Mother Nature is responsible for some of the most incredible natural phenomena you’ll ever see, and much of it doesn’t cost a dime to experience. From the U.S. to Antarctica and all points in between, you can find natural wonders that will blow your mind — and won't blow your budget.
1. The Grand Canyon in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Grand Canyon is a mile-deep canyon that runs through the middle of Grand Canyon National Park and spans 10 miles. You must pay for a pass to enter the park, but there are still things you can do at the Grand Canyon without spending money.
You can visit Grand Canyon Village for free. To get around, take advantage of the complimentary shuttle bus, and view the wonder from Yavapai Point, one of the best vantage points, according to Frommer’s. While you’re in the village, check out Hopi House, a traditional Hopi crafts studio.
Hike Bright Angel Trail for free, and take in the sights from Plateau Point or hike the North Kaibab Trail, which leads to the Colorado River. You can also see Havasu Falls, billed as one of the prettiest sites in the canyon, free of charge.
2. Frozen Methane Bubbles Under Abraham Lake in Alberta, Canada
They say there's always more than meets the eye — and in Canada, one of the coolest phenomenon is buried way below the surface. Look closely at Abraham Lake when it’s frozen in January and February, and try to guess what’s under it. Aliens? Nope. They’re methane bubbles lodged in the ice.
Here’s the scoop on those weird-looking bubbles: Deep in the mud at the bottom of the lake, bacteria feast on dead plants and other matter. The bacteria release methane gas, which bubbles up and gets trapped beneath the ice.
If you’re at the lake, take advantage of the free stuff to do in the surrounding area — hiking and ice climbing are two options. Whatever you do, don’t forget your long johns.
3. Blood Falls in Antarctica
Why would anyone want to miss falls that look like they’re gushing blood? If you get to Antarctica, visit its McMurdo Dry Valleys and watch the falls spill out from Taylor Glacier.
You might wonder what makes the falls run red. Scientists originally thought the color resulted from red algae in the water, but when researchers went below the glacier to solve the mystery, they found that the sub-glacial rivers and lakes contain brine with a high iron content that creates the color. The brine level accounts for why the falls never freeze.
4. Sailing Stones in Death Valley, Calif.
You’ve likely heard of Death Valley, Calif., due to its reputation for being the hottest place on earth. But the real draw for natural-wonder enthusiasts is the Racetrack Playa, where rocks move along the ground on their own. Whether they weigh a few ounces or hundreds of pounds, the rocks leave trails when they “sail” around the playa. No one knew why this happens until 2014, when scientists monitoring the rocks discovered that that thin sheets of ice floating in the playa push the rocks through the mud as the ice breaks up and moves across the water.
While you’re in Death Valley, check out Dante’s View and take in the panoramic views of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Entrance to the park is free on the following days in 2017:
- Jan. 16 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- Feb. 20 – Presidents’ Day
- April 15-16 and April 22-23 – National Park Week weekends
- Aug. 25-27 – National Park Service’s Birthday
- Sept. 30 – National Public Lands Day
- Nov. 11-12 – Veterans Day Weekend
5. Kawah Ijen Lake in Indonesia
Although most people picture volcano eruptions with red-hot magma, if you pay a visit to the Kawah Ijen Volcano on the island of Java, Indonesia at night, you might see it belch out sulfurous gas flames that burn electric blue. Then go back during the day to see the kilometer-wide Kawah Ijen Lake, which is filled with turquoise water thanks to its high acidity level and large concentration of dissolved metals.
The hot magma chamber below the lake’s surface leeches gases into the water — who would think anything so beautiful would be so toxic?
6. Hidden Beach in Mexico
West of Puerto Vallarta, at the mouth of Banderas Bay in the Marieta Islands, sits Playa del Amor, or the Hidden Beach, a natural wonder that looks like it came right out of “The Blue Lagoon.”
You can’t see Hidden Beach from the outside — you must swim or kayak through a water tunnel that connects it to the Pacific Ocean. No one lives on the Marieta Islands, but its wide array of marine wildlife and tropical-paradise feel draw large numbers of visitors.
