Natural Illusions: Finding Magic in Real Life

Last time on the blog we touched on one of our personal favorite natural illusions — afterimage! That post really got us thinking. There is a whole world of naturally occurring optical illusions out there just waiting to be discovered. From animals with creative camouflaging techniques, to rock formations that look like they’re from another planet. No matter where you go, you never know when you’re going to encounter (or even discover) an optical illusion.

Next time you go exploring, we want you to be prepared when you come across a natural illusion. So, we thought we would share some of our favorites. Whether it’s specific locations that tend to get a little trippy, or occurrences that you could find right outside of your own front door. Here are some of the best optical illusions that nature has to offer!


Not sure about you, but when we were younger we had a very different idea of what mirages were. We thought the first time we encountered this natural illusion would be like the movies. You know, the one where the main character is crawling through the desert begging for water. They look up and see a tropical oasis up ahead. But, when they arrive to take a gulp from the cool, clear water… it was just a mirage.

A mirage in the desert. Used by the Museum of Illusions New York City blog.
A mirage in the desert.

What we didn’t expect was to see a mirage ahead of us on pretty much every hot summer day. Next time you’re driving down the highway in the summer, pay attention to the pavement in front of you. You’ll probably find yourself chasing a mirage.

Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls

Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls is the illusion lover’s (and/or photographer’s) white whale. This small waterfall on the eastern edge of El Capitan can easily be outshined by the park’s larger natural wonders. However, for a few weeks in February, the small but mighty Horsetail becomes one of the most popular attractions in the park.

A photo of Yosemite's Horsetail Falls by Bill Woolf used for the Museum of Illusions NYC blog.
Yosemite’s Horsetail Falls turned into a fiery waterfall thanks to the sun. Photo by Bill Woolf.

This is because the waterfall occasionally appears to be made of fire. When the sunset hits just right, the innocuous waterfall turns into the glowing Firefall pictured above.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana is a particularly creepy type of mirage. Once believed to be created by witchcraft in order to lure sailors to their death, the Fata Morgana actually occurs most frequently in polar regions and creates the appearance of ghostly ships floating just above the water.

An example of Fata Morgana. Used for the MOI NYC blog.
Fata Morgana – one of the most compelling natural illusions.

In reality, the ship pictured above isn’t actually floating above the horizon, it’s one of many natural illusions.  Fata Morgana occurs when there is a warm layer of air and a cold, dense layer of air causing the light to refract. But if you witness a Fata Morgana, be sure to snap a photo. You might go viral on Twitter, or at the very least be able to creep out your friends.

Bolivian Salt Flats

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat at over 3,900 square miles. It’s also the world’s largest canvas for natural illusions. Visitors to the salt flat have gotten very creative with the vast, monochromatic space.

A visitor getting creative with perspective at the Bolivian Salt Flats. Used for the MOI NYC blog.
A visitor getting creative with perspective. photo: iFerol/Shutterstock


The white salt flats that seem to go on forever can do a number on a person’s depth perception. It also gets pretty trippy after a little bit of rain.

A car reflecting on the surface of the Bolivian Salt Flats. Used for the MOI NYC blog on natural illusions.
A car “driving on water.”

When it rains, the salt flats become a uniform reflective surface. This makes for some amazing “walking on water” photos for visitors.

As the saying goes, “art imitates life.” There is no shortage of illusions here at the Museum of Illusions NYC that are inspired by their naturally occurring counterparts. Stop by to visit our galleries and see if you can find the natural illusion influences! Click here to book your tickets. See you soon!