12 Amazing Balancing Stones Around the World

Balancing rocks are truly stellar (and indeed interstellar) features that attract tourists, geologists, and increasingly, artists.

1. BALANCED ROCK // COLORADO, USA

A few hundred million years ago, Colorado was covered by a shallow inland sea that eventually turned into sandstone. As the area rose during the creation of the Rocky Mountains, the softer areas of sandstone eroded away, while the areas of the sandstone that were harder stayed put, giving us Colorado’s Garden of the Gods. Eventually, the erosion and weathering around the base will cause Balanced Rock (see photo above) to lose its balance and collapse.

2. BALANCING ROCKS // SEVERAL PLACES AROUND ZIMBABWE

Carine06, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As in Colorado, these features were originally surrounded by softer rock that eroded away. As the rocks warmed and cooled, they cracked into nice geometric patterns. When the surrounding rock and dirt disappeared, they fell onto each other, just like bricks would if you removed the mortar [PDF]. Zimbabwe so appreciates these features that they have the rare geologic distinction of being featured on the 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollar note.

3. BIG BALANCED ROCK // CHIRICAHUA NATIONAL MONUMENT, ARIZONA

Al_HikesAZ, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Around 27 million years ago, the Turkey Creek volcano (now a caldera) erupted, covering areas of modern Arizona with over 1600 feet of ash and pumice that fused into a soft rock called welded tuff. But tuff isn’t very tough, and it began eroding away along the weaker areas at the rate of two thirds of an inch per thousand years [PDF]. Thankfully, the USGS says there is no risk to these rocks from erosion for the next several thousand years. A much bigger concern for the rocks is earthquakes, although they came through a recent 7.2 quake with only minor damage (nearby buildings weren't so fortunate).

4. PRECARIOUSLY BALANCED ROCKS // NEAR SAN ANDREAS FAULT, NEVADA AND CALIFORNIA

Nick Hinz // Nevada Bureau of Mines & Geology

If there's any place in the country where balancing rocks shouldn’t exist, it's near the San Andreas fault, where you'd think earthquakes would topple them like dominoes. Yet they are there, and have been for at least 10,000 years, through at least 50 large earthquakes. An attempt to address the mystery of how the rocks stay put was published in August, suggesting a theory that since the rocks are between the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults, there might be an interaction between the faults that protects the balanced rocks by lessening ground vibration in the area. This idea would fit into geologic theory—but would mean all our current models of the San Andreas fault are incomplete.

5. IDOL ROCK // YORKSHIRE, UNITED KINGDOM

The strange Brimham Rocks in Yorkshire, of which Idol Rock is the most famous, were formed around 400 million years ago when the area was under a river. During the last glacial maximum, the nearby mountains were covered in glaciers, and where there are glaciers, there are glacial winds. The winds blew sand across the rocks at great speed, carving them into their odd new look—think of it like a natural form of sandblasting.

6. KUMMAKIVI BALANCING ROCK // FINLAND

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The name translates as “strange rock,” but in English we have our own name for these features: erratics. As glaciers advanced, they picked up boulders from the surrounding countryside, and carried them along—sometimes for hundreds of miles. But when the glacier began retreating, the rocks didn’t make the trip back, and instead were set down on the surrounding countryside—sometimes perfectly balanced on top of another rock.

7. BALANCING ROCK // HOLLISTON, MASSACHUSETTS

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

What makes this rock interesting is less the rock (it's a standard glacial erratic) than who attempted to knock it over. According to local legend, George Washington was traveling through and tried to push the rock down. Obviously, he failed.

8. RUGGESTEINEN // NORWAY

Sometimes a rock is so perfectly balanced that it can be rocked with just a bit of effort. This is the case with Ruggesteinen in Norway, also known as the Rocking Stone. Despite being over 70 tons, a couple of people pushing can move it.

