Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

Having arrived at Carlsbad, NM on the 27th, I spend a couple days working on the computer and hanging around camp. The van guy and I continue to be the only ones out here at this boondock spot off Dark Canyon Road, southwest of town. Traffic is pretty much non-existent on this spur road, it’s a good environment for getting things done. But I came here to see the caverns, and once the weekend is over, I make plans to do just that.

That spot of light on the horizon is fire from an oil refinery thingy

October 30, Monday

It’s windy today, like, really windy. But as I’ll be underground for today’s adventure, it matters little to me.

It’s a 45 minute drive to get to the caverns from camp. I point Bertha down 62 until reaching Whites City, where the turnoff for the park is. Whites City is pretty obviously a little tourist town that sprang up to support the park, that’s where you find lodging, restaurants, gift shops and the RV park. The visitor center inside the park boundaries has a cafeteria style eatery and a gift shop, but options are limited.

Much of the town is closed for the off-season and there are few people entering the park today. I stop at the entrance sign to get the obligatory photo, no one else is pulled over for it. There is no pay station at the entrance, you pay when you arrive at the visitor center, where the entrance to the caves is.

The road to the visitor center follows a canyon at first, which supports a wider variety of vegetation than out by where I’m camping. Later the view changes as the road climbs to the top of the canyon. It’s an enjoyable drive.

At the top of a bluff overlooking Texas to the south sits the visitor center, which is directly over the Big Room, the most famous of the caves in the park. There’s plenty of parking available this late in the season so I fight the wind instead of the crowds inside.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open year round, but the visitor center and caves are closed on Thanksgiving day, Christmas day, and New Years day. The summer hours and winter hours do vary so you’ll want to check them before your visit. The entrance fee is $10 per person 16 and over, 15 and under is free, and the pass is good for 3 days. Annual passes like America the Beautiful waive the entrance fee.

Visitor center gift shop

The entrance fee covers self-guided tours down the Natural Entrance, and in the Big Room. Both hikes are about 1.25 miles but very different experiences. The Natural Entrance starts at the surface behind the visitor center and descends about 750 feet to the Big Room with several switchbacks. It’s rated as a strenuous hike.

For those with mobility issues or fitness concerns (or simply less time), the other option is to take the elevator inside the visitor center directly down to the Big Room, as the trail following the perimeter of the cave is relatively flat and easy, parts of it are wheelchair accessible.

I opt to do both.

Situated at the natural entrance is an outdoor ampitheater. Carlsbad Caverns hosts 17 species of bat, the most famous being Brazilian free-tailed bats, which wow visitors with their spectacular outflights. That’s what this viewing area is for.

Going down…

I do not intend to stay until the evening. With the wind the way it is and another cold night coming, it wouldn’t be a very fun experience.

A series of switchbacks leads into the steep opening of the cave. I can hardly imagine how challenging it must have been for early explorers to map out the caves here. It’s very different from the large natural opening into Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is a much more gradual descent.

Not terribly far down is a darkened passage extending into the distance, this is where the bats roost and is off-limits to visitors. I imagine I hear noises coming from down there, but it may be just my imagination.

Otherwise, the sounds from the surface fade until it gets eerily quiet.

I’ve only ever visited caves before during their peak season, and I’m use to the echoing calls of dozens of visitors when I tour them. Visitation is low today, and I go long stretches of time descending deeper into the cave without seeing or hearing another soul.

Still some natural light here….

At times I can stop and hear absolutely nothing. No breeze, no animals, no sounds of man, not even the dripping of water. The emptyness presses against my eardrums, startling in its completeness. You just don’t get quiet like this on the surface.

It’s amazing. Although I imagine to some people it would be alarming.

By the time the path ends at the Big Room, my knees are definitely feeling the climb down, and it’s good to be on more level ground. There are also more people here, those that chose to take the elevator down. But it’s still far from crowded.

Stalactites and stalagmites, and the lighted one to the right is a column.

The Big Room is the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated floor space of 600,000 feet – that’s comparable to 14 football fields. It’s not one large smooth space but a twisty passage with smaller openings snaking off into the beyond. Fortunately, there are frequent maps to let people know where they are, how far they’ve come in the loop, and how to get back to the elevator.

Speleothems!

Don’t know what that word means? I didn’t know either until this trip.

From Wikipedia: “Speleopthems – commonly known as cave formations – are secondary mineral deposits formed in a cave. Speleothems typically form in limestone or dolostone solutional caves.”

And guess what, the caves in Carlsbad Caverns are made of limestone.

So stalactites, stalagmites, and columns are all examples of speleothems. The exact science behind how they form is actually quite complex and involves words that I don’t know the meaning of. But to simplify it, I believe it goes something like this: slightly acidic water seeps into the ground and dissolves the limestone, carrying the minerals along the path of least resistance through cracks. Where these cracks open up into caves, the minerals get left behind on the roof of the cave – creating stalactites over long, long periods of time – and collect on the floor, leaving stalagmites. When a stalactite and stalagmite finally meet in the middle, you have a column.

