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It was 19th-century cowboys who first reported the host of goblins hiding between buttes and slot canyons at the southeast edge of Utah's San Rafael Swell, but it took modern geologists to explain what had created them. Lumpy, bumpy, and eerily humanoid, the two-to-twenty-foot (0.6-to-6-meter) figures were sculpted by wind and rain out of late Jurassic-era Entrada sandstone (the same rock found in Arches National Park) in a process called spheroidal weathering. Fractures in the sandstone formed sharp edges and corners that were particularly susceptible to erosion, and over millennia a grotesque terra-cotta army rose up out of the desert. Visit Goblin Valley State Park, then hike the nearby Little Wildhorse slot canyon (435-564-3633; www.stateparks.utah.gov.)
There are a lot of ways to measure a mountain, and by at least two of them, Hawaii's 13,677-foot (4,169-meter) Mauna Loa dwarfs Everest. At 19,000 cubic miles (79,195 cubic kilometers), Mauna Loa is the single largest landmass on Earth. A hundred times the volume of Mount Rainier, 375 times the volume of Mount Hood, it accounts for more than half the area of Hawaii's Big Island. Measured not from sea level but from its underwater base, it's an impressive 55,757 feet (16,995 meters) high, nearly twice the height of its Himalayan rival. Make the five-day, 47.6-mile (76.6 kilometer) round-trip hike to the summit (Hawaii Volcanoes National Park; 808-985-6000; www.nps.gov/havo).
Park biologist Mark Buktenica, 45, first person to reach the deepest point in Oregon's Crater Lake:
"There's a ring of mosslike a band of hair around a bald man's headthat circles all of Crater Lake. That was our first surprise; it's invisible from the surface. The moss starts at a hundred feet in depth and is draped off cliffs and matted on rocks all the way down to 450 feet (137 meters)so darn deep. Crater Lake has the clearest water ever measured, and that allows light to penetrate unusual distances.
"I made dives in 1988 and 1989 in the Deep Rover submarine, essentially a large plastic bubble with lights, oxygen tanks, and sampling equipment bolted to the outside. Deep Rover fits only one person, so you're both the pilot and the scientist. It takes a long time20 to 30 minutesto drop to the bottom of the lake, going from daylight into the blue, then into darkness. The day I went to the lake's deepest point, I turned off all the lights and the instruments and just sat there for a few minutes, taking in the silence. Even there, at 1,949 feet (594 meters) below the surface, my eyes could still pick up some vague light from above. Incredible."
Circumnavigate Crater Lake (formed by a volcano that erupted and collapsed 7,700 years ago) via the 33-mile (53-kilometer) Rim Drive. Stop at the Cleetwood Cove Trail, which drops 700 feet (213 meters) in one mile (1.6 kilometers) and provides the only safe access to the lakeshore (Crater Lake National Park; 541-594-3100; www.nps.gov/crla).
Mayor Bob Ensign, 46, tireless defender of a Colorado town's claim to fame:
"Those guys over in Leadville have always said they're the country's highest city, but there's never been any question that Alma is higher. I guess the battle started in the early '90s, when someone down thereI like to say 'down there' when talking about Leadvillelooked at a map and realized we had them beat. Their elevation was 10,152 feet (3,094 meters); ours was 10,355 (3,156 meters). But Leadville is built on a slant, so they found a hill where they could get above us, and changed their elevation. It wasn't fair. They already had the site of Doc Holliday's last gunfight, and now they were trying to steal our rightful thunder. I decided we needed to rake some muck.
"Alma had just measured a bunch of elevations for a municipal water project, so we picked one in the middle10,578 feet (3,224 meters)and made it our official reading. We kept a few feet up our sleeve in case Leadville tried to cheat. I had our lawyer draw up the resolution: '10,578 feet (3,224 meters) and rising.' (These mountains are still growing at a measurable rate.) Leadville can be the highest citywe wouldn't be caught dead calling ourselves city folkbut it's not the highest municipality. That's Alma."
From Breckenridge, drive south to Alma and up nearby Buckskin Gulch for close-ups of 14,148-foot (4,312-meter) Mount Democrat, 14,172-foot (4,320-meter) Mount Bross, and 14,286-foot (4,354-meter) Mount Lincoln (Pike National Forest; 719-836-2031; www.fs.fed.us/r2/psicc).
