National parks traveler Mikah Meyer left Texas and headed to southern New Mexico, just in time to celebrate a milestone; he’s exactly one-third of the way through his 3-year journey to visit all 417 sites within the U.S. National Park Service.
He didn’t realize what spectacular beauty awaited him at his first two sites.
While in Texas, Mikah had explored the natural beauty among the mountains and canyons of the Chihuahuan Desert, but he soon discovered other natural gems, this time hidden beneath the desert in southeastern New Mexico: the 119 limestone caves in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
They were formed millions of years ago, when sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone along fractures and folds in the rock, leaving behind caves of all sizes.
Land of enchantment
As he explored one of the largest, Mikah said it was like looking up at the sky. “And in this case the sky that you’re looking at is full of stalactites. It's basically this incredibly filled cave with stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, in crazy designs.”
Stalactites hang like icicles from the roof of a cave. They are made up of calcium salts and other minerals deposited by water seeping from cracks in the roof. Stalagmites form in the same way, rising up from water that drips to the floor of a cave. The two often meet and fuse into a single column, creating a picturesque form.
WATCH: White Sands, Mystical Caves Mesmerize Parks Traveler
“I have a picture of one that looks like Jabba the Hutt; it looks like a Star Wars character with nasty teeth,” Mikah said. “There is other one that looks like a bunch of spider webs hanging from the ceiling and others that look like chandeliers.”
Outside of the cave, Mikah noticed a huge flock of birds flying around. Come evening, the skies fill with thousands of bats -- specifically, Brazilian (or Mexican) free-tailed bats. The 9-centimeter long creatures are among the most abundant North American mammals and reported to be the fastest flyer in the animal kingdom.
Experiencing the wonders of the cave helped Mikah understand why New Mexico's nickname is the Land of Enchantment. “It’s one of the most otherworldly places I've been to on this entire journey so far,” he said.
Heading north from the ethereal world of the caves, Mikah found himself in another surreal place… driving on a road covered with something that looked like snow…
“Growing up in Nebraska, this is what it looks like after a really heavy snow,” he noted.
Except he wasn’t in Nebraska… he was in the middle of a desert. And what he was driving on, wasn’t snow.
It was white sand. Lots and lots of white gypsum sand, covering 712 square kilometers of desert, the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. White Sands National Monument preserves a major portion of this unique dunefield, along with the plants and animals that live there.
"The reason this white sand exists is partially because there used to be a lake,” Mikah explained. As the ancient lake dried up, it left behind the sand. “And because the sand is in between two mountain ranges, that's what’s helped allow it to stay there," he added. “So it's a very, very unique opportunity to see a different ecosystem.”
Ocean of sand
Mikah had fun exploring those dunes, running up and down the glistening white sand in the white hot sun. At one point, he even swapped his sneakers for a snow saucer, using it to sled down the dune as he would have on a snowy hill.
Mikah also enjoyed a hike on the Alkali Flat Trail, a strenuous, 8 kilometer round trip. Despite its name, the trail isn’t flat, the National Park Service warns. Mikah hiked up and down dunes the entire way, with no shady refuge from the sun.
“When you're in the main part of the park where you’re driving around, the sands have some bushes and green trees in them, so it’s not just like this pure field of sand,” Mikah said. “But when you go on the Flats Trail it really becomes nothing but basically an ocean of white sand.”
“White Sands was a really big place for me because it was my 139th park site which marked exactly one third of the way through this journey," Mikah said. He stamped his National Park Service “Passport” with a cancellation stamp to commemorate the milestone.
He ended his day at the site with a fitting tribute.
"I made it a goal to get there for sunset because I'd heard the sunsets there were magical, and I’m proud to say I made it… it was really just another otherworldly place.”
That may be one of the reasons the site is one of Mikah’s top four favorite parks so far.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Monument are just two of 15 national park sites in New Mexico. Mikah, invites you to learn more about his journey through those enchanted lands by visiting him on his website, Facebook and Instagram.