When I began planning our now annual trek to Big Bend National Park, I wanted to add a few detours along the way home. I didn’t spend much time looking for routes after realizing that we could return via New Mexico and see both Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Monument. Moreover, my husband loves caves. We made the decision almost instantly, without a moment’s hesitation. Carlsbad Caverns were the destination of choice en route home.
The Original Carlsbad Caverns Travel Plan
The original plan was to drive straight from Big Bend National Park to Carlsbad Caverns with little if any stopping. We’d secure a backcountry site and spend the night camping. Neither of these things happened. For starters, we enjoyed a gorgeous meandering drive from Big Bend to Carlsbad. We took several unexpected stops to explore some sites along the way, including the McDonald Observatory and Fort Davis, where a kind barista took pity on me and used my own coconut milk to make me a much, much desired coconut-milk latte.
The area around the observatory was gorgeous, even in winter. Nor was it the kind of desolate, haunting beauty that brings us year after year to Big Bend while being fully cognizant, usually, that we are not equipped for year-round life in the desert. We might have indulged a brief vacation fantasy where we envisioned moving to the area and homesteading there.
All of this is to say, that we arrived too late in the day to purchase tickets to see any part of Carlsbad Caverns except its mammoth visitor’s center. I honestly had no idea that Carlsbad Caverns had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I hadn’t done much more homework than checking out the map to browse possible routes home, seeing a cave, doing a brief survey of the park’s website to check prices, tickets, and camping options, and announcing the proposed destination to my husband, who just as promptly leapt at the chance to go. Normally, I prepare myself so much better. Instead, the swarms of people left us feeling overwhelmed as we had literally just come from a remote backcountry experience.
Camping in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Additionally, the ranger at the information center discouraged us soundly from getting a permit for backcountry camping. I had, at least, expected that to happen based on the website. Really, the only true dissuasion was that the area where we could actually backpack and camp was about an hour back the way we came with the long winter night fast approaching. Umm, no thank you. We briefly considered camping in the Bureau of Land Management nearby, but we ultimately decided showers sounded pretty decent. That, and we couldn’t buy tickets online for next day ranger-led tours, so we wanted an easy wake-up and go destination. We stayed at a very cheap (read: sketchy) hotel in White City.
Experiencing Carlsbad Caverns
We arrived before opening and joined a slow-forming queue to ensure that we could purchase some of the few remaining tickets available for a ranger-led tour of King’s Palace. (This is another reason why I am usually a meticulous in-advance planner!) From there, we waited around until finally we could begin our descent into the cave.
The rangers and park workers have obviously spent considerable time thinking about how to best shepherd the crowds through the process of visiting the cave. Visitors have grouped/timed entrances, which is wonderful. This allows you to descend down the natural entrance (which I heartily recommend unless you have a reason, like bad knees or baby strollers) without feeling crowded no matter the number of people. You can also join the queue for the elevators and skip the natural entrance. I will admit to taking the elevator back once, but we also hiked down the natural entrance two times and up once. The hike is 1.25 miles and gains or drops 750 feet, depending on whether you’re ascending or descending.
On our first descent, the experience of walking nearly by ourselves into the deep dark of the cave was hard to describe. We fell into shushed whispers as we plunged downward, downward, downward and lost the sunlight. The path has metal handrails, which is useful since the floor can sometimes be wet and the grade nearly always steep. Every step felt both magical and reverential while being deeply transgressive. The sense that this place is otherworldly and alien makes the presence of people seem more than a little odd. The world of a cave looks nothing like the world to which people are accustomed. So, to me at least, the act of descending into the darkness of the cave did feel like I had somehow transgressed a liminal boundary.
Ranger-Led Tour of King’s Palace
This sense of Carlsbad Caverns as otherworldly was one of the main themes that the park ranger who led our tour of the King’s Palace discussed. He was an engaging teacher, and his story of first descending into the cave as a six-year-old boy and returning as an adult to work in the cave was a darn fine narrative. I learned so much about the history of the cave and its exploration on this tour. Just as heartily as I recommend descending through the natural entrance, I recommend taking a ranger-led tour.
In addition, we had the opportunity to experience the complete darkness of the cave when the ranger turned off the light. We sat in darkness waiting for our eyes to adjust. Interestingly, although there was absolutely no light down in the cave, many people still perceived that they saw. When I held my hand up in front of my face, I couldn’t see it. When I rotated my hand back and forth, though, I swear I could see something shift in the darkness. The mind is a powerful tool.
Returning to Carlsbad Caverns
I loved going into Carlsbad Caverns. The cave’s beauty was ethereal and surreal. I cannot imagine being a 16-year-old boy exploring this place alone by lantern light. Because the Brazilian free-tailed bats who make Carlsbad Caverns their home migrate seasonally, we were unable to see the daily mass exodus of bats from the cave. Moreover, we enjoyed our ranger-led tour so much that we would most definitely want to return for additional ranger-led tours, including the half-day excursion to Slaughter Canyon. I’m not sure when we’ll make it back during the right time of year, but we have bats to see and caves to visit… under the supervision of a knowledgeable ranger!