World’s Most Amazing Cliffs
With their soaring beauty and treacherous geology, cliffs have always occupied a special place in the human imagination. From the cathartic moment in King Lear when the Earl of Gloucester contemplates the “extreme verge” at England’s White Cliffs of Dover to cartoons of Road Runner luring Wile E. Coyote over yet another desert precipice, cliffs appear again and again in music, literature, and pop culture.
And no wonder: the most amazing cliffs leave viewers in awe of their sheer majesty. Couples take their wedding vows next to famous drop-offs. Adrenaline junkies get their fix climbing towering rock faces or leaping off the top in wingsuits. Bird-watchers turn up to observe some of the world’s most intriguing seabirds. And New Age gurus lead encounter sessions on cliff tops.
Cliffs have the power to influence the course of history and teach us about the past. If the British Army had failed to scale the cliffs of Quebec in 1759 during the French and Indian War, North America might be a much different place. Archaeologists would know little about the Anasazi cliff dwellers of the American Southwest if they had decided to live in the lowlands.
Take a peek at the world’s more dramatic cliffs, along with recommended adventurous activities that will get intrepid travelers close to the edge—or at least to the best vantage point.
Torres del Paine, Chile
The spectacular Torres del Paine comprises three granite monoliths that rise almost straight up from the pampas of southern Chile’s Patagonia region. The name blends the Spanish word for towers (torres) and the old Tehuelche Indian name for blue—the color of the vertical wall in certain light.
Highlight: Staring up at the towers while floating on your back in the glacier-fed lake at Base de los Torres.
The world’s highest cascade—3,212-foot Angel Falls—plunges down the front of this primeval cliff face in the Amazon jungle of southern Venezuela. Protected within the confines of Canaima National Park, the cliffs surround a large tabletop mountain with many endemic plant and animal species including rare orchids, carnivorous plants, colorful pebble toads, and a recently discovered snake species with a bodily orifice of as yet undetermined function.
Highlight: Cooling off in the mist shower at the bottom of the falls after the long canoe ride and jungle trek to Angel.
White Cliffs of Dover, England
A towering symbol of Britain’s physical and emotional detachment from the rest of Europe, the cliffs wrap around the southeast coast between Dover and Deal, facing toward France 20 miles across the English Channel. The striking color of the 350-foot-high cliffs derives from white chalk streaked with black flint. From the 2008 Annie Lennox cover of “Many Rivers to Cross” to the spectacular ending of the 1970s film Quadrophenia, these lofty palisades continue to feature in British popular culture.
Highlight: The precipitous hiking trail from White Cliffs Visitor Centre to South Foreland Lighthouse.
Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona/Utah
The red-rock palisades sprawl between Zion Canyon and the Colorado River, a remote area along the Arizona/Utah border. This BLM-administered national monument is spangled with extraordinary geological features that seem sculpted by some whacked-out artist rather then the whim and fancy of Mother Nature.
Highlight: The eight miles of unpaved desert road and three-mile hike leading to The Wave, a swirling, cresting rock formation carved by the wind more than 190 million years ago.
The Twelve Apostles, Australia
Arrayed along the Great Ocean Road in the state of Victoria, the 12 Apostles is a stretch of spectacular sea stacks and cliffs mingled with golden beaches and huge waves that roll in all the way from the Antarctic. Only eight of the limestone stacks, originally dubbed the Sow and Piglets by Aussie pioneers, have withstood wave and wind erosion to remain standing today.
Highlight: The cliff-skimming helicopter flight to London Bridge, a natural arch that anchors the western end of the Apostles.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Five fishing villages with pastel-colored buildings cling to the jagged cliffs along this picturesque portion of the Ligurian coast. Connected by footpaths and ferries—and mingled with vineyards and tiny beaches—the villages fall within Italy’s smallest national park.
Highlight: The cliff-hugging Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Path) that connects all five villages.
Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali
Rising 1,640 feet above the savanna of southern Mali, this sandstone escarpment has been home to the Dogon people for more than 700 years. Their mud-brick houses, granaries, and religious sanctuaries occupy nooks and ledges in the rocky façades. Waterfalls plunge from the red-rock cliffs into lush oasis canyons, a landscape somewhat reminiscent of the American Southwest.
Highlight: Learning how to walk on the wooden stilts used in traditional Dogon dances.
Cliffs of Eysturoy, Faroe Islands
Between Scotland and Iceland, the colossal cliffs on the north side of Eysturoy Island resemble a Lord of the Rings landscape come to life. The escarpment is punctuated by a pair of sea stacks called Risin og Kellingin—the Giant and the Witch—named after an ancient Norse legend.
Highlight: Exploring the sea caves and sea stacks in a small boat.
Trango Towers, Pakistan
Veteran rock climbers consider these granite spikes in northern Pakistan among the toughest vertical ascents on planet Earth. The east face of Great Trango Tower stretches 396 feet up from the Baltoro Glacier and an otherworldly landscape littered with ice fields, bone-dry riverbeds, and giant boulders.
Highlight: Becoming the first person to free-climb the 10th pitch on the Eternal Flame route on Nameless Tower (one of the Trango Towers that was never officially named).
Pulpit Rock towers nearly 2,000 feet above Lysefjord near the town of Stavanger in southern Norway. The granite perch was created about 10,000 years ago when a glacier that once filled the fjord retreated. Local legend says the flat-topped rock was a place of sacrifice in Viking days.
Highlight: BASE jumping in a wingsuit from the summit.
Kalaupapa Cliffs, Hawaii
Hawaii’s most amazing cliffs loom above the former leper colony on the island of Molokai’s north shore. According to the Guinness Book of Records, these are the world’s highest sea cliffs—a 3,900-foot plunge from the top to seaside Kalaupapa village.
Highlight: Mule trekking the 26 switchbacks of the cliff trail.
Drakensberg Amphitheatre, South Africa
Three miles wide and 3,900 feet high, this basalt crescent lies within South Africa’s Royal Natal National Park. A hair-raising trail leads to Mont-aux-Sources, a plateau at the top of the amphitheater that straddles the South Africa–Lesotho border and is the source of three major rivers.
Highlight: Climbing the chain ladders to the summit and camping on Mont-aux-Sources overnight.
Acantilados de Los Gigantes, Spain
Created by an ancient volcano, the Cliffs of the Giants tower 1,500 feet above the western shore of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Narrow trails meander along the basalt cliff tops and down Barranco Seco to a secluded beach at the feet of the giants.
Highlight: Exploring the underwater portion of The Giants on a dive trip to Barranco Seco Bay.
Half Dome, California
Rising 4,737 feet almost straight up from Yosemite Valley, the west face of Half Dome is one of America’s most imposing natural monuments. A subject of John Muir’s musings and Ansel Adams’s dramatic black-and-white photography, the granite mount is pictured on California’s state quarter.
Highlight: Hiking Cable Trail (one of the world’s scariest stairways) to the summit and hanging your chin over The Visor.
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
Europe comes to an abrupt end on the western edge of Ireland, where these cliffs plunge straight into the North Atlantic. From mermaids and witches to a giant corpse-eating eel, the cliffs are the focus of many local myths and legends.
Highlight: Surfing the 35-foot monster waves that smash into the cliffs.