Adventures in the Southwest: Carlsbad Cavern National Park

‘…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.’-Ansel Adams

As I have mentioned in a few posts, I love a cave, which is ironic as I am scared of the dark but something about underground worlds has fascinated me since I was very small. When I moved to Odessa, I scoped out things to do and discovered that Carlsbad Cavern National Park was a mere 2ish hours away. So I made plans to go for my birthday!

I pre-booked my ticket (I have the America the Beautiful pass and that covers the cost of admission and a separate booking to the King’s Palace) but you don’t actually pay for your ticket until you arrive. Apparently during Covid, they had people book and then cancel, which is understandable, but over the two years, the park was hit hard with credit card fees for refunds. So to stop the hemorrhage of money, they instituted this policy (as of December 2022). If you have your America the Beautiful pass, you just show it to the ranger.

When you arrive, you have two options to access the cavern: the natural entrance or elevator. I chose to take the natural entrance down and the elevator back up again. The natural entrance is very cool and you can see the cavern change as you walk nearly a mile down the trail (it is very well marked and easy to follow, you won’t get lost unless you break all the rules). It was actually warmer in the cavern than outside (about 62 degrees and I was there in November), so a nice walking temperature. I even took off my fleece jumper and just rocked a t-shirt. The trail is winding to limit the steepness but it is still steep and dark. Things to keep in mind as you make the decision on which to do. It took me about an hour to wander my down, which aligned with my timed entry to the King’s Palace.

I actually selected my date based on my ability to get into the King’s Palace, the lowest part of the cavern that is accessible to the public. You have to have a ticket, it’s a guided tour and space is LIMITED! They only have two tours a day and only about two dozen spots total (this is partially due to staffing so always check the website for availability). I was able to grab one of the last spots for the Sunday I went (the day after my birthday). You meet at the base, near the elevators and they collect your ticket. You then double back to where you walked if you took the natural entrance to a gate. Then you head in. Carlsbad is pretty but the King’s Palace is something else!

You walk into several chambers that the early ‘discovers’ had found. There were also markings (or graffiti depending on your point of view) done by excavators when the park was being developed. There were also markings done by local indigenous tribes, notably the Apache, that date back more than 300 years. The ranger used this as a opportunity to highlight that leave no trace is not a blanket statement, he posed the question, pointing to the graffiti, that if you thought it was horrible to deface the cavern. Most said yes but then posed if we changed our minds when finding out it was from local tribes hundreds of years ago. As a historian, I appreciated the nuance of approaching these complicated and ethical questions.

I really enjoyed exploring these chambers, they were quite eery. The ranger also shut off the lights in one of them, so you could feel the stillness as true darkness enveloped you. Then used a flashlight to illustrate what those who traveled down saw prior to electric lights being installed. Jim White, who ‘discovered’ the cavern, actually hated seeing the cavern illuminated because what he imagined was so much more extraordinary than the reality. This tour was about an hour and a half.

After I finished with the tour, I headed to the self guided Big Room. It is a giant loop and one of the largest cave expanses in the world. There were a lot more people here than I had encountered anywhere else in the cave as I only came across two other people on the way down and my private tour was about 10. The Big Room had a lot of people, the walkway is a bit narrow so a bit more navigating. Areas that do not have accessible access are also clearly marked. I would earmark a couple of hours to explore-there is a lot to see!

Carlsbad is also known for bats, you even pass through the bat cave on your way down. I only saw a dead bat in the King’s Palace, lol. But if you are there at dusk, you can see them emerge from the cave for their nightly feeding. I intend to go back to check this out. Also, as I now make note of these things since I got my puppy, Gus, while dogs are not allowed in the cave, there are kennels. I haven’t used but planning on going to Mesa Verde National Park and using them there, so i’ll keep you posted!

If you’re in New Mexico, definitely make the trip down to Carlsbad. And if you’re a National Park aficionado, you can knock out Guadalupe and Big Bend National Parks, which are nearby.

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