9. KRISHNA'S BUTTER BALL // MAHABALIPURAM, INDIA

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

This one is mysterious. It might be a glacial erratic, it might have been eroded out of the surrounding rock, or it may have been placed there by ancient Indians. According to legend, in 1908 the local British Governor decided that it was dangerous and needed to be removed. Seven elephants supposedly weren’t able to budge it. While the elephant story might be a myth, glaciers can transport extremely heavy rocks—there’s one in Canada that weighs 16,500 tons.

10. GOLDEN ROCK PAGODA // MYANMAR

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This 25-foot-tall rock is also mysterious. Myanmar does have glaciers, so that is always a possibility, but according to Buddhist tradition, the rock was placed there to enshrine a hair from the Buddha’s head.

11. MANMADE BALANCING STONES // AROUND THE WORLD

Recently, rock balancing has become a popular art. Based on traditional cairns (stacks of rocks that are either memorials or landmarks) they can become extremely intricate. But the craze is not without its critics. The removal of the rocks for the balancing act can cause the underlying soil to erode faster, as well as destroy the homes of small animals. In addition, building them in areas where cairns are used as trail markers is a quick way to get a lot of people very lost. Because of this, modern rock balancers prefer to place their rocks back where they found them after they take a few photos.

12. 67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO // OUT OF THIS WORLD

ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

In 2014, the European Space Agency landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In the images sent back to Earth was a picture of what look like balancing rocks on the surface of the comet. Their origin is mysterious: it could be that as the comet neared the Sun, ice melted away around these more impervious objects, leaving them behind. It could be that various interactions cause these boulders to move. Or it might even be camera perspective, and better imaging will reveal nothing out of the ordinary. Until then, any tour of the best balancing stones will require a space suit.

The Reasons Why Iceland Is So Expensive

iStock.com/Leopatrizi
iStock.com/Leopatrizi

More Americans are taking vacations to Iceland, and many are returning home with sticker shock. According to Iceland Magazine, “consumer prices in Iceland are on average 66 percent higher than in Europe,” with costs in the land of fire and ice outpacing famously expensive countries such as Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark.

Just look at the prices for food in Iceland’s capital of Reykjavík: A pre-made sandwich at a grocery store can cost more than $10, while a single teabag (with “free” hot water) can run you $4. A meal for two at a casual restaurant regularly costs in the ballpark of $80 to $100 while a beer at a pub downtown goes for about $12 during regular hours. In other words: Visiting Iceland is sort of like being trapped in an airport ... except this airport has volcanoes.

As for what makes the country so expensive, there’s no single explanation. It’s a combination of politics, economics, and geography.

Let’s start with geography. Since Iceland nearly tickles the Arctic Circle, its climate is not conducive to farming. There are few native crops and the growing season is short. According to a report from the European Consortium for Political Research [PDF], Icelanders produced “64.9 percent of their own food and beverages in 2010.” The rest of that food was imported. The same goes for most other goods.

The cost of importing those products—usually from the UK, Germany, the U.S., and Norway—gets passed on to the consumer. In Iceland, imported sweets and alcohol are slapped with an extra cargo fee and all wheat products are subject to a relatively high tariff. So prepare to shell out for that bread.

The country’s currency also keeps costs high. In 2008, Iceland was plagued by a financial crisis that saw the country’s three banks fail and the value of the national currency, the króna, plummet. But the country has seen a miraculous recovery. Since 2009, the króna has strengthened by a whopping 40 percent against the euro. In 2017, it was deemed the world's best-performing currency. That has caused the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar to decrease.

Taxes also add to the cost. Like most countries, Iceland has a valued-added tax, or VAT. (In the United States, a close equivalent would be the state sales tax.) The VAT for goods in Iceland is 24 percent, while the VAT for foodstuffs is taxed at a discounted rate of 11 percent. For Americans, these tax rates are very high. Most states don’t even charge a sales tax on food at all.

