If you're a movie buff or of a certain age, you may remember the
1969 romantic comedy directed by Mel Stuart and starring Suzanne
Pleshette titled, "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium."
The movie is the tale of a group of tourists blitzing through eight
or nine European countries in eighteen days, and a light-hearted
jab at the inanity (and insanity) of such tightly-scheduled "vacations."
been so busy this week -- after a relaxing three weeks at
McDowell Park -- that we're starting to feel like we're on a
similar whirlwind itinerary that's been planned in advance and
must be adhered to because of advanced reservations.
Oh, yeah, we DID plan out this week pretty carefully, didn't we?! Of course,
today we also modified the plan, as usual. We showed lots of adaptability and endurance today, mostly precipitated (pun intended) by the
weather forecast. It is winter, after all.
ALMOST DEJA VU
I've been to Carlsbad Caverns twice before and absolutely LOVED
the place, but it's been about twenty years since my last visit.
Jim's never been here, so I've been itching for him to see it,
This is my best interior photo at the
caverns -- remember
We tried unsuccessfully to visit Carlsbad Caverns during our
2004 Odyssey. That was a strange year of traveling back and
forth across the country three times soon after Jim retired.
We had sold our house in Montana and were living in our camper
for several months until we decided where to "retire." We ended
up moving all our belongings to Virginia that spring AND going
out West two more times for the Western States and Leadville
100-mile trail runs. We put something like 25,000 miles (maybe
more) on the truck in seven months.
On our way from McDowell Park in February of 2004 to the Atlanta
area to visit friends we tried to see the caverns but we arrived about an hour
ahead of an ice storm and the park was uncharacteristically
closed. It's normally open every day except Christmas.
Bummer! We didn't want to stick around for the ice storm (no
camping there anyway) so we tried to beat it by heading east
toward Texas. Long story short, it beat us. We hit an icy
patch of road on Hwy. 180, nearly wrecked the truck and camper,
and ended up spending two (free) nights camping around the
square in the friendly little town of Seminole, TX until the ice
Waiting out the ice storm in Seminole, TX
back in February, 2004
Let's just say it was a memorable experience.
I've been wanting to return to Carlsbad Caverns ever since. This
time it worked and the park was open. We beat another ice storm
by maybe twelve hours today! (One of the hazards of
traveling in the winter, even in the southern part of the
country.) Our timing is improving, but not by much.
We awoke to a forecast of ice, sleet, snow, and/or rain expected in a wide area of
New Mexico and Texas tonight and tomorrow. That prompted our
decision to stay only one night at Windmill RV Park. We didn't
want to get stuck there for several days. So we checked out of
the campground around 8 this morning, taking the camper with us to the caverns. We
left it in one of the spacious parking areas while we toured the
caverns for a couple hours.
I'm not sure if there would be room to park an RV there on a
busy day but in January it was no problem. The dogs stayed in
the camper. There is a kennel for dogs and cats when it's too
hot for them to stay in vehicles. This morning it was in the low
30s and overcast. It was warmer in the caverns than it was
outside! They stay a pretty constant 56º
F all year long.
We drove about ten miles from Hwy.
62 back to the park visitors' center and cavern entrance. It's a
scenic ascent to 4,500 feet through hilly Chihuahuan Desert terrain.
The flora looked about the same as at McDowell Park in the
Sonoran Desert. The next photo shows yellow fruit on a Buckhorn Cholla (I think)
near the visitors' center. We didn't see that at McDowell when
we left two days ago
because it's farther north.
There is also a 9.5-mile one-way scenic loop on Walnut Canyon Desert
Drive near the visitors' center. That route was closed today;
it's too narrow and twisting for campers anyway. The park has a
short nature trail and over fifty miles of primitive backcountry
trails. We didn't have time to explore them today so I don't
know if they'd be suitable for running. Overnight
camping is permitted in the backcountry with a permit.
