John and I both lived in New Mexico and have been to Carlsbad before (we weren’t together at the time) but it has been almost 30 years. We wanted to visit again and see what we remembered and explore the area together. We were still in awe of Kartchner Caverns (see our Three Days Underground blog for info on those caverns) and wanted to compare it to Carlsbad since neither one of us had many memories of what we had seen 30 years ago.
If you plan on visiting any National Parks, make sure you buy an America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, it’s only $80 per year and will pay for itself in no time. If you’re 62 or older you can get a lifetime pass for $80 or an annual pass for $20. We already had a pass from when we visited Joshua Tree National Park before we hit the road in May. Carlsbad Caverns entrance fee is $15 per person, add that to the $20 we would have paid when we went to White Sands National Monument and the $30 for Joshua Tree and we are now even money with many more National Parks on our list for this year. The pass covers your entrance fees to National Parks, National Monuments, Battlefields and National Recreation Areas/Forests.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
I pride myself on being a pretty good travel planner but our first visit to Carlsbad Caverns proved otherwise. There are several ranger led tours that you can take where you will explore areas only accessible on the tours. I booked two tours, put them in my calendar and we showed up at Carlsbad Caverns ready to explore only to find out that we were a day early. I had it in my calendar right, I just didn’t have the days of the week in my head right. I’m blaming it on my recent retirement and losing track of what day it is. Luckily, the tours weren’t full so we were able to take the tours. Later in the season this probably wouldn’t have worked and I’m so happy we didn’t have to come back another day because the caverns were an hour away from our RV Park. There are a couple parks closer to the park (in White’s City) but they have horrible reviews and are in the middle of nowhere. Since we were going to be in the area for a week, we wanted to be closer to town.
If you plan on taking a ranger guided tour, I would recommend making reservations to ensure you get a tour. Depending on the time of year the tours sell out quickly.
Our first ranger guided tour was the King’s Palace tour ($16 for both of us). We rode the elevator down to the main area of the cave where there is a gift shop, café and the place to start the self-guided tour of the Big Room. It’s cool but kind of scary to watch the elevator illuminate the depth that you are traveling rather than the floors like we are used to. We met our guide who gave us a quick safety briefing including don’t touch anything, I wish more people paid attention to this. The tour was about an hour and half long and we were taken to the deepest part of the cavern open to the public at 830 feet below the desert surface. This isn’t a difficult trail, it’s only one mile but we did have to descend down the trail in the beginning which meant walking up a very steep hill at the end. The cool temperature of the cave (I wish I had brought a sweatshirt) made the hiking quite comfortable. We saw a variety of cave formations including columns, draperies, helictites and soda straws but my favorite part was when we were seated in a large open area and the lights were choreographed to highlight different cave formations. We also had a time where the ranger turned off all of the artificial light, I couldn’t even see my hand right in front of my face it was so dark. Our guide was very knowledgeable of the history and geology of the cave. It’s quite difficult to get photos inside the cave because of the limited lighting, but I tried anyway.
John had a work call to take after our first tour so we decided I would grab lunch from the café on the surface, bring it to the truck and we could eat while he was on the call. Well, little did we know that the café was about three employees short so it took about 40 minutes to get our food (we only had an hour until our next tour) and they couldn’t pack our food for us to take it out of the building. So, I ate my burrito in about five minutes and then snuck John’s food and drink out on a tray with a plastic glass. Right as I was walking out with his food, he came walking in so he was able to sit at the table and eat, but only had about 10 minutes. Needless to say, I wish I would have packed a lunch that day!
Our second tour was the one that I was most excited about. The Left Hand Tunnel tour ($14 for both of us) is a historic tour in an undeveloped section of the cave with unpaved trails and the whole tour is by candle-lit lanterns. We met our guide and the 10 other people on the tour who were all from a Texas college on an outdoor experience trip throughout Southern New Mexico. The parks rates the trail as moderately difficult and I’m not sure why except that it’s by candlelight and there were a couple places where the trail was a bit slippery and we had to navigate around a couple small cavern pools.
When we were about to begin the tour, our guide says he will light everyone’s lanterns now and then reaches in every pocket to find his lighter and he can’t find it. He says “I’ll be right back folks” and people are questioning how he could forget the lighter. Well, that was just an act because he came back dressed as Jim White, the man who discovered the caverns in the early 1900s and spent 30 years exploring the caverns and is credited for finding 19 of the 32 miles of cave passageways known today.
Our guide did a great job of staying in character and explaining how he found the caverns, explored them, marked them, etc. We thought it was a bit corny, especially since this hike was touted as moderately difficult and it seemed more like a Disney tour or something. I’m still glad we did it though because it was interesting seeing everything only by candlelight. There weren’t as many formations to see but at the end we walked out on individually for quite a distance so we could experience what it was like for Jim White when he explored the caverns. That was the best part of the tour! I didn’t take any photos during the tour, I wanted to be “in the moment” plus it was difficult with a lantern in hand.
We were hoping to take the elevator back up and then walk in through the Natural Entrance and explore the Big Room. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day as they stop people from entering the Natural Entrance after 3 p.m. because the hike in can take awhile and they don’t want people stuck in there when they are trying to close the caverns. So, we had to take the elevator back down to gain access to the Big Room. The enormity of this room is awe inspiring! It’s 8.2 acres which is over 1,300 yards long and 208 yards wide (to put this into perspective, a football field is 100 yards long and 53 yards wide). The Big Room is the largest known limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere and the trail is a fairly well lit and easy to navigate loop that can take an hour and half to explore. Most of the trail is wheelchair accessible which I think is so cool!
Below top row left to right:
Speleothems (cave formations) – Lion’s tail, stalactites and stalagmites.
Thank mnemonics from my childhood for helping me remember which is which.
