Mordor is more colorful than you'd think. While the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy featured the slopes of the perfect cinder cone Mt. Ngaurahoe as Mount Doom and its surrounding volcanic fields as the Black Land, much of the rest of New Zealand's thermal region sports colors more apropos to a bushel of gems. The Waikato River outside of Taupo flows turquoise through Huka Falls, and at Wai-O-Tapu, lakes come in colors like lime green and teal with an ochre fringe.
With 4,000 square miles and 10 billion tons of salt, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. Hills in the distance appear to float, the horizon acting as a giant mirror. Tourists roam its crystalline expanse in jeeps, taking pictures of themselves getting squished by a friend’s giant foot or popping out of a Coca-Cola bottle, using the featureless flats like a blue screen set. The best time to visit is between March and May when the flats are free of water but are not yet freezing. Tours are one or three days long; try to find a group of people you like, since you’ll be six people in the back of a jeep. Book tours in La Paz or Uyuni itself; they’re all the same.
Li River Valley, China
Chinese artists regularly depict scenes set against rounded, knobby mountains like giant stone haystacks, but everyone knows those don’t exist—except in China. The Li River Valley in the Yangshuo region is home to what geologists call tower karst, forested limestone pillars that erode from without and within, feeding the Li River with countless waterfalls. Visitors explore the region by boat, bike, and scooter, taking in the rare landscape that is as foreign as the language spoken in it.
Skeleton Coast, Namibia
In Namibia, there is a desert where the sands sing and ships go to die. Called “The Land God Made in Anger” by the Namibian natives, the Skeleton Coast is one of the most arid places on Earth, seeing less than half an inch of rain a year. The region is named for the whalebones that littered the shore in the whaling era, but still applies to the thousand-plus shipwrecks that litter the shore, foundered in fog and heavy surf. Still, its looming ochre dunes are among the most picturesque in the world, trod only by oryx, desert elephants and a few hardy travelers.
Western Highlands, Scotland
Although its latitude is about on par with Moscow, Scotland has an average temperature more in line with Georgia—as in Atlanta. Its unique climate has given rise to mountains that reach not much higher than New York’s Catskills, but that are as craggy and barren as parts of the Rockies. With misty, brooding lochs and sun that often appears in isolated rays fanning through the clouds, the landscape is bleak, but it is a bleakness that tugs at your soul. The jewel in the crown of the West Coast is the Isle of Skye, but lesser-known islands and lochs are worth visiting as well.
Visit central Turkey, and you will believe in fairies—or at least their dwellings. Cappadocia is a land of natural spires, called fairy chimneys by the Turks, formed by flimsy volcanic ash protected by capstones of basalt. Despite the name, the dwellings carved into the cliff- and spire-sides were built first by ancient peoples with Flintstone-like aesthetics, and later early Christians and then Byzantines, who constructed monasteries and churches complete with frescoes that can still be viewed today.
Tepui (Tabletop) Mountains, Venezuela
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World" actually exists. The book was inspired by a report about Venezuela's tepui mountains, massive tables of stone that rise thousands of feet from the jungle with almost sheer edges. The difficulty of reaching the plateaus and their distinct climate has over the millennia created unique, unclassified flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. Although the climbs are rough, travelers can be happy that Conan Doyle was wrong on one account: no dinosaurs. Mount Roraima is the most commonly accessed of the tepui. Hire a guide in Paraitepui; the hike takes five days.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Some landscapes are born beautiful; others, like Inle Lake in Myanmar, are made that way by man. Located in the hills of the Shan State northeast of the capital Inle Lake is a continual depository of silt from the encompassing hills, keeping it uniformly shallow. The Shan people have built their settlements around the lake, but also on it, constructing floating gardens of weeds and entire villages on teak stilts. Buddhist stupas glint gold on the surrounding hilltops as villagers exchange goods from boat to boat, one carrying a load of Inle carp and the other bushels of rice. For the tourist floating by, the experience is as transcendent as any mountaintop.
Redwood National Park, United States
It is one thing to be dwarfed by stone, formed and sculpted over millions of years. It is another to feel the same in the presence of living organisms that exist on the same scale. Giant redwoods still cover hundreds of square miles of California's coast, reaching up to nearly 400 feet and 2,000 years of age. The first branches begin at about 250 feet and are often shrouded in mist, making the experience of walking between the trees rather like that of a bug scuttling through the legs of humans. But unlike bugs we have cars—the Redwoods are easily accessible along California's famous Highway 101.
Although Mt. Sinai is only a few hundred miles off, it is the stones of Petra that appear to burn and burn without burning up. The scarlet sandstone of the Rose-Red City is streaked with whites and purples and yellows in patterns that evoke flickering flames. The approach to the city is through a narrow gorge with 600-foot walls that open up into the larger canyon, and the hikes all over the site are littered with fantastic rock patterns of dripping, bursting, and dancing color. And, oh yeah, the 2,500-year-old Nabataean city carved into the cliff face is pretty cool, too.