15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh