Vacations may still be more aspirational than realistic for most of us, but as the world begins to open up again, here are nine mind-boggling natural phenomena worth traveling for. From a never-ending lightning storm to a glowing canyon, these are sights that showcase the wonder—and strangeness—of our natural world.
Frozen bubble lake, Lake Abraham, Alberta, Canada
In winter, frozen methane bubbles give this lake in northern Canada a psychedelic dotted appearance, drawing photographers from far and wide. An artificial lake on the North Saskatchewan River, Lake Abraham has milky blue water due to the presence of tiny rock particles, which makes a stunning backdrop to the bubbles. The bubbles are created by organic matter like bits of plants that fall into the lake, explains Amos Tai, an associate professor in the Earth System Science Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “When organic matter falls into the lake it can actually sink down to the bottom,” he says. “Along the way, bacteria can act on it and produce methane products.” The gasses that are caught mid-rise as the lake begins to freeze are then trapped for the winter, he explains. Take a guided night walk to see the bubbles in starlight.
Black sun, Southern Jutland, Denmark
In Denmark's vast Tondermarsken marshland, twice-annual starling migrations literally turn the sky black. This event is known in Danish as the sort sol (black sun), and it’s an awesome sight to behold. Just after sunset, the starlings, which come to the marshes to feed on insects and larvae, rise en masse into the purple-streaked sky. These formations, known rather poetically as “murmurations,” are so large they can block what remains of the daylight as the birds decide where to roost for the evening. “The largest murmurations occur during the migration period, when local starlings are joined by flocks of birds migrating north from sites that get too cold for them in the winter,” says Caroline Dingle, a senior lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “The famous ‘sort sol’ murmurations are a good example of this—they occur during the autumn migration and can reach numbers of up to a million birds in a single flock.” Take a black sun safari to see for yourself.
Moonbow, Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
On lucky evenings, atmospheric conditions at thundering Victoria Falls combine with spray to create an elusive "moonbow"—a silvery rainbow best visible on full moons. The 5,604-foot-wide falls, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, are naturally spectacular any time of day or year. But when the moonbow appears—typically during the summer, when water flow is high enough to create spray, but dry conditions make for clear skies—it’s a double dose of magic. The moonbow itself is “light from the moon refracted through water droplets in the air,” Tai says, and the best time to see it is early evening or early morning. Moonbows are paler than a daytime rainbow, but can show up magnificently on long-exposure photographs.
Pororoca wave, Brazil
Several times a year, the Amazon delivers a raging wave of coffee-colored water known for its distinctive rumbling sound. Up to 12 feet tall, the "Pororoca" can be heard for up to half an hour before it appears. Anything in its wake—boats, trees, cows—will be pulled under. Despite the hazards, the Pororoca is popular with surfers, who don’t mind sharing a wave with a caiman or a piranha. The wave, technically known as a tidal bore, is the result of especially dramatic tides pushing up the river against the current. On a spring tide, or a tide during the new or full moon, it can rush inland as far as 500 miles. The strongest Pororoca tends to occur around the spring and fall equinox. The town of São Domingos do Capim has long hosted an annual Pororoca surfing championship—the winner is whoever can stay upright the longest.
Catatumbo Lightning, Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela
Summer thunderstorms can be scary, but they never last long. Well, imagine if a thunderstorm blew in and never left. That’s what it’s like at Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela's "lightning lake" that delivers electrical storms so powerful they turn night to day. The “Never-Ending Storm of Catatumbo,” as locals call it, results from cool, dry mountain air flowing down the Andes and meeting warm, moist lake air. “A strong temperature contrast can drive a thunderstorm,” Tai explains. “If moisture is supplied by the evaporation of a wet surface or a lake then the thunderstorm can be even more powerful.”
Each square kilometer of lake has an average of 232 lightning flashes a year, for a total of some 297 thunderstorms annually. It’s so bright that sailors in the Caribbean used to use the lake as a natural lighthouse! Today, boat tours take visitors right into the middle of the thundering action.
Sky mirror, Jeram, Selangor, Malaysia
On full moons and new moons, low tides turn Malaysia’s Sasaran Beach into a vast looking glass, an Alice in Wonderland-esque landscape of shimmering silver. The “beach” is actually an enormous natural sandbar more than a mile off the coast, submerged most of the time. But the spring tides of new and full moons drop the water low enough for visitors to stand in just a few centimeters of water on the sandbar surface. The shallow waters reflect the sky until you can’t tell where water ends and clouds begin. Similar to Bolivia's better-known salt flats, it's a photographer's dream. You can only get here by boat from the nearby fishing village of Jeram, and only a few days a month. And once here, you’ll have less than 90 minutes before the seas come rushing back in.
Glow worms, Dismals Canyon, Alabama
As the sun sets above Alabama’s Dismals Canyon, the glowing begins. Thousands of eerie blue lights appear on the mossy rock, like someone dotted the canyon’s sides with a glo-in-the-dark pen. The glow actually comes from clusters of “dismalites”—the nickname for Orfelia fultoni, a rare bioluminescent fly larvae that lives only in the south and southeastern United States. The ancient sandstone gorge of Dismals Canyon, described by wildlife biologist Britney McCaffrey as “the last primeval forest east of the Mississippi,” is home to the largest population of the larvae in the nation. In spring and fall, you can join a group tour to see them in their habitat. Pro tip: bring a red flashlight for the hike in, so your eyes can adjust more quickly once you turn it off.
Panjin Red Beach, China
Come autumn in the northeastern province of Liaoning, miles of Suaeda heteroptera plants bloom crimson in this vast seaside marsh, making the beach as red as the Chinese flag. Six months earlier, you might have called this spot “Panjin Green Beach.” Members of a plant family sometimes known as “seepweed,” S. heteroptera are color-change chameleons. In spring, they’re green. But as they absorb more and more saltwater over the year, they begin to blush. By September, they’re a shocking crimson, eventually darkening into a bruise-purple by October. In addition to being beautiful, “red beaches provide important ecological services,” wrote Weizhi Lu of the Earth Systems Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in a 2018 paper, along with colleagues at U.S. and Chinese universities. The Liaoning beaches are a feeding ground for the wild red-crowned crane, the world's largest breeding site for the Saunders’s gull, and an important stopover site for 45 protected migrating waterbirds.
Though most of the marsh is off-limits, you can walk a public boardwalk to admire a portion of the red “beach.”
World’s oldest wisteria, Ashikaga, Japan
It was born before the first car was invented. Before Greenwich Mean Time began. Before Coca-Cola. Before the Brooklyn Bridge or the Oxford English Dictionary. They call it the “Great Miracle Wisteria,” and it’s at least 140 years old. You’ll find it just under 50 miles north of Tokyo in Ashikaga Flower Park, home to a profusion of wisteria ranging from the common purple to the rare yellow. The Great Miracle Wisteria’s purple blossoms hang down like beaded curtains, forming a perfect backdrop for photos. The wisteria bloom from mid-April to mid-May. If you miss it, thousands of other flowers, including irises, water lilies, roses and rhododendrons, bloom during other times of the year.