The visitors' center is being
completely renovated this winter; it is supposed to
by spring or summer. Restrooms, food, tickets, books, and
souvenirs are temporarily housed in trailers. I'm sorry we
missed all the exhibits depicting the geology, biology, history,
and archeology of the caverns and surrounding area but the
exhibits should be very nice in a few months..
Visitor Center renovations
Carlsbad Caverns is a national park. If you have one of the
types of park passes, your entry is free.
We paid $6 each to
enter (good for three days), plus $3 for one audio CD-ROM handset. Jim carried that since he
hadn't been inside before. The tape has fifty messages,
triggered by electronic signals along the self-guided routes, with
explanations of the cave formations, critters that live inside,
history of exploring the cavern, etc. It enhanced Jim's experience
and when I wasn't busy taking pictures, I sometimes listened in
with one ear. (Even with image stabilization and vibration
reduction features on my digital camera, most of my photos didn't turn out
well in the low
light, but I'll include some of the fuzzy ones here to
illustrate various points.).
USE YOUR IMAGINATION
If you don't like crowds, this is as good a time of the year to
tour the caverns as it is to visit White Sands National
Monument. It's not prime vacation season, except for some snow
birds. There were several buses of middle school-aged kids in
the caverns this morning but they were well-behaved.
Most of the other visitors appeared to be middle-aged and older. We had no problems walking at our own pace, taking
pictures where we wanted, using the restrooms, etc. Nice!
Interesting crevices and holes -- wonder
what's behind them??
Speaking of kids . . .
it's my strong opinion that EVERY child should see Carlsbad
Caverns. And if you're an adult who's never been there, GO. The
history and geology are fascinating. If that doesn't appeal to
you, consider that it's a total visual delight.
The limestone formations
are beautifully lit, enhancing the colors of the iron and other
minerals in them. It's easy to use your imagination here. It
appealed to my sense of wanderlust and curiosity -- what's
through that opening? what's around the next corner?? how did
that unusual Lion's Tail form?
Lion's Tail -- stalactite and "popcorn"
Carlsbad Cavern isn't the largest, deepest, or most
extensive cave in the world but it's the most "decorated" and
beautiful. And at over eight acres, it's hard to imagine a much larger cave anywhere.
Over thirty miles of subterranean corridors and chambers have
been surveyed in the main cavern.
There are 113 caves in the 46,776-acre park. Many
have not been fully explored and/or are limited to scientific
groups (e.g., the 112-mile long Lechuquilla Cave that was
discovered in 1986).. Some can be toured with a guide (Slaughter
Canyon Cave, Spider Cave). Even parts of the gigantic main cavern
require a guide through their remote or difficult subterranean chambers
(King's Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Lower Cave, Hall of the White
Giant). Some of the tours include wearing headlamps, crawling on
your belly through tight passages, extra fees, and reservations.
TAKE YOUR PICK
There are three main cave tour options, depending on your time,
interest, and physical ability. Two are self-guiding; the third is ranger-guided.
1.We took the more strenuous Natural Entrance self-guided route.
This 1¼-mile trail descends
750 feet on the traditional explorers' route through the tall
Main Corridor. It is a steep, narrow, sometimes-wet paved trail
that ends at the lunchroom / restroom area underground. Then we
walked the Big Room Route for a total distance of 2½
miles. No one except rangers can go back UP the Natural
Entrance Route, doggone it (seriously, I wanted to walk back up
for a better workout since we aren't running today!). We had to return to the surface via the
Winding trail just outside the Natural
If you're short on time or can't manage that type of descent you
can do just the Big Room Route. The elevator in the visitors'
center carries you 70 stories down to the lunchroom area. Then you take the
less hilly 1¼-mile loop
around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave. The most
level portion of the Big Room Route accommodates wheelchairs.
