It’s a far cry from the stereotypical landscapes of clear blue lakes, rolling green hills, and white-sand beaches that inspire most travelers—and that’s part of what makes strange natural wonders like Spotted Lake so thrilling. A recently discovered cave that grows crystals the size of four-story buildings or a lake the color of a strawberry milkshake remind us that there’s plenty of mystery left to explore.
Seeing is believing, so take our tour of the strangest natural wonders—and keep an eye out for what the powerful planetary forces may do next.
Marble Caves, Chile
It looks as if someone poured a giant bottle of Pepto-Bismol into Lake Retba—that’s how deeply pink these waters are. The color is actually caused by a particular kind of algae called Dunaliella salina that produces a pigment. The salt content is extremely high, reaching 40 percent in some spots and allowing the algae to thrive (and swimmers to float effortlessly on the surface of the 10-foot-deep lake). Blinding white piles of salt line the shores, and locals work several hours a day harvesting salt from the bright pink water.
It looks almost as if you could play Twister on Spotted Lake near Osoyoos, less than a mile from the Washington State border. Each summer, most of the water in this mineral-rich lake evaporates, leaving behind large concentrations of salt, titanium, calcium, sulfates, and other minerals that form a polka-dot pattern in shades of green, yellow, and brown circles of varying size. The lake is a sacred site to the First Nations of the Okanagan Valley, and the land on which it sits is private property owned by the Indian Affairs Department. You won’t actually be able to get up close to the lake, but you can get a good look from the nearby road.
Travertine Pools at Pamukkale,
People have sought the reputed healing effects of bathing here for thousands of years. The water that flows from 17 subterranean hot springs into the pools has an extremely high concentration of calcium carbonate, which forms soft deposits when it hits the surface. Those viscous white deposits harden over time until the springs resemble a fountain made of chalk or, as indicated by the poetic translation of Pamukkale, a “cotton castle” visible from more than 10 miles away.
Sailing Stones, Racetrack Playa,
Death Valley, Calif.
No one has ever seen one of the “sailing stones” on Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa move, but evidence of their travels is visible in the long track marks that trail behind them in the dusty ground. Scientists aren’t sure exactly how the rocks—which can weigh hundreds of pounds—make their way across the dry lake bed. The prevailing theory is that when the rocks are wet or icy, they’re pushed along the flat playa by strong winds. The deep groove marks they leave behind indicate they may travel up to 700 feet from their point of origin.
White Desert (Sahara el Beyda),
Bulbous white rocks in strange shapes and sizes rise from the desert about 28 miles north of the town of Farafra in western Egypt—a cluster of mushrooms here, a herd of half-melted snowmen over there. Their appearance isn’t due to some avant-garde stone sculptor, but rather thanks to the wind. When the ancient sea that once covered the land dried up, the remaining sediment layer began to break down. The softer spots crumbled away, and over time, powerful sandstorms shaped the harder rocks into their current forms.
The spherical stones that line New Zealand’s Moeraki Beach reach up to seven feet in diameter and have been compared to everything from the marbles of giants to colossal dinosaur eggs to half-submerged prehistoric turtles, ready to stand up and shake off the sand at any moment. They’re actually concretions, masses of compacted sediment formed below ground more than 50 million years ago. As the sand that surrounds them erodes, they seem to rise to the surface as if pushed up from the center of the earth.
Caño Cristales River,
Folks make the journey into central Colombia’s Serranéa de la Macarena national park to see why Caño Cristales has inspired nicknames like the River of Five Colors, the Liquid Rainbow, and even the Most Beautiful River in the World. It’s important to get the timing right: when the water reaches the perfect levels (usually between July and December), it becomes a kaleidoscope of pink, green, blue, and yellow as a plant called the Macarenia clavigera, which lives on the river floor, gets the sun it needs to bloom into an explosion of colors.
The Eye of the Sahara (Richat Structure),
This enormous depression, circular in shape and stretching 25 miles wide, is like a bull’s-eye mark in the middle of an otherwise flat and featureless area of Mauritania desert. Visible from space, it has been a landmark for astronauts since the earliest missions. The Eye isn’t the result of any target practice by aliens; rather, it formed as winds eroded the different layers of sediment, quartzite, and other rocks at varying depths.
Legend has it that the Asbyrgi Canyon in northern Iceland was created when the hoof of a Norse god’s horse touched the earth, slicing through 300-foot-tall cliffs and flattening an area just over two miles long and more than a half mile wide. The likelier scientific explanation is that two periods of glacial flooding carved the canyon between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago. But standing atop the cliffs, with the green carpet of the horseshoe-shaped canyon spread before you, it’s fun to imagine otherwise.