Natural Wonders

These are awe-inspiring postcards come to life, begging to be visited and preserved for future generations.
By: Jessica Behrens

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Nature's wonder reveals itself in many different shapes and sizes, from mountain peaks penetrating the clouds to tiny rainbow-colored fish weaving between coral reefs. Although the natural world surrounds us, it often takes a back seat to sprawling steel buildings and concrete highways. Fortunately, there are still some places where we can leave our material concerns behind and marvel at life forces and forms beyond our construction and control. These experiences may bring you closer to that sense of the "bigger picture" you always heard about but never quite knew where to find.

Glaciers and Icebergs, Greenland
Combine the world's largest island with a total population of only 55,000 and Greenland provides the perfect backdrop for a true bonding experience with nature. Rent a kayak, originally invented by hunters here, and row arctic waters past towering icebergs and glaciers. The waters provide a home to many whale species, including humpbacks with tails up to 16 feet wide. Outdoor excursion opportunities abound, from mountain climbing to hiking and angling -- just be sure to bundle up! Temperatures range from 20 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and much colder in the winter. Experience round-the-clock daylight during the arctic summer or watch the Northern Lights paint dazzling colors across the dark autumn skies.

Emerald Landscape, Ireland
Though all of Ireland's landscape is stunning, the southwest region shows visitors at first glance why this is called the Emerald Isle. Lush green pastures stretch as far as the eye can see, and the colorful hills are cut with winding streams. The Lakes of Killarney offer some of the most refreshing natural scenery in the south, which can best be explored by bike or on foot. Take the time to visit the picturesque small towns and villages, like Adare and Kinsale, whose charm and tranquillity will soothe the soul.

Mt. Everest, Nepal
The Sherpas and Tibetans worship Everest as Chomolongma, or "Mother Goddess of the Earth." Luckily you don't need to actually climb the 29,000 feet to the "Top of the World" to experience its magnificence and the beauty of the surrounding valleys and forests. The options of adventuring here are endless; trek or bike the breathtaking foothills and parks, raft or kayak the thundering Himalayan rivers or get a birds-eye view from a balloon or hang glider. The Everest region is truly an adventure seeker's haven.

Redwood National Park, California
Visitors here cannot help but feel awestruck by the unbelievable enormity of the coast redwoods, the tallest and oldest trees on earth. The tallest redwood on record, known simply as "the Tall Tree," is 600 years old and stands more than 350 feet. These majestic examples of nature, which can only be found in California and Oregon, take 400 years to mature and can live to be 2,000-plus years old. Emerging from the darkened paths on foot, bike or horseback, visitors may be shocked to find it is still daylight, and still the 21st century, in a place where time seems to stand still.

Desert Sand Dunes, South Africa
The southern states of Africa have been the most successful in not only conserving its diverse wildlife, but also in offering visitors the privacy and isolation of intimate camps apart from the mass tourism more common in the north. You'll surely want to plan a safari in one of these regions where more than 90% of the continent's rhinos and the largest herds of elephants can be found. Africa's stunning landscape of coastal cliffs, enormous desert sand dunes and magnificent waterfalls have been shaped by over four billion years of geological activity.

Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho
More than 1,000 miles of backcountry hiking trails through Yellowstone lead travelers to pristine areas rich with extraordinary wildlife and steaming, bubbling hot springs. Your chances at spotting an endangered grizzly or elk are pretty good -- the park is home to the largest elk herd in North America and one of two grizzly bear populations. You'll no doubt leave with everlasting images of the grand sweep of the rugged Teton mountain range and nature's fireworks leaping from the geysers.

Gran Sabana, Venezuela
Located within Canaima, a national park the size of Belgium, Gran Sabana is the plateau region between Venezuela and Brazil. The hauntingly beautiful landscape is dominated by the unique "tepuyes" -- flat-topped mountains with steep vertical walls. Tours by jeep and canoe are popular ways of seeing the most scenic spots, but to get the full experience, guided walking tours are the way to go. The dense jungles house exotic plant life, some 20,000 species of orchid alone, and several species of endangered animals, including jaguars and giant armadillos. The rock is some of the oldest on Earth, dating back two billion years, making it one of the nine most ancient geological regions of the world.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef's vibrant coral and fish form an underwater tropical paradise that promises the best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world. Spanning more than 1,200 miles of crystal waters along the coastline, the reef system is the largest and healthiest anywhere. Its isolation from the mainland will put you one-on-one with marine life, seemingly cut off from human contact. Australia offers countless other natural gems in the raw wilderness of its outback, so after exploring the depths of the sea, you can hop in a four-wheel drive and adventure in a totally different world.

Diverse Ecosystem, Costa Rica
Thanks to the biological influences of neighboring North and South America and the Pacific and Caribbean oceans, this small mountainous country is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Thousands of miles of roads and nature trails make it easy to experience the wide spectrum of habitats, from steaming volcanoes to the cloud-shrouded jungles and deserted beaches. A model National Conservation System protects Costa Rica's invaluable natural heritage, including 9,000 different kinds of flowering plants and more species of birds than in the United States, Canada and northern Mexico combined.

Galapagos Islands
A trip to these enchanted islands puts humans in a unique and humbling second-place position to the untamed plant and animal life. Here we are mere visitors to the inhabitants of the protected national park that covers 97% of the land area. The islands were named after the giant tortoises that bask boldly on the sandy beaches and mingle with their reptilian brethren, most notably the marine iguana -- the only aquatic iguana in the world. Birds are the most diverse and abundant on the islands, many having evolved into unique species that can only be found here.

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