After leaving the majesty of the Grand Canyon in the American Southwest, national parks traveler Mikah Meyer headed north to the cooler climes of the Pacific Northwest. Along the way, he stopped by some of the region's most picturesque and historic national parks.
"I kind of fit along the way these random parks that were out in the middle of nowhere that I could string together to make a route to Washington [State]," he said.
Natural highs … and lows
He was soon standing in the shadow of the tallest freestanding mountain in the state of Nevada — Wheeler Peak, in Great Basin National Park. The mountain stands 3,982 meters (13,065 feet) high and is named for George Wheeler, who led a survey of the Western U.S. in the 1870s.
"It's really in the middle of nowhere and there's no other National Park Service site anywhere near it, and so I asked one of the rangers ‘Why is this a National Park Service site?' And she told me that Nevada has more complete mountain ranges than any other state in the United States, including Alaska," he said.
That fact, along with the snow-capped peaks amid lush surroundings, surprised Mikah. "I feel like if you ask most people what Nevada looks like, this is not the answer they would give you!"
People usually associate Nevada with a desert landscape. But beyond the barren land and the lights and glitter of the state's most famous city, Las Vegas, travelers like Mikah can find many natural wonders.
"I went to a place called Stella Lake, a mountain lake which gives you a gorgeous view of Wheeler Peak," he said. To get there, he walked through a forest of aspen trees. "They were all just budding their spring light green colors. The wind was blowing so strong and these new-growth aspen trees were waving in the wind. It was a really ethereal experience."
Great Basin National Park is also known for Lehman Cave, one of the best places in the world to see hundreds of limestone shield formations.
On its website, the National Park Service describes the cave as an excellent example of a limestone solution cavern.
"Its beginning can be traced back 550 to 600 million years ago when a warm shallow sea covered most of what is now Nevada and Utah. Over the next 400 million years, sea creatures lived and died, piling layers of calcium carbonate-rich sediment on the ocean floor. These sediments gradually solidified into limestone rock."
"It was definitely pretty … very fascinating shapes of all sizes and forms," Mikah said. "So all within this park you can go underground and see this amazing cave and you can hike to the highest point in Nevada," he said.
Fascinating science and surreal scenery
As Mikah headed north to Oregon, he came across another surreal landscape — Painted Hills, one of three units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
"It's these really cool, dried-out looking mountains that have red stripes that cut across the rocks horizontally," he explained. "Rocks of orange and yellow and red, juxtaposed with super blue lakes, was completely another planet."
Noted American paleobotanist Ralph W. Chaney once said, "No region in the world shows a more complete sequence of tertiary land populations, both plant and animal, than the John Day Basin."
Also in Oregon, Mikah visited the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. The site commemorates an expedition led by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from 1804 to 1806, to cross what is now the western part of the U.S.
President Thomas Jefferson directed the men and their "Corps of Discovery" to map the territory, find a practical route across it to the Pacific Ocean and establish an American presence before European powers tried to claim it. Lewis and Clark were also to study the geography, plant and animal life along the way, and establish trade with Native American tribes.
"It's funny for me to look at this large historic expedition and realize these were men in their early 30 as they were doing this, and now here I am in my early 30 doing something similar," Mikah said. "And so it's a parallel, age-wise."
Visitors to the park can step into the Fort Clatsop replica for a sense of what the Corps of Discovery experienced more than 200 years ago.
But it was the natural beauty that impressed Mikah the most ... especially the Pacific coastline.
"It's hard to describe the feeling of looking over one of these jagged cliffs and seeing the sun beating on these rocks, and the waves crashing up against the jagged rock cliffs, and boy, I was just blown away by the beauty."
Journeying through the Pacific Northwest, Mikah had a chance to steep himself in history and some of the most stunning landscapes in the country — always a winning combination for a national parks traveler.