To point out that the world is full of wonders is hardly a revelation, whether you’re talking about ancient or modern marvels, feats of architecture and engineering, or naturally occurring places of breathtaking beauty. It is surprising, however, that even with so much to admire, people continue to limit their lists of wonders to single digits. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of natural wonders, incorporating nominations from other sources as well as a few of our own. From African deserts to European volcanoes to phenomena that can be experienced across the globe, here are 39 of the planet’s most spectacular natural sites.
The New Seven Wonders of Nature
Back in 2000, the New7Wonders Foundation decided to reboot the Seven Wonders concept so that the places on the list were actually still standing, organizing a global poll to determine what the new wonders would be. In light of the campaign’s success, the foundation decided to tally another set of votes, which totaled over 500 million, to name the new Seven Wonders of Nature. Here’s the final list:
The Amazon River
One of the most impressive water bodies on Earth, the Amazon is the longest river in South America at over 4,000 miles and has the largest drainage system on the planet, discharging roughly 7,4000,000 cubic feet per second. Whether or not the Nile is, in fact, longer is a point of contention for some as debates rage over the Amazon’s true headwaters.
Surrounding the river’s drainage basin, the Amazon Rainforest is just as impressive, stretching out over nine different countries and roughly 40 percent of Brazil’s land mass. With all that space, it’s no wonder the South American rainforest plays host to more species than any other bioreserve on the planet, including countless species that have yet to be recorded.
Jeju Island is a volcanic island and province of South Korea that sits to the south of the peninsula between South Korea and Japan. The World Heritage site Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes is found here and includes both the extensive Geomunoreum lava system and Mount Hallasan, the highest mountain in South Korea.
Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is a popular tourist destination thanks to its gorgeous limestone karsts and floating fishing village. The landscape formed by its 1,600-2,000 islands and islets, most of them uninhabited, is just spectacular. Thanks to these unusual landforms, many of them still unaffected by human impact, the area became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994.
The famous Iguazu Falls straddles the Iguazu River on the border between Argentina and Brazil. Its name, Iguazu, means “big water” in Guarani, and it seems appropriate — made of 275 waterfalls, it’s the largest waterfall system in the world. The tallest of these waterfalls, where approximately half of the river’s flow falls, is called the Devil’s Throat — a long, narrow, U-shaped chasm whose thunderous sound visitors never forget.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is located on the Philippine Island of Palawan and leads into a cave that you can take boat tours through. It was impressive enough as it was, but in 2010, a group of environmentalists discovered the river has a second floor, so there are small waterfalls inside the cave. As the river emerges directly into the sea, its lower portion is subject to tidal influences.
Komodo Island is part of the Indonesian archipelago and is famous for being the home of the Komodo dragon. Its history also makes it a special place as its inhabitants (around 2,000, compared to the island’s 5,700 remaining Komodo dragons) are said to be descendants of former convicts who were exiled to the island in the 19th century by a sultan in Sumbawa. Also found on the island is Pink Sand Beach, one of the world’s best destinations for snorkeling and diving when the island is open to visitors.
Table Mountain is a famous landmark that towers over Cape Town, South Africa. There are some great views of the city from the top (accessible via hiking trail and cableway). Its main feature is a level plateau that stretches approximately two miles from side to side, edged by impressive cliffs. It’s also a cool place to practice some cloud watching — from afar — as the plateau is often covered by the famous tablecloth clouds.
The CNN list of natural wonders
The CNN list sits a little bit better with us than the voter-influenced New7Wonders version — we can’t get behind a list that doesn’t include the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef. Again, this is by no means authoritative or scientific.
The Great Barrier Reef
Australia’s famous, gigantic barrier reef is sadly at risk of being destroyed by climate change, overfishing, and tourism — coral bleaching is more widespread than previously thought, and scientists have admitted this great wonder is at a terminal stage, a sad end to the world’s biggest single structure made by living organisms.
