The day we drove to Carlsbad Caverns, the temperature dropped significantly to the low 40s. It was cold and windy, but fortunately the drive was scenic as we curved around the bends up the mountain in Lincoln National Forest. I wish we had more time, because this was definitely worth a stop on its own. In some parts, you’ll see lush forests partially covered by clouds. Or you might see rocky mountains or snow-covered grass. Plenty of hiking trails and scenic outlooks, too. Sure beats the barren land we keep driving past during these long car rides.
After a 3-hour drive, we arrived in Whites City around noon. We drove another 7 miles in to get to the entrance of Carlsbad Caverns (no restrooms along the way). Again, another scenic path into the mountains. The Visitor’s Center offered a warm respite. Tickets were $12 per adult. We had the option to either take the hour-long steep hike down to the caverns from the Natural Entrance on the side of the building, or take the elevator down from the inside to the Big Room, which is the main attraction. With the former option, you do get to check out a couple of other rooms along the hike. But it was freezing out, and we were already tired from the drive and waking up early. So shortcut it was!
The elevator descends 750 feet in a minute, which really gives you a sense as to how deep the caves are. About 250 million years ago, there was a reef in the surrounding area. Over time, water seeped into the limestone to form the present day caves. It was very important that we stayed on the trail, as touching any of the delicate formations can stop growth due to the oils in our skin. They did allow tripods, although I didn’t see anyone else with one. It definitely helped with taking these low-light pictures. If it weren’t for the bulbs placed around the caverns by staff, we wouldn’t be able to see our hands in front of our faces. Because water is constantly dripping in to the cave, the ground can get a bit slippery, too.
Seeing the Carlsbad Caverns in person was truly something special. The “Big Room” was aptly named, as you could fit several football fields in there. From the high ceilings with stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave to the still largely unexplored Lower Cave that looked like an endless abyss, it was hard to wrap my head around how all of this was formed by water and time. It almost looked alien-like and slightly grotesque in a beautiful way, if that makes any sense. On average, it takes 1.5 hours to complete the path around the Big Room, but we ended up spending 2.5 hours there, stopping every once in a while to take pictures and absorb our environment. We were all instructed to keep quiet since you can imagine any noise will reverberate across such a huge area, but the stillness only added to the peaceful but eerie atmosphere. Crazy to think how early explorers ventured into the pitch darkness with only a bit of light and some wire ladders, unsure of just how deep any of this went.
On warmer nights, you can view bats taking flight in the amphitheater by the Natural Entrance. They no longer roost inside the Big Room, but you can still see their poop, called guano, on the ceilings.
After we finished our self-guided tour, we headed to the city of Carlsbad to stay the night and had a hearty barbecue dinner at Danny’s Place. It’s close to a bunch of oil fields, so you’ll see workers around during breakfast and dinner. There weren’t too many food options, but Pecos River Cafe did make a good huevos rancheros for the morning. The next day, we drove another 4 hours back to Albuquerque to head back home (on a 4-hour delayed red eye flight no less).
New Mexico might not be a super popular tourist destination outside of the Balloon Fiesta weekend, but we found a number of gorgeous natural wonders and sweet people here. Enjoying a slower pace of life for the week was welcomed, and I long to travel to a place where I can wake up to see a sprawling mountain view before me again.