Iran is home to one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, where turquoise-domed mosques, glittering palaces, and the tombs of long gone poets reveal the mysteries and intrigues of the ancients. Yet beneath the footprints of man lies an even lesser known, wilder Iran, brimming with remarkable geologic formations, ancient forests, and overgrown monuments that nature has reclaimed as its own.
In the northern Mazandaran Province, a striking panorama of rust-colored travertine terraces cuts across the mountains. The stepped, limestone formations were created over thousands of years by the flowing and cooling of water from two mineral hot springs. While travertine terraces are found in other places—like Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone and Pamukkale in Turkey—Badab-e Surt’s distinctive coloring results from a high concentration of iron oxide sediments. Not only does it make for dreamy views, but one of the springs is thought to have healing properties due to its high salinity and mineral content.
Forty-one miles northeast of Tehran, Mount Damāvand’s iconic ivory-frosted cone soars 18,605 feet (5,671 meters) into the clouds, claiming the title highest peak in the Middle East. Located in the Alborz mountain range, the 1.8 million-year-old dormant volcano is literally a thing of legends, immortalized in ancient Persian folklore and poetry. Climbers can take one of 16 major routes up Damāvand in two to five days, navigating its rocky terrain, mineral hot springs, and rich flora and fauna. Mount Damāvand was nominated for World Heritage status in 2008 and remains on Iran’s Tentative List.
In southeast Iran, the shifting sands of Lut Desert forge a living work of art. Between June and October, subtropical tempests sweep over the landscape, creating aeolian forms—corrugated ridges caused by wind erosion. The same phenomenon has also been observed on other planets like Mars, giving it an otherworldly quality. In 2016, Dasht-e Lut was inscribed as Iran’s first and only natural UNESCO World Heritage site for being “an exceptional example of ongoing geological processes.” It’s also one of the hottest places on Earth, according to NASA. In 2005, it reached a record temperature of 159.3°F (70.7°C), beating out the previous record held by El Azizia, Libya.