16 of the Most Surreal Landscapes on Earth

Triangular salt piles on Uyuni salt flat, reflecting the sunrise
Water collects on Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni and reflects the sky, creating a dreamy and surreal scene.

Mint Images - Art Wolfe / Getty Images

From a remote archipelago in Yemen that spawns fairytale-worthy "dragon's blood" trees to the terraced rice paddy fields of Bali and beyond, some scenes on planet Earth are so spectacular—so cinematic—you could be tricked into thinking you've teleported into a Disney movie. Some, like the U.S. Southwest's majestic sandstone rock formations, have been formed by natural phenomena, while others, like the long-burning Darvaza gas chamber, are human-made.

Here are 16 surreal landscapes—cotton candy-colored travertines, a sky-reflecting salt flat, and a Buddha as tall as a 16-story building included—that must be seen to be believed.

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The Wave

Person walking through wavy sandstone rock formation

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One of the most coveted hiking permits in the U.S. is the one that grants access to the fabled Wave, an otherworldly northern Arizona rock formation in which a sea of Jurassic-age sandstone dips, curls, and ascends into small, red mountains. The formation was originally created by rainwater, but the infrequency of precipitation nowadays means erosion is caused almost solely by wind. The ridges and ripples cut into the U-shaped troughs are an even more photogenic geological feature.

Due to its fragility, The Wave—part of the Coyote Buttes North Special Management Area of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area—is highly protected. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center holds a "lottery" in which only 20 permits are given out daily.

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Pamukkale Travertines

Turquoise pools in travertine terraces at Pamukkale, Turkey
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Travertine is a type of limestone rock formed when river or mineral spring waters evaporate and leave behind calcium carbonate. Travertines often wind up settling into a terraced formation, as they do in Pamukkale. This Turkish town is known for its stunning white petrified waterfalls, caused by thermal spring waters flowing over a cliffside. The contrast of stark-white rock and the milky blue water creates a surreal and tourist-popular dreamscape. Pamukkale neighbors Hierapolis, an ancient Roman spa city from the second-century B.C.E.

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Grand Prismatic Spring

Rainbow-colored hot spring covering a geothermal landscape

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One of the U.S.'s most-prized natural attractions is Yellowstone National Park's Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the U.S. and the third-largest in the world. It's approximately 370 feet in diameter and more than 120 feet deep, but its most distinguishing feature is its striking coloration: Its 160-degree water is a brilliant shade of blue in the center, then it turns from yellow to orange to red around the edges. The rainbow colors are caused by different bacteria and heat-loving algae.

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Red Beach

Red plants covering wetlands on bank of Liaohe River

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Panjin, China, is known for its scarlet-colored "beach," a geological feature in which a certain fiery red seepweed (called Suaeda salsa) covers the landscape on the banks of the Shuangtaizi River. The plants can't be frolicked in like the white sand of the Mediterranean, but there are boardwalks that hover over the protected area where visitors can take in the vast, brightly colored scene. Red beach is included in one of the largest wetlands and reed marshes in the world.

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Salar de Uyuni

Triangle salt piles and clouds reflecting in Salar de Uyuni

Tetyana Dotsenko / Shutterstock

Spanning an unprecedented 3,900 square miles, Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni (aka the Uyuni Salt Flat) is a surreal sight in itself, but it becomes utterly dreamlike during the rainy season, when water accumulates on the dried-up lake bed and creates a mirror effect. To walk on the flat post-precipitation feels like floating in the clouds. What makes the scene even more spectacular are the many rock formations and sci-fi-esque salt pyramids rising from the outstretched, mineral-caked expanse. The Uyuni Salt Flat is so otherworldly it was used as a filming location for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."

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Dragon's Blood Trees

Dragon's blood trees in rocky landscape with bird flying overhead
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That the Socotra archipelago of Yemen is one of the most isolated landforms on the planet is strange enough, but even stranger are the peculiar, umbrella-shaped trees that grow there—and only there. Called dragon's blood trees (botanical name Dracaena cinnabari), these anomalies have densely packed crowns of foliage that look to be propped up by veiny underbellies. Their signature red sap gives them their "dragon's blood" denomination.

The trees are also prized for their ancientness—they've been blooming for millennia—but increased tourism and development on the historically remote islands has left them vulnerable to extinction. Today, visiting Socotra is notoriously difficult and requires special visas.

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Tree on white clay pan with red dunes in background
Jairo Díaz / EyeEm / Getty Images

The star attraction of Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park is this claypan surrounded by soaring, ever-changing red-orange dunes that stop the flow of the Tsauchab River. In the native language, Sossusvlei means "dead-end marsh." The dunes that circumnavigate the pale flat, dotted with leafless vegetation, are some of the loftiest and oldest in the world. Many are well over 650 feet tall and thought to be 5 million years old. While the dunes vary in color, the ones displaying the brightest shades of red—indicating a high concentration of iron—are the oldest.

What Is a Claypan?

