Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in southeastern New Mexico, and just over the border in Texas is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Since the parks are only about 50 miles apart, it makes sense to visit them both on the same trip, and I have done so twice. The Park Service agrees, as the two parks share one visitor’s guide. Let me sidetrack a bit here to say what I mean by visitor’s guide. When you go to a National Park, there are two publications of interest that you will receive when you pay your entrance fee. One is the park map, which is a very well-designed fold-out brochure with a map and information about the human and natural history of the park. The other is a visitor’s guide, or park newspaper, that has additional information. It has articles concerning the park, detailed information about the park’s facilities, more maps, and at least rudimentary hiking information. Even if you have prepared beforehand, it is of great benefit to read or at least skim these publications as soon as you can. Of course, you can get even more detailed information about hiking and other activities at the visitor center.

First Visit

My first visit to these parks was in 1994 as part of a huge two-week loop through Arizona and New Mexico, which included ten National Parks and Monuments. Guadalupe Mountains National Park was the first of the two. Something I still remember clearly was approaching the park from the west via US 180/62 and seeing El Capitan far in the distance. The land to the west is perfectly flat, so it made for an impressive sight. We stopped at the diner in Salt Flat for lunch before continuing to the park. One trouble with a big trip like this is that often there is not as much time in each site as I would like, and this was definitely true of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We checked out the mountains from the road, walked the short Pinery Trail, visited the Frijole Ranch, and I hiked the 2.3 mile Smith Spring Trail. As the name implies, the destination is a spring. The hike is quite enjoyable, and it moves from desert to forest near the spring and then back to desert. This visit left me wanting to hike the Bowl and McKittrick Canyon.

The next stop was Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Everyone knows that at dusk thousands of bats come out of the cave, and I wanted to see them. At the time, there was an AAA-approved motel in Whites City, just outside the park. As we checked in, I asked when the bats would be coming out. The clerk said “Leave right now!” It takes twenty minutes or so to get to the cave entrance, where they have an amphitheater to view the bats. We got there with about ten minutes to spare. The bat flight was quite impressive. Although you could take photos back then, it is no longer allowed. The next morning we toured the cave.

The best part about Carlsbad Caverns is that you can go on a self-guided tour of the cave. In most caves, such as Mammoth Cave, you have to rush along to keep up with the group. Here you can take a much more relaxed stroll, and really enjoy the view. There are also some ranger-guided tours to rooms that are considered delicate. On this visit, we took the guided King’s Palace Tour and the self-guided Big Room Tour. The Big Room Tour can be approached in two ways. You can take the elevator down from the visitor center, or you can take the Natural Entrance route which joins up with the Big Room route at its beginning. On this trip, we took the elevator for the King’s Palace Tour and then went off on our own for the Big Room. By now I have been to several caves, including Mammoth, Wind, Jewel, and Lehman, and I would have to say that Carlsbad Caverns is the best. The Big Room is indeed big, and there are several beautiful and/or amazing formations everywhere you look. Furthermore, the importance of being able to set your own pace cannot be overestimated. After touring the cave, we drove the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive, which is a 9.5 mile auto nature drive.

Second Visit

My second trip to Guadalupe and Carlsbad Caverns was a bonus on my trip to Big Bend National Park earlier this year. It is impossible for me to go to a National Park without also visiting any other one nearby. (I also visited Fort Davis National Historic Site and Chamizal National Memorial on that trip.) Most importantly, though, I wanted to hike the Bowl and McKittrick Canyon. Thus, on this trip I allotted much more time for Guadalupe. On a rainy Sunday morning I arrived at the road to McKittrick Canyon, but the gate wasn’t open yet. This would be a perfect chance to stretch my legs on the relatively short (2.3 miles) Smith Spring Trail that I had hiked on my previous trip to the park. The hike was unlike any other desert hike I had taken because of the gray fog that was all around me. It was really weird seeing desert plants in this weather condition. After this hike, I drove to McKittrick Canyon for the 10.2 mile round trip to the Notch. The fog had lifted a bit, so I was able to see the scenery. The rain had intensified the colors of everything it touched, so the plants and other scenery were very beautiful. About halfway to the Notch, I stopped to check out the abandoned Pratt Lodge. The view of South McKittrick Canyon from the Notch was superb, and it was a great place for lunch. By this time, Guadalupe Mountains had cemented its place on my list of great National Parks.

The next day I hiked up to the Bowl in an 8.5 mile loop. I chose the counter-clockwise direction via the Frijole Trail, Bear Canyon Trail, Bowl Trail, and Tejas Trail. I chose this direction so I would hike the steepest part (Bear Canyon) uphill. I do not like to hike down steep trails. The hike was good, but the bowl itself was a bit disappointing. I was envisioning a rather large bowl filled with pine trees, but it was not so big and the trees were rather sparse. The view from Hunter's Peak, however, was quite good. From there I could easily see Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. (You can hike to the top if you want.) Even cooler, I could look down at the top of El Capitan, the landmark that you can see for miles.

My next day’s activity was to tour Carlsbad Caverns. I started at the natural entrance, the first person there for the day. There are many switchbacks as you descend into the ground. Finally, it levels off a bit as you actually enter the cave. The route is then downhill all the way until joining with the Big Room route. This time, I had a camera that could take pictures in the cave, so it was quite fun photographing the formations. When I got to the end of the trail, I decided to take it again with my camera in its bag. I highly recommend this strategy. Without your camera, you look at everything instead of hunting for something that would make a pretty picture. After lunch, I had the whole afternoon available, so I decided to go back to Guadalupe and enter it from the north this time. The entrance, accessed by back roads, is at Dog Canyon. As you enter the park, there is a little Texas sign. I don’t think it was big enough to even say “Welcome to Texas.” The terrain on this end of the park is much smoother than at the southern end. The Bush Mountain Trail starts here and the aforementioned Tejas Trail ends here. I took the Bush Mountain Trail to Manzanita Ridge and back, about 4 miles. After returning to my motel in Carlsbad (Whites City no longer having an AAA-approved motel), I prepared for the next day’s drive to Big Bend National Park. For more pictures of Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains, with captions, see my Flickr page.

My visits: October 1994 and May 2009

1 comment:

  1. Thank you! Very informative and pleasant read.