Following an unprecedented year of lockdowns and austere travel restrictions, (mostly) vaccinated Minnesotans gradually returned to the road and the air throughout 2021. It's not surprising, though, that we largely gravitated to destinations of social distance: national parks, mountainous panoramas, exotic landscapes and the wild blue yonder.

Our annual Viewfinders roundup of our readers' top travel pictures is proof. Ghost towns, futuristic cities and visions of an often-fragile environment were among the best amateur photos submitted by Star Tribune readers this year. These 10 surprising and inventive images offer us fodder and encouragement for ever-expanding explorations in 2022.

Sandra Lee of Chaska. Near the Swiss village of Grindelwald, two bovines came in for a closeup against the backdrop of the Alps. Dairy cows have an elevated cultural status in Switzerland. "You can hear their bells from miles away," Lee said. "They will sometimes follow the hikers for a bit. Then it gets close to milking time and they find their way home."

Mick Richards of Burnsville. Zion National Park in Utah was certified an International Dark Sky Park in June, and Richards' portrait of the Milky Way over a red sandstone bluff in a secret spot shows us why. "There's no light pollution because there aren't any cities around Zion," the photographer confirmed. "It was shot about 11 p.m. and the stars were extremely bright."

Dave Marsh of Mahtomedi. Marsh learned about the ghost town of Owanka, S.D., when it was featured in a 2014 Viewfinders photo by reader John Piepkorn. So Marsh made his own trip to Owanka, which he says consists of "an old house, old truck, grain elevator and two residents." His double-exposure image captured three out of five of those elements.

Mark Weber of Eden Prairie. The sun was just beginning to break through the fog one September morning in the Grand Prismatic Spring area of Yellowstone, which visitors explored via boardwalk. "It looks like a black-and-white photo, but was shot in color with my iPhone," Weber noted.

Peter Molenda of Minneapolis. Who needs a picture frame when you can view the iconic 13,771-foot Grand Teton and the nascent Snake River through the frame of a split-rail fence? Molenda's family wanted to see the Tetons from a different perspective, so they followed rural roads outside Jackson Hole, Wyo., before coming upon this sight. He used an iPhone 11.

Erik Skon of Stillwater. On a three-week September trip across northern Italy for their 30th anniversary and 70th birthdays, Skon and his wife settled at the lovely Villa Tiboldi in the Piedmont wine region. He shot this photo from their balcony at dawn with his iPhone 12 Pro. "I thought the layering of light and color on the varied landscape was magical," he said. Agreed.

Lara Durben of Buffalo, Minn.: Durben and family were driving outside Kilmaine, County Mayo, Ireland, when they pulled over to check a tire. "I peeked over the stone wall and was startled to find these sheep grazing. They were equally startled by me and we all stared at each other for a split second," Durben recalled. "This photo is one of my favorites because it was completely unexpected."

Patrick Plautz of Eagan. Western Wisconsin is a land of fire and ice in this spontaneous sunset scene, spotted on the way home from the cabin. "I was driving back to the Twin Cities when I crossed the Eau Claire River near the small town of Willard," Plautz wrote in an e-mail. "It took my breath away!"

Diane Karkhoff Sisko of Woodbury: On a camping trip in Badlands National Park, Sisko and spouse were stopped in their tracks. "As we were headed back to our campsite, the sun was setting and was especially large and red due to the wildfires out West," Sisko explained. The hovering orb seems to mirror the park's signature striped rock spires.

Lonnie Lovness of Marine on St. Croix: This isn't a science-fiction movie — it's a twilight scene outside the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, one of the "12 Treasures of Spain." Against the backdrop of the Hemisferic, which houses an Imax and planetarium, niños set out across a reflecting pool inside floating Zorb balls, just before the pandemic. "Made me want to be 8 years old again," Lovness wrote.

Correction: Previous versions of this article showed the incorrect photo by Peter Molenda.