A Hop, Skip and Five Hour Jump
Explore the mystical caves of southern New Mexico
I come from a lineage of professional travelers, so my passion for voyages began when I was young—particularly through the mode of driving. That coupled with my lack of exploration of southeastern New Mexico instigated a recent trip to our land down under. I packed my lunchbox full of snacks, a jar of cold coffee (plus a hot mug) and headed off to Carlsbad Caverns at 5:05am sharp on a chilly Saturday morning.
Google Maps directed me along I-40 E, south at Clines Corners and then through a manageable maze of state roads down to Duran, then Vaughn through to Roswell, and Artesia to Carlsbad, and then another 40 minutes southwest of the town. It came out to about five hours to the caverns and about five coming back, but I recommend sticking to the main interstate and state highways in case your phone dies (like mine did). While this drive is totally doable alone, I highly suggest bringing a friend (or five) if you don't like to drive or if you just want to take in the gorgeous beauty of southern New Mexico.
The closer I got to the caverns, the more I took note of the plants covering the landscape: sage, desert willow, salt brush, cliffrose, mesquite, long spine prickly pear, cane cholla, narrowleaf and soap tree yuccas were scattered all around—but one plant that really caught my eye looked like it was from another dimension. It was a long and spindly type of cactus with varying shades of green topped with bright red flowers at the end of the tall lanky branches. After some research, I found that this isn't really surprising because this ecosystem in the Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most biologically diverse in the world. Personally, I think that the Earth is trying to subconsciously prepare visitors for the etherial weirdness that is Carlsbad Caverns.
The parking lot next to the visitor center contains enough parking for cars and trucks, RVs and trailers and additionally—for visitors passing through that are on a long trip—they have a kennel for dogs. I walked into the visitor center through the warm blanket of late-morning air, bought a ticket ($10) and was directed toward the natural cave entrance. It's a short walk to the entrance, but all visitors are required to listen to a short rundown on the rules and expectations for guests. Following the path through the amphitheater, the campaign into the Earth begins. The amphitheater was full of the soft, echoing chirps of birds that nest in the rock above, which you can hear nearly all the way down into the Big Room.
The winding track down into the caves was more intense than I thought it would be—with such a steep incline on the 750-foot-long entrance trail combined with my frequent, momentary stops—that I did have to rest about halfway down. I was taken aback by how magnificent the caves actually were in person—photos don't do it justice. Barely lit by the sunlight streaming through the cave entrance, the majority of what I saw was illuminated by the spotlights strung along the path. I was entranced by the stalactites and drapery—the ceiling formations—a solidified trail of water and rock seemingly frozen in time but in reality they are all growing one drop at a time.
I walked quickly along the 1.25-mile trail, there was hardly anyone there (I was told to expect large crowds after Memorial Day weekend) so I was able to progress at my own (naturally quick) pace. Along the trail there are many “lakes,” which are actually crystal clear pools of water collected from the rock overhead. The water finds a way through cracks, holes or pores in the rock—I'm not sure how long the process takes—and carves its path through the ground. Then it continues its journey from the pools the same way it arrived or slowly through the narrow and trickling creeks surrounding the path. Certain points along the trail are naturally sheltered from the unnatural lighting which made me think that if the power went out, I would probably panic because I wouldn't be able to see my own hand in front of my face (but really, of course they have generators to prevent such chaos, plus a lot of the lights are battery operated, I'm just a paranoid parrot). Regardless, it was all magnificently interesting and beautiful. I'm not one to stop and read plaques on tours, but I found it all interesting enough to read (most of) them.
I contemplated all of the formations and what I would consider my favorite, but the entire system was visually interesting and beautiful. I loved Fairy Land (just beyond the Hall of Giants) which was a thick field of small, coarse and jagged stalagmites changed to look delicate in the subdued light. The stalactites by the Totem Pole in the Big Room looked exactly like icicles—massive, white and daunting. Oh, and the Crystal Spring Dome! The gorgeous flowstone stalagmite speleothem that's still growing—I could hear the water dripping off of it into a topaz pool of water surrounding it, then dripping down further into the caverns. The entire system looked like it could be made of ice, but instead it was humid, 63 degrees with scattered pools and mostly dry rock.
Later I texted my friends, “It's like Meow Wolf IRL! 10/10 would recommend.” Because it's true! It's a huge old cavern full of mysteries—the scientists that work there are still discovering caves. It felt contained yet untamed. Where Meow Wolf has a solvable mystery and story, you know at every turn you're going to be okay, but you can't ever be sure of what the cavern has hidden within it—it's been around for over 250 million years.
When I finished walking the trail, I took the elevator all 750 feet to the surface where I mounted my sunglasses on the bridge of my nose in the bright light of the desert sun and headed home. If you're interested in a self guided tour like this, until Memorial Day (May 29) you can hike the caves 8:30am-4:30pm (that's when the last elevator leaves) and after Memorial Day until Labor Day (Sept. 4) you can tour the caves from 8:30am-6:30pm (when the last elevator leaves). Go online to https:/