As a tourist, you’ve probably sought out some of the world’s natural wonders. Though for every Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls or Amazon rainforest, there are just as many landmarks that rival the majesty of these sites in terms of the mystery surrounding them. Scientists have yet to fully understand these 20 natural places, but can you come up with a theory of your own to explain these lesser-known marvels?
20. Sailing Stones, United States
Massive boulders don’t move with ease; that’s why the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park has stumped visitors and scientists for years. The dry lakebed contains 300-kilogram stones that have clearly moved across the flat surface – some more than 800 feet, according to the BBC. But how did they make it so far without any evidence of footsteps or signs of unnatural force?
One theory from NASA scientist Ralph Lorenz gives the best explanation for the Sailing Stones’ moves across the California desert. In winter, temperatures drop low enough for the boulders to become encased in ice. Lorenz showed how the slippery surface would make it easier for them to scoot across the sand – all on their own.
19. Tokangawhā, New Zealand
Tokangawhā is the Māori word for “burst-open rock” – a title that sums up the ancient legend imagined to explain this strange New Zealand-based boulder. Others call it Split Apple Rock, and that makes sense, too. Just take a look; the spherical stone in the middle of the Tasman Bay does actually appear to be sliced straight down the middle.
According to Māori legend, two gods fought over the giant boulder and split it in the process. Though was the split rock due to other-worldly beings, or something more banal? While experts aren’t entirely sure, the prevalent theory is that water got in through a crevice in the rock. Then, Ice-Age temperatures froze the H2O, which made it expand and burst the stone.
18. Dancing Forests, Russia
Locals apparently refer to this bizarre collection of twisted trees as the Drunken Forest, and it’s easy to see why. But how did they come to grow like this? Well, in the early 1960s Russia’s Kruglaya Dune needed help keeping its sand in one place. To fix this, trees were rooted in the area to grip onto and shelter the earth beneath their trunks. Yet they didn’t grow as expected; the trees have grown into contorted shapes, and no one can nail down a single reason why this happened over the last 60 years.
According to Atlas Obscura, some believe that sand has proven an unstable base for tree growth – thus leading them to grow crooked and unstable. Others say that winds or even humans have pushed the trees into their kooky growth patterns. The most plausible scientific theory so far is that caterpillars damaged the tree buds early on, and this caused them to grow irregularly.
17. Tibetan Plateau, China
The size of the Tibetan Plateau is stunning in and of itself; it covers the same amount of the land area as half of the lower 48 states in the U.S., Forbes notes. Add on top of that the fact that the plateau rises a whopping 16,400 feet above ground level, and you’ve got a geological wonder on your hands.
Perhaps most shocking of all is that experts still aren’t sure how the Tibetan Plateau came to be so high and huge. It likely has something to do with tectonic plate movement – although which shifts pushed the earth upward is up for debate. It could be the Indian continent sliding underneath Eurasia, according to one suggestion. Another theory posits that folds of continental crust may have pushed together and folded upward – much like the hood of a car in a front-impact crash.
16. Hidden Beach, Mexico
Mexico’s steamy weather and pristine coastline draw hordes of tourists to the Central American nation. But what if we told you there was one tucked-away place where you could enjoy sand and surf without tons of other people? It’s aptly called Hidden Beach, and its origin story is yet to be confirmed.
The BBC notes that Mexico tested bombs off the Marieta Islands in the early 20th century, and falling explosives carved out the little beach on one of these landmasses. And that’s why it is hidden somewhat underground. The hole from the bomb apparently filled with water over time to create a tiny little beach.
15. Yamal crater, Russia
Looking at the land from overhead can, of course, reveal things that we might not be able to see from ground level. For example, in 2014 a helicopter pilot hovered over Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula and noticed a gaping hole in the otherwise solid permafrost. Soon enough, scientists were on the scene to examine the massive crater – a 100-foot-wide door into the earth.
Experts have yet to agree on a cause for the Yamal crater, and there are several interesting theories to explain its existence. Some think that a meteor struck the peninsula – plunging into the earth to create a new hole in its surface. And others argue natural gas exploded beneath the permafrost after a few extra-hot summers. If you believe in extra-terrestrials, though, you might see the crater as an otherworldly interference.
14. The Great Unconformity
Layers in rock have provided geologists with so much information about life before humankind – that is, of course, when the layers are there. The Great Unconformity is an international phenomenon wherein the geological record from 1.2 billion to 250 million years ago has completely disappeared in certain areas. In some places such as the Grand Canyon, you can even see the gap in delineations that marks this long stretch of seemingly deleted history.
The Cambrian period – which happened 540 million years ago – has plenty of fossils to represent it. But the time before it is just an empty layer of rock, and no one knows why. There is a developing theory, though, called Snowball Earth. During the Ice Age, glaciers may have pushed the fossil record into the oceans, where shifting tectonic plates slid it far beneath the Earth’s surface.
13. Chudnite Skali, Bulgaria
Chudnite Skali translates to “wonderful rocks,” and one glimpse at these ten formations on Bulgaria’s Tsonevo dam make it clear why they received such a name. The 130- to 160-feet-tall limestone structures have come to stand in a series of unique shapes, all of which are reflected in the water beneath them.
Over time, some of the rock spires have received quirky names as people see figures in them. There’s the Knight, Giant, Hand and the Wolf’s Head – among other shapes that people can outline. And experts have at least one theory for how the giant stones have been whittled into these weird silhouettes. Apparently, it could all be down to water and wind erosion.
12. Methane bubbles, Canada
You might not want to trek to Canada in the middle of winter. However, if you’re in the country’s Alberta region when it’s cold outside, be sure to visit to Lake Abraham for an inexplicable natural wonder. There, you’ll see methane bubbles that form – but never pop – beneath the water’s frozen surface.
There’s one theory in particular that may explain how these bubbles form. Supposedly, methane-excreting bacteria chow down on dead foliage and animals. And those gaseous bubbles turn into white-toned, spherical figures as they float and eventually freeze in the icy water, according to the BBC. It’s an amazing site – but a dangerous one come spring. That’s because as the water melts and the bubbles pop, they release the explosive methane into the air.
11. Richat Structure, Mauritania
You might not recognize the Richat Structure at ground level. Yet from above, this 28-mile stretch found in Mauritania has a set of concentric circles that ripple out from a center point. It may seem as though this bull’s-eye has an obvious cause, but experts say asteroid impact didn’t cause the formation. Apparently, there isn’t enough melted rock surrounding the center to show that a fiery ball of rock struck the earth.
A volcanic eruption couldn’t have caused the ripples, either. So where did they come from? Well, scientists have come up with a new theory – the Richat Structure is the collapsed figure of a geological dome that formed just as Pangea split apart. What supports this suggestion is the ancient rock at the surface of the rings – geological bits dredged up from 125 miles below the crust.
10. Carolina Bays, United States
The name may imply that this set of circular depressions can be found in two states only, but the Carolina Bays appear all the way from New Jersey to Florida. They only get their name from the pair of southeastern states because a cluster of them appears in North and South Carolina. And their sizes aren’t to be sniffed at, either. These strange geological low points range from 180 meters long to 20 kilometers in length, according to the Eos website.
Experts have yet to figure out how the depressions formed over the years. There are two prevailing theories, though. On the one hand, some scientists think an external force or impact caused the divots. Others say wind- or water-based erosion carved out the dips.
9. Nastapoka Arc, Canada
Glance at a map of the Hudson Bay in Canada, and you might notice a strangely perfect circular arc to its lower right-hand side. Though this isn’t the result of a cartographer smoothing over what you’d actually find on land. Instead, you’re seeing the Nastapoka Arc, which is considered to be a geological wonder due to its near-perfect shape.
You may have guessed that Nastapoka Arc was the edge of a crater left behind by a meteorite, and scientists explored this theory, too. However, they didn’t find any of the molten rock evidence that would normally come with such a fiery event. Most experts now think the arc is the result of two shelf rocks sliding beneath each other. Though that still doesn’t explain the perfect half-circle shape they left behind.
8. Kanaio Coast, United States
Hawaii is, of course, a geological wonder. Experts know that the islands were formed by a volcanic hotspot, but they have yet to clarify how such phenomena work. It’s no surprise, then, that these mysterious islands would encompass strange natural structures within them. And the Kanaio Coast is just one noteworthy place of interest within the tropical locale.
The Kanaio Coast on the island of Maui is a relatively new addition on this list – considering its likely formation in the 17th century. At that time, the looming volcano Haleakalā had its last lava flow, which scorched its way on Maui all the way down to the sea. And it appears that the volcanic rock quickly cooled into surreal-looking columns of basalt. Because the landscape is so young, it has yet to have soil or foliage – making its black, jagged shape even more otherworldly.
7. Kawah Ijen lake, Indonesia
A three-hour hike to a crater on Indonesia’s Kawah Ijen volcano won’t lead you to a crevice full of bubbling magma. Instead, you’ll be treated to more than one wonder. Visitors will find not only a stunning volcano, but also a sulfuric lake in the brightest shade of turquoise.
Sulfur from the volcano plays a major part in transforming the lake into its jaw-dropping shade of aquamarine. Experts believe that the gas reacts to metals that have dissolved into the water, and that changes the hue of it to an almost unnatural-looking blue color. And all of this combined makes Kawah Ijen the largest acidic lake on the planet, according to the BBC.
6. Mima Mounds, United States
Charles Wilkes had a simple explanation for the Mima Mounds after seeing them for the first time in 1841. He believed that the up-to-6.5-foot-tall hills were ancient burial mounds, so the explorer had them excavated. Strangely, though, workers didn’t find a single skeleton in the trio of mounds – they only had stones inside of them.
Wilkes was stumped; what – or indeed, who – had created these bizarre mounds? The hills dot the landscape from Colorado to California, and they continue to confound scientists even today. Experts have apparently ruled out glacial flooding, wind-caused sediment build-up and whirlpools as cause for the change in elevation. The current theory is that pocket gophers somehow constructed the mounds, but there’s one caveat. According to the website Mental Floss, no one has ever witnessed the rodents creating something like this.
5. Darvaza crater, Turkmenistan
Take one look at the Darvaza crater, and you won’t be surprised to learn that its nickname is “door to hell.” The fiery cavity opened up nearly five decades ago, and it has been alight since then. But how could this flaming pit in the northern Turkmenistan desert continue to blaze for so long?
The prevailing theory is that the “door to hell” opened during a Soviet-era expedition to find a source of natural gas. And a Turkmen geologist has come out in support of this claim, saying that the borehole had to be set on fire as it was believed to be emitting dangerous gas. Incredibly, this happened in 1971, so the crater has been smoldering for nearly 50 years.
4. Patom crater, Russia
It took until 1949 for a Russian geologist called Vadim Kolpakov to find this strange crater, which is now nicknamed after a river that runs nearby. Upon further inspection, experts have come to agree that the massive 139 feet tall and 520 feet wide mound formed five centuries ago. Though what they still dispute is how the natural wonder emerged in the first place.
Some have said that the Patom crater is the result of a nuclear explosion or perhaps an alien spaceship crash. But the truth may be a little more prosaic. A more plausible idea is that the structure appeared after a steam explosion when underlying magma heated up hydrous rocks, according to Business Insider. Regardless of how it formed, though, there is one creepy thing about this crater. Animals in the vicinity apparently refuse to go near and plants don’t grow on it, so locals associate the rocky pile with death.
3. Asbyrgi Canyon, Iceland
The Asbyrgi Canyon is a stunning sight to behold. Three-hundred-foot-tall cliffs arc in the shape of a horseshoe and dramatically drop into a flat valley in the middle. And lush, dark green foliage covers the landscape from top to bottom. But how did this natural wonder come to be?
The leading theory among scientists is that a pair of glacial floods etched out the canyon somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago, according to the website Travel and Leisure. Yet Norse mythology also has its own explanation, and it’s one that takes the cliff’s horseshoe shape into account. The ancient legend describes a god’s steed touching down to earth – leaving the massive footprint behind.
2. Lake Hillier, Australia
If you’re ever in a plane over Western Australia, be sure to book a window seat; you’ll want to try and catch a glimpse of Lake Hillier. It won’t be hard to miss, either, as you peer out over a lush green landscape that meets the blue coastline of the Southern Ocean. Eventually, you’ll notice a 600-meter-long bright pink circle beneath you.
That bubblegum-colored body of water is Lake Hillier – a sight made all the more shocking by the fact that no one knows why it’s pink. The BBC notes that the lake has an excessive amount of algae that holds onto beta-carotene, which is pigmentation that turns it pink. It could also be a massive population of pink brine prawn. Either way, there’s nothing toxic about the water, so you can grab your trunks and go for a swim in the pink water.
1. Fairy Circles, Namibia
If you find yourself traipsing through the Namib Desert and you happen upon a swathe of land covered in different-sized circles, it’s not a mirage. From overhead, the etched shapes make a sort of honeycomb pattern of soil where plants don’t grow. And no one knows why this strange phenomenon occurs – although, of course, there are theories.
It could be that the plants that do grow release toxins – thus killing other vegetation in close proximity. According to the BBC, sand termites may also etch the circles as they burrow into the earth and gnaw on plant roots. And then there’s the idea that plants gather in these circular groupings to make it easier to gather water and other nutrients. Perhaps you prefer the local myth, though: men and women of the bush say that the circles are simply footprints of the gods.