Photographic Proof That Mother Nature Takes Magic Mushrooms
Mother Nature has some weird tricks up her sleeve.
In most cases, Mother Nature sticks to a basic formula: green trees, blue oceans, that kind of thing. But she is also open to artistic interpretations, and across the globe, there are loads of places where she lets her freak flag fly: swirling, otherworldly geological oddities that took millions of years to form, giant lakes that look like melted rainbows, and other naturally psychedelic masterpieces that’ll make you wonder if that edible worked a little too well.
In the sweet spot between 4/20 and Earth Day, we're celebrating all the weird shit Mother Nature decided to scatter across the planet just to mix things up a little. If you, too, would like to take a walk on her wild side, allow us to show off some of her best work.
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
Is it Mars? Is it a Dr. Seuss book? No, it’s just the Vermillion Cliffs! Standing tall in the northern Arizona desert like giant spires of strawberry and vanilla ice cream, these red and white swirls of layered Navajo sandstone date all the way back to the Jurassic period. Hike through them to enter another dimension.
Australia is notorious for its next-level nature: gargantuan red rock formations, miles of colorful coral at the Great Barrier Reef, kangaroos that look cuddly but could knock you out in one punch, the works. Still, Lake Hillier stands out among the rest—after all, a giant bubblegum pink lake in the middle of a forest is hard to miss. Even weirder: There are plenty of theories—the presence of certain microbes, an abundance of algae, high salinity—but the real reason for the lake’s striking color remains unknown.
Uyuni Salt Flat
If you could visualize infinity, it would look exactly like Bolivia’s Uyuni Salt Flat: a vast, beautiful plain where the earth and the sky blend together and become one. This is technically the largest salt flat on earth, where a thin layer of water blanketing the land creates a reflective surface that perfectly mirrors the sky—certain to send you into a dreamlike state.
Around the world (with three in Puerto Rico!)
Before science was like, a thing, we imagine the people who came across bioluminescent bays reacted exactly like this dog. As stars come out to play at night, the sea seems to take a cue from the sky—and before you know it, the waves washing up on the shore begin to glow blue-green. This sparkly bioluminescence is caused by a special kind of plankton that lights up when the waves rock them and can be seen everywhere from California and Puerto Rico to Australia and New Zealand.
Grand Prismatic Spring
For a place once believed to be the entrance to hell, Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring sure is pretty: It looks like somebody plucked a rainbow out of the sky and turned into a giant lake, clouds included. It’s filled with single-celled, heat-loving organisms; different species cluster at different temperatures, leading to the hot spring’s many vibrant colors. Whatever you do, do not swim in it. Also in Yellowstone is a lake that sings if you’re interested in enjoying a sonic mystery on top of the hot springs’ visual display.
The Devil’s Tower
Now here is a place that actually looks like the entrance to hell and is thus more aptly named. If you were walking across the plains of Wyoming and noticed the Devil’s Tower looming in the distance, you might expect to see the Eye of Sauron peering down at you from above. Before it became the nation’s first national monument, this 867 foot tall, 50 million-year-old column of cool magma was sacred ground to some two-dozen Northern Plains tribes.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Puerto Rico, we see your bioluminescent waves and raise you a bioluminescent cave! In the Waitomo Caves on New Zealand’s North Island, what you may think is a couple thousand stars is actually a couple thousand fungus gnats in their larvae phase. These glowing creatures stick to cave walls and use long strings of mucus to attract food, creating the beads of glowing light you’ll see inside. A little yucky? Sure! But damn, is it beautiful.
The Fly Geyser
Vegas ain’t the only place in Nevada that knows how to dazzle. Beneath the desert lies a millennia-old world: one where subterranean geothermal heat lies dormant, ready to reshape the land at a moment’s notice. Take, for example, the Fly Geyser, a spectacle that formed when 200ºF mineral-rich water burst from the ground, eventually calcifying into a 12-foot-tall “desert sprinkler.”
