Monday, April 11, 2016

Carlsbad Caverns: A Caving Adventure in Southern New Mexico

I spotted this bit of wall that
looks like a face in profile.
My husband and I recently took a vacation – the first one we've done with only the two of us, not involving visiting family or friends, in the 7+ years we've been together. We camped for most of the trip, which required some investment in gear up front, but hopefully we'll continue to make use of that gear. For the next few weeks, I'm going to share some photos and notes on our adventure.

First up: Carlsbad Caverns

This National Park is definitely worth a visit. Right now the elevators are out, though they are supposed to be working again soon. That means you start a visit with a hike down the trail at the Natural Entrance. That might not sound bad, but the path is 1.25 miles long, and it's steep! (In one place on the webpage it calls it a 750-foot trail, but I think that must be the change in elevation.)

The Hall of the White Giant tour
required some special equipment
and a willingness to get muddy.
It's also interesting, with cool formations along the way. Those who can't make the whole trek could still see some neat stuff by going in part of the way, but if you don't get around well, you're better off waiting until the elevators are repaired. Oh, and no strollers are allowed! (Baby strollers, I mean, not people walking leisurely.) This could be pretty important if you have young kids along. We definitely heard some complaining of the "carry me" variety.

We made the trip down 1 1/2 times, because we started with a special tour of the Hall of the White Giant. That involved going halfway down the Natural Entrance walkway, and then turning off at a spot in the wall where there is absolutely no sign of a tunnel.

Eight of us, plus two rangers, did the tour, which lasts roughly 4 hours. It's considered the most strenuous tour, and involved some crawling and wriggling. We also went up a narrow ladder with metal rungs, and used ropes to get up and down a couple of steeper slopes. It should be doable for anyone of decent fitness, as long as you're not too large. Most of our group was in the small-to-average size range, including two young teenagers, and everyone did great.

The rock is smooth and slick, so a
knotted rope helps with this short climb.
The tour didn't actually show us anything more exciting than you'd see in the self-guided Big Room tour. In fact, the White Giant was a fairly modest pillar. It's really about the adventure of getting in and out. You get a slight sense of what cavers go through when exploring caves that haven't been totally adapted for tourists. My upcoming novel, The Skeleton Canyon Treasure, has some caving scenes, so this was especially helpful to me. They also have everyone turn off their headlamps for a minute, so you feel the quiet and silence of a natural cave. The park offers several other special tours as well. The guides were great.

After that tour, we went back to the surface level for lunch at the restaurant. There is a restaurant down in the cave, but we wanted to trade out some clothing and pick up a few things from our car (no backpacks were allowed on the tour). We had a decent lunch and enjoyed the short walk in the sunshine before heading back down to the Big Room, where we wandered for a couple of hours. The formations are spectacular. We also discovered one advantage to being there when the elevators are out of order: the cave wasn't crowded, and the back part of the figure 8 loop was practically empty! At times we had no one in sight in front or behind us on the winding path.

I didn't take any pictures in the Big Room, because I figured better pictures exist on the web, from professionals with topnotch equipment and more time. These pictures are from the Hall of the White Giant tour.

The park offers backcountry camping, and there's an RV Park with tent camping sites in White’s City, but we chose to stay at Brantley State Park. It was a well-run park, with restrooms and showers, and water and electricity at many sites. Unfortunately, it was an hour drive to the Caverns. Your entrance fee gives you access for three days, so had we been staying closer, we might have done our special tour and the regular tour on two different days. On the bright side, we had lovely evenings with nice sunsets over the lake – although it was cold enough on the first night that we stopped in Carlsbad the next day to buy extra blankets!

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues.

Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock's newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.