Posted by: Juniper Road | March 29, 2013

Carlsbad Caverns Greatness

On a trip filed with greatness, Carlsbad Caverns National Park quickly jumped to a place near the top of the greatness list. In the southeast corner of New Mexico, it’s close to not much of anything, but worth every bit of the effort it may take to get there.

We decided to boondock about fifteen miles from the park. There are no close-by camping options except for one private RV park, and we wanted to avoid an hour+ drive to get in, thinking we might want to visit more than once.

We planned our first visit early in the morning – the weather had turned hot, and we didn’t want to leave Juniper alone during the afternoon so we could make sure she was comfortable. We arrived shortly after the Visitor’s Center opened, took a brief look around, and headed in. Or rather, down. There are two ways to enter the caverns – an elevator whooshing down 800 feet, or a mile and a half hike through the natural entrance. We headed for the natural entrance. It’s a large opening in the limestone cliffs with a paved trail slanting down. And down. And down some more. A countless number of switchbacks takes you gradually from daylight to dimness to twilight to cave darkness (with man-made lights showing the way).

We were greeted by cave swallows as we entered – gracefully swooping and circling the high ceiling, they chirp and call to one a other as they enter and exit the nests they built hanging tight to the cave cliffs. They were charming and unexpected and we stopped to stare for long minutes. (In the fall and winter, this is where thousand of bats enter and exit – we’ll have to return for that spectacle). The hike in turned out to be a wonderful way to get to know the cave – as you walk deeper, formations become visible and the vastness of the caverns starts to hit you. The top of the cave seems to be between two and three stories high the whole time, and it’s wide too – there’s nothing close or cramped about this place, although the path does have a few short tunnels blasted through the rock as you descend. The natural entrance is grand and striking and awe inspiring. We took more than an hour to make our way down.

Then we found ourselves in the Big Room – the main attraction of the Caverns — and the grandness continued. The Big Room is, well, cavernous.
The ceiling is high, perhaps two stories, and the “room” stretches on farther than you can see in the dim light. And what you can see is dense with spectacular formations. Thousands and thousands of years in the making, there are delicate soda straws, giant columns, curving draperies and more. This room would hold something like six or eight football fields. It almost defies imagination, even when you’re right there in person. We gawked for another half hour, seeing only a small part of the place, before we had to queue up for a guided tour of the King’s Palace, part of the cave only accessible with an add-on ticket we’d been lucky enough to snag.

The tour was a bit frustrating – although the ranger was full of good information, it was a large group and moved slowly. We were there during spring break for many local schools, and the park had added extra tours to accommodate anticipated crowds. Still, we got to see three or four magnificent rooms we otherwise would have missed. And those rooms were packed with giant, dramatic formations, including a forty foot drapery column – like a thin, waving piece of fabric captured in stone. We also learned more about the early explorations of the cave – done on ropes past piles of bat guano with a candle lantern for light (which would not have been enough to illuminate the vast greatness of this place, but would have been a remarkable experience. Except for the guano part). By the end of the tour, I was starving and the crowds had arrived. We waited in line to take the elevator up, wolfed down our lunch in the car, and went home to Juniper, enjoying an evening in camp with our friends Kathy and Greg, who we’d last seen in Ajo.

We returned the next morning to see the rest of the Big Room. We were on the first elevator of the day, and were the first people in the Big Room. We skipped past the part we’d seen and headed for the rest of the mile+ loop. It was magical – we had the place to ourselves – our own personal National Park! All we could hear was the quiet dripping of the cave and our own muffled footsteps. We savored every moment of the next hour or so without another soul in sight, and gazed in wonder at the continued magnificence of this place. And despite the hundreds of pictures I took, it seems like not a single one does this place justice. This place has such sheer enormity, a vast magnificence, and even a quiet grace that just doesn’t lend itself to pictures. Carlsbad Caverns has all of that and more – it was truly an awesome experience.

We hiked out the natural entrance to complete our visit, equally as special in reverse. At the top, we spent a few more moments with the happy, swooping cave swallows. Leaving through the now-jam-packed visitor’s center, we couldn’t believe our good fortune, and gave thanks for the gift of solitude we’d had for our visit.



  1. Hi Cassie & Kris:)

    Thank you for the latest post card! I shared it with Andrew, Emily, Evan, and Marianne:). They all say “hi”!
    Wishing you a fantastic day!
    Aunt Sue

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