The Grand Canyon
The famous, massive canyon cut by the Colorado River through Arizona is one of the few wonders that belongs on every iteration of this list. At 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and attaining a depth of over a mile, it’s not the longest nor the steepest canyon in the world, but its overall scale combined with the beautifully colored landscape makes it one of the most amazing natural wonders. The Colorado River has been carving this canyon over the course of, according to several studies, five to six million years.
Harbor of Rio de Janeiro
Brazil’s most famous city fills in the spaces between the surrounding mountains and the ocean, making it one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. Above it all, it’s watched over by the Christ the Redeemer statue — one of the regularly cited man-made wonders of the world.
Everest’s peak is 29,035 feet above sea level, or at least it was. Nepal’s earthquake in 2015 is believed to have clipped the mountain’s height, so India and Nepal are about to measure it afresh. For the sake of counting these, if you’ve seen Mount Everest, located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, you’ve been to it. You don’t have to have made it to the summit.
The aurora (also known as the aurora borealis, northern lights in the north, and aurora australis in the south) is caused by the collision of solar winds with Earth’s magnetosphere and can be viewed from pretty much anywhere within certain latitudes, depending on the visibility and severity of the geomagnetic storms.
Victoria Falls — on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia — is the largest waterfall by volume in the world at over 5,500 feet wide and 355 feet high. Its local name in Tokaleya Tonga is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which literally means “the smoke that thunders,” gives a perfect explanation of what you’ll feel if you get close to it.
Paricutín volcano in Mexico makes it on most lists just for the sheer bizarreness of its history. It was a cornfield in 1943 and then, in the span of a year, grew to a height of 11,475 feet. By the time the volcano’s eruptions ceased in 1952, its peak measured a whopping 9,210 feet. The villages around it are buried in lava, and only a church bell tower juts out from the rock.
The world’s far too big and wonderful to limit the chosen natural wonders to seven and there are glaring omissions on the list above (Yellowstone, the Sahara Desert, and so on). So it’s worth our time to go into some of the ones that aren’t included on the final lists but should be considered natural wonders anyway.
Bu Tinah shoals
Bu Tinah, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, is a coral archipelago that is totally closed to the public (hence the lack of photo). Its thriving habitat is a unique living laboratory of key significance for climate change research. This distinctive natural habitat — with its shallow waters, seagrass beds, and tall mangroves set amid extensive coral reefs — hosts rare and globally endangered marine life.
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea, on the border of Jordan and Israel, is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. So salty that you can famously float in it and that no macroscopic organisms can survive in it. It was one of the world’s first health resorts (for Herod the Great) and has supplied a wide variety of products, from asphalt for Egyptian mummification to potash for fertilizers. However, it’s receding at an alarming rate.
Kilimanjaro is Africa’s tallest mountain and, as it’s a dormant volcano, the tallest free-standing, or non-massif, mountain in the world. Since Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller reached its summit in 1889, it has remained a popular climbing destination. It has also been the subject of many scientific studies because of its shrinking glaciers.
The Jeita Grotto is a series of karst caves in Lebanon that was inhabited in prehistoric times and is now a major cultural symbol of the nation, not to mention a practical one considering it supplies drinking water to over a million Lebanese people.
Masurian Lake District
This well-connected system of lakes (comprising over 2,000) in Poland is a popular European vacation spot. Connected by rivers and canals, the lakes form an extensive system of waterways surrounded by large forests and historic towns. It’s a great destination if you like water sports like sailing or windsurfing, as well as activities such as hiking, fishing, and kayaking.
The Sundarbans — mostly in Bangladesh, though partially in easterm India — is one of the world’s largest tidal mangrove forests, and it’s famous for also being one of the largest Bengal tiger reserves. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987 on the Indian side and 1997 on the Bangladesh side, it covers 140,000 hectares and is home to a wide range of wild fauna, including 260 bird species and other threatened species, such as the estuarine crocodile and Indian python.
Kudos to the Maldives for getting the entire country on the list. The Maldives is a series of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, and if climate change raises sea levels by even a little bit, it will no longer exist — the nation’s highest point is only about seven feet and 10 inches off the water (it’s the world’s lowest country). Its waters are home to several ecosystems, including 187 species of vibrant hard coral. This area of the Indian Ocean alone houses 1,100 species of fish, five species of sea turtles, 21 species of whales and dolphins, 400 species of mollusks, and 83 species of echinoderms.
