prevroadmap ushotel usslideshow usmark 12 20 us next

 

Saturday, September 19, 2015 : Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains

 

At the time we pull the curtains open, last night's downpour has stopped. However, weather forecast is way less than sobering. The sky is heavy with dark, highly worrisome clouds.

 

To visit a cave, this should not be an issue. But hiking in the mountains could prove much more troublesome.

 

Indeed, our program for the day includes two national parks :

 

 

The day's drive is short, 131 mi., to Van Horn, TX, a small town on Interstate 10.

 

After the shower, Skype with the family and breakfast, we take the road. It actually no longer rains. However, this is just temporary.

 

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

 

The entrance of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is only 17 mi. from the hotel, about 20 minutes' drive. For the visitor center and its parking lot, let's count 7 more miles.

 

Right after park entrance, Marie gets a fleeting sight of a couple of bighorn sheep close to the edge of the road, unfortunately too fast to take a picture. It must be written that, during this trip, we have no luck with this animal, which is supposed to be so common in the West.

 

A cave is supposed to be sheltered from possible precipitation. Carlsbad Caverns is therefore one of the very few parks in this trip where, way short of high-season crowds anyway, we can see a significant number of visitors.

 

As usual, I go for a chat with the park rangers. In fact, what we came here to see is the Big Room, the main cave, accessible on a self-guided tour. There are two ways to access the Big Room : either with the elevator, straight from the visitor center, or through the cave natural entrance, a few hundred yards outside, with a 1.25 mi. walk. To avoid her sciatic coming back, Marie and I make a deal : we will walk down thru the natural entrance, visit the Big Room, and take the elevator back up, about a 2.5 mi. walk overall.

 

Before going to the natural entrance, we stroll for a while in the visitor center. There is a large 3D model of the cave, which gives a quite precise understanding of what we will soon discover.

   TopArrow

Carlsbad Caverns natural entrance

Carlsbad Caverns natural entrance

 

Access to the cave natural entrance is controlled. To avoid congesting a relatively steep and narrow descent, a ranger regularly lets small groups of visitors in. The Big Room is actually 750 ft. below ground.

 

In fact, we only wait a very short time.

 

The cave natural entrance is located at the base of a natural amphitheater lined with rows of seats. Every night, bats fly out of their caves in stunningly high numbers, looking for food. Their outflight is such a dramatic show that seats had to be installed in substantial numbers. In summer and weather permitting, it ought to be worth the wait to stay in the park until sunset.

 

The descent into the cave is a paved lane, in very good condition, but which I would only recommend to decently fit hikers. Indeed, it is narrow, at times steep, occasionnally with a low ceiling, and with several flights of stairs. It is certainly not a hike for people with walking issues.

   TopArrow

Bats, Carlsbad Caverns

Bats

 

The ceiling is dotted with bat nests, complete with their residents. If, instead of proceeding onto the natural descent, we went to the end of this cave, we would enter another cave populated by tens of thousands of bats.

 

The park estimates bat population around 400,000.

 

During the day, most bats are asleep. It is a nocturnal animal which should be left alone by all means.

 

At night, it goes entirely otherwise. When night falls, bats fly out of their inaccessible cave by the tens of thousands, and only fly back at dawn. This outflight is the featured show of this park.

 

Of course, such a large population does not go without leaving traces, mostly in the form of excrements, which have been deposited over the ages in impressive quantities. This is called guano, a totally natural fertilizer, with outstanding efficiency and no other polluting secondary effect than its odor. Guano mining at Carlsbad Caverns was phased out a long time ago, but some cave natural entries were formerly used as mine pits to reach the guano.

   TopArrow

Limestone column, Carlsbad Caverns

Limestone column

 

We walk down slowly, first to avoid Marie's sciatic from waking up, and also to watch the various limestone formations that can be seen along the path. We are still a long way from what is supposed to be the most interesting part, the Big Room, but the show is already making our steps worthwhile.

 

The column in the picture was formed by the merging of a stalactite, hanging down from the ceiling, and a stalagmite, growing up from the ground. Those formations are actually the traces left by limestone particles in suspension withing seeping water, which very slowly dripped during tens of millenia.

 

As in many other caves, most formations in Carlsbad Caverns are called "dry", meaning that not a single drop of water goes thru them any more. Dripping water has eventually left this formation alone and found another way.

 

Marie tries herself at taking pictures inside a cave, which is never an easy feat. Too much light means that colors are too blunt and parts of the picture too shiny. Not enough, and the picture is too dark. Finally, she twiddles her way with flashlight, aperture, focus and polarizing filter.

   TopArrow

The Whale's Mouth, natural descent, