Day 36: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM + Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX by Wookie Kim

I drove only 200 miles today, which meant I could do more exploring. That also allowed me to visit two national parks in two different states and still enjoy an evening camped out under the stars. This was my kind of day.

The best days are the ones that start with a good meal. Since arriving in the southwest, I've eaten almost exclusively Mexican food. Nutritionally, I just can't find a better package anywhere. Plus, finding small mom and pop places has meant that I can get a lot to eat for not very much money. On the way to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, I stopped in the town of Artesia to dine at La Herradura. It hit the spot.

One of the fun parts about driving in a Prius is that you get to see all the numbers while you drive. It seems like a small thing, but it probably changed lots of drivers' habits--for the better. By knowing how your car is working, in the moment, you're much more likely to drive in safer, and more economical way. The beauty about starting your day in the mountains is that you can drive over 50 miles at 96.3 miles per gallon.

I made it to Carlsbad Caverns National Park by 1 p.m. This trip's theme has been running, so this park didn't really fit (though there are a few above-ground trails). Still, I couldn't pass up a chance to stop by and see what this place was about. The above-ground drive into the park and to the visitor center was impressive. The blue skies with white, wispy clouds helped.

As with most of our parks, there was evidence of prior eras everywhere. Here was a set of Civilian Conservation Corps buildings. The CCC, which FDR created as part of the New Deal, did a lot in the early 20th century to beef up our nation's infrastructure.

I was determined to get in and out of the caves relatively quickly. After all, I still had another national park to visit the very same day, and I wanted to hit the highlight of that park (i.e., Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas). I decided I'd do a self-guided tour into the Natural Entrance and down to the Big Room. At the bottom, I'd just take the elevator back up to the surface.

The Natural Entrance was large--far larger than any natural entrance I'd seen (I've visited two other cave systems on this trip). I could see why Carlsbad Caverns was so popular.

Before entering, I happened across a small lizard who'd just snagged a fly to eat. I was able to get pretty close to him. He didn't seem bothered by me.

And then I proceeded into the cave, beginning on steep switchbacks. I was surprised because I saw dozens of bats flitting from one side of the cave to the other. We're not supposed to take photos of bats (also, they were flying so fast that I don't think my simple camera could capture them), so I don't have any photos of them.

There were a lot of impressive features in the cave. I also was blown away by the scale of the cave. Each "room" was massive--far larger than the other caves I'd seen.

1.25 miles and negative 800 feet later, I was at the bottom. It was funny to see a small concession stand built right near the Big Room (i.e., the biggest chamber of the cave).

Then it was time to cross into my next state--Texas. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was my destination. Thankfully, it wasn't that far. I think it was under 40 miles from Carlsbad Caverns.

The Guadalupe Mountains abruptly rise up out of the desert. They are "sky islands"--isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments (here, the desert). The final few miles to the visitor center show this.

It was almost 4 p.m. when I arrived at the visitor center. One aspect of the park that makes it unique is that, unlike most other parks, Guadalupe Mountains doesn't have any roads going into or through the park. Moreover, there are no real "points of interest" on the highway outside the mountains. As a result, anyone who wants to see much of anything has to actually get out of his or her car and hike (or run) in. This was exactly my kind of park--one that forced you to get on your feet and explore.

Here, I was determined to push for the summit of Guadalupe Peak. The trail was 8 miles roundtrip, and involved 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It would certainly be tough, especially in the desert heat, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to cross off another "highest point in in the state". So I filled up my Camelbak and set off.

The ranger I spoke to at the visitor center was skeptical that I'd finish before sunset. She mentioned how the brochure lists the hike as taking 6-8 hours, but that a fit person could finish in 4 hours. I told her I was expecting to finish in about 3. She didn't believe me. I figured I'd show her that it could be done.

As a result, I suppose I was more conscious of my time on this run. I decided I'd take photos of my view at specified times. 15 minutes in, I was already way above the trailhead parking lot.

At the 30-minute mark, the parking lot was even more distant.

And an hour in, I'd made it "around the bend" and was looking up to the final face of the peak. From here, I couldn't even see where I'd come from.

As I neared the summit, the views became awesome. The contrast between the Chihuahuan Desert below and the Guadalupe Mountains I was on was stark.

One of the highlights of the park is El Capitan, which is the signature peak of West Texas.

I continued charging up to the summit. I obviously couldn't "run" all of it. But I managed to run most of it.

Finally, I made it to the summit, 8,751 feet above sea level and the highest point in Texas. It had taken 1 hour and 13 minutes. I'd easily break 3 hours. In fact, I'd probably break 2 hours if I ran at a decent pace on the descent.

There's a monument here to signify this high point. And there's also a register in which you can write a note and see all the thousands of people who've summitted before you.