A claypan is a dense layer in the subsoil that has a much higher clay content than the often loose soil on the surface. It creates a landscape that hardens and cracks, like a salt flat, but gets extraordinarily sticky after a rain.

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Rice Terraces

Bright-green rice terraces stacked on a hill in Bali
Kiatanan Sugsompian / Getty Images

Behind the tons upon tons of rice exported by Southeast Asia is an unpredictably stunning rural topography—imagine stacked paddies glowing green, creating mesmerizing designs in the hillsides of Bali, Indonesia. These scenes occur all around the island, in the Tegalalang village north of Ubud, in eastern Bali's Sidemen, and Jatiluwih (where they're largest) in the west. UNESCO added Bali's rice terraces to the World Heritage list in 2012 due to the ninth-century "water temples" that act as a cooperative water management system for farming.

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Chimney-shaped rocks in one of the valleys of Cappadocia
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A destination that frequents Instagram travel feeds, Cappadocia, Turkey, is home to photogenic "fairy chimneys," remarkable rock formations caused by hard rocks preventing the erosion of more porous rock (called tufa) beneath them. This phenomenon has led the semi-arid landscape to become packed with tufa cones, varying in shapes and sizes. Cappadocia, located in central Anatolia, is a popular destination for hot-air ballooning.

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Darvaza Gas Crater

Darvaza gas crater burning red in middle of desert
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Also known as the Door to Hell, the gas crater that sits near Darvaza, Turkmenistan, has been continuously burning since the early '70s. The collapsed gas field, thought to have been ignited intentionally by Soviet geologists to stop methane from spreading, is now one of the eeriest spectacles in the world. The fiery cavern is more than 200 feet in diameter and almost 100 feet deep. It burns bright in the middle of the vast, drab Karakum Desert, looking especially spectacular (i.e., spooky) at night.

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Giant's Causeway

Hexagonal basalt columns descending into the sea

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Despite ancient folklore claiming that giants created these peculiar, hexagonal basalt columns on Northern Ireland's north coast, researchers have found that Giant's Causeway was actually formed by a volcanic fissure eruption that occurred 50 to 60 million years ago. The ground cracked into some 40,000 geometric basalt pillars when the lava from that eruption cooled. Today, the structures—now part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and U.K. National Trust property—can be seen descending into the ocean in County Antrim.

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Hitachi Seaside Park

A single tree and sweeping field of blue flowers

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Those whose virtual happy places involve rolling fields of flowers as far as the eye can see would love the flora-packed seaside park in Hitachi. The spacious stretch of land on Japan's Pacific Coast draws a crowd in the spring, when its signature cerulean flower, the blue nemophila, blankets Miharashi Hill in sky-colored blooms. There are an estimated 4.5 million of these flowers. Every spring, between late April and early May, the park hosts an event called Nemophila Harmony to celebrate them.

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Leshan Giant Buddha

Giant Buddha carved from rock, set in the forest
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There are countless spectacular Buddha statues in Asia, but most pale in comparison to Leshan's, which sits a whopping 233 feet tall at the confluence of the Min and Dadu Rivers in China. The majestic portrayal of Maitreya, a future bodhisattva, was carved into the sandstone cliff face in the eighth or early ninth century during the Tang dynasty. With two rivers flowing just beneath its colossal feet and its head tucked into the lush, lofty forest, this is the largest stone Buddha in the world. The majesty of it can be experienced only by boat.

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Tunnel of Love

Lush green foliage creating a tunnel over train tracks
Vitaliia Ponomarova / 500px / Getty Images

An abandoned stretch of train tracks on the Kovel-Rivne line near Klevan, Ukraine, has become increasingly tourist-popular because the trees and verdure growing around it have created a lush, greenery-packed Tunnel of Love (named for the couples who now frequent it). For a few miles, the branches are growing, rather bewilderingly, in an arched shape over the tracks. It's no surprise why this feat of natural architecture is now synonymous with romance.

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Antelope Canyon

Light dancing through gaps in the sandstone slot canyon
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Page, Arizona, is home to the holy grail of slot canyons, sculpted by thousands of years of flash flooding. The artfully rippling sandstone rock faces of Antelope Canyon have been smoothed over by water from the Colorado River, the same body that caused the nearby Grand Canyon. Although it's located on Navajo Indian Tribal Lands, native tour guides lead people through the winding, confined passageway—around midday, when the Southwest sun spills into the canyon from narrow openings above, is a coveted time slot.

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Odle Mountains

Jagged mountain ridge with green field growing on one side
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The Odle Mountains, in Italy's Dolomites, offer both rugged, knifelike peaks and hospitable, picnic-worthy grassy slopes. The some 8,000-foot-high Seceda mountain is a prominent example: Its majestic summit looms over the villages of Ortisei, St. Christina, and Selva in Val Gardena. On one side, the mountain is rocky and crumbly, but on the side where the sun shines, a grass-covered slope rises gently to the razor-sharp ridge line. There are many hikes—both beginner-friendly and challenging—that showcase the surreal, contrasting scenery.