The morning after the Eli Young Band concert, Mom and I slept in a bit and then headed out for our biggest trek of Spring Break – a 3.5 hr drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I had been once, the first Christmas after I moved to the Southwest when my friend H- visited, but I hadn’t been back since and not only did I want to see it one more time, I new Mom had to see it while she had the chance.
The drive was pretty much what you’d expect through the desert – a whole lot of nothing. We stopped for gas on the north side of El Paso since I knew from experience that it was the last sign of civilization until we reached Carlsbad. Really the only semi-exciting thing that happened during the drive itself was getting stopped by the Border Patrol. Normally they just ask you what country you’re from or if you’re American citizens, but this guy just knew we had driven through his station less than an hour before and proceeded to stare us down until he finally gave us the go-ahead to move on. Why on Earth someone would turn around on that deserted stretch of road to go through the Border Patrol checkpoint is beyond me. Mom was tickled, though, and made up some scenario where we were yucca smugglers.
We stopped for lunch (complete with adorable picnic!) about 45 minutes away from the Caverns in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is the home of the tallest point in all of Texas – Guadalupe Peak (8,749 ft.) – as well as one of the most famous mountains in all of Texas – El Capitan. The original plan was to get there when the park opened, do a shorter hike and then eat lunch before heading to the Caverns, but our late night at the concert made us readjust some things. Instead of a hike, we picnicked, toured the small visitors center and took a lot of pictures. I’d like to go back some time and climb El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak, as well as do some back country camping and hiking, but that’ll be a little ways down the road.
After lunch, we made the final push to Carlsbad Caverns. The visitor’s center/entrance is on the top of a barren mountain outside of Carlsbad, NM, which my little car had to weave around and up for some time before reaching the summit. We went into the visitor’s center right away and after a trip to the gift shop (glow in the dark t-shirts for both of us), we bought tickets for the tour.
For anyone who has never toured Carlsbad or a cave like it, there are a few tour options: you can pay extra to spelunk and crawl around on your belly with a headlamp, or sign up for a ranger-guided tour, or you can simply do the cheaper self-guided option. We chose the self-guided tour and opted to walk down the natural entrance into the cave, rather than simple taking the elevator.
The natural entrance is beautiful. On the outside, you see an amphitheater where you can watch the bats at sunset exiting the cave and then right below is a massive hole in the Earth, looking like it will just swallow you up. As you enter the cave, you travel down dozens and dozens of switchbacks (which the ranger referred to as “a couple” – I really want to see his definition of “a couple” someday), until you’re completely enveloped in the darkness with only minimal lights scattered here and there to light the path. Finally the switchbacks connect to the trail in the Big Room, where you join the elevator people in exploring the cavern.
One of the neatest features of the natural entrance is something called “The Whale’s Mouth” that looks something like a cross between the story of Jonah and Jurassic Park!
The Big Room tour took us between an hour and a half and two hours and was spectacular. The big and/or unusual formations all have names, but there’s something to see no matter where you look. The great part about the self-guided tour is that you can take your time, really read the informational signs and take good pics, or you can fly through if you don’t have much time. I personally recommend taking your time, but to each his own.