Carlsbad Caverns: day trip to an otherworldly place
By Amy Proctor, Special to the Fort Bliss Bugle:
When my family and I moved to Fort Bliss last July, a friend of mine told me, “You’ll love it there. One of the places you’ve got to visit is the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.” Eight months later, I finally decided to make the drive into New Mexico to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Leaving around noon still allowed us time to explore the caverns, but I would suggest leaving in the early morning to capitalize on daylight hours.
The route from Fort Bliss or El Paso to the park is easy. It’s about a 150-mile drive one way and takes about two hours and 20 minutes. If you can find your way to Montana Avenue in El Paso, you’ve got it made, since 140 of those miles are spent traveling east on Montana Avenue, also known as U.S. Route 180 East/U.S. Route 62 East. It’s a lovely but isolated drive through the desert terrain and past the impressive Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There is nary a gas station or store in sight, so make sure you get a full tank of gas before leaving. There are two cafés in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center, but it is also a good idea to bring along some snacks for the trip.
Once you’re about 140 miles or so into your journey, turn left onto New Mexico State Road 7 West. At the corner of U.S. Route 180 East/U.S. Route 62 East and New Mexico State Route 7 West are a gas station, hotel and restaurant. This is the only place for gas and food along the journey, aside from the cafés inside the park. The park’s entrance is just a half mile up the road with an additional seven miles along New Mexico State Route 7 West to the visitor center in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
There is no fee to enter the park, but it will cost between $6 and $20 to tour the caves. There are eight “tours,” two of which are $6 self-guided, but if you are a Soldier, military spouse or other dependent you can use your annual National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass to get in free. If you don’t have one, it can be issued in the visitor center where tickets are purchased with a valid military identification.
Some of the tours include the Hall of the White Giant, Kings Palace, the Spider Cave and others. These vary in intensity and include small narrow passageways, some requiring special gear. They make for an exciting adventure and can last, in general, between one and a half to three hours. Times, intensity and equipment vary for the tours, so check out the options before you leave home so you know what to expect. Find more information and make reservations at http://www.carlsbadcaverns.com/carlsbad-caverns-tours.
Tours to the “Big Room” are probably the most popular. Since they are self-guided, you’ll have the freedom to stop, gawk and awe at your own pace. There are two options, one taking longer than the other. The first and shortest is the Big Room self-guided tour, which is accessible from inside the visitor center. This is the one we took due to the lateness of our arrival, which was about 2:40 p.m. From within the visitor center, people enter the Big Room caverns through the elevator. A park ranger will guide you onto the elevator for a one minute, 754-foot rapid decent where you will disembark into a portion of the cave with a large restroom area, underground restaurant and souvenir shop. It’s stunning to see a restaurant underground in a darkened cave, with eat-in counters and tables lit with upward pointing lanterns. If you don’t stop to eat, you’ll probably stop and stare for a few minutes.
From there, a well maintained 1 ¼-mile path with rails guides visitors through the Big Room Caverns. Although somewhat dark, we didn’t need a headlamp or flashlight, but some may prefer to bring one just in case. Also, most of the path is wheelchair accessible with a non-slip surface.
We spent about an hour and a half meandering through this amazingly huge cavern, understanding now that the name “Big Room” was the only one that truly fit. It is huge, measuring about 3,800 feet long and 600 feet wide. For the claustrophobic who would ordinarily avoid underground cave dwellings, this is a good opportunity to experience the wide open spaces of a cavern. The Big Room is subtly lit with white lights to aid in the experience. Some of the rock formations created from minerals and acid over time are so remarkable that they’ve been given names: the Chinese Theater, Rock of Ages, Ghostly Pillars and Fairyland, to name a few. It’s truly an otherworldly sight.
There are also several pools in the Big Room which surprise and add character. One is reflective, having a sign on its edge written backwards, requiring it to be read in the pool’s reflection. Unfortunately, there was a drip in the pool so I could not read what the backwards sign was trying to say.
It’s good to know that park rangers are stationed throughout the Big Room to answer any questions.
The second and longer Big Room tour, found outside of the visitor center, is called the Natural Entrance self-guided tour. This route into the Big Room caverns is more drastic than accessing it from the elevator in the visitor center. It beings with a steep, zig-zagged 750-foot decent. You must be in good health, have good knees and good hiking shoes. But it is all downhill, which makes it enticing. From April to September, the caverns are home to several hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tail bats, and they leave each night from the Natural Entrance at sundown to seek food. In the morning, at sunrise, they return.
The Natural Entrance will require you to hike for about 1 ¼ miles down to the Big Room, and the loop within the Big Room is an enjoyably easy 1 ¼ miles long as well. Devils Springs, the King’s Palace and the Queen’s Chambers are some of the features you’ll encounter along the way. You will then embark upon the same amazing Big Room experience you would have had if you’d taken the Big Room self-guided tour via elevator from the visitor center. The only difference is the ease and time in which it takes to get to the same location.
Leaving the Big Room, you have the option to hike back out, which is steeply uphill and grueling, assuming time permits, or taking the minute ride on the elevator to the visitor center. Most visitors seem to go with option B.
You’ll need to be aware of some things in order to maximize your trip. During “winter hours,” which are September 8 through May 22, the visitor center opens for business from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. The elevators to the Big Room and the Natural Entrance don’t open until 8:30 a.m. and, to allow for adequate time in the caverns, you cannot hike into the Natural Entrance after 2 p.m. If you hike out of the Natural Entrance, you must start your ascent by 2:30 pm and be out of the cave back on the surface by 3:30 p.m. The last elevator into the caverns leaves the visitor center at 3:30 p.m. and the last elevator out of the caverns back to the visitor center leaves the cave at 4:30 p.m.
During “summer hours,” which are May 23 through September 7, the visitor center is open from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. The elevators to the Big Room and the Natural Entrance open at 8:30 a.m. and the hike into the Natural Entrance closes at 3:30 p.m. If you hike out of the Natural Entrance, you must leave the Big Room by 4 p.m. and be out of the cave back on the surface by 5 p.m. The last elevator into the caverns leaves the visitor center at 5 p.m. and the last elevator out of the caverns back to the visitor center leaves the cave at 6:30 p.m. Those are a lot of details, but they will make your trip easier to plan and less stressful.
Finally, the park is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Carlsbad Caverns are a natural wonder that can be appreciated by visitors whose age, size and fitness level run the gamut from young to old and fit to wheelchair bound. They are a gift to anyone who simply makes the trip. God has done the hard work. You just have to show up.
For more information see http://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm or call (575)785-2232.
To read past travel articles featured in the Fort Bliss Bugle for ideas on things to do while stationed at Fort Bliss, visit Amy Proctor’s travel blog at www.amyproctor.squarespace.com.
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