18 Surreal Alien-Like Destinations Bursting With Color
I mean, don’t we all kind of wish we could escape to Mars right now?
Trekking around rust-colored landscapes, geologic formations, and geothermal activity can create an uncanny feeling of being transported to another planet. And lately, after being pummeled with a steady stream of negative news, I’ve heard a lot of people saying they’d like to escape Earth. So here’s your risk-free eject button: You can explore these out-of-this-world places without actually giving up your spot on this planet (and without even leaving your seat)—no rose-colored glasses required.
The Grand Canyon is a given but it’s certainly not the only place you’ll find rust-colored rock formations. Hike—and, in some spots, scramble—up to Devil’s Bridge in Sedona or take a Navajo-guided jeep tour in the presence of massive sandstone buttes at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (also known as Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii , the Navajo name meaning “Valley of the Rocks”), a preserve that straddles the Arizona and Utah border. Or, if you’d like to take your time traveling through otherworldly stone-scapes, consider trekking the 800-mile Arizona Trail —the northern terminus is a red rock slot canyon hot spot within close proximity to Vermilion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes, The Wave, and other famous formations.
Australia’s outback is arguably one of the best places on the planet to experience out-of-this-world erubescent landscapes. And the abundance of Great Walks means you’ll be spoiled for choice. Go glamping on an Arkaba Walk through the sandstone bluffs of Flinders Ranges with Wild Bush Luxury. Hit some of the Northern Territory’s “Red Centre” sepia-hued highlights such as Simpson’s Gap on the Larapinta Trail. Or book a guided walking tour around the base of Uluru and learn from local Anangu Aboriginal people about the significance of this iconic and sacred sandstone formation.
For those interested in experiencing the crimson and coral-colored outback but are unable to hike, consider booking a tour by plane or train. Take flight with Chinta Tours over Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Range. Or cruise the length of the country with a romantic ride aboard the Ghan Train that includes off-train excursions at scarlet-y sites such as Uluru, Nitmiluk Gorge, and the quirky underground town, Coober Pedy.
Experience a bit of heaven—and Mars—on Earth with a visit to the Atacama Desert. Sandboard the dunes near the weathered Salt Mountains of Death Valley, also known as the “Valley of Mars” for their color and crag variations, by day. And escape into the stars by night; the lack of light and generally dry, clear skies create stellar conditions for stargazing in the Atacama Desert. You can stay immersed in the Atacama even when you return to your room at the Tierra Atacama, a family-owned and run boutique lodge inspired by and built in harmony with its natural surrounds.
Commune with the spirits of nature and spires of sandstone on a hike through the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. Climb your way to the top for the best views over the park. Or rock out with a live show at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater, an open-air concert venue built into a stone structure, located just 10 miles outside Denver.
Active volcanoes, hot springs, sulfur formations, salt-encrusted basins, and lava flows make for some very colorful, alien-esque scenery in northeastern Ethiopia. The Danakil Depression has an otherworldly beauty unlike any other. As numerous ancient fossils have been found in the region, this area of Ethiopia is believed by some to be the “cradle of humanity.” It’s also the hottest place on the planet, so you might not want to stay too long. Both Kirban Tours Ethiopia and Wild Frontiers can arrange group or private excursions to the Danakil Depression combined with other cultural and historical activities in Ethiopia.
Lukas Bischoff Photograph/Shutterstock
Say Aloha to the technicolor landscapes of Hawaii. As its name implies, Kauai’s Waimea Canyon (Waimea means “reddish water” in Hawaiian) boasts rust-colored crags, gorges, and jungle-covered buttes that earned it the nickname “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” On Maui, explore the geologic history and enchanting colors of Pele’s Paint Pot with a hike at the now-dormant volcano, Haleakala. If you hike the Mauna Loa Observatory trail on the Big Island, you might believe you’ve arrived on Mars. (Of course, if it’s lightheadedness you’re feeling, that could be the effects of the altitude—do prepare for the elevation change!)
The Land of Fire and Ice has numerous flame-red landscapes and rock formations to explore. On Reykjanes Peninsula, geothermal activity has created the steam vents and mud pools of Gunnuhver and Krýsuvík that you can reach by car from Reykjavik. Join Hidden Iceland’s Lava Tunnel tour to explore the Reykjanes Peninsula geothermal fields and then journey inside Raufarhólshellir, a ruddy lava tube that was still red hot when air rushed in and rusted the rock. Over in East Iceland, a hike to Hengifoss waterfall reveals red layers in the lava strata.
