Technically speaking, there isn’t a place on Earth untouched by humankind. After all, people have been wandering across the surface of the planet for more than 200,000 years. There are, however, a handful of very special places so pristine and remote that they’re practically virgin territory. These areas share two things in common: challenging local conditions and astounding natural beauty.
10. Zhangjiajie, China
Ethereal and serene, the towering sky pillars of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China’s Hunan Province were an inspiration for the floating mountains in James Cameron’s spectacular 2010 sci-fi adventure Avatar. The formations are a designated UNESCO Global Geopark, and they rise to more than 3,500 feet above a morass of tangled foliage.
The pillars closely resemble karst scenery, though they’re made of quartz and sandstone rather than limestone. Their formation is, meanwhile, the result of physical erosion, not dissolution. Fortunately for us, though, the structures are increasingly on the tourist radar. In fact, China recently built the world’s longest glass bridge, which allows visitors to view them for an especially spectacular vantage point.
9. Dallol, Ethiopia
The harsh desert landscape of Dallol in northern Ethiopia is one of the hottest places on Earth: highs average 105 F, while the warmest month reaches a sweltering 116 F. This extraordinary place also has a distinctly Martian feel, as its dotted with pools of multi-colored water, foul-smelling sulfuric vents and brightly hued mineral deposits.
In fact, Dallol owes its alien appearance to the Dallol hydrothermal field – a volcanic area that periodically expels hot ash and steam. Still, the region is today largely abandoned. Its few visitors tend to be nomadic tribespeople or salt merchants, who get around on their trusty desert camels.
8. Tepuis, Venezuela
With sheer rock walls that defy easy exploration, the mystical tabletop mountains of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region are known to locals as “tepuis” – an indigenous Pemon word that means “house of the gods.” It’s an apt description, as the mountains date back to around 541 million years ago. Indeed, these giants of the savannah are some of the world’s oldest rock formations.
Rising to almost 10,000 feet above the tropical forests below, the summits are cool, rainy and frequently swathed in swirling blankets of mist. Plus, thanks to millennia of ecological isolation, they are also home to numerous endemic species. What’s more, Arthur Conan Doyle was so inspired by tepuis that he set his novel The Lost World on the top of one.
7. Rock Islands, Palau
An otherworldly labyrinth of more than 400 forested islets comprise the far-flung Rock Islands of Palau. Home to 385 coral types and 13 shark species, the islands are a complex ecological niche concealing more than 50 marine lakes. Indeed, they’re described by UNESCO as “natural laboratories” that provide insights into evolution and speciation.
However, the islands have not always been so natural and untouched – burial sites and cave art evidence more than 5,000 years of human occupation. In fact, the stone-built villages belonging to the islanders were only abandoned in the last 400 years. Thanks to nature’s restless work, though, the archipelago has now been restored to its untamed form.
6. Tsingy de Bemaraha, Madagascar
Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve has, according to UNESCO, “rare or eminently remarkable geological phenomena… of exceptional beauty.” Mind you, its name in Malagasy means “where one cannot walk barefoot.” Both descriptions are accurate, though – the “forest” of jagged limestone blades in the reserve is both stunning and inhospitable.
Formed by vertical and horizontal erosion, the Tsingys are part of a limestone plateau in northwest Madagascar. While no people live there, the reserve is home to 11 lemur species and numerous endemic amphibians and reptiles. Meanwhile, the surrounding terrain is an entrancing patchwork of lakes, canyons and mangrove swamps.
5. The Amazon Rainforest
Encompassing more than 50 percent of the Earth’s remaining rainforests, the tangled jungles of the Amazon encompass a staggering 2.1 million square miles. What’s more, the rainforest is home to one in ten of the world’s known species of flora and fauna, while the wilderness itself is so vast that some of its isolated human inhabitants have never set eyes on outsiders.
The Amazon may, however, not be as untouched as it seems. According to some scientists, the rainforest was populated by as many as 5 million humans as recently as 1500 A.D. Furthermore, they say the forest’s incredible flush of vegetation may be a result of centuries of careful soil management by its indigenous peoples.
4. Concordia, Pakistan
High in Asia’s snow-blanketed Karakoram mountain range, within Pakistan, lies Concordia – a spectacular meeting place of two glaciers: Godwin-Austen and Baltoro. In fact, owing to its proximity to the planet’s highest peaks, it’s earned the nickname of “mountaineer’s paradise.”
Concordia’s high altitude and rugged terrain make it unsuitable for human habitation, but it does offer stunning views of four of the world’s 14 tallest mountains – all of which exceed 26,000 feet. The legendary K-2 is probably the most famous that can be spotted from Concordia’s sublime vistas.
3. Honokohau Falls, Hawaii
The remote Pacific islands of Hawaii are a hothouse of teeming rainforests, lush valleys and scintillating white-sand beaches. Still, they’re particularly famous for their otherworldly waterfalls, and perhaps the finest of these is Honokohau Falls on the island of Maui. Here, the cascade is so hard to reach that it’s best viewed from a helicopter.
What’s thought to be Maui’s highest waterfall cascades down two tiers for around 1,120 feet, and they’re fed by the Honokohau stream and abundant annual rains. Of course, Honokohau’s primordial beauty hasn’t been overlooked by Hollywood moviemakers. In fact, it’s been used as a location in ’90s blockbuster Jurassic Park.
2. Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan
Situated close to the Chinese border, Gangkhar Puensum – whose name means “White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers” – is the highest point in the lesser-visited Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. As yet unconquered by explorers, this daunting and mysterious mountain has a height of 24,836 feet.
There have been four attempts to ascend Gangkhar Puensum since 1983 – all of them, however, failed. For better or worse, it seems unlikely that the Bhutanese government will grant permission for new expeditions any time soon. In 2003, for instance, the country outlawed mountaineering on peaks taller than 20,000 feet for religious reasons.
1. Adélie Land, Antarctica
Frozen under great sheets of bluish ice, few places on Earth are as desolate, inhospitable and entrancingly beautiful as Antarctica. Its here that Adélie Land – claimed by France but not universally recognized in diplomatic circles – encompasses a narrow strip of the frozen continent that runs from its southeastern shores to the South Pole.
Naturally, Adélie Land is too cold and barren to support a permanent human settlement, but the French have managed to build a scientific base on its outskirts. Indeed, Dumont d’Urville Station can accommodate 30 intrepid researchers during winter and 120 in summer. In 2005, it hosted a crew working on wildlife documentary March of the Penguins.