Beware thoughts that come in the night!
William Least Heat-Moon
It had been 36 years since we were last at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and we were curious as how it might have changed. Well to begin with there is a nice new visitor’s center powered by rooftop solar panels.
The facility was also designed to allow the constant 56 degree cave air to cool the visitor’s center. However it was quickly evident that moisture was being sucked out of the cave as well and some cave formations stopped growing.
The path walking into the “natural opening” entrance to the cave was also relatively new.
Back in 1976, there was just the large hole and a very steep, very wide paved area that led into the abysses. Notice anything else unusual about the photo above? Yep, there are no people…..I just about had the place to myself. It was a bit unique actually, considering that about a half million people visit this site each year. It also allowed me to really experience the quiet and solitude that the early explorers enjoyed. However I was able to enjoy stable footing on a paved footpath and handrails. The early folks used carbide lanterns and wood ladders.
The handrails are new as well…..back in the day there was just a short stone wall to prevent folks from wandering off into cave.
The many formations were as spectacular as I remember and the 2 ½ mile walk through the various chambers dazzled at every turn.
The following photo is one of my favorite speleothems of all time. It is, in my opinion, an excellent example of mother earth’s spectacular work and one of the most pleasing geologic formations in the caverns. I devoted a good amount of time studying and photographing this mesmerizing form.
I like the fact that the National Park Service has a sense of humor. Look at where they placed a sign that causes one to pause and read. Then glancing up you noticed a huge pile of Bat Guano perched precariously over your head.
Speaking of Bat Poop……the folks around here, at one time, actually collected the stuff to use as fertilizer. They lowered some poor schmuck down the shaft in a barrel where he toiled for hours filling the barrel so it could be lifted out. I imagine he had to forgo lunch as his meal would ride down in that very same barrel. At the end of his shift the poor slob would climb in the slimy barrel to be hoisted back into daylight. And you thought your job sucked!
In the Big Room, a vast cave over 8 acres which is 750 feet below the surface, there used to be a fully functioning cafeteria. However it was closed some years ago due to a concern that cooking fumes were altering the cave formations. However the area still exists and houses a small gift shop and snack bar where you can purchase packaged food.
There is a one mile self-guided tour around the perimeter of the Big Room where some of the most famous and spectacular cave features reside.
To enhance the experience, the National Park Service provides, for a nominal charge, a digital playback device that is keyed to various sites along the tour route. All you have to do is punch in the number of the station and the device explains what you are viewing. A very helpful and enjoyable way to learn about this remarkable cave system and its history.
There are hundreds of miles of caves that have been identified but not fully explored, some over 1000 feet deep. These contain even more spectacular formations but will likely never be opened to the public in order to preserve the fragile cave ecosystem that make these national treasures so special.
As a side note, there are ranger guided tours of areas in the main cave system that are not altered for easy public access…..these are by reservation only and fill up quickly. One tour of interest to me, the Slaughter Canyon Cave, requires caving gear which is provided by the park service and lots of crawling through narrow muddy passages. The next time in this area I’m going to plan ahead and get on this tour.
The park rangers I encountered were very knowledgeable and informative. I even met a few that had pulled a tour of duty upta Acadia National Park in Maine. However, I did run into one dufuss ranger that had me talking to myself.
I’ve been in numerous caves over the years, and even though Kartchner Caverns in Arizona is my favorite, no other cave can compare to the overall diversity and magnitude of Carlsbad Caverns…..no wonder it’s a National Park!
After leaving the cavern we drove the Reef Top Loop, a 9 mile dirt road through the back country.
At nearly every turn we noticed the effects from last summer’s wildfires that nearly wiped out the National Park’s visitor center.
Sunday, January 29, 2012: Today is a milestone of sorts. We were just informed that our travel Journal Website has accumulated 20,000 hits! A bit overwhelming and kinda humbling. Either there are lots of folks following these postings or just one guy with a strange hobby…..anyway, thanks for taking the time to find and follow our adventures on the web!
Carlsbad, New Mexico is a nice little town of 26,000 folks located in the Pecos River Valley of the Chihuahuan Desert. Its main industries are mining, tourism and breeding those tiny little Mexican dogs. At over 3000 feet in elevation the nighttime winter temperatures can drop well below freezing. This morning we woke to a temperature of 24 degrees and a frozen water hose. However by 0730 the bright desert sun had warmed the hose and all was well again.
We broke camp and by 0930 we were heading north on US-285 toward Artesia, New Mexico. As we left Carlsbad city limits we noticed a sign for “The Pecos Flume” and pulled off onto a side road to investigate.
Turns out that this engineering marvel, built in 1902, was used to divert water from the Pecos River by way of a cement culvert. It would then loop back and cross over the main natural part of the river to irrigate what otherwise would be a very dry town of Carlsbad. When it was constructed it was the world’s largest concrete structure and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not honored the Pecos as “The World’s Only River That Crosses Itself” due to the Pecos Flume.
