Natural Phenomena (Other Than Foliage) You Can Glimpse This Fall

Where to look beyond the leaves for a taste of the season’s wonders

When the conditions are right in Roebuck Bay, Australia, the landscape resembles a set of stairs leading to the moon. (BWA_IMAGES / iStock)
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As we get deeper into fall, and peak-foliage maps and brightly colored Instagram shots begin to clutter social media feeds like so many maple leaves fluttering in the chilly wind, a reminder: This season is filled with fascinating natural phenomenon that don't require uttering the words "leaf peeping." Throughout the world, other natural phenomena take place that many would argue rival the world’s annual leafy explosion of fleeting beauty. Some are fall exclusives and last a short time. Some take place within the season, but also start earlier in the year or extend into winter. All are worth a look.  

Shadow of the Bear, Cashiers, North Carolina

Whiteside Mountain makes the Shadow of the Bear possible. From mid-October through early November, around 5:30 p.m., the sun drops behind the 4,930-foot peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern part of the state. Across the valley below, the mountain’s shadow overlays the trees in an uncanny shape of a bear, with outstretched paws, a pointy snout and round little ears.

Bear-spotting and Instagramming can be had off Highway 64 in Cashiers. Park at the Rhodes Big View Overlook. Of course, the bear only comes out on sunny days, and only for about 30 minutes, so punctuality is key to witnessing this particular phenomenon. The bear also comes out to play from mid-February through early March, but without the backdrop of fall foliage.

Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales roughly translates as crystal channel, but the nicknames for this body of water—River of Five Colors, Liquid Rainbow—better describe Colombia’s natural wonder. At least, that is, from around September through November—the period between wet and dry seasons, when the river presents itself in vivid shades of red, yellow, orange, green and blue. The water itself doesn’t change color; it’s the plant life within, macarenia clavigera, that turns red, as well as factors such as the hue of the sand, other plant life in the river, and the ways in which the sun and water mingle.

It’s a phenomenon that only recently has become relatively safe for travelers to experience. The river, located in central Colombia in Serranía de la Macarena National Park near the town of La Macarena, was previously part of an area of the country controlled by FARC rebels. Now the rebels are no longer there, and travelers can visit via one of several local tour groups.

Staircase to the Moon, Western Australia

In the northern reaches of Western Australia, in and around the town of Broome, nature aligns to put on a show that blends earthly and heavenly elements. It takes place when conditions are right on select days from March through October, when a full moon rises and tides are low. As the rising moon lights up the exposed tidal flats of Roebuck Bay, the landscape resembles a set of stairs that leads to the lunar surface.

The event is celebrated in several places in the area, notably at Broome’s Town Beach. With a night market and food vendors and people jostling for position to get just the right angle, it can be a lively scene.

Experience Sunrise and Sunset over the Ocean on the Same Horizon, Brunswick Islands, North Carolina

It’s an opportunity for early risers, sunset lovers, and just about anyone who would love to sit on the beach all day to do something rare, wonderful—and a little bit silly. Sink your beach chair into the sand somewhere along the 45-miles of beaches on the five barrier islands that comprise the Brunswick Islands. Choose the no-cars-allowed Bald Head Island or family friendly Holden Beach. Bring some warm clothes and get to the shore early, so you can witness the sunrise over the Atlantic to your left. Then recline for hours as the sun arcs across the sky, all the while above the water, until it descends beneath the same Atlantic horizon to your right.

It’s made possible by the position of the islands—running east to west, with south-facing beaches—and the earth’s position during late fall, winter and early spring. Since the sun rises in more of a southeasterly position and sets toward the southwest during those time periods, the islands get a grand view of both spectacles.  

Red Crab Migration, Christmas Island

On Australia's Christmas Island, at high tide during the last quarter of the moon in the wet season—usually sometime in October or November—tens of millions of red crabs embark on an epic journey. Under cover of rain and moisture, they leave their places in the forest and make their way to the shores of the Indian Ocean, where the female crabs release their eggs into the water.

So many crabs make the trek over the course of up to 18 days that Christmas Islanders have built special paths and tunnels for just that. The infrastructure streamlines the migration and attempts to keep the crabs off the roads and out of people’s way. But the crabs are so many they often cause road closures across the island. Those venturing down under in the fall can behold the spectacle themselves.

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