Crystal Spring Dome

It’s not really that easy though, because the volume of water coming through the cracks and the chemistry of the water also make a difference on whether speleothems grow or shrink.

95% of the speleothems in the Big Room are dry and inactive. But Crystal Spring Dome here is still wet and growing. Granted, most cave formations grow so slowly that in a human lifetime you won’t see the difference with the naked eye.

I think my favorite of the bunch is the Tower of Ages, a fat column with tiered levels. It looks very grand.

Tower of Ages

All told, I complete both walks in about two hours total, stopping frequently for pictures and video. After taking the elevator back up, I have a late lunch in the cafeteria (not very inspiring), and on the way out of the park, take the 9.5 mile gravel scenic loop road. It’s not recommended for low-clearance vehicles, but at the time I toured it, most regular cars would have been fine.

To the north, the carved walls of the canyon look man-made.

To the south, Texas spreads out below.

At one point I round a bend to see a herd of mule deer munching on grass. They freeze when they spot me and then mosey behind some brush out of sight. I’m glad I took this detour.

* Note that besides these free tours that I took, for additional prices you can also attend ranger-led cave tours of varying lengths and difficulty levels, something that I think would be worth doing if you have the time and money.

This area was called Fairyland

* * *

Upcoming dates of note:

1. My Patreon page will be launching on November 21st! For those who don’t know what Patreon is and how it works, next week I’ll be explaining that, along with the extra perks I’ll be offering to patrons. But, whether you choose to become a patron of IO or not, let me stress that this blog will always be free to read.

Missed the news on why Patreon? On October 30th, Amazon terminated my Affiliate account, which is how I covered the cost of web hosting, the e-mail list, my blog theme subscription, and occasional hiring of a web developer to solve technical issues and keep the back end of IO up to date.

2. I’m going to be attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous from January 11 to the 15th, and the Xscapers Annual Bash from January 15 to the 26th! Both of these are located in Quartzsite, AZ, click the links for more details and directions for each. The Xscapers event does require that you be an Escapees/Xscapers member and register to attend, the RTR is completely free. If you’ve wanted to meet me in person, these two events are good places to do so. Just please remember that I’m an introvert and need to work still too, so I will not be out and about all the time.

I’ll also be presenting on paid work-camping gigs at both events. The work-camping presentation for the RTR will be on Saturday January 13th, once I have the date for the Xscapers one I’ll let you all know. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Hall of Giants

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23 Responses to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM

  1. Diane Ely November 10, 2017 at 2:01 pm #

    Becky: Very impressive. If you have time when you are in Arizona maybe you can visit Kartchner Caverns (although it’s in the southern part of the state, a few hours’ drive from where you’ll be).

  2. Jeff November 10, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

    Great pictures in the low light conditions of the cave. Nice you had the experience without the throngs we enjoyed 🙂

  3. Sherri Burris November 10, 2017 at 2:33 pm #

    As a young girl my family would travel everyother Christmas to see family in Arizona from Missouri. Of course we drove and my favorite part of the trip was going through New Mexico. Reading your blog brought back so many memories. Your photos were fabulous and now I think a trip to New Mexico will have to happen. Carlsbad Caverns was breathe taking and the landscape and open blue skies was beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Becky November 12, 2017 at 8:39 am #

      I’m glad this brought back good memories Sherri!

  4. Wendy Nichols November 10, 2017 at 4:42 pm #

    I know you are a reader. I recommend “Blind Descent”, by Nevada Barr. It is about the Lechuguilla Cave which is the OTHER cave at Carlsbad. Did you know there were two?

    • Becky November 12, 2017 at 8:40 am #

      Found that out from the rangers, I’ll add it to my reading list!

  5. Jose November 10, 2017 at 4:52 pm #

    Very good post Becky, i have question. How do you deal with leaving your trailer when you are boondocking, and you go exploring like you did here? i imaging this boondocking spot its not really a place where there is a camp host. thanks

    • Becky November 11, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

      I lock it up and leave it. Haven’t had a problem thus far. Helps that my trailer is older and looks it.

  6. Jodee Gravel November 10, 2017 at 8:27 pm #

    I would love the complete quiet – like complete dark, it’s such a wonderful unique experience. Beautiful columns. Glad to know the elevator is working again!

    Maybe we’ll finally meet up in Q this season, I’m just not sure when we’re getting there yet.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Getting Back to SoCalMy Profile

  7. Ann in Tacoma November 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm #

    Excellent photos! Really impressive. You certainly provide motivation to me and many others to get out there and experience this extraordinary world, Becky. Gotta thank you for that. I’ve been part-time RV-ing in my 20-foot trailer for a year now and love it. I’m up in the Pacific Northwest .. just spent 6 days in bright sunshine at Deception Pass State Park and can highly recommend it if you are ever up this way. My brand new baby blog is now live at http://travelswithtowhee.com. Thank you for inspiring me and so many others! If you are ever in the greater Puget Sound area and need anything at all, please give me a jingle.