Matt Damon went to Mars on Earth and you can, too. The Martian movie was filmed in Wadi Rum, Jordan’s protected desert preserve of sweeping dunes punctuated by majestic pink sandstone rock formations. Explore on foot to get a true sense of the immensity, but do bring along a local guide or book an organized tour—it’s easy to lose your bearings and sense of time and distance in this vast space.
New desert camps in Wadi Rum are rapidly popping up and established ones are expanding. Jordan’s growing popularity may mean the days of escaping into the desert for solitude are dwindling. You can still get a deeper experience in the desert by choosing your tour operator wisely (hint: look for an operator that cares about the natural environment and culture, such as Experience Jordan and Engaging Cultures), wild camping in a more remote area with Discover Jordan, and arranging unique activities with local experts such as an astrotourism journey, rock climbing with TREKS, or a female-focused trip with Intrepid Travel.
Rust-red rock formations take peculiar shape at Tsingy Rouge Park—some point up toward the sky while others seem to drip down or slither along the ground. It’s said that seeing is believing, but when you encounter this surreal rockscape we wouldn’t blame you if you broke into Bohemian Rhapsody , questioning if this is real life or if it’s just fantasy. Book a trip and find out. Madagascar Classic Collection can include a visit to Tsingy Rouge Park on a tailor-made trip to Madagascar.
Although you may not discover any signs of dinosaurs here, paleontologists did about one hundred years ago when they found dinosaur eggs and bones in Bayanzag. Instead, you will find the incredible orange and red Flaming Cliffs in this area of the Gobi Desert. A stop at Bayanzag is included as part of Wild Frontiers’ two-week-long Mongolia: Land of the Great Khan trip.
While Oregon is known for its lush, forested landscapes, the Painted Hills prove it has some other colors in its palette. Part of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the Painted Hills, located about an hour northeast of Central Oregon, is considered one of the state’s “Seven Natural Wonders.”
It can feel like time stops and space is endless when you’re immersed in the Namib Desert. Climb Big Daddy sand dune before dawn or take flight in a hot air balloon at sunrise so you can soak up the rust-red desert from above. Go on a walking safari or photograph the eerily lovely Deadvlei, an iconic group of fossilized trees standing against the startling red backdrop of the dunes. Then stargaze to your astro-adoring heart’s content—NamibRand Nature Reserve was declared an official dark sky reserve by the International Dark Sky Association.
Badlands National Park in South Dakota was originally named “Mako Sica,” meaning “bad land” in Lakota. While the terrain was no doubt difficult to traverse in the past, the scenery is all good: pinnacles, buttes, canyons, and mounds in shades of red, yellow, grey, and green. Created by a sea that spanned the Great Plains more than 60 million years ago, the Badlands is one of the richest fossils beds in the world and is now home to bison and bighorn sheep. Visitors can bike, hike, and climb through the rich geologic history and extraterrestrial-seeming scenery.
Visit the volcanic terrains of Teide National Park in Tenerife, where you’ll find craters, petrified lava rivers, geological formations, and layers of multicolored sand as well as Mount Teide, Spain’s tallest mountain, at the center of it all. You can trek to the summit or hitch a ride on the cable car for panoramic views of the colorful of-another-planet surrounding area.
Made from layers of clay, volcanic ash, sandstone, and basalt, the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia come in shades of grey, yellow, and red that seem to change in the sunlight. If you’re a morning person, hop in a hot air balloon at sunrise. Or, if sunset is more your speed, take an afternoon hike through the Red Valley and watch the colors of the fantastical landscape glow and shift before your eyes. Hike’n Sail Travel, a locally-run adventure travel company, can lead you on a guided tour through Cappadocia (including a cave hotel stay) and hit some of the other highlights of Turkey in Istanbul and Ephesus.
The Yangikala Canyon is like colorful M.C. Escher art come to life. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about go look at Escher’s lithograph called Relativity .) Trekking around the layers of oddly-shaped red, green, and white rocks—once a seabed—can make you feel like you’ve lost touch with reality and are unsure which way is up and whether you’ve stepped off the Earth into another world.
Films of the Wild West, space exploration, and, yes, Forrest Gump have made Utah’s red rocks their backdrop. But seeing them on the big screen is nothing like IRL. There are so many slot canyons and red rockin’ wonders, it’s a challenge to choose. San Juan County—Utah’s Canyon Country—is a great place to start. The banded spires of the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in San Juan County create a distinctly striking scene. Author Edward Abbey called Canyonlands “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth.” He’s not wrong. Bryce Canyon National Park is another Utah favorite, famous for its amphitheaters of multi-colored hoodoos. Or head for The Toadstools —mushroom-shaped, martian-looking sandstone formations that are easily accessed by a short hike (just over 1.5 miles round trip) from Highway 89.