Swim and snorkel to your heart’s content here, and enjoy bird watching for free. Hidden Beach is a protected nature reserve that features around 90 species of birds, including the Pacific Ocean’s largest population of the rare, blue-footed bobby, according to TravelPulse.
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7. Fairy Circles, Namibia
Fairy circles almost define the Namib Desert in Namibia. The circles stretch across 1,000 miles and consist of bare circles of dirt surrounded by tall grass. Rumors circulating about the circles claim they’re the result of everything from poisonous gases to an alien invasion.
Although termite nests are the latest explanation scientists offer for the fairy circles, not everyone agrees. Visit them yourself and see what you come up with.
8. Christmas Island’s Red Crabs Near Perth, Australia
Christmas Island lies in the Indian Ocean, northwest of Perth, Australia. At the beginning of the rainy season, which begins around October to December, according to Parks Australia, you can see the spectacular sight of massive numbers of red crabs migrating to the island. The red crabs of Christmas Island exist nowhere but here, and tens of millions of them call the island home.
You can find other free things to do on Christmas Island, such as explore its National Park, which accounts for approximately 63 percent of the island, according to Parks Australia. You’ll find rare plants, rainforest, beaches, birds and other wildlife, caves, waterfalls and freshwater streams.
9. Underwater Crop Circles on Japan’s Southern Coast
In 1995, these underwater crop circles were discovered off the southern coast of Japan. Their origin remained a mystery until 2011, when scientists figured out that the circles are a result of male pufferfish looking to mate. A group of them get together and use their fins to dig valleys and create elaborate circles, which attract female pufferfish. The males put together a nice nest to welcome the females, and they even decorate their circles with pieces of coral and shell.
Lucky deep-sea divers might catch a glimpse of these circles around 100 feet below the surface.
10. Moeraki Boulders in New Zealand
You’ll find the large, round Moeraki Boulders on Koekohe Beach near Moeraki, on the Otago coast of New Zealand. The boulders, which have been exposed by shoreline erosion from coastal cliffs, are thought to have formed around 60 million years ago, and they can weigh several tons.
Go during the morning or late afternoon for the best photo ops. And while you’re on the Otago coast, check out the free Otago Museum, which showcases a planetarium and laser-activated digital gallery.
11. Sardine Run, South Africa
Millions of sardines migrate along the African coast, from Cape Point to the northeastern cape. The mass of sardines is called a shoal, and it stretches as long as 15 km., as deep as 30 meters, and as wide as 7 km.
See the sardines and you’ll also catch their predators in action: Birds, sharks, whales, dolphins, you name it — all come to feast on the tasty tidbits. You typically can see the sardine shoals between June and July.
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12. Tidal Bore on the Amazon River in Brazil
Once a year during spring, the Atlantic Ocean sends one enormous wave all the way down the Amazon River and its tributaries — and surfers come from all over the world to play in it. Known as a tidal bore, the wave can grow to 15 feet high when it comes during high tide in Brazil’s rainy season, and it can measure hundreds of miles in length.
Surfers have reported riding the wave for more than an hour, but that’s not all they have to focus on. The surfers must brave the creatures that live in the rainforest they cut through to get to the water, and then contend with piranhas and other creatures found in the river itself.
13. Flowering Desert in the Atacama Desert, Chile
Every five to seven years, the Atacama Desert in Chile gets some intense rain that turns its dry landscape into a flowering paradise where more than 200 plant species blanket the desert. Sure, you’re taking your chances if you travel here just to see the flowers, but there's plenty to do — for free — if you happen to miss them.
Don’t miss Moon Valley, an area that looks like the moon’s surface, thanks to its natural stone and sand formations. Also make sure you check out Cordillera de la Sal, known as the Salt Mountains, which contain large amounts of calcium sulfate that makes the mountains look as though they’ve been sprinkled with salt.
