This (long-awaited) post will pick up where the previous post left off.
Hiking the tallest mountain in the state of Texas leaves you proud, but hungry. Elizabeth and I finished our descent of Guadalupe Peak late in the afternoon of July 14, 2018. Sore thighs, sore feet, but proud of one of the biggest physical accomplishments of our lives, we eased out of the Pine Springs Visitor Center lot and headed back up US 62 into New Mexico. Where the highway reaches its intersection with the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns, a small town springs out of the desert – Whites City. According to the Internet, Whites City either has a population of 7 or 173. Either way, it consists of a few gift shops, a few motels, and, in the adobe style of the Southwest, the Cactus Cafe. Elizabeth and I sat down here, starving after our long hike. The memory is starting to fade after a couple of years, but this is what I remember of the Cactus Cafe – the staff was working at double time with all of the visitors, our food took a long time to come out, and the salsa was spicy. The food itself was the definition of Mexican – good, but not spectacular.
We had a little bit of time to kill before the sun started to set, so we walked around Whites City a little bit. They really play up the southwest thing and the New Mexico aliens thing.
To really finish off the southeast New Mexico trifecta, we saw a smoke plume in the distance that I assume came from a lightning strike to an oil well:
Our weary selves had another hike coming up. Elizabeth had found out that Carlsbad Caverns has an amphitheater near the main entrance to the cave system, and every night around sunset in the summer you can visit the amphitheater to see the bats come out. With the sun sinking low in the horizon, we drove into the national park and made the short walk through the visitor’s center to the amphitheater.
Presently a park ranger appeared in front of the gathering crowd. To our delight, the ranger announced that soon the bats would be beginning their evening hunt. But, no photography of any kind was allowed, so as not to scare the bats or disturb their sleep patterns. Fair enough. Because of that, I do not have any photos or videos of their arrival, just a recollection. As the sun set toward the desert floor behind us, the park rangers regaled us with bat facts. And then, one by one at first, bats began to emerge from the cave. It looked like they wanted to gain as much altitude as fast as possible when they emerged. To do so while exiting such a steep cave, the bats came up in tight spirals, all in echelon with one another. As the density of bats emerging from the cave increased minute-by-minute, the spiraling cloud of flying mammals could only ever look like one to two meteorologists. It was a batnado.
The bats tornadoed their way into the open sky and from there dispersed in every direction, off to find some scrumptious insects on the desert floor. I could literally hear the sound of their wings beating the air above me. This continued for about 15 minutes or so until the batnado started to wind down. Only stragglers were left to emerge, and then just a trickle. It had seriously been an incredible sight.
Despite the fact that Elizabeth and I had had a very long day, it wasn’t quite over yet. Because of Elizabeth’s superior vacation-planning skills, we were booked to go on a stargazing tour after dark within the park. Twilight slowly faded outside the visitor’s center, where we clustered with a few dozen other people waiting on the same thing. Finally, the rangers arrived and began passing out red headlamps to each of the people in the group (sidenote: I have since acquired my own and use it every night while camping).
The ranger guided us down a short trail away from the parking lot. Back in the days before Elizabeth and I had lawn chairs, all we had to recline on was a thin blanket spread on the sun-baked ground. I wasn’t complaining until the ranger off-handedly told us to keep an eye out for scorpions. First a rattlesnake earlier in the day, now scorpions? Nah.
Carlsbad Caverns is located several dozen miles away from Carlsbad, the only city of any real size in that part of the Permian Basin. Since the city was in essence on the other side of the Guadalupe Mountains, that meant that the only real light pollution came from the flames marking an oil well in the distance. The night sky dramatically unfolded above. Stars, constellations, even the lightning flashes from distant thunderstorms still visible in the distance – all of it was there. Our star tour guide was phenomenal. She had a laser pointer that literally let her point at stars (how does that work, anyway?) and, like all great dark sky enthusiasts, she had a knack for presenting the picture above us in the sky in the form of short stories – the origin story of each constellation. Laying there on our paper-thin blanket, looking up at the stars, even seeing the occasional meteor, I found a level of peace that can only be found by ignoring day-to-day life and focusing on the moment at hand.
Finally, well after dark, when the tour ended, Elizabeth and I got back in her car for the long drive back to Artesia. By this point we were both worn out. I mean, it had literally already been two blog posts of a day. I don’t know that I have ever come as close to falling asleep at the wheel as I did during that 1:15 drive back to Artesia. That drive is literally 30% of the reason I’m happy enough to camp inside of parks these days. It was brutal, even when I started blasting music loudly to keep myself awake. I doubt either of us lasted more than 5 minutes in the hotel room before collapsing asleep.
