Justin and I just got back from a brief trip to New Mexico. It was our third attempt to visit Carlsbad Caverns, and I’m happy to say that third time’s the charm. We were finally able to visit this AMAZING national park. Though, in a way, I suppose it’s bittersweet because we no longer have a real reason to return to that area of New Mexico now that Mission Carlsbad Caverns was accomplished.
We left on Saturday. I don’t really have much to say about the drive. We drove to NM in two days. The first day we drove to San Angelo rather than trying to drive all 12 hrs in a day. We left our house around noon and got to San Angelo a little bit after sunset:
We stayed at a Hampton Inn. It was the same Hampton Inn that we had stayed at when we drove back from NM last year. There’s an IHOP next to the hotel. I had double berry pancakes and the “Jolly” Hot chocolate. I think Justin had a burger.
Then we went back to the room and watched the Holiday Baking Championships on TV until we got tired.
The next morning, we grabbed some breakfast at the hotel breakfast and went on our way to New Mexico.
About an hour after we had been on the road. I realized I didn’t have my camera. Now I had had it the day before and I remembered bringing into the hotel. So I looked up the hotel, and called them. The manager on duty said he would look for my camera, and we turned right around and drove straight back to San Angelo, costing us a 2 hr detour. But as soon as I walked in the hotel, the manager handed me my camera, so thank goodness I got the camera back. And thank goodness we were only an hour into the trip when I realized it was missing. Had I realized it was missing later, we probably would’ve just picked it up on the way back from the trip and I would’ve just used my phone to take pics. But I’m just so grateful that the manager found my camera and I got it back. My camera is seriously like my 5th limb.
The journey to New Mexico is pretty boring. It basically looks like this:
And it looks like that for hours, and google took us through these two lane back-roads with no 4G, cell service, or even places to stop. There was one point where Justin and I both had to go to the bathroom so badly that we were looking at trees and bushes and trying to figure out if any of those would work as a toilet. Luckily a random Pilot service center showed up shortly after that. We got to the KOA in New Mexico around 3:30 pm or so. We chose to stay at the same KOA that we had stayed at last year, but since we FROZE while camping outdoors last year, we stayed in one of the cabins. It had no bathroom and had a bunk bed [J took the top bunk] and a full-size bed. We were the last cabin, the Poni cabin, so we were furthest from the bathroom. This was not very fun when your bladder is as small as mine and you’re as blind as a bat and wear contacts and left your glasses at home. I’d go to the bathroom at like 2 am and all the stars and lights and everything seriously looked like UFOS or those strange lights supposedly in Marfa, TX. But on the bright side, it had heat, and we were very warm the entire time we were there.
[my side of the cabin]
We set up our beds, and then went to the clubhouse and watched some Food Network and played in our iPads and switches til we got hungry. For dinner, we had freeze dried spaghetti in meat sauce and s’mores and it was delicious. We ate it basically in the dark, lit a fire, and just stared at the stars. I even loaded the Google Sky app and was in awe of all the constellations. Some of them I recognized like Orion and Cassiopeia. Others the app showed me. After dinner we spent time in our cabin and played even more switch [Pokemon Sword/Shield] until we finally decided to go to bed.
We woke up at sunrise. Carlsbad Caverns were an hour away and we wanted to get there pretty early so we had time to do both the natural entrance and the Big Room. We also wanted to beat the crowds. We had freeze-dried breakfast scramble for breakfast and some pop-tarts and basically drove straight to the caverns.
We shopped around the Visitor’s Center when we first got there. We stamped our passports, bought our passport stickers, and bought some souvenirs. I got some postcards, some which I mailed from Carlsbad Caverns because they have this cool stamp at the bottom of the cavern that says “mailed from 750 feet below ground,” and I thought some of my friends would get a kick out of that. Hopefully I’ll eventually remember to mail the others… though it might not be for months… I also bought a snowglobe for a friend and some magnets. Justin bought a poster and a snowglobe, as well. I also got my junior ranger book. Then it was downwards into the caverns…
Carlsbad Caverns like Guadalupe Mountains National Park used to be a part of Capitan Reef, which used to be a part of The Delaware Basin back during the Permian time. As the caverns developed, they were within the groundwater zone. During the end of the Cenozoic age, hydrogen sulfide began to seep upwards from petroleum that was in the groundwater. The combination of hydrogen sulfide and oxygen from the water formed sulfuric acid. This acid continued upwards and dissolved the limestone, which formed Carlsbad Caverns. The acidic groundwater drained from the caverns, and then speleothems began to be deposited within the caverns. Erosion above ground created the natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns within the last million years. Exposure to the surface allowed the influx of air into the caverns. And that is how the caverns formed though I think the Visitor’s Center and various exhibits throughout the caverns explained this better than I did.
In 1898, a teenager named Jim White was the first explorer of the cave. He used a wire ladder to go down into the caverns. He named many of the different rooms in the caverns including The Big Room, New Mexico Room, Kings Palace, Queens Chamber, Papoose Room, and the Green Lake room. He also named many of the prominent formations throughout the caverns. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation establishing it was Carlsbad Cave National Monument.
The proclamation stated: “… a limestone cavern known as the Carlsbad Cave, of extraordinary proportions and of unusual beauty and variety of natural decoration; … beyond the spacious chambers that have been explored, other vast chambers of unknown character and dimensions exist; … the several chambers contain stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations in such unusual number, size, beauty of form, and variety of figure as to make this a cavern equal, if not superior, in both scientific and popular interest to the better known caves …”
In 1924, he issues an executive order for a possible national park or monument to be erected at the site.
