If the Seven Wonders of the World demonstrate the human race's most impressive creations, then the Seven Wonders of the Natural World are proof — if proof is needed — that Mother Nature is just as talented an architect.
Compiled by CNN and Seven Natural Wonders in 1997, this list spans all 7 continents, and includes some of the greatest heights of the earth and depths of the oceans, some lesser known sites, and some well-known features that you may have already visited yourself.
While the list of Natural Wonders is often disputed, these seven locations are generally agreed upon as being among the most breathtaking natural sights anywhere in the world.
The Grand Canyon
Situated in Arizona, USA, the 277-mile long Grand Canyon is a truly awe-inspiring sight. The canyon, up to a mile deep and some 18 miles wide at its broadest, was forged by the unstoppable course of the Colorado River. Scientists estimate that the river first carved out its path more than 17 million years ago, exposing a wealth of information on the geological history of the region as it cut through the land.
While in recent years increased safety measures have prevented visitors from approaching the edge of the canyon quite as closely they would like, the Grand Canyon site is still a popular tourist destination for anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of nature at its most powerful and majestic.
One of the lesser-known entries on the list of Natural Wonders, Parícutin is just as impressive as many more well known landmarks. This particular wonder is an example of a near perfect cinder cone volcano located in Michoacán, Mexico.
What sets this particular volcano apart from the many others around the world is that modern scientists were able to observe and document every stage of its lifespan – from creation to extinction – as it happened. Over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, visiting experts and residents of the region were able to witness the volcano growing from a fissure in a cornfield to a mountainous height of 1,391 ft. Erupting for 19 years, the volcano went quiet in 1952, never expected to erupt again.
Seen in both polar regions of the planet, this dazzling light show is aptly referred to as the Northern (or Southern) Lights. Unlike most of the entries on this list, you can view an aurora from many different locations around the world; the higher the latitude, the more likely you are to see them.
While most of the Natural Wonders of the World play out on land or at sea, aurora are an unforgettable sight that can only be witnessed by looking to the skies. The effect is brought on by charged cosmic particles entering and interacting with the Earth's atmosphere, causing vivid colours to be painted across the night sky.
Humans have speculated about the cause of this night-time display of colour endlessly for centuries, with references to the lights being found in texts from Ancient Greece, in stories from Norse Mythology, and sources from Medieval England.
As the Zambezi River crosses the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, its waters descend 355 feet down the astonishing Victoria Falls. The waterfall was named in 1855 for the reigning English monarch, Queen Victoria, by Scottish explorer David Livingstone during his famous journey across Africa. The indigenous name Mosi-oa-Tunya – or The Smoke that Thunders – is still in use locally, and in 2013 the government of Zimbabwe announced plans to officially rename the falls as such.
Victoria Falls isn't the highest or the broadest waterfall on the planet, but when taking both attributes into consideration, it qualifies as the largest. One particular highlight for visitors is the so-called 'Devil's Pool' that typically forms between September and December. The seasonally lowered level of the Zambezi river, combined with a rock barrier, make it possible to swim in a relatively sedate pool mere feet away from the edge of the falls. However, it's far from the safest option; several deaths have been reported in recent years.
Harbour of Rio de Janeiro
Guanabara Bay is a 19-mile stretch of land just to the east of Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil. More than 100 islands are situated around the bay, including the car-free Paquetá Island, and Villegagnon Island, the site of the Brazilian Naval School.
While the bay once boasted a vibrant and diverse ecosystem, recent decades have seen the perils of urbanization wreak havoc on this once-beautiful environment. Thankfully, legislation put in place ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio stipulates a requirement for the country's government to reinvigorate attempts to return the bay to its former glory. While there are doubts as to whether these plans will be executed as expected, locals and ecologists around the world remain hopeful that it's not too late to save this particular wonder.
Great Barrier Reef
Made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs and almost 1,000 islands over a span of 1,400 miles, to truly understand the sheer scale of the Great Barrier Reef, you need to see it to believe it. While the Great Wall of China is often mistakenly described as being visible from space, astronauts and satellites have managed to capture images of the Barrier Reef.
Constructed by billions of miniscule organisms called coral polyps, the reef is a globally recognized landmark of Australia, and a point of pride for Australians around the globe. Lots of work is done each year to ensure that the delicate ecosystem of the reef is preserved for future generations; central to this effort is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a protective designation established in 1975 meant to protect the reef and the species within it.
Last, but certainly not least, is the world's highest point. Known as Sagarmāthā in Nepal, and Chomolungma in Tibet, Mount Everest is one of the most iconic natural features of the globe. At 29,029 feet tall, it's ranked first amongst mountains for both elevation and prominence. The five entries below it on the list of the world's highest peaks all name Everest as their parent mountain.
The first recorded attempts to scale Everest were made in the 1920s by British mountaineers, but it would take more than three decades until Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hilary managed to reach the summit in 1953.
Today, climbing Everest isn't quite the unassailable goal that it once was — but those looking to do so still have to be in peak physical condition, and take great risks in undergoing the venture. However, conquering the mountain remains one of the greatest feats of man, and is a hugely popular challenge for anyone really looking to test their mettle.