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When a script calls for another planet in our solar system or a fictional outer space environment, movie makers can look to computer-generated imagery (CGI) to tell the story — or shoot in a real-life location that can stand in for an alien landscape. Many such places around the world have been used by directors as actual filming locations and by CGI artists as inspiration for places beyond our earthly realm. These 15 fascinating spots are about as close as you can get to reaching outer space without stepping foot off the planet we call home.
White Sands National Park, New Mexico
Because the blinding white sand dunes of this national park are not anchored by much vegetation, they regularly move and shift shapes in the winds that blow across the Northern Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. The unusual color of the dunes — which can reach as high as 60 feet tall — is because they are made mostly of powdery gypsum. They are part of the world’s largest gypsum dune field, the remains of an ancient lake that evaporated after the last Ice Age. To add to the otherworldly mystique of this national park, fossilized footprints of dire wolves, mammoths, camels, saber-toothed cats, and giant sloths have been found here.
Mendenhall Ice Caves, Alaska
Alaska’s capital city, Juneau, cannot be reached by road because it is surrounded by impassable mountains, glaciers, and ice fields — including the 13-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier. Depending on the weather, the glacier sometimes has ice caves that open where it meets the edge of Mendenhall Lake at its base. Tours inside these caves reveal a strange, blue-lit world of glacial ice arching overhead and earthly gravel underfoot.
Atacama Desert, Chile
Chile’s vast Atacama Desert is the world’s driest non-polar desert — the most arid part of the desert receives less than a millimeter of rain each year on average. Because of this, the night sky is reliably clear of clouds and humidity, making this a favorite place for astronomers. For those who prefer looking down than up, the Atacama is also a top destination for geologists and astrobiologists (including those at NASA), who are trying to replicate and study the bone-dry surface of Mars, among other sun-baked planets. One of the Atacama's most famous valleys, Valle de Marte, translates to “Mars Valley” due to its eerie resemblance to the red planet.
The Pantanal, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay
Like the surface of some lush and uninhabited garden planet, the 42-million-acre Pantanal region of South America is the largest tropical wetland on Earth. For context, that’s as large as 29 U.S. states or nine European countries. It is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife, including the world’s largest concentration of crocodiles, jaguars, and the largest parrot on the planet, the hyacinth macaw. Unfortunately, it is also endangered: Global warming and encroaching agriculture are shaving away its edges and threatening fresh water, oxygen and the habitat of these important animals.
Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
The rainbow-edged Grand Prismatic Spring shimmers and steams in the hilly landscape around the Yellowstone Geyser Basin — like a magical portal to another world. (Before you jump in to investigate, note that the water in this 121-foot-deep pool can reach 189 degrees Fahrenheit.) The vivid rings of color around the spring are made of masses of microorganisms called thermophiles. Each color represents a different type of thermophile that thrives in the temperature particular to its respective distance away from the pool’s most intense heat.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
This fantastical desert valley has starred in movies as itself (including the classic film Lawrence of Arabia, among others), as well as a stand-in for alien planets (like in Prometheus and the upcoming Dune) and for Mars (most recently in The Martian). The nearly vertical red sandstone gorges and canyons, sandstone arches and domes, and ancient petroglyphs are thrillingly disorienting to mere earthlings.
Mono Lake, California
Swimming in Mono Lake in California’s eastern Sierra Mountains is a bit like swimming in the Dead Sea: You’ll feel extra buoyant in the high-salinity water. The strange towers in the lake grow slowly due to minerals in the water from underwater springs that feed the lake. Minerals from the freshwater react to meeting the alkaline lake water by building up and up like stalagmites, eventually rising above the surface and resulting in these tall and porous outcroppings on the otherwise-still lake.
Skeleton Coast, Namibia
It’s not often that you can see one landscape abut a dramatically different one without any transition. But the Skeleton Coast, where the red-gold dunes of the Namib Desert roll directly into the blue Atlantic waves, is one such place. The beautiful 310-mile stretch is called the Skeleton Coast because of the many whale skeletons that have washed ashore, as well as the 500-plus shipwrecks. These wrecks litter the waterline and jut through the dunes inland, where many have been overtaken by sand. Beyond the abandoned ships, few signs of human life can be seen here, among the bleached bones of dead trees, angular dunes, and relentless wind.
The arid and mountainous landscape of Cappadocia is defined by whitish grey volcanic rock that is soft, porous, and eroded by millions of years of weather. The shapes left behind can look like onion domes, church towers, or massive masks riddled with holes and waves of stone, though locals have nicknamed them “fairy chimneys.” Since the Neolithic era, humans have tunnelled into the soft rock and made dwellings and underground cities. Modern human travelers can take hot-air balloon rides over the region and see the rocky hillside transform, upon closer inspection, into a network of doors and windows carved into the rough, moonlike surfaces.
Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland’s County Antrim, more than 40,000 upright columns of rock of varying heights cascade down from high cliffs into the ocean, almost like the physical manifestation of an intricate physics equation. In reality, the cliffs, towers, and geological staircases were formed when volcanic lava flow met cold ocean water and seized up into these irregular prismatic shapes. Irish legend says that the Giant’s Causeway was built by the mythological hero Fionn MacCumhaill, or Finn MacCool, but to the space-minded viewer, they look like the work of some extraterrestrial species.
Antelope Canyon, Arizona
The reddish-orange walls of Antelope Canyon resemble a Southwest desert landscape seen through a fun house mirror. The play of sunlight and darkness on the sweeping sandstone, with dusty shafts of sunlight angling through window-like openings in the rock, conspire to create a dizzying effect on the visitor. These slot canyons were carved approximately 190 million years ago by sudden rushes of water down desert arroyos from storms upstream. Flash floods are still common in the area, so Antelope Canyon changes a bit every year, shaped and swirled by the forces of nature.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
Svalbard is about as far away from most human life as you can get on this planet. That setting, plus its frigid climate, made it the perfect place to deposit a wide variety of Earth’s crop seeds and ensure they would be safe and cold. The building that Norway constructed to hold this natural insurance policy extends nearly 500 feet directly into a frost-covered mountainside on the island of Spitsbergen, so what is seen from the outside is merely a portal. The windswept and frozen site looks like nothing more than a human outpost on a distant icy planet, but inside it contains 930,000 varieties of food crops.
Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia
When you first see Uluru, Australia’s most famous sandstone monolith, you will instinctively recognize it as a sacred place. Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, rises 1,142 feet tall and measures 2.2 miles long and 1.5 miles across. The feldspar content in the sandstone seems to change color as the sun’s light moves across Uluru during the day, giving it a bright orange-red glow at sunset. Ancient petroglyphs at its base attest to the rock’s use as a place of significance for the region’s Aboriginal people. All these features, when delivered in the middle of a flat desert plain, add up to a vision that may look more at home on another planet.
Cenote Ik Kil, Mexico
The coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula mostly comprises a thin crust of limestone spread over a network of deep pools and underground rivers that run to the Caribbean Sea. Occasionally, that thin upper layer is broken, and the intense tropical sun reveals a cool freshwater pool below the surface, called a cenote (a prettier word than its English equivalent, “sinkhole”). Some cenotes are only slightly sunken from the jungle around them and look simply like rustic swimming pools. But others are deep and clear turquoise swimming holes, illuminated by shafts of light and their “skylight” ringed by hanging vines — making them appear enchanted and sacred. (Indeed, the ancient Maya people appear to have held ceremonies and rituals in cenotes.)
Many 18th-century European explorers tried to reach Timbuktu, a place that seemed to them mythological: an isolated trading post on a caravan route across the Sahara, cooled by canals and the shade of mango trees, where Arabs traded salt for African gold. Unfortunately, 21st-century Timbuktu is a bit worse for wear — battered by years of war and an encroaching desert that’s been emboldened by global climate change — but still has an otherworldly allure and a landscape that seems completely detached from that of the surrounding earthen world.