Humanity builds some impressive structures — the pyramids, the Colosseum, even the Shard! But no matter what people create from stone, steel or glass, nature can often go one better.
From tumbling waterfalls to epic glaciers, rugged mountains to ancient forests, our planet offers some truly humbling scenery to travel through.
Here are 10 incredible natural wonders to add to your bucket list.
1. Svalbard, Norway
Svalbard near the Arctic Circle is one of the most northern places where you can still find people. Its remote terrain is beautiful and alien at the same time, with fantastic views of its glaciers.
Amid the frozen landscape, you’ll find hot springs, a Russian ghost town, glaciers, fjords, and the Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park.
In the summer, Svalbard enjoys 24-hour sunlight during its ‘midnight sun’ period. Watch reindeer, Arctic foxes and polar bears in the tundra. Go in the winter for stunning views of the Northern Lights.
Svalbard is also home to the Global Seed Vault, which stores thousands of seeds to safeguard plant species in the face of disaster.
2. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China
Found in Hunan province, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was the inspiration for Pandora in Avatar. It’s also China’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors can enjoy hiking trails and breath-taking views of the park’s huge sandstone columns. They stand 200m tall, with patches of forest still clinging to the tops. Tianzi Mountain in the north offers a view of the pillars wreathed in mist and cloud.
Sadly, the number of tourists visiting the park is difficult to manage. Hotel developments cluster in the area, while you can even find a McDonald’s restaurant within the park.
Try to avoid the elevators, cable cars, and main paths if you want to explore its quiet natural beauty. Stay in Zhangjiajie City, nearby Wulingyuan village, or within the park itself.
I used Zhangjiajie National Forest Park as inspiration for part of the adventure in Map of Plagues.
3. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Staying with UNESCO World Heritage sites, why not try Croatia’s terrace of sixteen lakes?
Rivers carved out this series of lakes and waterfalls that tumble downwards from 1,280 m above sea level. Deer, wolves, and bears live in the surrounding forests.
Boardwalks carry visitors over its clear turquoise water, making the park a photographer’s dream. The park gets crowded during peak periods in the summer, so arrive early to enjoy the views while they’re quiet.
Walking around Plitvice can take up to six hours. Free buses and boats also take visitors around the park.
4. Undara Lava Tubes, Australia
It’s not every day you can say you’ve walked through the remains of a volcano. If you visit the Undara Volcanic National Park, you can do exactly that.
The Lava Tubes lie four hours’ drive from Cairns in northern Australia. They’re around 190,000 years old, created when a lava flow turned solid on the outside but kept moving on the inside.
Caves open up along the tubes and guides take visitors through sections of this awe-inspiring space. You even get the chance to watch bats, pythons, kangaroos and cockatoos in their natural environment.
Undara Experience, an eco-tourism operator, runs the only guided tours to the tubes.
5. The Grand Canyon, USA
No list of natural wonders would be complete without the Grand Canyon. Located in Arizona, it’s 18 miles across at its widest point.
Enjoy hiking trails, ancient petroglyphs, camping, and boating trips in this slice of the American wilderness. Within the Grand Canyon National Park, you’ll find Native American archaeological sites that preserve indigenous history and culture.
Take a ride on the historic Grand Canyon Railway, snaking along 64 miles through the meadows and pine forest.
The famous Desert View Watchtower is one of the few remaining buildings by architect Mary Colter. In summer 2019, the park became an International Dark Sky Park, making the canyon an ideal spot for stargazing.
I hiked the rim of the Grand Canyon back in the early 2000s and it appears as a backdrop in the ARKANE thriller, End of Days.
6. The Waitomo Glowworm Caves, New Zealand
There’s something almost primal about New Zealand’s landscape. It’s no surprise Peter Jackson chose the South Island to represent Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Much of its scenery qualifies the country as a natural wonder, but the Waitomo Glowworm Caves are perhaps some of the most unusual.
The limestone cave system lies on New Zealand’s North Island, and you can see a species of glowworm not found anywhere else on earth. Scientists monitor conditions in the caves to keep the glowworms healthy and happy. You can take an inner tube through the cave wearing wetsuits to stay dry and warm. It’s quite magical with the tiny lights twinkling above.
My dark fantasy thriller Risen Gods is set in New Zealand.
7. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
The Giant’s Causeway is a National Trust and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. 40,000 basalt columns form the causeway itself.
Volcanic activity formed the columns between 50-60 million years ago, but the origin legend is far more magical than its geological reality.
In the story, a Scottish giant named Benandonner challenged Irish giant Finn MacCool to a fight. Finn built the causeway so he could reach Scotland. Different versions explain what happened next, but in the most famous version, Finn’s wife disguises him as a baby. Benandonner sees him and assumes Finn must be even more gigantic if that’s the size of his child. He returns to Scotland and destroys the causeway. The basalt columns at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish side of the North Channel helped add a touch of authenticity to the legend.
The causeway is now popular with nesting seabirds and tourists alike.
8. Dead Sea, Israel
The Dead Sea takes its name from the fact that only bacteria live in the water. Its high salt content means animals can’t survive there but the area around the sea is very much alive. Leopards, foxes, ibex, and jackals all live in the mountains nearby.
The Dead Sea marks the lowest point on earth, measuring 431m below sea level. The salt also allows bathers to float higher in the water, while many believe in the healing properties of mud from the area. You’ll find spas all along the western coastal edge, some exclusive and upmarket, and some open to all.
If you visit the Dead Sea, then be sure to also take a trip to nearby Masada and Qumran.
The Dead Sea appears in my ARKANE thriller, Gates of Hell.
9. Yakushima Island, Japan
Some think Hayao Miyazaki used Yakushima as the inspiration for Princess Mononoke. This ancient forest is home to trees almost 7000 years old.
Yakushima is subtropical so expect lots of rain. This feeds the many waterfalls, including Yakushima’s most famous waterfall, Okonotaki. Mist often curls up among the trees, making this an incredible destination for photographers.
The island features plenty of trails across a range of lengths, so you’ll be able to explore even if you have little time. Some paths feature abandoned railway tracks, adding to the island’s mysterious feel.
If you get tired of ancient cedar trees, head to one of the seaside hot springs for a spot of bathing.
Like all the locations on this list, it’s a great place to reforge your connections with the natural world. Unplug from social media, strap on your hiking boots, and take a deep cleansing breath of cool, clean air…
10. Marble Cathedral, Chile
The General Carrera lake lies in Chile’s Patagonia region. It’s already a natural wonder with its clear turquoise waters, but the area is also home to a gorgeous cave network.
This unique geological site is known as the Marble Cathedral. The retreating glaciers created the lake, and the water carved the cathedral out of the stone.
The only way to access the caves is to get up close in a small boat or kayak and view the natural stone contours and crystal clear waters.
If you visit in winter, the water levels drop and reveal parts of the cathedral usually hidden by the lake.
Which of these incredible natural wonders will you visit next?