9 WTF Naturally Occurring Phenomena

People have made some ridiculous things. From fiery sink holes in Turkmenistan to the World's Largest Basket in Ohio, we might feel like masters of the universe. But it just takes one look at the incredible phenomena naturally occurring all over the planet to remember that Mother Nature always gets the last word.

Looking to visit these bad boys? Some can be harder to get to than others, but they are all accessible to the adventurous traveler - and unquestionably worth the trip. Many of these natural phenomena occur only one place on earth, and will win you epic bragging rights from the rest of the human race.

1. Richat Structure or Eye of the Sahara - near Ouadane, Mauritania

Its official name may lack a bit of pizazz, but the Richat Structure makes up for it with its cool nickname, the Eye of the Sahara. This incredible phenomenon found no where else on earth was initially thought to be the result of a meteor crash. Instead, scientists believe that it is a circular anticline whose crust has eroded over time.

The result? An incredible 30 mile-across circle that is best viewed from space (or Google Maps).

Given that the Eye of the Sahara is in a pretty isolated part of the Sahara Desert, people planning a visit have a few options depending on their budget. One option is to catch a ride on the next NASA space mission - which regularly uses the Eye of the Sahara to navigate. Another (more economically viable) option to consider is chartering a plane from Morocco. It's a quick flight, and an amazing view.

2.  Zhangjiajie Forest - Hunan, China

Do these ridiculously gorgeous views look familiar? Maybe it's because James Cameron took a trip to the Zhangjiajie Forest in 2008, before conceiving of the floating forest in the 2010 blockbuster "Avatar". This forest of quartz-sandstone pillars reaches around 3,500 feet into the air, and makes for some of the most surreal landscape anywhere in the world.

The phenomenon is created when ice formed on the heavy foliage that grows in the mountainous region thousands of years ago. As the ice formed, it eroded the soft rock over the many years, leaving the incredible spires.

If you're not afraid of heights, don't miss catching a ride on the air-tram that runs a few thousand feet above the forest floor.

Images: john0philip/john0philip/fortes/Flickr

3. Salar Uyuni - Southwest Bolivia

Pretty much everything about Salar Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats, is totally weird. The salt flats cover around 4 thousand square miles at almost 12 feet above sea level. Along with containing around 60% of the world's lithium reserves, it also serves as the breeding ground for multiple species of pink flamingos. (Didn't see that coming, did ya?)

During the dry season Salar Uyuni looks like a cracked, dry desert, but during the wet season when Lake Titicaca overflows, the desert becomes flooded with salty brine. Both landscapes are equally incredible, and lend themselves to some pretty creative photo capturing.

/Wikipedia Commons

If you want to spend time near the salt flats, there are a few inexpensive hotels to choose from, but be prepared for a unique living experience. Since there are almost no natural resources (other than salt and lithium) near the flats, many of the hotels are constructed entirely from salt. And we mean "entirely", including walls, beds and furniture.

4. The Wave - Coyote Buttes, Arizona

Talk about a photographers dream come true! The Wave is a sandstone rock formation that is an incredible 190 million years old. It was created when sand dunes compacted layer by layer over millions of years, creating incredible variation of colors and textures. Because of how delicate sandstone is, after years of erosion, the dunes were sculpted into the shapes they are today.

Given how gorgeous and delicate this rock formation is, getting access to it can be a challenge. Only 20 permits are given out to hike to The Wave per-day, 10 in a lottery held months before-hand and 10 in a lottery on the day-of. If you're lucky enough to get a permit, you'll still have the hike the 3 mile, unmarked trail to reach the landmark. Hikers are responsible to find their own way across the desert - bring a GPS and a topographic map just to be safe.

5. Cueva de los Cristales or Cave of the Crystals - about an hour south of Chihuahua, Mexico

It's hard to imagine the miners' surprise when during a routine drilling, a cave full of crystals the size of tree trunks was discovered on accident in 2000. Although this region of Mexico is known for their crystals, most formations are a few feet long as best. No collection of naturally-occurring crystals has been found on earth that can even hold a candle to the discovery of the Cueva de Los Cristales.

