Many people have a favorite artist. Maybe for you, it’s Picasso, Pollock, or your great aunt Betty. Our favorite artist: Mother Nature. Give water, wind and sunlight thousands or even millions of years, and the erosion process can create some striking landscapes. Here are a few great images of unique geographic features on Earth. Most have been digitally altered by the photographer, but certainly depict real sites.
10. Rainbow Mountains (China)
Take sandstone and other mineral deposits, add a little tectonic action, then give everything about 24 million years of erosion. The result is this otherworldly geological layer cake appearance. These mountains are located in Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park, which became a protected UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.
9. Marble Caves (Chile/Argentina)
Located in the Patagonian Andes, these marble caverns straddle the Chilean/Argentinian border. The wave action of Lake General Carerra carved out the caverns over the past 6,000 years, and the turquoise water provides an interesting complement to the bluish walls.
8. The Wave (Vermillion Cliffs National Monument)
If you want to visit this site, be prepared to wait — you must enter a lottery to obtain a permit four months in advance. Located in the Coyote Buttes North area of this underrated national monument in Utah, the Wave is a testament to the erosive power of wind, which has cut into these sandstone formations since the Jurassic Period. Yes, dinosaur tracks can be seen in the sandstone elsewhere in the Coyote Buttes area.
7. Mount Roraima (South America)
Mount Roraima is the highest of many similar plateaus in the Pakaraima Mountains; these plateaus date back about 2 billion years, making them some of the oldest geological features on Earth. Those cliffs are up to 1,300 feet high, providing a long drop from Roraima Falls, which drain the plateau. Mount Roraima forms the border of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil.
6. Reed Flute Cave (China)
The artificial lighting really accentuates the lake and rock formations in this limestone cave in Southeast China. Curious humans have been exploring this cavern for more than 1,200 years.
5. Darvaza Crater (Turkmenistan)
This 225-foot wide, 100-foot deep pit is filled with natural gas that’s been burning since at least the 1980s (Soviet engineers set it on fire hoping to burn off excess gas; that went about as well as the Soviets’ experiment with communism). The so-called “Gates of Hell” has become a bizarre tourist attraction in rural Turkmenistan. Most people are content to stand at the rim and look down. But in 2013, an explorer, George Kourounis, had himself lowered into the pit.
4. Cave of the Crystals (Mexico)
This fascinating cavern in Chihuahua, Mexico, lay undiscovered until the year 2000, when lead and silver miners bored into it. Inside they found enormous selenite crystals, some more than 30 feet long and weighting dozens of tons. These clear rock formations formed over a half-million years under much the same process that creates lead and silver. Exploring the cave has been difficult; with temperatures of more than 130 degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity, humans can only withstand a few minutes at a time in the cave.
3. God’s Finger (Brazil)
The rock formation known as God’s Finger is the most famous peak in Serra dos Órgãos National Park, near Rio de Janeiro. Portugese settlers gave the mountain range its name (Range of the Organs), likening the craggy peaks to organ pipes in European churches.
2. False Kiva (Canyonlands National Park)
With a little light painting, and the natural props of the Milky Way and rock formations in the background, it doesn’t get much better for a photographer. The False Kiva, the manmade stone circle in the image, dates to ancient times; its purpose remains a mystery. This cave in the southeastern Utah park has become a popular destination for photographers looking to capture images like the one above. It’s a difficult hike, but sometimes the results are well worth it.
1. Towers of Paine (Chile)
The three granite towers in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park are an especially striking image from this angle. Unknown to outsiders until the late 19th century, the peaks are one of the best-known sites in Patagonia.