The world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall (at 3,212 feet) is in the jungles of Venezuela. It was not known to the outside world until American aviator Jimmie Angel, following directions given by the explorer Félix Cardona who had seen the waterfall six years before, flew over Angel Falls on November 16, 1933. The falls are named after him.
Bay of Fundy
Canada’s Bay of Fundy is famous for having the highest tidal ranges in the world, with an incredible maximum of 53 feet (though the highest water level ever recorded was a whopping 71 feet in 1869). It’s also a popular whale-watching destination — 12 species of whales, including the rare right whale, call the Bay of Fundy home each summer and fall.
The Black Forest
Germany’s famous Black Forest is famously dense and dark, but it’s also home to the cuckoo clock, charming little towns, and fairytale castles. It’s the place where Hansel and Gretel had their encounter with the witch and where Little Red Riding Hood was followed by the wolf.
The Cliffs of Moher
Western Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher are one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. And for good reason. The cliffs hug the Atlantic Ocean for roughly five miles and, at their tallest, tower around 700 feet over the sea. Not just popular with people, the Cliffs of Moher also provide a habitat for more than 20 different types of seabirds, including puffins and peregrine falcons.
The Galapagos Islands
Among the natural wonders, the Galapagos Islands are perhaps most famous for their biological diversity, which informed Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection. Among the islands’ most iconic inhabitants are the giant tortoise, blue-footed booby, Galapagos albatross, Santa Fe land iguana, and Galapagos fur seal. Together, all of the species that visitors are most eager to see are known as the Big 15, a play on Africa’s Big Five safari animals.
Rudyard Kipling called this fiord on New Zealand’s South Island the “eighth wonder of the world.” To see it for yourself, venture out to the northernmost part of Fiordland National Park. While there, snap a photo of the nation’s famous Mitre Peak, conveniently located on the shores of the sound.
Mud volcanoes of Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan is home to between 350 and 400 mud volcanoes, more than any other country in the world.
Australia’s Uluru (or Ayer’s Rock) ranks among the continent’s most recognizable natural wonders icons, rising up over the arid Red Centre near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The Anangu people, one of the oldest human societies in the world, are the traditional and current owners of Uluru.
As impressive as this Italian volcano near Naples is as a geographical landmark, Mount Vesuvius is most famous for its violent history, which includes the destruction of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum in 79 AD.
Our picks: Matador Network Natural Wonders
There are a few obvious choices which didn’t make any of the natural wonders’ lists above, so we’re throwing them in ourselves.
Yellowstone obviously has to be on here. The Yellowstone Caldera supervolcano and surrounding Yellowstone National Park represent one of the most striking landscapes in the world. Pictured above is the Grand Prismatic Spring.
The Sahara Desert
The Sahara is the world’s hottest desert, having been known to reach temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, and it’s the largest desert outside the polar regions. It spans most of northern Africa, stretching across 10 countries and the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
Salar de Uyuni
Bolivia’s salt flat is the world’s largest. During the rainy season, water collects on the ground creating a mirror-like effect, giving photographers something extra surreal to capture. You can read the legend behind this and other natural wonders here.
Pando is a tree colony spread across more than 100 acres in Utah that’s actually a single organism, the largest in the world. It weighs around 13 million pounds and is also one of the oldest organisms on the planet. Unfortunately, the extensive quaking aspen grove is dying due to grazing wildlife and human encroachment.
Giant’s Causeway is a group of some 40,000 basalt columns in Northern Ireland that’s believed to be about 50-60 million years old.
The stunning sandstone pillars of Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area’s Zhangjiajie looks like it belongs on Avatar’s Pandora rather than Earth. Luckily, visitors only have to travel as far as China’s Hunan Province to see this spectacular natural wonder for themselves.
This article about natural wonders was first published in 2014 and updated on July 18, 2019.