For all our obsession with man-made wonders, technological advances and increasing urbanisation, nothing compares to the creations of Mother Nature.
Vast cave systems, wild desert landscapes and breathtaking waterfalls all remind us of our small place in earth’s story. And even with our ever-expanding knowledge of the way the world came to be, some landscapes still leave us utterly perplexed. We hope this selection from 50 Natural Wonders to Blow Your Mind will inspire you to explore a spellbinding slice of the great outdoors.
The clue is in the name – Mexico's Hidden Beach is spectacularly secluded © Miguel Naranjo
Hidden Beach, Marieta Islands, Mexico
Shhh, don’t tell anyone else about this place! We want it to ourselves.
The secluded setting of this gorgeous beach is the stuff of wild and romantic fantasies, which is why it has also earned itself the title of playa del amor or lovers’ beach. Lovesick dreamers the world over have longed to have these golden sands, gently lapped by crystal blue waters, all to themselves, and due to the beach’s remote and concealed location there’s a good chance these dreams could come true.
How do we get in there?
This secret swimming hole, visible from above through dense jungle and cavernous limestone, can only be accessed by swimming or kayaking through a long tunnel of water that links the beach to the Pacific Ocean.
How did this natural wonder come to be?
Mother Nature can’t take all the credit for this one. It is believed that military bomb tests conducted by the Mexican government in the 1900s created a whole series of craters, caverns and unusual rock formations throughout the Marieta Islands, one of which being the magnificent Hidden Beach.
Gigantic Lake Baikal freezes over in the depths of winter © Pathompat Meelarp / Getty Images
Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia
Water, as far as the eye can see.
This is one for the record books. Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake (by volume), stretches out for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres across remote Siberian wilderness, 636km in length and 79km in width, to be exact. The lake’s statistics are extraordinary: it contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water; more water than all of the Great Lakes in North America; it plunges to a world-beating depth of 1642m; and is also considered the world’s oldest lake, at around 25 million years of age.
The water looks crystal clear but a little on the chilly side.
Although winter temperatures in the lake drop to nearly -20°C and the whole thing gets covered in a thick blanket of ice, the summer sees a warmer side emerge and hordes of tourists descend to splash around in the pristine, and rumoured life-extending, water.
We still think it’s too cold to take off our clothes.
Then consider taking a hike around parts of the perimeter. A walk to the top of the Svyatov Nos peninsular gives you stunning 360° views of the lake and surrounds.
Switzerland's Lauterbrunnen Valley is Alpine perfection © Julen Garces Carro / Getty Images
Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
It’s hard to believe this place hasn’t been created using CGI.
With so many jaw-dropping sights in one frame, you couldn’t make it up. We’re here to guarantee that this is just what the Lauterbrunnen Valley looks like.
Talk us through all of the magnificent natural phenomena we can see.
There are over 72 waterfalls dotted throughout the valley, including the 30m-high Staubbach Falls, one of Europe’s highest; there are also lush Alpine meadows; sheer cliff faces; dizzying mountain peaks; and several slow-moving glaciers.
It’s sounding like an extreme-sport-lover’s paradise.
It’s certainly a choose-your-own-Alpine-adventure kind of place. You’re spoilt for choice with skiing, mountaineering, rock-climbing, hiking, paragliding, mountain-biking, skydiving, or even dog-sledding all on the agenda.
Just the idea of all this activity is making us tired.
Then have a ride on one of the cable cars that travel between mountain peaks, or settle into a meadow picnic spot and just admire the view. There are many short walks close to valley villages that don’t require an excess of adrenaline.
Shimmering blue ice in the caves beneath Alaska's Mendenhall Glacier © Hyde John / Getty Images
Mendenhall Ice Caves, Alaska, USA
We never imagined it would be possible to explore underneath a glacier.
And the reality is even more beautiful than anything you can imagine. You need to be quick, however, if you’d like to experience this natural phenomenon first hand; global warming has caused the Mendenhall Glacier to begin retreating at an unsurpassed rate in the last 60 years. If we stay on this current path the ice caves will soon be gone.
Oh no! hurry up, let’s get in and have a look.
Fortune favours the brave, and in this case it also favours the persistent and the adventurous. To get in under the glacier you must first kayak across part of the Mendenhall Lake and then hike the West Glacier trail which takes you to the caves. An experienced guide will show you the way and also show you the path of least environmental impact.
The reward looks to be totally worth the effort.
It’s not every day you can say you stood, completely encased in luminous blue ice, with the sights and sounds of glacial streams swirling and burbling around you.
The water from terraced lakes cascades through Croatia's Plitvice Lakes National Park © Kelly Cheng / Getty Images
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
What a pretty sight.
Nature sure knows how to turn on a good show, doesn’t she? This series of 16 terraced lakes with sparkling clear water cascading over from one to another is picturesquely situated among the trees in the vast forest of Croatia’s largest national park. Nature’s bounty has been framed for human use by the sympathetic use of wooden walkways and footbridges.
That sounds like a very civilised way to hike.
It’s easy to see why this is one of Europe’s most popular natural wonders – it’s possible to follow the walkways around the edges of the crystalline pools, over sections of the gushing water, and even right behind and underneath some of the waterfalls.
What about going in for a dip?
Around, under and over, but not in. Swimming is prohibited, but you can jump on one of the park’s free boats for a different perspective on the lakes and waterfalls. The boats head from high to low, beginning at Kozjak, the largest of the lakes at around four kilometres in length. Don’t miss the Veliki Slap, the tallest waterfall in Croatia at 78m.
The travertine terraces of Pamukkale are formed by the build-up of carbonate mineral from hot springs © Jennifer E Hayes / Getty Images
This is no off-the-beaten-track national treasure, if the tourist hordes are anything to go by.
That’s true, this dramatic stack of blindingly white travertine terraces is Turkey’s number one tourist drawcard. But don’t let that put you off. And here’s a tip: stay overnight near the terraces and visit first thing in the morning before the busloads begin arriving.
Right, we know all about the tourists, tell us more about the natural wonder.
The terraces are formed by the build-up of carbonate mineral from the warm water flowing from the thermal springs above. Pools form at the edge of the terraces where people have bathed for thousands of years.
Did you say ‘thousands of years?’
We did. Ancient Greco-Romans built the city of Hierapolis on the site of the mineral springs in order to soak up the perceived health benefits of the warm spring water. These days the crumbled ruins of this ancient city can be seen at the bottom of some of the pools. The combination of these man-made wonders and nature’s beauty is the reason you’ll be sharing the site with so many friends.
To enjoy more of the majesty of Mother Nature, check out Lonely Planet's 50 Natural Wonders to Blow Your Mind.