Rainbow gum trees
These trees kind of look like something you’d find Augustus Gloop eyeballing in Willy Wonka’s factory, so the fact that they’re called rainbow gum trees feels right. Unfortunately, they’re not made of candy on the inside; they’re a type of eucalyptus plant whose layers of bark shed at different times, exposing different colors as they age. Along with making the colorful Hawaiian jungles even brighter, you can find these gems around the world; they occur naturally in places like Indonesia and the Philippines, but can also be found in botanical gardens in Florida, Texas, and California.
Zhangye National Geopark
China’s answer to Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs, the multicolored peaks of Zhangye National Geopark in the Gansu Province look like Mother Nature squeezed out every tube of paint she owns and set to work. Over the course of 24 million years, sandstone deposits created the stripes that decorate the angular hills of the Qilian Mountains, culminating in a 125-square-mile spectacle for drivers along the road that runs between them.
If you love rainbows, wait ‘til you hear about moonbows! Sometimes known as a lunar or white rainbow, the ghostly white arch of light tinged with a hint of color appears when water refracts light from moonbeams. If you’re lucky you can catch this strange and rare phenomenon all over the world, from Yosemite and Costa Rica to southern Africa’s Victoria Falls—but at Cumberland Falls in Kentucky, it’s a regular occurrence. The waterfall there is powerful, and the position of the moon relative to the water means conditions for moonbows are almost always just right.
The Danakil Depression
Before you even ask: yes, this is on Earth. We swear. The Danakil Depression is found in Dallol, Ethiopia—the hottest inhabited location on the planet, with an average temperature of 95ºF, and one of the lowest points on Earth at over 100 meters below sea level. The weird, colorful pools you’re seeing are hot sulfur springs filled with extremophiles (microbes who live in extreme environments), not dissimilar to those in the Grand Prismatic Spring. Those creatures—and the fact that it looks like THIS!!—make the Danakil Depression a prime location for astrobiologists studying how life might come to be on other planets. Just don’t go cannonballing in: If you couldn’t tell by the fact that they’re literally bright yellow and toxic green, those pools contain pure acid.
Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
We’ve seen a lot of weird landscapes in our day, but the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness in New Mexico really takes the cake. Resembling the surface of some alien moon, the badlands are full of otherworldly formations, arches, and slot canyons where the original Roswell aliens are currently (probably) hiding out. The area’s most iconic landmark, a giant ‘hoodoo’ (or spire-shaped rock), is nicknamed the Alien Throne.
Technicolor beachesAround the world
Sometimes, Mother Nature gets a hankering to remix a classic. That’s when we get beaches that defy the crystal blue water, white sand archetype. See: vibrant orange sands in Malta, purple shores in California, jet-black sand in Iceland, and mossy green beaches in Hawaii. And that’s just scratching the surface. (And to lend more fuel to your imagination, did we mention that some of the beaches sing?)
Beyond the hot air balloons that have populated your Instagram feed for ages, Cappadocia’s enormous “fairy chimneys” (soft volcanic rocks molded into enormous towers by erosion) make it one of the most iconic destinations in Turkey, if not in the world. The caves carved into the stone spires at Göreme National Park were once used as homes and churches for monks—but humans have lived in the area since the Neolithic period.
Tianzi Mountains, China
So while we’re waiting on Avatar 2 (which may or may not actually come out during our lifetime?), let’s take a trip to China. The rocky, mossy spires that defined James Cameron’s alien landscape exist in real life at Tianzi Mountains in Zhangjiajie.
Cenote Ik Kil, Mexico
If mermaids have a secret meeting place, this is definitely it. Located in Yucatán, Mexico, not far from the ruins of Chichen Itza, this cenote looks like something out of a dream. Once a sacred Mayan site, the deep blue pool is surrounded by foliage and rock walls; long, wispy vines hang down and dance along the surface as sunlight streams in from above. There are definitely worse places to take a dip.