Seven Natural Phenomena Worth Traveling For

You need to be in the right place at the right time to see these celestial and earthly wonders

Eternal Flame Falls
This small, bucolic waterfall in Western New York has one highly photogenic feature: a grotto lit by a dancing orange flame. Gregory Pleau/ Images

Cleveland. Tromso, Norway. Gibbon, Nebraska. Rural Queensland, Australia. What do these far-flung locations have in common? They’re sites of some of the world’s most spectacular natural phenomena to witness.

These seven must-see marvels include an epic eclipse, a dazzling floral display, a massive bird migration, and a wild whirlpool that’s inspired poetry and prose for nearly a millennium. For many of these phenomena, the charm is in the ephemerality. You can visit Paris or Disney World or the beaches of Cancún any time, but Britain’s bluebells only bloom once a year, and the next total eclipse in the continental United States won’t be for several decades.

The Great American Eclipse

boy watches 2017 total solar eclipse
A boy watches the total solar eclipse through protective glasses in Madras, Oregon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2017. NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

On April 8, a total solar eclipse will cut a path diagonally across the United States, from southern Texas to northeastern Maine, plunging a spring afternoon into eerie darkness. Totality will last for a maximum of 4 minutes and 28 seconds, decreasing as the eclipse moves northeast. Eclipse-watchers are already snapping up hotel rooms and Airbnbs in cities along the path, from Austin to Little Rock to Cleveland to Buffalo to Burlington, Vermont. Eclipse glasses—a must for safe viewing—will likely skyrocket in price as the event nears, so get yours now. If you don’t catch this eclipse, your next chance for totality in the Lower 48 is 2044.

“It’s an event unlike anything else that you will ever witness,” says Jeff Rich, an astronomer and outreach coordinator at the Carnegie Observatories, in a video. “It’s a real surreal feeling.”

Extra-dramatic northern lights

the night sky illuminated by Northern Lights
The earliest known record of the northern lights dates back to around 679-655 B.C.E., when Assyrian astronomers documented an aurora on cuneiform tablets. Stan Honda, Norway, 2015

Experts predict the dancing greens and purples of the northern lights will be at their most intense in two decades thanks to a solar maximum, or period of increased activity on the sun’s surface. This activity should make the northern lights (also known as the aurora borealis) more visible farther south than usual—possibly as far south as the 40th parallel north, which cuts through the northern United States. That means people in places like Northern California, Indiana and New Jersey could glimpse a celestial display. But the best places for viewing are still far-northern cities like Fairbanks, Alaska; Tromso, Norway; and Rovaniemi, Finland. The lights are typically strongest during the spring and fall equinoxes, in March and September. The University of Alaska’s Aurora Forecast offers more tailored predictions.

Sandhill crane migration

Lots of birds flying in the sky
The birds gather by the thousands along the Platte River. Sarah Kuta

One of Earth’s largest migrations tends to fly (pun intended) under the radar, since it happens in the little-touristed Great Plains state of Nebraska. Every March, more than half a million sandhill cranes descend on Nebraska’s Platte River en route to their nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska—more than 80 percent of the world’s sandhill cranes use the same 75-mile stretch of river. The 2,900-acre Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Nebraska, offers guided sunrise and sunset tours, when the cranes’ elegant silhouettes fill the orange-pink skies and their chatter fills your ears. “The experience—maybe even 60 to 70 percent of it—is the sounds,” Bill Taddicken, then-director of the sanctuary, told the New York Times in 2017. “It sounds a lot like a football stadium when your favorite team scores a touchdown.”

Bluebell blooms

Bluebells in Wiltshire, England
Bluebells carpet a forest in Wiltshire, England. Charmian Perkins/Getty Images

In mid-spring, Britain’s forests burst forth with one of the most glorious and ephemeral natural phenomena: the bluebell bloom. A consolation prize for the nation’s soggy winters, the delicate violet flowers carpet woodlands across the island like a purple river. Said to be beloved by the fairies, the bluebells have a number of delightful nicknames: witches’ thimbles, lady’s nightcap, harebells, fairy flowers, crow’s toes. The Woodland Trust has a Bluebell Watch, which tracks the blooms as they unfurl across the country. But don’t pick them, the Woodland Trust warns: “If you are to pick a bluebell, many believe you will be led astray by fairies, wandering lost forevermore.”

Eternal Flame Falls

Seven Natural Phenomena Worth Traveling For
A close-up of the gas-lit flame below Eternal Flame Falls in Chestnut Ridge Park Mpmajewski via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

This small, bucolic waterfall in Western New York has one highly photogenic feature: a grotto lit by a dancing orange flame. The flame, which is about eight inches high, is fueled by natural gas seeping from deep underground. Researchers at Indiana University studying the flame believe the gas originates from the Rhinestreet Shale, a formation dating to the Upper Devonian period, some 380 million years ago. The gas reaches the surface, a quarter-mile above, through cracks created by tectonic activity. The flame is visible year-round, but sometimes it must be re-lit (so bring a lighter or matches). Find the falls in Chestnut Ridge Park, in the suburbs of Buffalo, where it’s accessible via a half-mile trail. The nicest time to visit is autumn, when the leaves are golden and rain less likely.

Morning Glory clouds

Morning glory cloud
A morning glory cloud formation between Burketown and Normanton, Australia Mick Petroff via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the world’s rarest and most spectacular cloud formations can be seen between September and November above Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. The Morning Glory is a long, tube-shaped cloud, cutting across the sky for as far as 62 miles. It typically forms in the morning during the tail end of the region’s dry season, and it is often followed by thunderstorms. The Morning Glory attracts photographers as well as glider pilots, who “surf” the wave’s strong updrafts. The most popular place for cloud-spotting is the tiny, isolated outback town of Burketown, population 238, in Queensland.

For the area’s Indigenous Gangalidda and Garawa peoples, the cloud has cultural and spiritual significance; they believe it is a source of energy that carries the spirits of their ancestors. It’s also an indicator of weather shifting from dry to wet. “It signifies a change in us for our fire practice,” Gangalidda community leader Murrandoo Yanner told the Australian Broadcasting Company. “We can start burning.”

The Moskstraumen whirlpools

Moskstraumen whirlpool
Moskstraumen whirlpool Hopfenpflücker via Wikipedia under CC BY-SA 3.0

At the southern tip of Norway’s Lofoten archipelago, a beast emerges from the ocean every summer. The Moskstraumen is a maelstrom, or system of powerful whirlpools, in this case as wide as 160 feet, creating ripples that make the sea seem to boil. Formed by winds and the area’s underwater topography, it’s been the subject of odes since the days of Old Norse poets, inspiring writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Jules Verne. The best time to see the Moskstraumen is July and August, when the whirlpool is strongest. Local tour companies offer maelstrom sightseeing boats, complete with survival suits.

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