In 1928, a supplemental executive order was issued, which reserved additional land for the possible monument or park.
On May 14th, 1930, an act of congress established it as Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Until 1932, visitors to the cavern had to walk down a switchback ramp that took them 750 feet below the surface. The walk back up was extremely tiring. In 1932, the park officially opened a large visitor center that contained two elevators that took visitors in and out of the cavern below.
The park contains over 119 caves. Only 3 are open to public tours, the most popular being Carlsbad Caverns. It is also the most developed and has electric lights, paves trails, and elevators. Over 120 miles of cave passages have been explored and mapped. The unmapped areas are only open for scientific expeditions.
Justin and I chose to descend into the caverns via the Natural Entrance:
The Natural Entrance was VERY steep. I think you probably want to walk down it, not up it. Going into the cave, you lost 750 feet, which is pretty much like walking down a 75 story building. The trail was pretty steep. My hamstrings/quads/shins were hurting me for about two days afterwards. Not in a bad way, more like in a muscle pain from working out way. We both wore hiking shoes. The trail is paved and it does have railings, but it can be wet and slippery due to water within the caverns dripping down from formations. J almost slipped at one point. On average it takes about 1 hour to go from the outside to the Big Room, but it took us much longer because we were in awe of everything we saw.
Flash photography is allowed, but I think the flash washed out the natural colors of the formation, so I didn’t use it. Editing all my pics was fun. Because the speleothems are all sorts of shapes and textures, when I was editing my pics, so many of them looked blurry but they were not. I also didn’t really do much editing, in general because the pics were taken in such low-light.
So down into the caverns we went… and into the…. Twilight Zone.
Formations inside the natural entrance included Devil’s Spring, Iceberg Rock, Devil’s Den, and the Witch’s Fingers, amongst others. We saw all sorts of speleothems as well.
We saw Dripstone that included Stalactites [they’re the ones on the ceilings], Soda Straws [very thing but long stalactites], Columns, and Stalagmites [the ones from the ground]. There were different types of Flowstone including Draperies [they look like curtains], Rimstone Dams [occur at stream ripples and form barriers that may contain water], and Stone Waterfalls. There was Cave Popcorn [calcite that sort of looks like kernels of popcorn hence its name] and Cave Pearls [near perfect looking spheres of calcium carbonate].
The trail was dimly lit. But it was still pretty dark. I don’t really think you need a flashlight for it. Our eyes adjusted pretty quickly once we passed The Twilight Zone and we could see perfectly, though if the caves lost power, I think we’d be pretty fucked. There were people with headlamps and using their phones as flashlights, but again, I don’t think it was necessary, at all. As you descend deeper into the cave, it gets cooler, but it wasn’t cold. The cavern has a temperature of 56 degrees, but it’s a humid 56 degrees. I wore a tee-shirt over a long-sleeved shirt and pants and I was fine. There is no food or drinks allowed in the cavern except for plain water.
Justin and I pretty much had the cavern to ourselves. I mean, yes there were people, but it seemed that most people just hurried down the trail and didn’t really pause to look at anything. For the majority of our hike, it seemed like we were the only ones in the cave. We went slowly and just truly enjoyed everything we saw. It was like we were on another planet.
Here are the pics from the natural entrance:
After we finished with the natural entrance, we used the bathrooms at the visitor center and wrote some postcards to mail to friends from 75 stories underground.
Note: You don’t need to hike the natural entrance though I would highly recommend it. You can always take the elevator down from the above ground visitor center and just go to the Big Room from there. But I think the natural entrance IS NOT worth missing, and you can always take the elevator up like we did.
After sending postcards and things, we walked The Big Room Trail.
The Big Room is about a mile walk. The route passes through many of the most well-known formations including the Bottomless Pit [which is actually not bottomless, it’s about 140 feet deep, but has a soft dirt bottom, which is why nobody had originally heard a sound when they dropped items down it to estimate how deep it was], Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, Painted Grotto, The Caveman, Chinese Theater, Doll’s Theater [which the lights weren’t working for when we walked past it], Temple of the Sun, and Mirror Lake [which was my favorite].
The Big Room is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eighth largest in the world. It’s the size of 6 football fields. It takes about 1.5 hours to complete, but there is a shortcut that makes the walk only about 45 minutes and cuts the trail in half. Parts of the trail are wheelchair friendly. It was a pretty flat trail, and I don’t think anybody would really have trouble completing it.
Here are a plethora of pics from the Big Room:
After we finished with The Big Room [which was awesome] we took the elevator back up to the surface:
Then we sat in the Visitor’s Center so I could finish my Junior Ranger book and earn my badge, which I did.
After that we went to our car and headed to Guadalupe Mountains National Park because it’s right next to Carlsbad Caverns, and when we had gone the year before, the computers had been down, and we didn’t get to buy anything like stickers or postcards or posters and we needed to remedy that.
The registers were up and running. I mailed a few postcards from there, the park rangers were super nice and said they’d stick it into their own personal mailboxes since unlike other national parks, Guadalupe Mountains NP does not have a mailbox. I stamped my passport and bought some magnets and stickers. Unfortunately they didn’t have the park sticker for the passport because they had sold out of it, so I’ll have to find that one online.
After that we drove back to the cabin. We ate dinner [pop tarts and chicken and dumplings] and spent most of the night playing Pokemon. The wind got really strong that night. It felt like it was over 20 mph, and I’m not gonna lie, it sort of freaked me out a little. It especially freaked me out when I had to wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I felt like I was going to blow away.
The next morning, we were off to Roswell.