Bottom row left to right:
The shine is evidence that there is still water in the cave meaning it is still alive, Rock of Ages (one of the largest formations in the caverns) majestically stands alone, one of the original rope ladders used to discover the caverns.
The vastness of the caverns is hard to capture in photographs so I took a lot of short videos. I’ve put them all together below. Towards the end you can vaguely hear someone talking, the was our guide in the King’s Palace. Sorry, my iPhone doesn’t do a great job on video.
Carlsbad Caverns is difficult to describe because so much of it is up to interpretation and your personal feelings. The whole time we were there my thoughts were on the fact that these caverns are 60-80 million years old and the formations grow at an incredibly slow rate so the big ones are also millions of years old and my time on earth is so short compared to these other living things on our earth. It was just another reminder that our lives our short and we should savor every day and every experience. When I sat in the complete darkness of these vast caverns I felt a calm that I can’t really describe except to say it helped me realize that the things that stress me out or bother me are so fleeting in the grand scheme. I really need to try to remember that feeling! What you take away from the Caverns may be completely different and it could be different from one visit to the next. That’s the beauty and magic of this natural wonder!
By the time we finished touring the Big Room, we had been at the caverns most of the day so we decided to go back to the RV Park and take care of the dogs and come back another night for the Bat Flight Program. On our drive back, while still in the park, John spotted a Barbary sheep up on the rock face. It was too far away to get a good photo but I was excited to see it because I had never seen one before in the wild.
We came back the next night for the Bat Flight Program (another advantage to having the Parks pass because we didn’t have to pay another entry fee). There are signs everywhere that say that you can’t take photos or videos during the Bat Flight, I was kind of disappointed because I really wanted a video of it. But, I’m happy that they have that rule because it makes you be completely present in the moment and it ensures that the bats aren’t frightened by the movements, sounds and flashes. They ask that everyone remain as quiet as possible when the bats start to come out. I was impressed that everyone (except for a couple of really young children) did a great job at being quiet.
It was so amazing to hear the sounds of their wings as they flew overhead. They way they moved together was like a choreographed ballet. Don’t worry, you can look up and you won’t end up with bat guano in your face! The ranger describes the amount of bats as light, medium and heavy because it’s impossible to count the millions of bats that fly out of the cavern. On this night he said that it was medium, which was magnificent! I can’t imagine what it’s like when it’s heavy. The bat flight lasted 30-45 minutes, we lost track of time because we were mesmerized. If you go to the caverns, make sure you stay (or go back) for the Bat Flight program, you will not be disappointed!
Sitting Bull Falls
Since we didn’t have any plans until the evening’s Bat Flight Program we decided to go for a hike at Sitting Bull Falls. It was about an hour drive to get there but it’s rated as the #2 thing to do when in Carlsbad (the Caverns being #1). We first walked up the paved path to the waterfall. We weren’t expecting very much as this is New Mexico, the hills aren’t very tall and there isn’t much water. The falls are small but pretty and unexpected in the middle of the desert.
After we finished our hike, which ended up being longer than we planned because the trails aren’t very well marked, we met the ranger. We always like to talk to the Rangers because they have good stories and information. He told us just down the road was the site of the Last Chance Canyon Apache/Cavalry Battle Site. John and I are both interested in Native American history (John more than me because he’s 18% Native American) so we decided to see it. There isn’t really anything there to see except the landscape but one of the things I love about traveling with John is his ability to describe what a place would have been like in that particular time in history. He had me picturing the Apache on the top of the ridge looking down on the Cavalry down in the meadow.
We wanted to see if there was anything else nearby so we started walking through the meadow and came across some free range cattle. They saw us and started walking towards us and I got a little freaked out (they were big and there were a lot of them) so we turned around and headed out.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Did you know that only 52 miles from the city of Carlsbad is another National Park in another state? We didn’t until we were at Carlsbad Caverns and the postcards I bought had cards from both parks. Since we were so close we decided to visit and mark another National Park off of our “we’ve been there” list.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is the most extensive Permian fossil reef and has the four highest peaks in Texas. Growing up in Colorado and having lived in Washington, the peaks aren’t that big but it was still pretty. It was a REALLY hot day so we decided not to hike (the rangers were advising that people only hike early in the morning) but we did drive around the park some.
There’s a short walk from the Visitor Center that takes you to the Butterfield Overland Mail Pinery Station. Butterfield Overland Mail came before the Pony Express and the Transcontinental Railroad and was the first successful attempt to link the East and West with reliable transportation and communication. Stations were located about 20 miles apart and from September 1858 to August 1859 coaches stopped to rest and for water, food, new mule teams and protection.
Below are remnants of the walls of the station.
We saw a sign for Frijole Ranch and I said “we both like beans, let’s go check it out”. Unfortunately they have it fenced off because the many cottonwood trees that surround the ranch have been deemed unsafe. So, I took a couple photos and we left.
The scenery was beautiful and I especially enjoyed the flowering cacti.
It seemed appropriate to end our day (and our time in Carlsbad) at the Guadalupe Mountain Brewing Company in Carlsbad, NM. I’m not a beer drinker but John is and we enjoy going to local breweries to taste the beers and have some food. We ordered a pretzel, John had a flight of beers and I had a local wine (which was horrible, New Mexico has a lot to learn when it comes to wine making). John’s favorite beer was the Luscious IPA, it was so good that John wanted to have his growler filled with it but we were told that the beer maker doesn’t allow growler fills because he doesn’t like how it makes his beer taste. Not sure what that means but John ended up not getting any beer that night.
Carlsbad is in the Southeast corner of the New Mexico desert and not really on the way to anywhere else (except for El Paso, Texas), but it is worth the trip. We are glad we were able to make memories here together and encourage you to check it out, even if you only have a couple days.