Humankind has created some remarkable masterworks, from the Great Pyramid of Giza to the Eiffel Tower; we’re a crafty, creative, and ambitious animal, intent on making our mark–and reflecting our wonder at the cosmos–through grand manipulations of stone, wood, and steel. Yet when we talk about truly breathtaking sights, our minds tend to drift not to colossal buildings or lavish pleasure gardens but to the Earth’s own wild sculptures. Snow-robed mountains, vast sheets of sand, abyss-deep canyons, belching mudpots, psychedelic coral reefs–the planet costumes itself with staggering variety, and does so on scales of space and time that we can barely wrap our heads around.
It’s astonishing enough to imagine the logistics of the Brooklyn Bridge’s assembly; it’s all the more so to imagine the titanic work accomplished by relentlessly dripping water or the sluggish and cyclical creep of ice across the eons.
Here are five of the most breathtaking locales on Planet Earth–five places that remind you of the great elemental forces at work in the universe, and of your kinship with all of them.
1. The Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia)
As Alaska is to the United States, so Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula is to Russia. This geologically tumultuous place, with its soaring volcanoes and sulfurous hot springs, is one of those special spots where Earth seems to have pulled out all the stops to demonstrate some indomitable wild energy.
That wild energy comes in many forms, most splendidly in the realm of the geological and biological. Kamchatka is a major landmark of the Pacific Ring of Fire, that violent zone of tectonic drama and extensive volcanism encircling the Pacific Basin. The peninsula boasts hundreds of volcanoes, most extinct or dormant, but more than two dozen of active status. Among them is one of the world’s most beautiful cones: 11,572-foot Kronotsky, as exquisitely symmetrical as nearly any stratovolcano in the world. Biggest is Klyuchevskaya Sopka, another composite volcano that, soaring to 15,584 feet, is the continent’s loftiest active fire mountain.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by water (the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea), and those grand volcanoes milk plenty of precipitation from the moist air coming off the nearby ocean. Higher elevations support alpine glaciers, making Kamchatka one of the great sites on the planet to see ice and volcanic fire dramatically mingle. Adding to the geological splendor are plentiful geothermal springs and geysers, steaming and spouting in the shadow of snow-streaked mountains.
Some of the world’s biggest brown bears (exceeded in size only by southern Alaska’s titans) roam Kamchatka in primeval profusion. Indeed, the peninsula seems to specialize in outstanding megafauna: There are also three species of native eagles, most notably the huge Steller’s sea eagle that exists here in its greatest numbers.