Were you one of the kids who dreamed about becoming an astronaut when you grew up? Many of us did. Some of us even still harbor dreams about someday exploring among the stars and free-floating like the characters in Gravity. For anyone who loves exploring, space is definitely the final frontier.
And although companies like Space-X and Virgin Galactic are trying to make commercial space flight happen for the average human being, it seems like the only way to get to places like Mars right now is to somehow convince NASA the next Curiosity rover should actually be a human being.
Traveling the nearly 34 million miles to the red planet may be nothing more than a flight of fancy right now, but there are some great alternative trips waiting for you right here on Earth. If you’ve ever dreamed about discovering alien life or exploring space, you could take an adventure to 1 of these 20 terrestrial locales. These landscapes are just as alien and strange, but they’re much closer to home.
You don’t even need to leave the stratosphere to visit one of these places, but we promise you’ll feel like you’ve hopped in a rocket and gone to Mars.
20 Chile’s Atacama Desert Is NASA’s Test Ground
The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth, thanks to the fact it lies in the rain shadow of 2 mountain chains. Its arid conditions make it the perfect stunt double for Mars. NASA actually uses the Atacama as a testing ground for their Mars rovers.
That’s right! If you’re training for a mission to Mars, the Atacama is a great training location. Its salt lakes, sand dunes, and lava flows will certainly add to the Martian feeling you’re bound to get here. Wait until the sun sets, and enjoy the untamed beauty of the night sky.
19 Get Lost In The Wave
You don’t need to travel very far from home to visit a Martian-looking landscape. In fact, there are some places in the good old USA that look like they’d make an extraterrestrial feel right at home. Marble Canyon, Arizona, is one of those places.
There are a few areas in the canyon that seem reminiscent of Mars’s alien landscape, but one of the most striking has to be the formation known as the Wave. The colors of the stone here seem almost alive. Visitors sometimes report vertigo and other strange sensations as they trek through the area. Getting lost is a real danger, so be sure to play it safe and travel with a buddy and your phone.
18 The World’s Largest Salt Flat Is An Extraterrestrial Beauty
Salar de Uyuni, located in Bolivia, is known as the world’s largest salt flat. It contains about 10 billion tons of salt across more than 4,000 square miles. That’s not snow you’re looking at; it’s salt!
For most of the year, Salar de Uyuni is as dry, barren, and rocky as Mars itself. It does rain in January, usually for less than 5 days and leaving behind less than 7 centimeters of water. Flamingos flock to the area, while people reside in hotels built entirely of salt blocks. Trains that have reached the end of the line can be found rusting out in a “graveyard,” which adds to the eerie beauty of this strange landscape.
17 Visit This Tunisian Salt Lake
Chott el Djerid is a massive salt lake located in Tunisia. Despite the fact Mars does actually have water, chances are Chott el Djerid has more water than the entire red planet. That doesn’t change the Martian feel of this strange landscape in Northern Africa.
Throughout the year, the lake will sometimes change colors, taking on green, purple, white, or red hues. Sunrise and sunset enhance the strangeness of the landscape here, and the isolation may make you feel like you truly are alone in the universe. There might be life on Mars, but Chott el Djerid will make you question it.
16 The Simpson Desert Is A Great Stand-In For Mars
Australia’s sprawling Outback is dotted with vast areas of striking red sand. The Simpson Desert might be one of the best examples of this phenomenon. The rolling red dunes and barren landscape are reminiscent of the images NASA’s Curiosity Rover has sent back from Mars.
The resemblance is more than surface deep-here, however, as Mars has shown evidence of acidic oxidative weathering. This process is known to create precious opals. Australia, as you might know, is home to the world’s largest supply of opal. This may not surprise you, though. We’ve always suspected Australia might be another world unto itself.
15 This California Valley Has An Eerie Resemblance
If you were to take away the pristine blue and fluffy white clouds of the California sky, Death Valley would likely be a dead-ringer for Mars.
Death Valley is the driest region in North America, and it ranks as one of the driest in the whole world.
The rocky surface give the place a rough, rugged appearance, and there are vast differences between the daytime and nighttime temperatures. The local Timbisha Shoshone tribe members might actually find the cooler daytime temperatures on Mars a relief. The temperature in Death Valley has been known to reach a shocking 134℉ (around 57℃)!
14 The Martian Was Filmed In This Jordanian Desert
We all know that most Hollywood films set in outer space are green-screened or shot on a set constructed to look like Mars or Venus or some other intergalactic location. Occasionally, though, these movies do get to film on location.
The Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan was chosen as the set location for the Matt Damon film The Martian. With brilliantly red sands and otherworldly rock structures dotting the landscape, it’s not hard to see why. The area has clearly embraced its reputation, as evidenced by these camp lodgings that look like they could have come straight from a futuristic Martian colony.
13 This Javanese Volcano Looks Positively Primeval
If you’re traveling in Indonesia, you’ll probably want to pay a visit to the island of Java. If you rise early enough, you can catch a glimpse of the otherworldly Mt. Bromo, a still-smoldering volcano in East Java.
Nestled inside the Tengger massif and the sea of sand, Bromo is part of a much larger, older volcanic complex. And it looks prehistoric. This is the kind of landscape you’d expect to be dominated by dinosaurs. It may not look like Mars exactly, but it does look like something from another planet, or from the deepest, darkest history of our own.
12 Despite The Snow, Antarctica Sometimes Looks Like Mars
Snow-covered Antarctica likely isn’t the first place you think of when someone says “Mars.” Then again, you might not think of it as a desert either, although the southernmost continent is actually the world’s largest, driest desert!
The Dry Valleys are one of the few snow-free areas on the continent. It’s so cold and so dry here, not even snow can withstand it.
These conditions mimic what we’ve discovered on Mars, and scientists flock to study the area in hopes of learning more about the red planet.
Your photos may not look very Martian, but you’ll certainly feel like you’ve traveled to another planet if you plan a visit here.
11 Visit The Largest Uninhabited Island On Earth
Devon Island, found in Canada’s Far North, has the distinction of being the largest uninhabited island in the world.
If you want to mimic the isolation you’d feel on Mars, there’s almost no better place on the face of the Earth.
The island is also home to the 12-mile long Haughton Crater, one of the most Mars-like places in the world. The crater was formed when an object about 1.2 miles in diameter slammed into the Earth around 39 million years ago. Scientists estimate the crater is a good representation of what we’d find at crater sites on Mars. Many experiments to determine how to sustain life on Mars are being carried out here.
10 Experience Extreme Temperatures In One Of The Coldest Places On Earth
Siberia is another location you probably don’t associate with Mars. After all, snow-swept tundra doesn’t look much like the rolling red dunes of the Martian landscape. So why would anyone looking to create a Mars-on-Earth experience travel to a place like Oymakon, Russia?
The answer is the temperature. Located just a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, Oymakon is the coldest spot on Earth. The mercury has been known to dip under -96℉. That’s even colder than Mars’ average temperature of -80℉. If it is possible to travel to Mars someday, a trip to Oymyakon will prepare you for these extreme conditions!
9 Iceland Is Out Of This World
Iceland is known for being extreme. Volcanoes, sulfur springs, glaciers, and black sand beaches are all part of Iceland’s otherworldly landscape. There are a few spots on this volcanic island that mimic Mars quite well, but we think Namaskard takes the cake.
The north side of Lake Myvatn is a geothermal wonderland. Steam springs (fumaroles) and hot sulfuric mud springs (solfataras) dot the landscape. The sulfur content here causes all kinds of colors in the soil surrounding black rivers and bubbling pools of mud. Setting foot in this landscape for the first time, you might just get the impression you’ve landed on a foreign planet.
8 The Namibian Heat Turned These Trees Black
We’ve recently discovered Mars does have water, but it’s very scarce. Scientists aren’t sure, but they currently think Mars may have once had abundant water. Then, one day, it all dried up.
If that sounds impossible, take a look at the case of Dead Vlei in Namibia. Around 900 years ago, the desert closed in and cut this area off from local rivers. The trees in this now-arid landscape couldn’t decompose, and the extreme heat turned them black.
Dead Vlei is a study in contrasts, with its red dunes juxtaposed against the bright blue of a clear desert sky. If not Martian, it’s still a stunning sight to behold.
