If you’re like many people, you’ve forgotten almost everything you learned in school about the various types of rocks and their properties. But you don’t have to be a geologist to marvel at the natural beauty and wonder of the rock formations featured in this story. These awe-inspiring rocks have all become popular tourist sites, with several drawing millions of visitors each year. Even if you don’t know the difference between a metamorphic and a sedimentary rock, you’ll still appreciate these rock formations.
10. El Capitan (United States)
This granite monolith in Yosemite National Park features a spectacular vertical face of almost 3,000 feet. One look at that vertical wall and it’s understandable why climbers for many years thought it would be impossible to climb to the top of El Capitan. But the first adventurers reached the summit in a grueling 45-day climb in 1958; since then, dozens of other routes have been mapped out on El Capitan’s so-called “big wall,” and climbers come from around the world to test their skills. The quickest ascents today can be made in less than three hours.
9. Zuma Rock (Nigeria)
Rising 2,379 feet above the surrounding landscape, Zuma Rock is located just north of the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Local legend holds that powerful spirits inhabit the site, and for many years, natives feared that climbing the rock invited disaster. When international climbers finally ventured to the summit a few years ago, and nothing happened, the local government announced plans to develop the rock into an international tourist destination for climbers. Stay tuned.
8. Meteora (Greece)
These sandstone rock pillars are an imposing sight, towering up to 1,800 feet into the air in central Greece. A millennium ago, monks looking for solitude found that living atop the pillars discouraged most visitors. Later, beginning in the 14th century, Greek Orthodox monks built two-dozen monasteries atop these rocks, the ultimate defense against Turkish invaders. Dubbed Meteora, which means “suspended in the air” in Greek, six of these monasteries remain. Tourists who don’t mind climbing numerous steep flights of steps can visit all six of these monasteries.
7. Uluru/Ayers Rock (Australia)
This rock is a national treasure in Australia, officially referred to by both the Aboriginal name, Uluru, and Ayers Rock, the moniker it earned from an early British explorer. It’s classified geologically as an inselberg, German for “island mountain.” Many tourists spend several days in the area, trying to catch different conditions at sunset, when light can give the sandstone formation an otherworldly red glow. There is a steep trail to the top, but an effort has been made in recent years to discourage climbing, because the rock is sacred ground to the local Anangu people. Wildlife tours around the rock have become increasingly popular.
6. Bryce Canyon Hoodoos (United States)
As the Bryce Canyon National Park website notes, hoodoos, or tall, thin rock spires created by erosion, can be found at many sites around the world. But you won’t find a better example than the colorful hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. Just driving through the park and stopping at the many overlooks is a treat, but there may not be a more surreal experience in U.S. national parks than taking a ranger-guided hike through the hoodoos under a full moon.
5. Shilin (China)
The word Shilin means “stone forest” in Chinese, and these limestone formations in China’s Yunnan Province certainly fit the bill; the pillars do resemble a petrified forest. Geologists regard the forest as one of the finest examples of karst topography on Earth, with these rock formations formed over a period of some 270 million years. If you’re going, bear in the mind that the site draws roughly 3 million visitors a year, and the forest can become extremely crowded at peak times.
4. Giant’s Causeway (Ireland)
At first glance, this site in Northern Ireland defies belief — how could anything like this occur naturally? Geologists now know that these basalt pillars are the result of a volcanic eruption more than 50 million years ago; when the lava cooled, it contracted and fractured, leaving behind roughly 40,000 interlocking stone pillars. You can believe that, or you can believe the old Irish legend that a hero known as Finn MacCool built the causeway to walk across the sea to meet the Scottish giant Benandonner. Either way, the causeway has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws a half-million visitors each year.
3. Monument Valley Buttes (United States)
These distinctive sandstone rock buttes have appeared in many films through the years, including iconic roles in Thelma & Louise and Forrest Gump. As a result, many people have come to associate these buttes with the entire American West. In truth, these rock formations are almost exclusively found in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, located along the Arizona/Utah border (the nearby Valley of the Gods in Utah also has a few of these sandstone formations). If you’re in the Southwestern U.S. to visit one of the popular national parks (Grand Canyon, Zion, etc.) try to find a way to work this incredible landscape into your itinerary.
2. Rock of Gibraltar (Europe)
Arguably the most famous rock in the world, this enormous monolithic promontory has been a famous landmark for thousands of years; some ancient European and Mediterranean cultures considered Gibraltar the edge of the known world. The rock has long had strategic military value; during World War II, the British expanded a series of natural “siege tunnels” in the rock and prepared to fight back against a German invasion that never happened. The tunnels are a must-see for tourists today, as is the top of the rock, which can be reached via a cable car or taxi. A quick warning: The rock is home to a large colony of macaques — small apes, really — that are thrilling and amusing to some visitors, quite irritating and scary to others.
1. Preikestolen (Norway)
Preikestolen (aka Pulpit Rock or Preacher’s Pulpit) towers 1,982 feet above the Lysefjorden fjord in Norway. The combination of sheer granite cliffs and flat top have made this one of the top tourist sites in the country; as many as 200,000 people each year take the difficult 2.5-mile, 2-hour hike to the top. Despite the sheer cliffs, there has been only one known accidental fatality at the rock through the years. That’s remarkable, considering both adults and very young children alike often sit down and hang their legs over the edge.