The World's Most Colorful Natural Phenomena

These bright and bold natural events are awe-inspiring. Just make sure you get the timing right.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection
Photograph by Frans Lanting, Nat Geo Image Collection

Colorful travel might conjure up images of larger-than-life street murals or pastel towns, but when it comes to truly unique and vibrant spectacles, nature displays the most awe-inspiring moments.

Whether it's thanks to bioluminescence, annual migration patterns, or just heavy rainfall, these phenomena can often be devilishly tricky to predict and timing your trip to catch a glimpse can be unpredictable.

MONARCH BUTTERFLY MIGRATION, MEXICO

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On calm days, watch the trees come alive with the fluttering of a few million monarchs.

Millions of monarch butterflies make the annual migration south from Canada to Mexico for the winter, where they turn the fir trees of Michoacán into a living, breathing natural art installation.

However, the true burst of color comes when they rise from their pine tree slumber, fluttering through the air, transforming their richly pigmented orange and black wings into a tangerine blur.

When to See the Butterflies: Best visited between January and March, on calm, warm days.

SYNCHRONOUS FIREFLIES, USA

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At least 19 species of fireflies call Great Smoky Mountains National Park home, but only one of those species can synchronize their hypnotizing light show.

Once a year as part of their mating rituals, fireflies in the Smoky Mountains put on one of nature’s most dazzling and frustratingly impossible-to-predict-in-advance light show.

While most fireflies cannot synchronize the glow of their bioluminescent bellies, this species has it down to a fine art, giving visitors a masterclass in harmonious radiance which ripples around the mountains.

Once determined, dates are announced on the official website, but competition to attend is high as you apply for a parking pass.

When to See the Fireflies: From late May to mid-June.

CAÑO CRISTALES, COLOMBIA

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These plants live in the riverbed year-round, but only show their bright colors when conditions are just right.

In northern Colombia, this stunning river has a riot of aquatic-plant produced color to thank for that title.

Kaleidoscope shades blanket the Caño Cristales riverbed, giving the impression that the water is flowing over an artist’s palette of naturally-produced Pantone hues. With colors ranging from earthy red to mustard yellow and muted lilac, it must be seen to be believed.

When to See the River: From June to November.

RED CRAB MIGRATIONS, CHRISTMAS ISLAND

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Thousands of juvenile crabs cover rocks near Christmas Island.

Every year during mating season, Christmas Island’s red crab population scuttles out of the metaphorical woodwork and heads for the coast, navigating roads and the accompanying traffic along the way.

Recently, bridges and underpasses have been specially constructed to help the crabs avoid an accidental flattening, but predicting the actual dates during which these scarlet-shelled crustaceans will make their move is notoriously finnicky, tied as they are to not only the lunar calendar, but also the wet season and unusually heavy rainfall.

When to See the Crabs: Around the start of the wet season, in October or November.

FLOWERING DESERT, CHILE

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This superbloom is unique in its rarity, making year's of heavy rainfall a great reason to book a trip to experience the desert in full color.

Superblooms make scheduled appearances all over the world, whether in the canola fields of China or the deserts of Namaqualand.

On the other hand, in the Chilean Atacama—the world’s driest desert—flowering superblooms are less than predictable. In fact, only when rainfall is unseasonably high (usually thanks to El Niño), do the normally barren plains erupt into life with an array of multicolored flowers.

When to See the Superblooms: From September to November, but only when rainfall is unseasonably high.

AURORA BOREALIS, NORWAY

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Norway's Northern Lights are among some of the best in the hemisphere.

The other-worldly washes of color that paint the night’s sky at some of the most northerly destinations around the globe aren’t actually that rare.

In fact, Norway is one of the best spots to see the aurora borealis annually, although while snaking strips of green are typically easier to spot, you’ll have to cross your fingers for a glimpse of uber-rare red.

When to See the Northern Lights: From late September to late March

CORAL SPAWNING, AUSTRALIA

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Each year, the coral reefs beneath the waves of Ningaloo in Western Australia spawn in synchronicity, releasing tiny orbs that float up to the surface of the water.

Australia’s coral reefs are possibly one of the world’s most colorful natural phenomena in and of themselves, but these underwater worlds have an even more impressive trick up their sleeve—coral spawning.

Described as a weightless underwater snowstorm, each year the coral reefs beneath the waves of Ningaloo in Western Australia spawn in synchronicity, releasing tiny orbs that float up to the surface of the water.

When to See the Coral Spawning: Up to a week after the full moon, typically in the autumn.

GLOWING SQUID OF TOYAMA BAY, JAPAN

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During mating season, the firefly squid rise to the water's surface and put on a show, just before sunrise.

If you were to name any natural phenomena as electric-blue, it would surely be the impressive bioluminescent display of firefly squid in Toyama Bay, Japan.

A swirling mass of almost unbelievably neon color is formed when the squid rise from the murky depths during mating season, and while up close these petite three-inch long creatures look like Pointillist masterpieces, they have strength in numbers when it comes to putting on an arresting underwater light show.

When to See the Glowing Squid: From March to June, around 3am.

Lauren Cocking is a British travel, food, and drink writer, specializing in Mexico and Latin America. You can follow her on Twitter at @laurencocking or read her blog Northern Lauren.