The crystal formation found in this cave could only have happened under the most ideal of conditions. Namely, underwater - which this cavern was for over 500,000 years while the crystals formed. Incredibly, as the crystals formed, tiny pockets of water were captured within the crystals making them invaluable time capsules of bacteria and viruses. Only in the last century was the chamber drained by a nearby mine, exposing the crystals and making it possible for humans to discover them.

Given the scientific potential of this discovery, researchers have flocked to visit the cave, but unfortunately so have looters. The combination of too many visitors (both well meaning and otherwise) and that the heavy crystals are showing stress from being out of their natural underwater habitat, has meant significant damage to the cave. A steel door has been put in to deter "unannounced" visitors, but the mining company who owns the land is considering flooding the cave once again to preserve their treasure. If you can manage a visit, you better do it soon!

6. Shilin or Stone Forest - Kunming, China

When describing Shilin the Chinese use the term "forest" loosely. The Stone Forest is not really a forest at all, but a Karst formation created over 270 million years ago when soft limestone rocks dissolved over millions of years, forming massive spikes.

Although Shilin was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, the Chinese claim that since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) it had been known as the "First Wonder of the World". Either way, it's a popular tourist destination within China. Be ready to fight for the best viewing spots with the local population.

7. Angel Falls or Salto Ángel - Canaima National Park, Venezuela

If you want to see the world tallest waterfall, forget Niagara Falls or Yosemite and head to the Auyantepui mountain in Canaima National Park. This waterfall clocks in at 3,212 feet, and is so tall most of the water evaporates into mist before it even reaches the bottom.This means visitors can take a dip (as long as they're not adverse to freezing water) in the pools bellow the fall.

Images: Inti/meneldur/Flickr

The waterfall is known as "Angel Falls" after the aviator Jimmie Angel who flew his plane over it in 1937. Although its been 90 plus years since Jimmie Angel flew over it, Angel Falls isn't that much easier to get to now as it was then. If you want to visit, plan you trip between June and December when the nearby rivers are deep enough for locals canoes (called "curiaras") to make it through to the falls.

8. Relampago del Catatumbo - Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela

The point where the Catatumbo river meets Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, a constant lightning storm illuminates the sky for around 10 hours a night, almost half to nights out of the year. The storm is pretty much silent, with the lightning going from cloud to cloud and very rarely touching down on earth. Lightning bolts form at around 280 times per hour during a storm, and over the course of a year it is estimated there are about 1.2 million electric discharges.

No one is quite sure how long this has been going on or why. The lightning storm was mentioned in a poem written in 1597, and has been part of local folklore for as long as locals can remember. It is suspected that methane gas rises from Catatumbo bogs at the mouth of the river and mixes with storm clouds coming off the Andes, creating this unbelievable spectacle.

It is so bright, it can be seen hundreds of miles away and is used by ships to navigate. It is also suspected to be the number one ozone producing agent in the world (unfortunately the type of ozone isn't the same as the kind being depleted in the earth's atmosphere).

9. Giants Causeway - County Antrim, Ireland

The Giant's Causeway was formed 50 to 60 million years ago when hot lava flowed onto chalk beds, cooled quickly and contracted to make hexagon shaped piers. The speed that the lava cooled determined the height of the shafts. Although the scientific explanation might be simple, figuring out all the varying Irish myths surrounding the Giant's Causeway is not.

They all pretty much tell the story of an Irish warrior who built a bridge to walk to Scotland to fight his mortal enemy, but some involve the Irish warrior fleeing and tearing up the causeway in his escape, others tell the story the other way around. There are even a few that involve the Irish warrior pretending to be a baby, and when the Scottish warrior sees how big his opponents supposed child is, he gets so scared he runs back to Scotland in defeat.

What's even more interesting about the varying tales is that a similar formation exists in Scotland at the mouth of a cave that was "rumored" to be home to a fearful giant. So it's not that hard to believe people could see how these two similar formations could have been connected - thus the fantastic stories.

Article by Rachel Greenberg, originally written for NileGuide

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