Three Trips to Natural Wonders

Discover the world's oldest tree, America's biggest cavern, and Florida's largest herd of wild horses on these three treks.
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Discover the world's oldest tree, America's biggest cavern, and Florida's largest herd of wild horses on these three treks.

Largest Cavern | Wild Cracker Horses | World's Oldest Living Tree

America's Largest Cavern

Descend into a 14-acre underground chamber.

The Wonder
New Mexico's Carlsbad Cavern is home to the largest subterranean chamber in the states. It was discovered in 1898 by Jim White, a 16-year-old cowhand (and eventual national park ranger) who used a handmade wire ladder to descend into the black abyss. Named the Big Room, it's the size of 10 and a half football fields and looks like the inside of a cathedral made of candle wax. Stalagmites and stalactites cling tightly to the swooping ceilings and floors, intermixed with leaning columns, rippled draperies, and delicate soda straws all formed as carbonic acid dissolves the cave's limestone.

The Way
Get a ticket at the visitor center ($6) and head into the gaping cavern along a sidewalk-wide 1.25-mile entrance trail. To see the Big Room, link to the Big Room Trail, another 1.25-mile path winding around and through impossible formations. Beat the midday rush by setting off at 8:30 a.m., right when the gates open. nps.gov/cave

Largest Cavern | Wild Cracker Horses | World's Oldest Living Tree

Florida's Wild Cracker Horses

See the heirs of Ponce de Leon's Spanish herd.

The Wonder
In 1521, Spanish explorers introduced horses to Florida. Today, you can see their ancestors–a herd of 20-odd horses–just 10 miles south of Gainesville, on Paynes Prairie, a 21,000-acre natural preserve. The horse's name derives from the crack of the whip brandished by Florida cowboys. Feral bands formed after the Spanish abandoned their horses to make room on their ships for treasure. Once used to herd cattle and pull buggies, the last descendants of these stout, strong Spanish mustangs are now protected on the preserve. They stick to Cone's Dike and Bolten Bluff, the best grazing in the preserve and a hangout for wild bison, alligators, and more than 270 species of birds.

The Way
Horses are roamers, but locals say that crackers reliably appear just about anywhere along Cone's Dike Trail, an 8.2-mile out-and-back. From the visitor center, head .25 mile up the Jackson's Gap Trail to merge onto Cone's Dike. It zigzags across the preserve's wide-open, reedy, and marshy southeastern edge. floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie

Largest Cavern | Wild Cracker Horses | World's Oldest Living Tree

The World's Oldest Living Tree

Hike to Methuselah Grove, where conifers predate Egypt's pyramids.

The Wonder
Methuselah, named after the biblical character who lived to be 900, looks like a wisp of smoke magically turned to wood. This 4,840-year-old great basin bristlecone pine sits in the subalpine zone of California's White Mountains at 11,500 feet. It's impossible to distinguish it from the crowd, though–it's unmarked to protect it from being "loved to death." Such was the fate of the world's former oldest tree, another great basin bristlecone, named Prometheus, which was cut down in 1964 by an unknowing grad student.

The Way
From the Schulman Grove trailhead, an hour northeast of Bishop, California, hike the Methuselah Grove Trail, a 4.5-mile loop with 800 feet of elevation gain. In 2.4 miles, you'll reach Methuselah Grove (rumor has it, the old man is near the trail). Arrive at sunrise or sunset, when trees explode in golden hues against the gray. fs.fed.us/r5/inyo