The third option is the 1½-hour
ranger-guided tour of Kings Palace. It follows a moderately-easy
trail 830 feet below the desert surface, the deepest portion of
Carlsbad Caverns, and tours four highly decorated chambers. An
additional fee is charged for this tour. I'm sorry we didn't
have time for it today. There are several other
ranger-guided tours, but this is the most popular one.
LIKE A BAT OUT OF . . .
After getting our tickets we walked outside about a quarter of a mile
down to the Natural Entrance. Two young rangers met us just
before the entrance to remind us about some of the rules inside
the cavern and to subtly ascertain our level of fitness. This
sign amused us, of course:
I mean, we're going down into the caverns. How bad can
that be?? It wasn't for us, even with my Granny Knees. (Be
aware, though, that the initial descent to the Bat Cave is very
steep. You might get dizzy on all the switchbacks.) Our
eyes and brains were more fatigued by the end of the morning
than the rest of our bodies. Sensory overload!
The Natural Entrance is famous for its bat flights at
sunset. Unfortunately, the Mexican (AKA Brazilian) free-tailed bats are wintering
in Mexico right now so we couldn't see them or we might have
been tempted to stay another night in the area. From early spring until late fall, visitors can
enjoy the evening spectacle as hundreds of thousands of the bats emerge from
the cave entrance for a night of feasting on insects. At dawn,
they return singly and in groups, having gorged on up to half
their weight or more in moths and other insects.
The opening to the caverns was initially discovered, perhaps
twelve to fourteen thousand years ago, by Native Americans in
the Guadalupe Mountains region who observed the bats emerging
during the evenings from March to October. I wonder what they
thought of the undulating clouds of bats flying out of that
cave! I'm guessing it's a sight to behold the first time you see
it. Although there is no evidence the Indians ventured as far
into the cave as the "Dark Zone," they did leave pictographs on
walls near the entrance.
an amphitheatre at the entrance for viewing the dramatic swarm as a ranger gives
a short talk on bats.
The cavern is a sanctuary for seven types of bats; the Mexican free-tailed
the most prevalent at Carlsbad. During the day they crowd together on the
ceiling of Bat Cave, a passageway near the natural entrance
where visitors aren't permitted. After early
white settlers in the area discovered the caverns in the 1800s,
some mined the bat guano (droppings) and sold it as a natural fertilizer. I
don't know what they do with it now but there's got to be tons
of it every season.
DESCENT INTO DARKNESS
Just below the amphitheatre the trail into the mouth of the
caverns begins. I already showed a picture of that three photos
It was cool to look back at the 40- by 90-foot entrance as we made our way down
the initial steep switchbacks toward the Bat Cave 200 feet below
the surface. Before the zig-zag trail was built in 1925, explorers and
guano miners had to descend on flimsy ladders or in guano buckets on ropes -- yikes! It's
quite a drop! (There's a photo of a guano bucket carrying two
people at the top of the history page at the park
Looking back up to the cave entrance
One of many attractive, informative signs along the
trails through the caverns
It was very quiet the farther we descended into the darkness.
Visitors are asked to speak in quiet voices so sounds don't echo
off the walls and disturb others. We met several young rangers
during the descent. Each was eager to answer questions. They are
there not only to do that, but also to help protect the fragile
formations and pools, provide assistance if someone is in
trouble, and enforce the (few) rules.
Obviously, the farther you get from the natural light at the
entrance, the darker it becomes. Our eyes adjusted to the
darkness as we descended and subtle artificial lighting kept the
level of light about the same the rest of the way down to the
(very bright) lunchroom area. We passed through the "Twilight
Zone," the area between the entrance and the "Dark Zone." Some
mice, raccoons, ringtails, and snakes seek shelter here but
we didn't see any of them.
We wished we had a flashlight -- not to see the fairly dark path, but to look more closely at some
formations and pools that weren't lit up, and into the numerous
nooks and crannies that surrounded us. It's permissible to
take flashlights into the caverns and they are required
on some of the ranger-guided tours.
