If we ever finally get around to launching a mission to another planet, it will take between three months and a year to get to Mars. Proxima Centauri, the closest star with exoplanets in the habitable zone, is over four light-years away.
Suffice to it say the chance of anyone reading this to actually set foot on an alien world is basically zero.
Fortunately for intrepid explorers, our own planet is full of odd corners with bizarre geological formations and unusual plant and animal life. Many of these exotic locales have inspired fantastic worlds in our favorite speculative fiction, while others seem like they sprang out of our wildest imaginations.
If you’d like to experience a far-off planet orbiting a distant star, you might start with one of these fascinating — and sometimes dangerous — spots here on Earth.
1. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – China
Avatar director James Cameron was reportedly inspired by the lush forest and massive, greenery-topped limestone pillars in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park when he created the Na’vi homeworld of Pandora. In fact, after the movie broke box-office records worldwide, China renamed one 3,544-foot-tall peak to “Avatar’s Hallelujah Mountain.” Last year, China finished construction on a 1,410-foot-long glass-bottomed suspension bridge meant to provide breathtaking views. Unfortunately, the new bridge closed just two weeks after it opened because it was receiving more than 10 times the number of visitors it was designed to support.
2. Hardangerjøkulen Glacier – Norway
The Hardangerjøkulen Glacier was the filming location for snowy, frigid Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. You won’t have as much trouble as Darth Vader in finding it — it’s a well-known skiing and hiking destination just a five-hour train ride from Oslo (no public roads reach there). The closest town is Finse, a tiny picturesque village. In the summer, most of the snow in the area melts, although the blue ice glacier, of course, remains solid. That may be changing, however. Scientists recently reported that the Hardangerjøkulen Glacier is particularly sensitive to climate change because of its topography and will likely disappear in the next few decades.
3. Cueva de los Cristales – Chihuahua, Mexico
Although it’s far closer to the equator than the Arctic, the “Cave of Crystals” resembles the crystal structure of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude as it typically appears in the movies. Unfortunately, you’d probably have to actually be the Man of Steel to enjoy visiting this hostile environment: The cave sits nearly 1,000 feet below the surface of the Earth, and temperatures inside reach up to 136 degrees F at 90 percent humidity due to a nearby magma chamber. The massive crystals are formed from gypsum, and some reach 30 feet long. Miners had discovered a nearby cave with smaller crystals in 1910, then in 2000 and again in 2009 even larger caverns were discovered 150 feet below the original cave. Even today, the crystals are usually submerged in water and are only revealed when the mine pumps are activated for scientific exploration.
4. Red Beach – Panjin, China
The bright crimson blooms that spread across the wetlands during the autumn in Panjin, China, look like they could have been the inspiration for the red forest McCoy and Kirk sprint through at the beginning of 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. The beach is part of the world’s largest protected wetland, full of the seepweed plant that gives Red Beach its name. For most of the year, the plant is actually green, turning red in the fall, followed by a purple hue, and then dying in winter. Panjin City itself is only 18 miles away (you can see it in the back of some pictures), making the Red Beach a popular sightseeing destination when the colors change.
5. Stone Forest – Shilin, China
These craggy limestone towers — if you imagine them without the lush foliage — remind us of the rocky landscape of Altair IV in the 1956 classic Forbidden Planet. Here on Earth, the rocky outcroppings are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers 350 square kilometers in southern China. Hundreds of millions of years ago, the area was part of an ancient seabed that accumulated centuries’ worth of seashells and dead aquatic life that hardened into stone. Over the millennia, the stone rose up while softer ground wore away, revealing peaks that reach as tall as a 16-story building.
6. Monument Valley – Utah
The massive, flat-topped buttes of Monument Valley are synonymous with the American West, largely thanks to the nine westerns that screen legend John Ford filmed there in the 1950s and ’60s. The valley also shows up in science fiction, namely Back to the Future Part III and Transformers: Age of Extinction. But they were also comic artist Bill Watterson’s inspiration for the alien planets visited (usually via a crash landing) by Spaceman Spiff in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. The buttes themselves consist of clearly visible layers of shale and sandstone and stand isolated thanks to 50 million years of wind and rain revealing the hard rock formations.
7. Dallol Volcano – Ethiopia
Dallol Volcano was formed in 1926 during a phreatic eruption, which is when magma superheats water in the ground, causing an instantaneous explosion. That eruption also released iron and sulfur into the existing salt flats, which created the colorful mix of yellow sulfur over the crystallized salt surrounding blue and green acid pools. Even without a volcano, Dallol is the hottest place on Earth, with a yearly average temp of 94 degrees F, barely cooling at night to an average low of 87 degrees F. That alone sounds like an inhospitable alien planet, but the pervasive rotten-egg smell of the sulfur is probably akin to the Bog of Eternal Stench in Labyrinth.
8. Socotra Island – Yemen
Socotra Island sits about 150 miles off the very tip of the Horn of Africa, south of Yemen, where the Gulf of Aden empties into the Arabian Sea. Although Socotra Island is only just 80 miles across and has been both inhabited and visited by sailors since ancient times, it is home to many species found nowhere else on Earth — a third of the plants there are unique to the island. That makes Socotra Island literally an alien place, at least in terms of fauna and flora. The most distinctive is probably the umbrella-shaped “dragon blood tree,” which is named for its crimson-colored sap. Scientists believe the dense canopy of palm-tree-like leaves provides shade for the tree’s sapling offspring, while also preventing the evaporation of precious water in Socotra’s arid climate.
9. Goblin Valley – Utah
If these odd, round stone formations look familiar, that’s because Goblin Valley was the filming location of the planet of the “blue babies” in Galaxy Quest. The spot was only discovered in the 1920s, and Utah designated the region parkland in 1964. The rocks themselves are formed from sandstone deposits of varying hardness, which erodes at different rates. Since there’s almost no vegetation in the area, wind batters the rock faces and any rain creates muddy streams across the surface to rapidly (geologically speaking) carve away the softer parts of the stone. As a bonus, Goblin Valley is also far enough from light pollution to earn a designation as an International Dark Sky Park, making it a great spot to gaze at actual galaxies in the night sky.
10. Deadvlei – Namibia
A millennium ago, this ground was a broad wetland, teeming with life. Then the water dried up and the surrounding dunes grew large enough to isolate the area from nearby rivers — today the dunes tower among the largest in the world. What was left was so arid that the trees that once grew in the marsh haven’t even decomposed after all this time, simply turning black in the hot Namibian sun. The dunes themselves are red from a high amount of oxidized iron, while the flats are covered with a layer of white salt. With the black, desiccated trees, the Deadvlei makes for an otherworldly setting.