At the top, I met a group of hikers from Oklahoma City. As I gazed at the desert expanse below, I chatted with them. After 30 minutes of taking it all in, I decided to descend back to the trailhead and to return to my campsite. I wanted to eat dinner and catch the evening's ranger talk (which ended up not happening). Even at a comfortable descending pace, I managed to get down in just over 45 minutes. Excluding the time spent enjoying the views at the summit, I'd taken just a tad over 2 hours to cover the trail.

The descents are actually the least enjoyable part of a mountain run. You'd think that it takes less effort, but even so, the descent is often the most hazardous. Because you have gravity working with you, you're more likely to lose control of your speed. As a result, you might screw up your footing, or make other missteps. Also, it's hard to leave the summit because everything generally becomes less spectacular. By descending, you're really coming back "down to earth"--and sometimes you don't want to do that.

I camped in the Pine Springs Campground at the base of the mountain. I was a little upset that the ranger talk didn't happen. But instead I sat under the dark night sky and looked at the stars.

Day 35: White Sands National Monument, NM by Wookie Kim

When I made my itinerary for this summer, I implicitly attached expectations to each stop. I knew the Grand Canyon would be grand, and I knew sites east of the Mississippi would, for the most part, not be grand. But there have been some places that have blown those expectations out of the water. White Sands National Monument, which is a gypsum sand dune area just a few miles west of Alamogordo, NM, is one of those places.

I left Lakeside, AZ late. I had about 400 miles to drive today, so that was a poor decision. I made the most of my time on the road. I came across a curious place called Pie Town. I stopped at the Pie-O-Neer. Apparently, Pie Town was named because pie was the main attraction of this town when it first popped up--people passing through would know to come here for a slice. I had the New Mexico apple pie (it has green chiles and pine nuts in it, too), and it was delicious. Worth the stop.

And then I cruised to White Sands National Monument. As has been typical lately--when I've been driving extended distances and also feeling the building fatigue--I arrived late in the day. It was 5:30 p.m. by the time I got out to the dunes. The sun blazed and painted the normally white dunes orange.

This was an incredible place. Unlike traditional sand dunes, the dunes in White Sands are made of gypsum crystals. White Sands is the only gypsum dune field of its scale in the world. So what allowed this to happen here and not elsewhere? Apparently, it has to do with the nature of the Tularosa Basin, which is somewhat unique in that no water flows out of it. Gypsum is water-soluble and normally flows out of a basin towards the sea. Since the water that arrives in the Tularosa Basin ends up staying here, it evaporates and leaves behind gypsum.

I learned from the ranger at the visitor center that the sand was pleasant to walk on. She mentioned that local university track teams would occasionally come out here to do workouts. I asked her if there were any hazards to running barefoot and, surprisingly, she said no. With that endorsement, I decided to run barefoot (and shirtless).

Another unique aspect of the monument is that there are really no trails. There's a scenic loop drive, but you're encouraged to get out wherever you want and just walk on the dunes. It was fun to find my own area and be the only one leaving footprints on a fresh dune.

The sand was cool to the touch. Gypsum is also unique in that it doesn't absorb heat well. So, even though it was scorching hot, and the sun had been beating down on the area all day, the sand was actually cool.  It was unlike any sand I'd ever stepped on before.

I liked being here at sunset. The whiteness of the sand provided the perfect canvas on which to see the long shadows that any vertical objects created. If the angle of the dune was right, my shadow extended hundreds of feet.

More than anything, the place was just peaceful. I'd gone off the road for just about half a mile, and I could barely see anyone or anything but sand dunes. The sunset also added a degree of serenity--I felt like the day was ending and everything was beginning to rest.

Looking more closely at the sand, however, you could see signs of life. One thing that has fascinated me about the deserts is how wildlife survive here. I saw traces of such wildlife while walking and running the dunes.

Of course, all the photos make it appear as though the dunes are not, in fact, white. I think the setting sun has to do with that. The reality is that the dunes are quite white. A close-up, and color-corrected, shot shows just what I mean (ignore my mangled, battered, ugly runner toes--and my sandal tan). 

And then it was time to run. I took some photos first, but then I went back to my car to drop everything but my cell phone (in case I got lost, the GPS would still work). I then proceeded to roam freely on the dunes, running in whatever direction I felt like running. It was incredible.

In fact, I thought to myself how useful it would be to have dunes like these near me. I'd have the chance to occasionally run barefoot and really feel the earth beneath my feet. It would be a great way to improve running form. I was still feeling drained from the R2R (this was 2 days later), plus it was getting dark, so I ended up running only 5 kilometers.

By the time I was done, the sun was dipping below the mountains on the horizon. Again, I felt completely calm--just like the landscape around me.

I meandered back towards (what I hoped was) my car. Each time I looked back, I saw a more impressive landscape.

From the hot desert (though by now it was slightly cooler), I proceeded back through the town of Alamogordo, ate a quick meal at a Mexican restaurant, and then drove up into Lincoln National Forest. There, at 9,000+ feet, I set up camp and watched the night sky before falling into a deep sleep.