Whale's Teeth formation in Main Corridor
Once we came to the more gradually descending Main Corridor we began to see more and more
of the extraordinary features of the caverns, which have been
created and decorated drop by drop over hundreds of thousands of
years. We passed areas dubbed the Devil's Spring and the Devil's
Den (500 feet below the surface), Witches Finger, Iceberg Rock,
Green Lake Overlook, and the Boneyard before reaching the trail intersection to the
lunchroom and the Big Room Route deep within the earth.
The best show is in the Big Room about 750 feet below the
surface. The circular one-way 1¼-mile
route takes you past the most fascinating formations -- soda
straws and larger stalactites hanging from the ceiling;
columns where stalactites and stalagmites merge in the middle;
draperies; flowstone; popcorn; lily
pads on the surface of pools of water; cave pearls;
and twisted helictites.
The formations sometimes "stand alone" and sometimes appear in
groups with names like the Hall of Giants, the Chinese Theatre, and Fairy Land.
The Big Room, a cross-shaped chamber, really is big at
1,100 feet in one direction and 1,800 feet the other. The
highest point in the ceiling is 255 feet. -- and a rope is
visible hanging down from it, left from a previous exploration of the room.
Remember that inland sea I mentioned yesterday that covered White Sands 250
to 280 million
years ago? It also covered what is now Carlsbad Caverns. When
the sea evaporated, the 400-mile long Capitan Reef was buried under
deposits of salts and gypsum for some more millions of years. At the time the Rockies were
formed, uplift and erosion also uncovered this Permian-age reef,
which is full of fossils that are still being unearthed.
Rainwater seeped into cracks and faults in the limestone and
mixed with sulfide-rich water from gas and oil fields to the
east. The resultant sulfuric acid gradually dissolved the
limestone and created the large chambers at Carlsbad that remain
The caves in the Capitan Reef area are unusual
in that they were not dissolved by carbonic acid, as most limestone
caves in other areas of the country and world were formed.
About 300 caves have been found where that horseshoe-shaped reef
existed, with over a hundred within the Carlsbad National Park lands and
more in nearby Guadalupe National Park..
A section of a large chamber in the caverns
From the park
speleothems (cave formations) that continue to grow and decorate
Carlsbad Cavern are due to rain and snowmelt soaking through limestone
rock, then eventually dripping into and evaporating in a cave below.
Those water drops have absorbed gasses and dissolved minerals from the
soil and limestone above. Wherever that water drop evaporates and
releases carbon dioxide in an air-filled cave, a small amount of
mineral-mostly calcite, is left behind. Thus, drip-by-drip, over the
past million years or so, Carlsbad Cavern has slowly been decorating
"The slowest drips tend to stay
on the ceiling long enough to deposit their mineral there. Common speleothems
found on the ceiling may be stalactites, soda straws, draperies, ribbons or
"The faster the dripping, the
more likely it is to make some type of decoration on the floor. A wide range of
decorations on the cave floor include totem poles, flowstone, rim stone dams,
lily pads, shelves, cave pools, and of course stalagmites."
above, stalagmites below
stalagmites in the caverns are the Twin Domes, left, which rise 58 feet above
column is on the right, Giant Dome, 62 feet high. The "floor" beneath them is
The next photo is of poor quality
but it illustrates a point. Notice that the two stalactite / stalagmite
formations on either side have not quite joined together to make a column but
it looks like they will at some point. The stalactite and stalagmite in the
center have already formed a column.
Here are some more hefty columns
and stalagmites in the Big Room:
Interesting "decorations" on a column
The formations are growing more slowly now that the climate has
become more arid than it was millions of years ago, but
continual drips of water mean the speleothems are gradually
changing shape and new ones are forming all the time.
The numerous formations are varied and totally
fascinate me. I'm sorry my photos don't do them justice. It's
like being in a wonderland, a different world. I felt like a kid at Disney
World, ooh-ing and aah-ing my way around the place. By the end
of several hours, however, we were about "caved out" and ready
for lunch! Lots of sensory overload. We surfaced via the
elevator and ate lunch in our camper instead of the subterranean
or topside cafeterias.
