your visit from any of the towns on the east coast of Queensland between Gladstone and Thursday Island. Choose a tour operator approved by the Marine Park authority.
36. Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, Hungary and Slovakia
This vast karst landscape of limestone plateaus and more than 700 caves is home to the world’s highest stalagmite.
The 21-kilometer Baradla-Domica cave stretches over the Hungary-Slovakia border. The Gombasek cave is probably the more photographed, with its impressive rock formations giving it the feel of a fairy tale city.
Drive 240 kilometers northeast of Budapest to the Aggteleki National Park.
37. Mount Bromo, Indonesia
This smoking crater inside the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park sits in a sea of sand.
It’s actually a small active volcano inside the much larger caldera of an ancient extinct volcano.
While the volcano is still active and has recently been closed off to the public, it’s still a point of pilgrimage for Javanese Hindus, who congregate every year in the Kasada festival, during which live chickens are thrown into the crater.
Travel to Mount Bromo by train or bus from Surubaya, or hire a car and do the two-three hour drive.
38. Freycinet National Park, Tasmania, Australia
Freycinet’s white sand beach at Wineglass Bay, pink granite rock formations and Hazards peaks are among Tasmania’s most stunning coastal scenery. The park is northeast of Hobart.
Hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and boating are popular pastimes, but so is lying on the beach and admiring the scenery.
Spirit of Tasmania run a night ferry from Melbourne to Devonport. Use Tasmanian Redline coaches to reach Freycinet National Park.
39. Iguazu National Park, Argentina
The Iguazu River drops up to 82 meters over a 2.7 kilometer-wide ledge of the Parana Plateau. The waterfalls are accessible from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
A walk through the national park will take you not only to the Devil’s Throat and close to the curtain of water, it will also give you a chance to spot coral trees, butterflies, toucans and hummingbirds.
Buses travel from most cities in the region to Puerto Iguazu, or you can fly to Iguazu International Airport.
40. Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, Madagascar
Spiky limestone rock formations and mangrove forests are part of the tropical and otherworldly landscape of the Tsingy de Bemaraha nature reserve on the western side of Madagascar.
The reserve is home to chameleons, lemurs and endangered birds.
Also part of the landscape is the Manambolo River, which runs red with eroded sediment from the highlands of Madagascar.
The reserve is 400 kilometers west of Antananarivo.
41. Cueva de los Cristales/Cave of Crystals, Mexico
In 2000, a group of miners tunneling in the Naica mine, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, found an underground cavern containing giant selenite crystals — some as long as 11 meters.
The size and beauty of these gypsum crystals brought the Cave of Crystals instant fame.
But the future of the cave is uncertain. While access is currently possible for short periods, the cave may be closed and flooded in the future to stop the crystals from disintegrating.
The Naica mine is 135 kilometers southeast of the city of Chihuahua.
42. The Bay of Fundy, Canada
One of four places on earth with extreme tidal highs and lows, the Bay of Fundy sees a vertical rise in sea level of as much as 17 meters twice a day.
More than 100 billion tons of seawater rush in and out of the bay daily, sculpting unique basalt shapes out of the rocks along the coast.
Travel between the bay’s islands and coastal towns is possible by small car ferry.
43. Halong Bay, Vietnam
Thousands of small islands and standing stacks, or karsts, overgrown with green shrubbery, protrude from Halong Bay, a peaceful bay.
The popular way to explore is in a traditional Chinese trading ship — the brown-paneled sails of the junks have become as much a part of the landscape as the towering rocks.
Most visitors to Halong Bay come via Hanoi — 170 kilometers away, or five to six hours on a public bus. Private cars can be hired. Even rented helicopters make the journey.
44. Punkaharju Esker Nature Reserve, Finland
This seven-kilometer esker, or sand ridge, was formed during the Ice Age and has been an important trade route in eastern Finland for millennia.
Calm lakes lie on either side and tall pines provide shade for moss, toadstools and blueberries — easy to see how fairy tales are born. You expect a frog with a crown to hop off the nearest giant mushroom, or a mystical hand to reach out of the lake.
Take a train from Helsinki to Punkaharju or drive the 350 kilometers northeast of Helsinki.
45. Frozen Sea in Lulea, Sweden
This isn’t the only place in the world where the sea freezes over, but the town’s location — jutting out into the sea — makes the frozen water a welcome extension of the town’s streets in the depths of winter.
From December to February, locals skate, snow-trek and sled across the bay, while some roads — across the sea — are passable only in winter.
Signs advise you to remove your seatbelt for a quicker exit should your car come across thin ice.
There are several daily flights to Lulea from Stockholm, which is easier than driving the 900 kilometers.
46. Trango Towers, Pakistan
Some of the highest cliffs in the world are in northeastern Pakistan in the Karakoram mountain range.
Trango Tower, for instance, rises a kilometer above the other granite spires in its ridge and has an elevation of more than 6,200 meters above sea level. It’s a sight that’s just too tempting for intrepid climbers and base-jumpers.
Take a local bus or taxi from Islamabad to Skardu.
47. Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand
Along with the 12-kilometer Franz Josef Glacier (a short distance up the coast), the 13-kilometer Fox Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the most easily accessible ice masses in the world.
Fox Glacier reaches almost to the coast, just 250 meters above sea level. Large chucks of ice breaking off the face make it dangerous to get too close.
Fox Glacier is in Westland National Park, 200 kilometers west of Christchurch. Get information on guided tours here.
48. The Shilin Stone Forest, China
Spread over 350 square kilometers in Yunnan province, these stone needles look like an ancient petrified forest — the rock formations stand tall and emerge vertically from the ground.
The karst rocks are more than 270 million years old. Local legend says the forest was created when a young woman was forbidden to marry her love — she rebelled by turning herself into stone.
Shilin Stone Forest can be reached by road 96 kilometers southeast of Kunming in Yunnan province.
49. Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii, United States
Whether sandy beaches, giant waves or volcanic craters, Hawaii has plenty of breathtaking landscapes. But the drama and scale of the Na Pali coast of Kauai, along the 17-kilometer Kalalau trail, may top them all.
The lush green mountains ripple with scree slopes and ridges for more than 1,300 meters before dipping into the Pacific.
Accessible only by 17-kilometer hike from Ke`e Beach to Kalalau Valley, or by boat.
50. Lake Baikal, Russia
Lake Baikal in southern Siberia is not only the deepest and oldest lake in the world (more than 1,600 meters deep and more than 25 million years old), it holds almost 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a unique ecosystem that supports more than 2,600 species of plant and animals. There have even been reports of a “Baikal Monster,” likely to be a giant sturgeon.
The nearest city is Irkutsk, about 120 kilometers north of the Mongolian border.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.