8 Fairy Tale-Like Destinations You Can See in Real Life

Small hillocks in a field
Photo: Slava Myronov Follow [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Some regions of the world are defined by their landscapes — the deserts of the American Southwest, the Alps of Central Europe, the arid Outback of inland Australia. But some geographic features defy definition. These strange places might be more at home in a storybook or as the background in an anime film, like the Philippines' Chocolate Hills (pictured).

The whimsical appearance of these landscapes have made them popular among tourists seeking something different, but some of these strange places remain uncrowded, and their remoteness gives their otherworldly feel greater depth.

Here are several fairy tale-like destinations that are, in fact, very real.

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Zhangjiajie Forest Park

Photo: JekLi/Shutterstock

Zhangjiajie Forest Park is part of a wider protected scenic area in China's Hunan Province. The towering sandstone pillars in this huge park will take your breath away. Some are more than 600 feet tall, and most of them have foliage growing on their sides and summits.

The park has become popular with tourists, but some of the best viewpoints require long, semi-strenuous hikes, and that reality thins out the crowds. The best viewpoint is from Tianzi Mountain, which takes about two hours to climb.

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Mono Lake

Photo: Twinmama [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Mono Lake is a desert lake in Eastern California that has a high concentration of salt. Despite its makeup, it's hardly a barren place. In fact, it's a haven for migrating birds, and the water is home to a species of brine shrimp. The most noticeable trait of Mono Lake, however, is its odd-looking tufa towers (pictured). These rock spires got their shape from a process that began when the alkaline lake water came into contact with fresh spring water.

Visitors come to see the rock formations, which are located at various points around the lake, including the largest concentration in the Mono Lake State Nature Reserve. However, the area is also a popular destination for bird watchers, who come to see the species that migrate through the area.

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The Chocolate Hills

Photo: Brendan van Son/Shutterstock

From a scenic overlook in the town of Carmen in the province of Bohol in central Philippines, the so-called Chocolate Hills seem to stretch to the horizon. There are more than 1,200 hills, each with a seemingly perfect conical shape. The hills range from 100 feet to almost 400 feet in height. The most widely accepted theory of their origin is that they consist of marine limestone that was forced upward during a shift in the tectonic plates.

The hills are covered with green grass, which enhances their unusual appearance. However, during the dry season, the grass turns deep brown, making the hills look like giant Hershey's Kisses. The "chocolate" tag comes from this dry-season appearance. Local legends about the hills' origin say the formations were caused by giant's hurling rocks at each other or perhaps by a broken-hearted deity's tears.

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Giant's Causeway

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Located along the Antrim Coast in Northern Ireland, Giant's Causeway consists of 40,000 black basalt columns that are interlocked with one another. The columns have distinct geometrical shapes at their tops, so it almost appears like they are man-made paving stones. From the side, the causeway formations look like some sort of fictional fortification. Scientists say the causeway formed naturally millions of years ago, the result of a volcanic eruption.

The area has been a popular tourist attraction since the 19th century. A tram was built in the late 1800s to take passengers to the causeway from the resort town of Portrush. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a new visitor center. Though some of the basalt formations lie on private property, most of the Giant's Causeway is owned and overseen by the National Trust, an organization that maintains sites of historic importance and natural beauty in the United Kingdom.

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Photo: Oleg Znamenskiy/Shutterstock

Deadvlei, also written Dead Vlei, is a plain surrounded by red sand dunes in the Namib Desert. Despite the presence of nearby salt pans, Deadvlei is a clay pan. The site is so unique because trees once grew there. Shifting dunes and climate change killed the foliage over time. The air was so dry that the trees never decayed, but they are not petrified.

The trees are estimated to be between 600 and 1,000 years old. The combination of tall red dunes, bright clay flats and the tree skeletons combine to create a surreal atmosphere that inspires tourists visiting Namib-Naukluft National Park to make the 44-mile drive from the park's entrance to Deadvlei.

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Antelope Canyon

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Antelope Canyon is located on a Navajo reservation in northernmost Arizona. It's a slot canyon, a type of formation created when fast-moving water, often from recurring flash floods, erodes stone. Antelope is tall and very narrow, with walls that have been smoothed into unusual shapes by centuries of erosion. Upper Antelope Canyon is more accessible and arguably more photogenic, so it's more popular with tourists. Tourists are also able to visit Lower Antelope Canyon, though it requires a longer hike and a ladder-assisted climb.

You can only visit these sites with a licensed guide because the area is on Navajo Nation land and because the flash floods that created the canyon still occur and pose a real danger. Before the current regulations were put in place, some visitors were killed by unexpected flash floods.

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Photo: muratart/Shutterstock

The name Pamukkale means "cotton castle" in Turkish. The white terraces and mineral water pools are not made of cotton, however. They have been formed over the millennia by deposits from the minerals in the water that flows from underground springs. The area is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hotels and spas built near the formation were demolished so that Pamukkale could be returned to a more natural state.

The white terraces are an unusual sight, and as such, a popular destination for photographers. In fact, this is the most popular attraction in Turkey, drawing 2 million visitors per year. Despite regulations meant to protect the terraces, visitors are still allowed to soak in some of the smaller pools here, provided they follow certain guidelines such as removing their shoes before entering.

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Lake Hillier

Photo: Aussie Oc [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Lake Hillier sits on an island off the coast of Western Australia. It's separated from the ocean by a thin strip of shoreline. Hillier is a small lake, less than 2,000 feet in length, but it grabs people's attention because of its bright pink hue. The color is especially noticeable because it contrasts with the adjacent blue ocean and the surrounding green foliage. The prevailing theory is that the pink color is caused by the interaction between the saline in the water and a specific type of micro-algae that thrives under these specific conditions.

Hillier is one of several pink-hued lakes in this part of Western Australia and it lies in a remote area. The pink color is best seen from the air, so it's common to visit by helicopter as well as by boat. (The color is less distinct when seen from ground level, but it's still visible.)