(However, while taxes are a contributor, they are not the cause of high costs in Iceland. Many countries have similarly high VAT rates and are not as expensive. Germany, for example, has a 19 percent VAT—and a 7 percent VAT on foodstuffs—but is home to significantly cheaper groceries than those sold in the United States. It’s also important to know that, as an international visitor, you can get some of your VAT refunded.)

Rather, the biggest contributor to costs in Iceland is the country’s high standard of living. In Iceland, the average pre-tax income is about $60,000, with a median income of about $47,000. (In the U.S., the average income is about $48,150 with a median of around $31,000.)

In Iceland, approximately 92 percent of the country’s working population is part of a labor union. Consequently, people who work jobs that Americans might consider “low-wage”—especially jobs in the service industry—earn much higher wages and enjoy more benefits. In fact, the national monthly minimum wage for most industries is 300,000 ISK, or about $2500 per month. That’s equivalent to $15 an hour. But since employees earn more, customers generally pay more for goods.

And, of course, any tourist complaining about high prices should take a moment to point a finger at the mirror. Since 2010, Iceland has seen tourism multiply fivefold. With a growing number of people competing for a limited supply of goods, prices have continued to rise; the dastardly supply and demand curve strikes again!

How to See a Dozen Presidential Homes in One Road Trip for Less Than $220

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

Do you have a passion for travel, American history, and presidential trivia? If so, you may want to start packing your bags now. Wanderu has mapped out three separate road trips that show history buffs how they can visit more than 20 presidential homes and estates across the country, should they choose to combine all three excursions into one mega-trip.

The travel platform has already done the research and legwork, identifying the buses and trains that connect each city on the itinerary, as well as the cost of each. Fortunately, these trips are friendly on the wallet. Transportation would cost about $218 for the East Coast trip, which has the most jam-packed itinerary of the three. The California trip would cost about $93 (unless you choose to drive, which is doable), and a third itinerary that covers the Midwest—it starts in Ohio, dips into Kentucky, and then ends in Iowa—would set you back some $200.

Some of the presidential pads on the list—like George Washington's Mount Vernon home and Ulysses S. Grant's Illinois home—can be toured. Others are private, and thus best admired from a distance. Check out the itineraries below, and visit Wanderu's website for more details.

The East Coast itinerary:
1. Concord, New Hampshire: The Pierce Manse, home of Franklin Pierce
2. Boston: John F. Kennedy's Brookline birth home
3. Hyannis, Massachusetts: The Kennedy Compound, which served as the headquarters of JFK's 1960 presidential campaign
4. Newport, Rhode Island: The Eisenhower House (Bonus: The Hammersmith Farm where JFK and Jackie got married is just down the road)
5. New York City: The Chester A. Arthur House
6. Princeton, New Jersey: The Westland Mansion, where Grover Cleveland lived
7. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wheatland, where James Buchanan lived
8. Philadelphia: The Deshler-Morris House, where George Washington camped out when the city was hit with a yellow fever epidemic
9. Washington, D.C.: President Lincoln's Cottage
10. Washington, D.C.: The Woodley Mansion, where both Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren lived at different times
11. Alexandria, Virginia: Mt. Vernon, George Washington's estate
12. Charlottesville, Virginia: Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed (and the building on the back of the nickel)

The Midwest itinerary:
1. Canton, Ohio: The William McKinley Library & Museum, where McKinley is entombed in a marble sarcophagus
2. Cincinnati, Ohio: The William Howard Taft Historical Site, which encompasses his former home
3. Louisville, Kentucky: The Zachary Taylor House
4. Indianapolis: The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, which includes the president's former home
5. Chicago: Barack Obama's Hyde Park Residence
6. Galena, Illinois: The Ulysses S. Grant Home
7. West Branch, Iowa (near Iowa City): The Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, which includes the cottage where Hoover was born and the blacksmith shop where his father worked

The California itinerary:
1. Los Angeles: Nixon's former home on Whittier Boulevard
2. Los Angeles: Reagan's Westwood Residence
3. Santa Barbara: Rancho del Cielo, where Reagan often vacationed
4. San Jose: The Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House

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