Strolling through a tranquil landscape of lush meadows and meandering streams in northern New Mexico, it was hard for national parks traveler Mikah Meyer to imagine that this area was once rocked by a violent force of nature.
1.25 million years ago, a supervolcano blew its top, creating a 21-kilometer wide circular depression now known as the Valles Caldera.
“It really is this gorgeous bowl of pure grass, with mountains on every side, and it's a stunning thing to look at, [especially] coming from the rest of New Mexico that is so mountainous everywhere, and so dry,” Mikah said.
The ancient land where ancestral natives once lived is one of the newest sites to be protected by the National Park Service. Today, Valles Caldera National Preserve is home to an abundance of wildlife, including the second largest elk population in New Mexico as well as Gunnison prairie dogs, coyotes, badgers, black bears, Eastern mountain bluebirds, golden eagles and bobcats.
Grueling journey to engineering wonders
People often say that it’s the journey that matters more than the destination, but that certainly wasn’t the case as Mikah made his way northwest to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
According to the young traveler, who’s one-third of the way through his quest to visit all 417 national park sites within the U.S., this was the hardest park to get to so far.
“It was 20-some miles of rough, rough gravel roads -- I mean I easily was going 4-5 miles per hour and even then the van was shaking and it was probably the worst experience I've had accessing a park.”
But he realized the rough ride was worth it, once he arrived at his destination.
“The park itself was really gorgeous…beautiful canyons with valleys, lots of ancient ruins, lots of historical and cultural and spiritual significance of the Chaco culture and the Chaco people and the natives of today and how they got there.”
Chaco has approximately 4,000 prehistoric archaeological sites, including 16 “great houses” -- the largest, best preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America. Altogether, the park's prehistoric and historic archaeological sites represent more than 10,000 years of human cultural history in Chaco Canyon.
In addition to its remarkably well-preserved structures, the park is also known for its spectacular night skies. On August 19, 2013, Chaco Culture distinguished itself by becoming the world's newest International Dark Sky Park (IDSP), one of only four National Park sites to receive this distinction.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association, the designation is given to "a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
In recognition of its rich archaeological resources, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Aztec Ruins National Monument, also in northwestern New Mexico, was not as spectacular as Chaco Culture. But Mikah said it was easy to get to.
“It's just a very tiny site with an old ruins of the native people that lived there, so not the most magnificent site but a nice addition to help better understand the native culture that is shared partially by the historical park.”
While it may be small, the National Park Service refers to the site as “the footprint of Ancestral Pueblo society,” because it was one of the largest communities in this region.
One of the excavated buildings is the large, 900-year-old ancestral Pueblo Great House, which many believe was used for ceremonial or social purposes. It has more than 400 rooms.
Mikah strolled the kilometer-long trail through the ruins, exploring intact doorways and rooms, and visited a reconstructed Great Kiva, a room Puebloans would have used for religious rituals and political meetings.
As he reflected on his multi-day journey through this stark but charming area of the American southwest, Mikah said he enjoyed learning about the region’s rich and ancient history through the many natural and man-made wonders that are being preserved for all to enjoy.
“The name of New Mexico is Land of Enchantment and it's a really great moniker because it is a state of such varied landscapes,” he said. “From Carlsbad Caverns to White Sands National Monument, to the Gila Cliffs…” and the 12 others that he visited, “it’s just such a diverse state with so much candy for the eye that it really should not be overlooked by any traveler.”