Another Carlsbad attraction that we skipped was The Living Desert Museum as we have enjoyed these attractions in the past. I was initially interested, however when the RV Park owner told of a female painting bare at the museum……however I soon discovered that she meant a female painting bear, a highlight of the attached zoo, and a locally renowned modern art painter. This would have been almost as enjoyable but the old girl was on sabbatical.
We rolled through the nice little town of Artesia and then proceeded on US-82 West toward the Lincoln National Forest and Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The road soon became steep and winding and our speed was reduced to 35 miles per hour…..as a result, we eked out an average fuel economy of 6.7 MPG. As we climbed into the Sacramento Mountains we started to see snow alongside the road.
At 8,650 feet we topped out at the summit where we decided to pull over for a break, eat some lunch and a take advantage of an unusual photo opportunity.
Hard to believe that there is so much snow in New Mexico, until we realize that this location is higher in altitude than any mountain in New England…..only then did the existence of snow make sense.
As we descended down the backside of the Sacramento Mountain Range we could see, in the far off distance, a thin white line. This was White Sands National Monument just outside the town of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Downshifting to control our speed we coasted most of the way and enjoyed an average fuel economy of 99 MPG. This part of the trip is going downhill fast…..which is a good thing!
Back at 4000 feet elevation the terrain leveled out and we continued along US-82 toward Alamogordo.
Right outside town we encountered our first Border Patrol Station of this year’s trip.
Now we are used to seeing these checkpoints further south but figured they finally made a smart move by erecting a station here, closer to Roswell, New Mexico where aliens are far more likely to gather.
Just north of Alamogordo we jumped onto US-70 and headed south until we came to Holloman Air Force Base where we decided to stop for the night. The campground was full of folks going to technical schools on base but they had plenty of overflow capacity, and at $3.00 a night it was a bargain. So we set up, pulled out the generator and enjoyed the stay.
Monday, January 30, 2012: Up early so we would have time to make a few stops on our way to Silver City, New Mexico. It was a cool 44 degrees under sunny skies as we hit the road. The first stop was White Sands National Monument.
We visited this park two years ago found it very interesting and one of the few places in this area of the country where I could get some use out of the yellow banana I’ve been toting around on the roof.
The dunes are in a constant state of flux, shifting about with the wind and occasionally covering the roads. Whole dunes can migrate up to 30 feet in a single year and snow plows are routinely used to keep the road, parking areas and picnic sites clear of the encroaching sand.
The brilliant white sand that make up this park is made of gypsum crystals and perfect for sledding. Depending on the moisture content of the material the ride down the slipface can be rather fast. After locating a suitable dune I used the rope haul method to access the summit.
As Kit handled the camera, I made a few valiant attempts to get into the running for this year’s Darwin Awards.
The ride wasn’t as fast as I remember. The sand seemed moister and was actually pretty cold to the touch. By the second run, my bare feet were freezing!
Since we have learned how to make videos, Kit our capable cinematographer filmed one of the events for possible inclusion in the lawsuit: Bill vs. The National Park Service. Check it out at:
After dumping sand out of every possible location and loading the kayak on the truck we enjoyed a dune side lunch and a walking around the park. I happened to notice that the truck’s tires had deposited a layer of gypsum on the trailer which had dried and now resembled a piece of wallboard.
Yea, I pick up some pretty weird souvenirs…..now to keep it dry.
Leaving White Sands National Park we headed for our next stop…..The White Sands Missile Range and toured their museum.
Nearly every gun and missile system in the US arsenal has been tested here. There were even some naval weapon systems that I was familiar with.
The 5” 54 caliber gun (left) and the Tartar (middle) and Terrier (right) surface-to-air missiles.
The museum even offered a trip out to the Trinity test site where the world’s first nuclear detonation occurred in 1945. The ground zero site, even after 67 years, is still a taint bit radioactive and since one had to sign a waiver of liability I thought I would pass. Besides, to me, a little bit radioactive sounds the same as a little bit pregnant. The first nuclear device, or “gadget” as it was euphemistically called, resembled the below mock-up.
The museum also contained a large variety of drones and drone control systems as well as various telemetry and high speed photographic equipment. There was also a portion of the museum devoted to Civil Defense where the following important items were stacked.
Believe it or not, we have one of these barrels in our cellar…..not sure where we picked it up but the thing makes an excellent trash can. If you read the label carefully you will notice that the thing was shipped as a drinking water container and, when empty, would be used to deposit the spent H2O.
OK…..this next item is pretty wild and may explain all the hysteria around Roswell, New Mexico which is a mere 120 miles to the northwest.
Here is the placard in front of the thing.
Nothing more need be said……well, except by Kit.
Kit’s Corner: All I can say is; I’m glad Bill got to use his kayak at least once on this trip! It is probably the most well-travelled kayak in the world. I have suggested he get an inflatable kayak for the few times he needs it, then, I realized I would never be able to find the truck when I come out of Wal*Mart. So now, I’m OK with this monster thing that accompanies us around the US.