As a DM, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on how to build interesting combat and social encounters for parties of any level. However, I often struggle to do the same for the exploration pillar of the same, especially at mid to high levels.
Note that this question is about the exploration pillar as described in the basic rules:
Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.
The problem that I’m facing is that most exploration challenges I can think of such as deep chasms, poisonous swamps, lava streams, hidden treasures, et cetera are trivially defeated once the party has access to spells such as levitate, fly, locate object, create food and water, … Some of these spells are available at lower levels but there they actually take a significant investment of spell slots, which becomes less of an issue at higher levels. I do not want to take away these spells from the party, but that means many exploration challenges I put on fail to provide an actual challenge.
One possible way to answer this question would be to provide a list of what elements make up an interesting exploration challenge. For the combat pillar, these elements would be things like: interesting enemies, an interesting location, a clear objective that isn’t just ‘kill all enemies’, … Likewise, for social encounters these elements include the different factions involved as well as interesting personalities for NPCs, their objectives, secrets, flaws, … So my question is: what are the elements making up an interesting exploration challenge?