Hunched, weathered, and seemingly insignificantthe Yoda of North American florathe oldest tree in the world remains less than 40 feet (12 meters) tall after 4,733 years of growth. While anonymity protects it from modern threats (the bristlecone pine has a name, Methuselah, but is unmarked to keep vandals at bay), it owes its longevity mostly to adaptations made to survive in the barren, 10,000-foot (3,048-meter) moonscape of its White Mountains home. Take the four-mile (6.4-kilometer) loop hike to the Methuselah Grove and try to spot the oldest of the old (Inyo National Forest; 760-873-2400; www.fs.fed.us/r5/inyo).
The meteor that slammed into coastal Virginia 35 million years ago was moving at 70,000 miles an hour (112,654 kilometers an hour)fast enough to gouge out a mile-deep (1.6 kilometer-deep), 56-mile-wide (90-kilometer-wide) crater, send 2,000-foot (610-meter) tsunamis as far as West Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, and propel water 20 to 30 miles (32 to 48 kilometers) in the air. Scientistswho only recognized the crater ten years agosay it's responsible for everything from highly saline groundwater to the location of the 4,479-square-mile (11,601-square-kilometer) Chesapeake Bay itself. Sail with Deltaville Yachts (804-776-0800; www.deltavilleyachts.com).
The tallest wave ever measured on Lake Superior crested at 23 feet (7 meters), but marine forecasters believe rare rogue waves, like those suspected of sinking the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, can surpass 35 feet (10.6 meters). Of course, the surfers who brave the chilly waters of the continent's largest lake happily make do with much smaller swells: Breaks on the North Shorenorth of Duluth, Minnesota, that isare just about head-high. If the surf's not up at Duluth's Park Point and French River breaks, drive 50 miles (80 kilometers) north for oceanlike scenery at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park (218-226-6377; www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks).
Towering saguaros, dominant as they are in the arid hills of southern Arizona, maintain a surprisingly delicate existence. Even the biggest among themten-ton, 45-foot-tall (13.7-meter-tall) monsters more than 200 years olddroop severely after a two-day freeze; a week of frigid weather in the normally temperate Sonoran Desert (the cactus's sole habitat) can kill entire stands. And regeneration is a slow process: To survive, saguaro seedlings must grow up in the protective shadow of a palo verde or mesquite "nurse tree," taking about 15 years to reach a foot (0.3 meters) in height and up to 50 to begin flowering. Get ridge-top views of one of the densest cactus forests in the world on the 4.9-mile (7.9-kilometer) Hugh Norris Trail in Saguaro National Park (520-733-5158; www.nps.gov/sagu).
Patricia Wilcox, 60, first through the "tight spot" that tripled the known length of Mammoth Cave:
"That summer, 1972, we had a lot of people in a lot of parties looking for a passage that would connect the Flint Ridge system to Mammoth Cave. There were at least ten trips way out to the Candlelight River area, which previous surveys had shown came as close as 800 feet (244 meters) to Mammoth Cave.
"I started caving in the cold, wet caves of New York State, where you had to crawl into the smallest corners to find something new. So that's what I did at Flint Ridge. I was fairly small, but I was also willing to push really hard. The good thing about being a girl was that my widest point was at my hips rather than my shoulders, so I could poke my head in places and look around.
"The 'tight spot' was down a passage everybody thought was a dead end. I was alone and exhausted; it was dark and quiet, and I could hear the sound of falling water through a crack in the floor. So I squeezed partway down and found a room bigger than anything we'd seen all day; later, this led us all the way to the tourist trail at Mammoth."
Explore five (eight) of Mammoth's 365 miles (587 kilometers) on the ranger-guided Wild Cave tour (Mammoth Cave National Park; 270-758-2251; www.nps.gov/maca).
An 8,020-foot (2,444-kilometer) hill in a forest of huge summits, Triple Divide Peak in Montana's Glacier National Park claims an unlikely distinction. Water that falls on the southwest side of its rocky summit flows into Pacific Creek, then the Flathead River, then the Columbia, then the Pacific Ocean. On the mountain's southeast flank is Atlantic Creek, which leads to the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico. Hudson Bay Creek, predictably, flows north toward the Arctic Ocean. Scramble up the peak on a 14-mile (22.5-kilometer) day hike (Glacier National Park; 406- 888-7800; www.nps.gov/glac).
Get the full story (and the fantastic photographs) in the October 2003 issue of Adventure.
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