Southern New Mexico is a vast stretch of sparsely inhabited desert. After 300 miles on remote two lane highways, our fuel tank is as parched as the landscape around us.
As we roll down the highway, I am certain that we couldn’t be any further from civilization. Our fuel gauge is flashing a warning that our tank is as parched as the desert that surrounds us. I would look online for the nearest filling station, but we haven’t had cellular service for hours. The one thing that is certain is that there is nothing behind us, so we press onward. I notice a group of trees on the horizon with buildings scattered about and cross my fingers that they have diesel. We reach the small town of Carlsbad and breathe a sigh of relief as we discover it is more substantial than we thought. We refuel and restock the fridge and continue on, hopeful that we will make it to the park before dark.
As we turn onto the park road, it is difficult to imagine that there is anything remarkable that separates this patch of desert from the hundreds of miles we have just traversed. There are rolling hills that stretch out to meet the horizon that radiates out in every direction from our field of view. The hillside is covered with every imaginable variation of spiny covered flora, lying in wait to attach the unsuspecting. We continue further into the park, and discover camouflaged treasures adorning the hostile landscape: delicate flowers on cacti, big horn sheep and petroglyphs. Our skepticism of the value of this parcel of land vanishes as we take a closer look at the landscape.
We arrive at the visitor center to find the main attraction is closed for the day and there is no camping within the park boundaries. As we head out to try to find a spot to park our rig for the night, we are awestruck with the golden light that has transformed the once hostile features of the desert into a soft fantasy-like landscape. We stand transfixed as the sky erupts into fiery reds and oranges. We scramble up to a small alcove, midway up the hillside, to celebrate the celestial display. I serenade the sun as it dips below the horizon and watch the sky quickly fade into muted pastels before the indigo of dusk settles in. We return to Winnie and continue on down the valley and find a spacious pull out on the public lands just outside the park boundary that we stake claim on for the night.
The next morning, heeding the warning of the ranger the night before, we are up early and back at the visitor center at 8 AM to secure our place on a tour of the most scenic portion of the park. With tickets in hand we make our way down the trail; down, down down a series of switchbacks to the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. The unobtrusive entrance gives little indication of what lies ahead, 900 feet below the desert’s surface. We continue to descend into the bowels of the earth, our eyes compensating for the rapidly diminishing light within the cave.
As we make our way down the serpentine path, we are greeted at every turn with exotic formations: grandiose chandeliers, magnificent draperies, crystalline pools, and colossal chambers. Not wanting to miss our ranger guided tour through the King’s Palace, we make a beeline to the meeting spot, a little over a mile into the cavern. Ranger John leads us on a mile and a half, animated tour through a less visited area of the cave and entertains us with tales of early exploration, natural history, and preservation of this incredible natural phenomenon. Abby flips the switch and plunges us into absolute darkness (with Ranger John’s blessing) shifting our awareness from sight to our sense of hearing and touch. Suddenly, in the complete void of light, what originally seems like a chamber of silence springs to life with a cacophony of drips, and echoes from other cave goers. It is incredible how much information our brains filter out of our consciousness when our eyes are the primary filter.
After the tour, we continue on our own, deeper into the cavern and explore the mile loop through the Big Room. At the far end of the loop, we discover a giant amphitheater that leads to a secondary chamber below. While we aren’t equipped for a back country adventure today (nor do we have the necessary permit) – we plan to return to the park with our caving equipment for a remote adventure and explore caverns more off the beaten path.
Disoriented by the artificial lighting in the cave, we realize that the afternoon is waning, and it is time to become surface dwellers once again. Abby takes the 2.5 mile, 900 foot gain in elevation as a personal challenge and a great opportunity to improve her cardio performance for her upcoming kayak competition season and we race each other to the surface. Gasping for breath, we emerged from the depths just as the landscape once again is engulfed by a golden twilight, the sky ablaze in a spectacular display of color.
The intricate landscape of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is land of secrets that at first glance appears underwhelming. But on closer inspection, layer upon layer of incredible discoveries reveal themselves to the careful observer. With free public camping nearby and an endless list of things to do and see, this is definitely a place we will return to again. Instead of another tick off of our bucket list, it continues to grow, fueling us to continue on in this incredible journey of life on the road.
Until next time…