There are three components to any great trip: the people, the culture—including food, architecture, the arts and such—and the natural surroundings.
A lot of vacations, especially those that hop from city to city, pay only lip service to natural surroundings. If you’re strolling along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, for example, you might notice the strength of the sunlight or the delightful temperature, but of verdure, mountains and sea there are none.
Scenic backdrops are wonderful. In Hong Kong, Vancouver, Rio de Janeiro and other geographically blessed places you can’t help but appreciate the mountains framing the city and the sea stretching away to the horizon. It’s much nicer to look up from an outdoor café and see a crag than a skyscraper, but it’s also incidental. Only when you get out and embrace natural surroundings do you truly appreciate what they offer.
More than any other kind of travel, adventure travel centers on the world’s natural wonders. Earth is full of the most naturally stupendous places. What we have built—from pyramids to skyscrapers to dams—truly pales in comparison. There are lots of natural wonders. Seven, to be precise: The Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, the…wait a minute. SEVEN?? Of course, there is no definitive list. There are more like 1,000 natural wonders, or perhaps 10,000,000, depending on your criteria.
Here’s a short list of some of our favorites:
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Crater is what’s left after a huge volcano exploded two to three million years ago. The 115 square mile caldera is perhaps the single best place to see lion, rhino, leopard, elephant, buffalo and close to 25,000 other animals in all of East Africa.
There is some scholarly concern that, due to the natural topographical constraints the crater imposes, certain gene pools are narrowing and weakening, but the game viewing is truly spectacular, as are the views, especially at sunrise.
Geirangerfjord in southwestern Norway is one of the deepest and most spectacular fjords in the world. Sheer cliffs plunge into deep green waters 2,000 feet deep. Waterfalls cascade into mirror surfaces, and snowcapped mountains frame the scene all year round.
See the 9-mile long UNESCO World Heritage site by cruise ship, from a kayak, or hike along its edges for the most spectacular views.
South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is a mile deep in some places thanks to the relentless efforts of the Colorado River over the past 17 million years. Gaze down and the mighty river is but a thin thread glittering at the bottom of a chasm.
95 percent of visitors to Canyon view the canyon from South Rim viewing stations, then get back into cars and buses, and leave. The South Kaibab Trail affords a much better look as it descends along a ridgeline—with excellent views of the Canyon itself. Take Bright Angel trail back up for the afternoon shade, and be sure to pack along enough water for the conditions.
Uluru/Ayers Rock, Australia
From a distance it looks like a giant red egg rising straight out of the flat, sandy scrub. Up close, Uluru is pocked and scarred with ridges, craters and actual caves. 1,150 feet high and five and three-quarter miles around, it’s just the tip of a sandstone mountain rising for miles deep below the desert.
Besides being the only thing to break up the skyline for a hundred miles around, Uluru is a spiritual site for the Anangu aboriginal nation, who can relate the legends that deal with its formation.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Patagonia, Argentina
This 97 square mile glacier spills into Lago Argentino, keeping the water a nice, shiny blue. You can see the blue in the ice as well from a viewing platform as it calves into the lake with a roar.
Perito Moreno is located in Patagonia's Los Glaciares National Park and occasionally forms an ice dam, trapping melt water up above the lake. Catch it at the right time, and you will witness a spectacular rupture accompanied by a sound like an earthquake.
Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta
Moraine Lake, found in Alberta’s Banff National Park, is a photographer’s favorite. The ‘jewel of the Rockies’ is a bright, milky blue that reflects pine forests, snowy crags and the clouds in the sky.
The blue is brightest during the summer, when rock flour dumped in by glacial rivulets refracts sunlight. Take one of many walking paths around the lake and hike up above to capture the ultimate view. Go for a dip if you wish, but beware—it is C-O-L-D.
Angel Falls, Venezuela
How could the highest waterfall in the world not be on our list? The water drops more than 3,000 feet from one of the biggest tabletop mountains in Canaima National Park, southern Venezuela. Most of the water nourishes plant life on the way down, evaporating or absorbed before it reaches the bottom.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia/Peru
Because it’s up at more than 12,000 feet, Lake Titicaca commands exceptional views thanks to the rarified atmosphere. Its beautiful, pure water forms one of the largest lakes in South America as well as the highest commercially navigated lake in the world. Aymara and Quechua people live on its shores as well as on floating platforms made of reeds. Many of our tours to the area involve an indigenous homestay.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
There’s a water theme going on here, isn’t there? It’s no wonder with places like these. This series of shallow lakes located in Croatia is a collection of cascading pools and small lakes linked by, rocky canyons and waterfalls. Pools display different colors—blue, grey, green—depending on the microorganisms within and the minerals flowing from underground streams deep within the limestone karst.
Wooden walkways make for easy access—it’s a sight not to be missed! You can glimpse freshwater fish and you might even see a brown bear in the surrounding forest.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia
Made up of thousands of individual reefs, the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia extends for 1,600 miles (2,600 kilometers). Visible from space, it’s the world's largest structure made of living things.
You can see it from a boat, from shore or—best of all—snorkeling in the warm waters. You chance seeing rays, porpoises, sea turtles, a rainbow of fish, anemones, starfish, multihued coral formations, reef sharks…even whales.
That’s ten of our favorite natural wonders, but it’s not necessarily our top ten. Ask us tomorrow and we may suggest ten places that are completely different! For 4,000 more great suggestions, check out all our tours.