For more photos and information about Carlsbad Caverns, click
http://www.nps.gov/cave/ The link for photos is on
the left of their home page and includes pictures from areas in the main cavern and
other caves that we didn't tour.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN -- DESTINATION: SAN ANTONIO
Here's where our plans once again evolved as we drove south and
east toward San Antonio, Texas. We wanted to drive for several hours,
find somewhere to stay before it got dark, then finish the
rest of the 386-mile trip to Fort Sam Houston on Thursday morning. Our
reservations at the campground were to begin on Thursday night,
When we left Carlsbad just before 1 PM the weather forecast
still called for frozen precipitation overnight in the
Carlsbad area, and by Thursday night in San Antonio. We had to
stay ahead of that storm!
We headed south on Hwy. 285 to Pecos, TX. We stopped for fuel at
the Flying J at the I-20 exit. We stayed here one night on our
way to Arizona a few weeks ago and knew they had a large
parking area. It was too early to stop for the night but Jim
wanted to check e-mail using the WiFi signal from the motel next
door. Jim got
into the camper, got on-line for a couple minutes, and tired to
close the door side slide-out again.
Uh, oh. It wouldn't close properly!
"Painted Grotto" formations at Carlsbad
Now you can't just drive down the road with a camper's slide-out
partially open! We had a problem once with the street-side
slide in the living room (first night on the 2005 AT trek!) and
Jim was able to fix it. This time one of the two tracks was
stuck. He couldn't quickly fix it from underneath but with two
of us shoving on it from the outside we managed to get it most
of the way in. As long as it didn't wiggle itself out again from
vibration while traveling, it should be OK until opened again.
Our plan morphed on the spot. This was not a good place for a
repair the next day (it was already late afternoon) and we'd probably get delayed by the ice,
sleet, or snow that was rapidly approaching if we stayed
overnight. If we stopped farther down the road to spend the
night, we might not get the slide back in again. We could camp
overnight with either of the other two slides closed, but not
this one. It's essential for access to the living area.
So we decided to push on all the way to San Antonio. Not only
would we beat the storm, we'd be in a more permanent location
(eight nights) at the military post and Jim would probably be
able to make the repair himself. If not, we'd be in a larger
city with RV repair shops.
Only problem was, there were still a lot of miles to go and many
of them would be in the dark. (I mentioned adaptability
and endurance in the same sentence near the beginning of
this entry. This is what I meant.)
Lemme tell ya, it was a long drive -- about nine hours on the
road, accounting for the hour we "lost" going from the Mountain to
Central Time Zone. Hwy. 285 continued to be good to Ft. Stockton,
where we picked up I-10 east to San Antonio. Traffic was
relatively light on the freeway through southwestern Texas but
surprisingly heavy in the city, even though we arrived after 10
PM. What are all these people doing out here so late on a
Original 90-foot wire ladder (on left)
built by cave guide Jim White
in 1924 for an exploration of the Lower
We weren't sure we'd be able to get into the Ft. Sam campground
a night early. It was too late to call them from Pecos, so we
just hoped we could park outside the gate if it was closed or
the campground was full. We lucked out in getting the same nice
spot that was reserved for us the next seven nights. It was one of only three that
were vacant tonight. That was a relief.
However, we spent about an hour trying to find the doggone
campground because we had conflicting information about which
gate on this huge installation to use and the guards at the two
gates we approached first had no clue. The web site, military
camping guide, and phone conversation when Jim made the
reservations didn't jive. We did eventually find out way in the
proper, isolated gate -- and duly noted the directions in case
we camp there again. Unlike the entrance hassle at White Sands
Missile Range, it was a breeze getting into Ft. Sam Houston.
We were exhausted and slept well all night!
Next entry: falling in love with San Antonio
Cheers from Texas,
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil