Apparently I’m on a light kick lately. I recently wrote about the RiSE Festival, and now this…. a rundown of the planet’s best natural light shows. My recent story for Travel + Leisure used the word “spellbinding” in the title to describe the 16 phenomena profiled. Indeed, they are.
Light has captivated our imaginations since, well, the dawn of time. Scholars, mystics, scientists, and random observers alike are moved to find meaning in light phenomena or simply appreciate the beauty that light can bestow upon a place. As a word, light has entered into our vocabulary as an alternative for hope and optimism.
So it comes as no surprise that when light does something special, like peer through a rock opening as a spotlight as in the Slot Canyons in Page, Arizona, or becomes a physical embodiment of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, as in the Waitomo Caves of New Zealand (you won’t believe what is actually making the “sky” twinkle), it moves us.
We travel for experiences that are unique, inspiring, and challenge our perspectives, so we can’t help but admire nature’s most bizarre and magnificent displays in hopes that a deeper meaning presents itself. At the very least we hope to have a memorable moment, a sight to behold, a smile to cherish, a “wow” to witness. Vegas and Hollywood, take note. You can’t make this stuff up.
The criteria was simple. These are places where nature rules and light reigns supreme. Simple science and biology may explain the phenomena, as in the magical, fairytale-like forest fireflies in Japan. Geology, sun, or weather patterns may be to thank, as in the violent and “everlasting” Catacumbo Storm, the always captivating Aurora Borealis, and our seasonal urban favorite, Manhattanhenge. Or in some cases, the phenomena remain natural mysteries, as in the Marfa Lights and Hessdalen Light.
With a nod to Mother Nature’s glory, get your cameras ready for these. Some may disappear before you have time to take off the lens cap! Here are five of my favorites from the list, but you can read the whole story in T+L!
Great Getu Arch – Getu Valley, China
A photo of this light phenomenon – a spotlight of sunshine breaking through the rock’s giant arch (one of the largest limestone arches in the world) was what inspired my doing this story in the first place. I had stumbled upon the Petzl website and wondered what and where this image was taken. So I started asking questions and ended up finding out that there were quite a lot of such phenomena around the world, many of which I’d already witnessed! The photographer of this particular image, Erwan Le Lann (also a certified mountain guide with Petzl France) reported that the ray goes through the arch in the morning during the spring and fall, but the rest of the year is unpredictable.
The Everlasting Storm – Catatumbo River, Venezuela
In January 2014, this phenomenon was officially entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of average lightning bolts per square kilometer per year, at 250. Occurring up to 160 nights a year, 10 hours per day, and up to 280 times an hour, the area is considered to be the world’s largest single generator of tropospheric ozone. Scientifically speaking, this is what happens most of the year here: heat and moisture collect across the plains to create electrical charges with storm clouds over 5 km high, and as the air destabilizes at the mountain ridges, continuous thunderstorm activity continues.
Forest Fireflies – Nagoya City, Japan
Your friend meets his or her love match and they describe it to you as “fireworks.” Here, in the forests of Japan, that is essentially what happens when thousands of fireflies come to mate. Japanese photographer Yume Cyan has received numerous accolades for his long-exposure shots of this natural occurrence when fireflies dance a romantic waltz through the forest lighting up the night sky with mini firework-like sparks. The best time to catch them is during rainy season (June through July) when it mating is at its prime. Demilked, an online magazine dedicated to design, art and photography, reports that Cyan shoots with a Canon 5D Mark III, keeping the shutter open for 30 seconds and the aperture at f/2.8 to get the fireflies to glow into larger yellow orb-like spectacles.
“Fire Falls” – Yosemite National Park, California
Lanee and I were in Yosemite a couple of years ago in February near the vernal equinox. This is prime viewing time for the “Fire Falls,” a spectacle that thousands come to the Park to witness every year. Because of the way the sun hits Horsetail Falls at sunset, it illuminates the waterfall to make it appear as if fire is trickling down the face of the cliff. We waited and waited and after two days of trying, we finally caught the tail end of it one night far in the distance, and it was indeed an fiery show. See a video of our road trip through Yosemite here.
Antelope Slot Canyon – Page, Arizona
Years ago, I took one of the most epic road trips of my life. It was the staircase of the West, starting in Zion, going through Bryce, and into the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Along the way, we passed through Page, Arizona where a random person in a cafe recommended my friend and I check out the slot canyons. The what? This is always where the best travel stories and experiences come from – random happenstances – so we looked it up. It was a little out of the way of our intended drive plan, but we shifted the plans. We arrived too late. We missed the last tour, not realizing that you HAD to visit as part of a tour. Was it worth changing the plans? Maybe. We found last-minute accommodations nearby and hoped that these canyons were worth it. The next day, we went back and it WAS worth it all! We arrived at 11:30 on a perfectly sunny day — the best time to visit — when a ray of light passes through the canyon delivering what can only be described as a heavenly moment. I could have spent all day in those gorgeous canyons photographing the purple, orange, red, blue and white waves on the rocks as they dance, captivating the imagination and spirit at once. Hot tip: kick up some sand to get a more dramatic spotlight to photograph.