After our unexpectedly chilly day leaving Big Bend National Park, we couldn’t reach our campground quickly enough. We spent a quiet and comfortable night at Brantley Lake State Park (see the bottom of this post for more details) — although we woke up unexpectedly early, due to the time change! The sun was up bright and early, and so were we.
Although our campground was located in Carlsbad, it took nearly 45 minutes to reach our next destination: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It was a long, twisty scenic drive up into the Chihuahuan Desert to reach the park on the outskirts of town.
Usually Ryan and I dedicate an entire day to exploring a national park, but today we were on a bit of a timeline. I had an early afternoon conference call, and I needed to be back in cell service in time to take it. (I’d lost signal long before we descended underground!) We did a speedier-than-usual spin through the visitor’s center — which highlighted both the Carlsbad Caverns and the Chihuahuan Desert — and headed for the mouth of the caverns. (If we’d had more time, we probably would have opted for a ranger-guided tour into areas of the caverns that visitors can’t access alone.)
The approach to the caverns is unassuming, a short, paved hike to the mouth of the cave. It’s flanked by an amphitheater where nighttime visitors can watch the Bat Flight Program, when the caverns’ colony of 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats flood out of the cave for their nightly feeding.
We’d been warned at the ranger desk that the elevators were out of service. The Natural Entrance trail is only 1.25 miles long, but quite steep; as we began to trace the series of switchbacks into the cave, we realized the hike back up would be no joke.
It’s difficult to explain the feeling of walking towards the hole in the ground, watching as it grows gradually larger and realizing you’re headed down into the darkness. Many explorers, photographers, and visitors have said it much more eloquently than I could:
“[Carlsbad Caverns are] something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything … They are so strange and deep in the earth that I can never feel about them as I do with things in the sun — rocks, trees … surf and fog.” — Ansel Adams
“I shall never forget the feeling of aweness it gave me … the beauty, the weirdness, the grandeur and the omniscience absolved my mind of all thoughts of a world above — I forgot time, place and distance.” — Jim White (the caverns’ most extensive early explorer)
“[Carlsbad Caverns are the] Grand Canyon with a roof on it.” — Will Rogers
The darkness, silence, and immensity of the caves is truly indescribable. And perhaps the craziest fact of all is that the cave is still being explored! Carlsbad Caverns is a must-experience destination in the southwest. Here are just a few facts to whet your appetite for subterranean exploration!
- In 1903, guano mining began in Carlsbad Caverns.
- In 1925 the wooden stair system was constructed, eliminating the need for cave visitors to enter via guano bucket (doing wonders for tourism, no doubt!).
- On May 14, 1930 Carlsbad Caverns National Park was designated by Congress.
- In January 1932, the elevator was completed and began operation.
- Carlsbad Caverns has 120 known caves; that number grows with exploration!
- Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the deepest limestone cave in the United States, with over 100 miles of surveyed passageways.
- Carlsbad Cavern’s Big Room is the largest cave room in North America.
The caves were full of tremendous formations, stalactites and stalagmites formed deep within the earth over thousands of years. Not only are the caverns themselves immense — they make the passage of time seem immeasurable as well.
We left Carlsbad Caverns blinking under the brightness of the desert sun after a morning of inky underground blackness, thoroughly awed by everything we’d seen. Our drive that afternoon would take us 3.5 hours northwest to Alamogordo, New Mexico and our next stop: White Sands National Park.
Campground: Brantley Lake State Park
- Developed campground with water & electric.
- Cost: $14
- Pros: A terrific value for a beautiful lakeside campground. Flat, paved sites with covered picnic tables. Nice bathroom facilities and easy after-hours check in. (Cheaper “primitive” campsites also available.)
- Cons: Although the campground is in Carlsbad, New Mexico, it was still a good 45 minute drive from Carlsbad Caverns.