The next morning, we were up and at ’em relatively early once more. Now, on Sunday morning, the last day of our national park weekend, we were going to be spending more time at Carlsbad Caverns. The day dawned bright, and one short continental breakfast later we were off and on the road.
Once again, Vacation Planning Queen Elizabeth had gotten us booked on the King’s Palace tour, a tour of several of the cavern’s most famous rooms. Unlike last night, this time we would be going underground. One last time, we drove up the winding road to the bluff that the visitor’s center sat on. After a short tour of all that the visitor’s center had to offer (including detailed instructions designed to ensure that we didn’t spread white nose syndrome to the bat colony), around noon it was time to head underground.
Unfortunately for our weary legs, it was a loooong way down.
The walking path descends a total of 750 feet over the course of its 1.25 miles – nearly equivalent to the rate of ascent/descent we had just fared the day before on Guadalupe Peak. On the plus side, this time it was on a paved trail, into a cavern that is a year-round climate-controlled 56 degrees. On the down side, every athlete knows that the day after a big exertion you’re always way more tired and sore. It wasn’t the easiest trek down, but with each switchback as we got deeper into the cave, the natural light dimmed and instead we were treated to the softly backlit wonders of the giant room we were in. This was in the era before both of us had iPhones capable of taking good low-light pictures, but Elizabeth’s phone fared reasonably well.
We finally made it to the bottom, where the National Park Service had evidently just taken a room of the cavern and repurposed it to look like an underground terminal for different tours. It was very interesting – everything was so dimly lit, but after a while your eyes adjust to the levels. If I recall, we had a brief ticketing panic (I think I lost my ticket, although it could have been Elizabeth), but sorted everything out in time for our tour of King’s Palace at noon. A ranger gathered our group together, and we were off.
Again, 2018-style pictures are going to struggle to capture the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. Everywhere in these caves was a new formation. Giant icicles of rock, pillars reaching off the ground, smoothed stones worn down by centuries of dripping water – Carlsbad had it all. Elizabeth dutifully took pictures, but this is a park that merits just visiting to experience for yourself.
The real camera actually did quite well under the circumstances:
Much like the night before, our tour guide was phenomenal. We wound throw large rooms with big areas cordoned off for viewing, past active drip areas eroding puddles into the smooth sidewalk below us, and past formations so close that you could reach out and touch them without the slightest effort. Between these rooms, passages had been carved out for us tourists, sometimes so small that I instinctively ducked before walking through them. At certain points, our guide would stop to explain the geological history of a certain formation, or the entire cavern system itself – a cavern system so complex that miles of caves are still being explored constantly. Although some of the guide’s talk is lost to history, as they say, I still distinctly recall two moments later in the tour. At one, the guide told us of the early explorers of Carlsbad Caverns, and how they would have experienced total darkness aside from the small lanterns they themselves had. With this, all lights were extinguished within our room, plunging us into total darkness. And… it was dark! I sure couldn’t see anything.
I also recall, at the very end of the tour, walking past a pool of water collecting alongside the path. When I say this water was clear, that is an understatement.
These two examples of pure, natural beauty that have managed to be preserved within Carlsbad’s labyrinth of different caves really struck me.
Elizabeth and I had been planning on exploring the Big Room, another mile-long trail underground that is free to all visitors. However, it was already 1:30 and we had to get back at a reasonable time so she could make it to calculus 3 the next day. With that in mind, we got in line for the elevator all the way back up to the visitor’s center. After a stop to peruse the visitor’s center gift shop (support your national parks), and a quick lunch at the park’s cafeteria (not great, but literally the only food around. The highlight was that I got a side of cactus with my lunch, which basically tasted like unsweet pear), we regretfully got ready for the long trip back to Norman.
Because we didn’t need to go through Artesia on the way back, the route to Lubbock was slightly different, routing us through Hobbs. This allowed us to get a slightly different view of the Permian Basin and the West Texas Plains – as well as a midafternoon dust storm as we approached Lubbock!
We stopped in Lubbock for an Elizabeth favorite, Cracker Barrel, before making our final drive back to Norman. It appears to be lost to history, but there was a beautiful Caprock sunset.
All in all, it had been an awesome and eventful weekend. We had managed to get the full experience from two national parks in two days, and boast a hiking accomplishment that we haven’t come close to topping since. And the best part was, any regret we may have felt at returning to every day life in Norman was tempered by the knowledge that in just five days we would be on our way to another vacation (Elizabeth’s family beach week in Delaware).
Adventure summer, indeed.
Note: I made a vacation video for this weekend, the first of its kind. Unfortunately, I trusted all of the camerawork to my GoPro, so it was horribly shaky and the audio quality was horrible. You can see it right here: