It takes a certain mentality to participate in many extreme sports. Most of us quiver at the thought of jumping off a mountain in a wingsuit, or parachuting off a bridge. Yet many people get a thrill inching close to the edge of a towering cliff, or a plunging waterfall, and looking down. Here are 10 famous sites around the world where tourists go for the adrenaline rush of experiencing life on the edge.
10. Beachy Head, Great Britain
This surreal site in southern England rises 530 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, making it the highest chalk sea cliff in Great Britain. Unfortunately, the sheer drop to the sea below that has made it so popular with tourists also attracts plenty of jumpers. Despite warning signs and frequent patrols by local law enforcement, up to two-dozen people commit suicide here each year.
9. Willis Tower Skydeck, Chicago
These glass balconies extend 4 feet from the 103rd floor of Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), offering an awe-inspiring view of Chicago and four states. More than 1.2 million visitors a year experience the thrill of peering through these glass floors at the city 1,353 feet below. The boxes are designed to handle five tons of weight — although that fact wasn’t very reassuring to visitors who were in one of the balconies in May 2014 when the protective coating on the glass floor suddenly cracked. Officials said the coating was designed to crack like that; after minor repairs the Skydeck (aka the Ledge) reopened.
8. Yungas Road, Bolivia
This roughly 40-mile stretch of “road” in Bolivia’s La Paz region is widely hailed as the most dangerous road in the world. The dirt road is mostly one lane, with no guardrails, scant feet away from drop-offs of up to 2,000 feet. Oh, on bad days rain, mud and fog make it far more dangerous. A BBC report a few years ago estimated up to 300 people die on this stretch of road each year. Yet that element of danger has drawn thrill seekers by the thousands in recent years. A number of local outfitters provide equipment, guided tours, etc., for mountain bikers who want to tempt fate to ride this dangerous stretch of road.
7. Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park
In July 2011, three members of a California church group who had jumped in the Merced River were swept over this 317-foot waterfall to their deaths. A few minutes earlier, in a completely unrelated incident, a man stepped over the safety barrier and held a young girl over the waterfall. As the frightened girl screamed, angry bystanders convinced the man to step back over the barrier.
U.S. park rangers say such risky and thoughtless behavior near dangerous overlooks is all too common. People climb over warning signs to take pictures at the edge of cliffs, go hiking in out-of-bounds areas, etc. Rangers blame a “Disneyland Effect,” where otherwise intelligent people are lulled into thinking the beautiful but very wild outdoors are as safe as a theme park.
6. Royal Gorge Bridge, Colorado
Welcome to the highest bridge in the United States. The Royal Gorge Bridge stands 955 feet above the Arkansas River; by comparison, that “little” bridge in San Francisco, the Golden Gate, is only 220 feet above the bay below. It’s a surreal experience just to walk out onto the Royal Gorge Bridge and stare down at the river far, far below. It’s OK to clutch the rail tightly as you look down — you won’t be the only one.
5. El Caminito del Rey, Spain
Local governments often welcome tourists and adventurers for death-defying extreme activities. But when people start dying, officials step in. Such was the case at the El Caminito del Rey, a narrow walkway built into gorge cliffs more than 300 feet above the river below. After several tourists fell to their deaths in 1999 and 2000 on the century-old walkway, local officials closed the walkway. After undergoing extensive renovations and safety improvements, the walkway is expected to reopen in early 2015.
4. Grand Canyon Skywalk
Those with acrophobia (a fear of heights) best avoid this horseshoe-shaped skywalk in the western portion of the Grand Canyon. Owned and operated by the Hualapai Indian Tribe, the $30 million skywalk generated plenty of controversy even before it opened in 2007. Some Hualapai claimed the structure defiled ground sacred to the tribe, while environmentalists worried about the skywalk’s impact on nature. Still, it’s hard to beat the sensation you get as you walk out onto the transparent floor and look out over the canyon.
3. Mount Hua Cliffside Plank Walk, China
This mountain in east-central China has long held religious importance for the Chinese, with many temples built on or around Huashan. The adventure-minded are drawn by the infamous plank path; only a few hundred feet long, it’s widely regarded as the scariest hiking trail on Earth. Hikers hook up to a safety harness for this walk, so it’s safer than it looks, but the sheer drop off below is quite menacing. As with other sites on this list, fatalities on this path and the mountain’s many hiking trails in the past have led to safety improvements.
2. Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
One of the most popular tourist sites in Ireland, these cliffs tower hundreds of feet above the Atlantic. Most people are content to stand a safe distance from the edge and enjoy the view, although some visitors are a little bolder, as the photo attests.
1. Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, Africa
Africa’s Victoria Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. The falls plunge 355 feet at the highest point, more than twice the height of Niagara Falls (167 feet). It’s enough for most tourists to get a photo of these falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border … but some people crave more. During the dry season, usually from September through December, brave/foolhardy tourists hop into the Devil’s Pool, a part of the Zambezi River protected by an underwater rock formation. As the river thunders over the falls mere feet away, tourists swim at the edge of the rock overhang, inches from death. Deaths do occur, not just for tourists, but for tour guides who jump in to save them.