    • Becky November 12, 2017 at 8:42 am #

      Thanks Ann! I’m glad you’ve found IO helpful and inspiring and congrats on the new blog.

  8. Judith November 11, 2017 at 2:47 am #

    Thank you for all the information, Becky. I would love to go in the Spring. With my knees Inwould need the elevator. You took some great pictures! I will see you in Quartzite. Sadly, I can not get a Casita. My husband opted for a larger, new, rig with monthly payments!! Looking forward to your messages!

  9. Don Matthews November 11, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    The first time I went to Carlsbad Caverns was in about 1953. The tours were guided back then with a ranger telling about the the cave. Since that time we have been there on several occasions with our children and grand children. Just to show the time line, the last time I went , my America the Beautiful pass got us in.

  10. Rhonda November 11, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    Thanks for this enlightening post about Carlsbad Caverns, Becky. I fully appreciate the way you scribe your travels…both globally, with route and destination clearly outlined, and specifically, delineating places such as this one, where you explain how to get there, what to expect and a few interesting details about it. While still mostly an armchair traveler who enjoys the writings (and viewings, with YT) of intrepid travelers, my plan is to venture out more than the 3 weeks or so a year that I do now. A part time job which I love (fitness instructor) and two precious grands keep me happily tethered at present but I devour and save blog posts such as this one for future travels. Thank you and best wishes as you move westward toward the big “Q”.

  11. Reine in Plano (when not camping) November 11, 2017 at 8:05 am #

    We last visited the Caverns in May of 2016 when we attended a little rally in Carlsbad. At the time, the elevator was being repaired so we got to go down and BACK UP the natural entrance trail. I was really pooped when we got to the top although going down was harder on the knees. Lots more visitors than you experienced but it’s still a neat place to go.

  12. Terri November 11, 2017 at 8:06 am #

    You know, when I was contemplating the move out west a few years ago, before getting the job at the animal sanctuary, I thought about moving to Carlsbad! Now, looking back, I think I’m glad I didn’t and am still figuring out where I want to be on this journey called life.

    When I saw your pictures of the visitor’s center and store, I couldn’t help but think what it must have felt like for you – knowing you have worked at a few stores at the national parks. Did you feel a little nostalgic for it? Or thankful you don’t have to do that kind of work anymore to support yourself?

    I did a search on your blog and was wondering if you had written a post about the email list and service. I remember you saying how at one point it had been free but then because you had more subscribers, you had to start paying for it. Can I ask what service you use and why you chose it?

    Also, now that you know you will be getting the new rig, when you travel to these places now and find your boondocking spots, do you find yourself thinking “what will this be like in the teardrop? Hey, there’s a place I could camp with the teardrop, but can’t get there with Cas?”

    Beautiful photos by the way!

    • Becky November 12, 2017 at 8:55 am #

      Mostly I just felt happy to be exploring somewhere new Terri. 🙂

      Nope, I haven’t written about my my e-mail list other than a mention in my “Intro to Travel Blogging” post: http://www.interstellarorchard.com/2015/05/26/an-introduction-to-travel-blogging/

      I use Mailchimp, it’s free up to the first 1,500 subscribes and starts at $25 per month once you hit 1,500. I chose it over other options because it had easy integration with WordPress (the little sign-up widget on my site), and had good reviews.

      Actually, I thought a lot more about what it would be like boondocking/camping/living in a teardrop before the purchase, it was part of my research. Now that I’ve decided I still think about it some, but I try to focus my life on living in the present so I don’t dwell on it too much. The time will pass faster that way and it’ll make the experience of actually living in it once I have it more fresh and new.

      Take care!

      • Terri November 15, 2017 at 6:37 am #

        Cool, thank you! I will check out that post again.

        And you’re right, focus on the present. I try to do that, but sometimes catch myself going way into the future. It helps me through the hum drum days of the present sometimes. Eventually I’ll be a published author like you! 🙂

        I will check out mailchmp, but I definitely don’t have 1500 people like you do! (or more!)
        Terri recently posted..Determining wants and needs through my tiny house/living fascinationMy Profile

  13. RGupnorth November 11, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    Was there many years ago – good idea to wear a hat for the evening view near the cave 🙂

    • RGupnorth November 12, 2017 at 5:44 pm #

      Noticed a comment about Nevada Barr – she has a series of books based in the NP’s – since you hiked isle Royale – 2 books are based on that park. All are a good read – but more so if you have experienced the park.

      • Becky November 13, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

        Good to know, thanks!

  14. Syl Jones November 11, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    Excellent journey. You are a sweetheart. Thanks for taking us along. Praying all goes well in the future. (No fun being stagnant.)

  15. Becky November 12, 2017 at 8:57 am #

    Thanks everyone for your comments! Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to visit and should definitely be on your list if you enjoy caves.

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