14. Spotted Lake in British Columbia
More than 300 pools inundated with highly concentrated minerals make up Kliluk, or Spotted Lake, which lies in British Columbia’s desert, between the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.
The minerals that make up the water include calcium, magnesium sulfate, sodium sulfates, and titanium and silver. During the summer, the water in the lake evaporates, leaving behind spots from crystallized minerals. First Nations people in Canada and the U.S. consider the lake sacred, as evidenced by rock piles called cairns that suggest burial sites.
15. Bioluminescent Waves in Maldives
If you’ve never seen the ocean lit up at night like a sky full of stars, head to the Maldives and check out the bioluminescent beach, where waves glow bright green and blue. The effect comes from bioluminescent plankton that live in the water.
What looks like a peaceful, starry ocean is really the plankton protecting themselves. They use their bioluminescence to attract predators and catch them off-guard. The plankton can show up any time, but your best bet to see this phenomenon is between mid-summer and winter.
Before you head out to wave-watch, wander over to the Male' Fish Market to see the fisherman pull up to the docks and unload their catches. Or visit the historic Old Friday Mosque, which was built in 1656, and step inside to see the beautiful interior’s wood inlays and impeccable work. Both attractions are free, but you’ll need permission to visit the mosque if you’re non-Muslim.
16. Snow Chimneys on Mt. Erebus in Antarctica
Mt. Erebus is Antarctica’s most active volcano, and it’s paired with a 1,700-degree Fahrenheit lava lake, one of only five lava lakes in the world. Mt. Erebus’ frosty exterior features ice caves created by escaping gases that push through the caves and into the open to form chimneys of ice that can reach 60 feet in the air. The chimneys spew volcanic gas, creating a strange and wonderful geyser effect.
Proceed with caution when you visit the snow chimneys. Because Mt. Erebus is an active volcano, its gas releases volcanic rocks through the air on a regular basis.
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17. Thor’s Well in Yachats, Oregon
Thor’s Well — aka the drainpipe of the Pacific — looks like a huge hole that drains water from the ocean, swallowing the ocean water around it into in a seemingly bottomless pit. In reality, the pit is only about 20 feet deep. The waves come in from the bottom of the well, violently spray out, and then roll right back into the hole.
To see Thor’s Well at its best — or worst, depending on your point of view — go at high tide or during a storm. But be careful, lest sneaky waves sweep you into the hole or the rocks that surround it.
18. Devil’s Kettle in Minnesota
Head to Judge Magney State Park to see the large rock that divides the Brule River. Watch as the eastbound-flowing water plunges down a 50-foot cliff toward Lake Superior, then flows west and into a hole — and disappears. Welcome to Devil’s Kettle.
The longstanding mystery, which has stumped hikers and scientists seemingly forever, has finally been solved. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced in 2017 that the water that disappears into the rock actually resurfaces in the stream that lies beneath the waterfall. Even if the mystery has been solved, Devil’s Kettle is still quite a sight.
19. Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves in Juneau, Alaska
Stretching 13 miles, the Mendenhall Glacier is located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska. The federally protected glacier houses ice caves you can hike to — as long as you’re up for walking 3.5 miles each way. The hike should take from 2 hours to 3.5 hours in each direction. Be careful if you decide to brave it because the trail is unmarked in spots and can be dangerous.
Unfortunately, the glacier caves are melting due to increasing global temperatures. Go soon to avoid missing out on this natural phenomenon.
Juneau offers lots of free things to do and see. You can watch bald eagles in their natural habitat, fish for saltwater Dolly Varden, visit scenic natural areas, and attend free, fireside lectures on local wildlife at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
20. Gravity Hill in New Paris, Pa.
What goes up must come down, right? Well, not necessarily. On Gravity Hill, cars roll up hills and water doesn’t flow the right way. Located in a remote corner of Bedford County, Pa., this attraction defies Newton's law of gravity.
Follow Gravity Hill etiquette when you visit this natural wonder. The Gravity Hill website asks that visitors check their rearview mirrors before going backwards down the hill, and let other drives pass, among other courtesies.