Road trip: Carlsbad Caverns

On the way east from the Grand Canyon we dropped down to Flagstaff to have brunch with my cousin at La Bellavia cafe. Great food and great company, so much so that I was too busy to take pictures.

Before long we were on the road again for our longest day of driving yet: 10 hours to Carlsbad, NM. Hotels in Carlsbad are surprisingly expensive. Because we would be getting in late and leaving early the next day I reserved a relatively cheap motel for the night. There’s something about paying $200+ for a night at the Holiday Inn Express that I just couldn’t justify to myself. I’m glad we made a reservation in advance, though, because our motel was booked solid and we were the last guests to arrive for the evening when we finally pulled up at about 11pm.


The next morning we drove down to Carlsbad Caverns, about 30 miles south of its namesake town.

This was my first time to these Caverns and my first impression was that they’re big. Aptly named, the tour mostly winds through the Big Room. Even with such an enormous open space, the self-guided tour was much darker than most of the other developed caves I’ve been in, which have lights lining the walkway and illuminating most of the formations.

At Carlsbad, many of the formations were lit up, but many, many more were in the dark. I thought this was great because it felt more true to the cave’s natural state, as if we were exploring it early on. It also emphasized just how many formations there are and how the cavern keeps going and going.


Below is one of the cooler types of formations, in my opinion. The cavern was formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone in the cave. Later, formations grew when groundwater full of carbon dioxide dripped into the cave, leaving behind calcium carbonate deposits as they went. When the water dripped along a wall instead of off a stalagtite, it could form these sheets which look wavy, like drapes.


We got in free with our National Parks Pass. Because we were in for a short visit, we opted for the self-guided tour. There are a few routes you can take and you have the option to either walk down or take the elevator. We went for the elevator to get straight to the good stuff. We were told the longer of the two routes would take about 1 to 1.5 hours. In all, it was only about a mile long, so we were able to do it in less time and still read all the displays. If you’ve got more time to spend, though, it wouldn’t be hard to linger for 90 minutes or more.


It’s hard to tell from these photos, but some of the formations, like the Hall of Giants shown above, were just enormous. It was a very cool feeling to know that we’d gone from the rim of the Grand Canyon at 7000+ ft elevation to 750 ft below ground level in just a day.

Another of the highlights was the ladder shown below. It remains from early explorations of the cave and descends down some 90 feet into a pit. You can’t even see the bottom from the walkway. It’s hard to believe that more than 115 years ago this cavern was discovered and first explored by a local kid — Jim White — with a kerosene lantern, makeshift ladder, and ball of string to find his way back out.


I’m not sure I’d make a dedicated trip out to middle-of-nowhere Carlsbad, but it’s a worthwhile stop if you’re in the area. Next on my list for New Mexico is a visit to White Sands National Monument.


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