7 Study Space From Mauna Kea (And Feel Like We're There Too)
When you think of Hawaii, you likely picture a tropical paradise with lush green vegetation and waterfalls. And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong! But the Hawaiian islands are volcanic formations, and some of those volcanoes are still active. The landscape around them, with lava fields and flows, are absolutely otherworldly.
Mauna Kea is one example.
Rocky, dusty, and volcanic, the conditions here have made Mauna Kea one of NASA’s favorite spots for testing new rover technology.
Climb up to the summit, and visit the observatory for a glimpse into the heavens. You might have both feet on the ground for now, but you’ll see some sights that are literally out of this world.
6 This Landmark Looks Like Mars, But It’s In The USA
We’ll travel back to the mainland United States, to visit Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona. Not only are the ruins of this Native American pueblo stunning at any time of the day or night, they can also serve as a stand-in for some of Mars’ less red landscapes.
The area actually contains around 30 structures, and they all owe their reddish hue to the local Moenkopi sandstone of which they’re constructed. If you have the time, check out more of the national park and the surrounding Coconino County for some of the most alien landscapes in the entire Southwestern United States.
5 The Canary Islands Are Another Mars Look-Alike
The Canary Islands, Spanish territory just off the coast of North Africa, are a chain of volcanic islands. Their geology and climate make them another perfect analogue for the red planet.
In fact, the similarity to Mars is so strong, research teams have been testing instruments for the next Mars expedition here.
Teide National Park on the island of Tenerife is perhaps the best spot to feel like you’ve set foot on the red planet. The dry conditions and odd rock formations make it hard to guess if you’re on Mars or if you’re still on Earth. Photos are almost guaranteed to fool your friends!
4 You May Not Want To Vacation At Lake Natron
Lake Natron, located in northern Tanzania, usually has warm waters—up to 60℃! As a result, the surrounding area is almost uninhabited, and most animals avoid the area. The lake also features a dangerously low pH level. The lake’s shocking colors are actually caused by cyanobacteria, which find the lake and its high levels of salt an ideal habitat.
These scarlet-hued algae actually attract a large number of flamingos, who use the area as a breeding ground. Mars may not have flamingos, but the sight of them in this strange landscape just adds another layer to the surreal scene you’ll witness here.
3 Dallol Is A Geological Wonderland
If you love geology, you’ll probably be intrigued in Dallol, Ethiopia. In fact, most people would have their curiosity piqued by images of the colorful, Martian-esque landscape, even if studying rocks wasn’t their forte.
Salt formations, acidic hot springs, and gas geysers dot the landscape here, transforming it into something that feels incredibly extraterrestrial. It’s also one of the world’s hottest areas, with temperatures in the summer pushing an average of 114℉.
Given all this, Dallol may actually be more like Venus than Mars. One thing we can all agree on is that it doesn’t look like any place on Earth.
2 Italy’s Vajolet Towers Dominate A Barren Landscape
The Dolomites, located in Italy, are some of the most photogenic and breathtaking peaks in all of the Alps. As colorful as they are high, they’re all too often passed over for more famous locations in France, Switzerland, and Austria. Nonetheless, the Rosengarten group is popular with rock climbers, in part because of the Vajolet Towers.
This group of 6 peaks soars to more than 9,000 feet (almost 3,000 meters) above sea level. They dominate the skyline of Val di Fassa. The area around them is barren, rocky terrain with few plants and only a handful of humans. Despite their Earth-bound fame, the Vajolet Towers still seem like something from another planet.
1 Lake Eyre Rarely Has Water
South Australia’s Lake Eyre makes us ask, is a lake really a lake if it never has any water? Lake Eyre is usually dry, but when it does fill with water, it’s the largest lake in Australia. It covers a whooping 3,668 square miles (or about 9,500 square kilometers). It’s salty like the ocean, but as the water evaporates, the area’s salinity increases.
That’s why the lake area is completely uninhabitable when it’s dry. Surrounded by some of Australia’s most rugged Outback terrain, including the Painted Hills and red sands, you’ll certainly wonder if you’ve somehow been transported to another planet.
References: Skyscanner, Conde Nast Traveller, Atlas Obscura, Theygetaround, Youramazingplaces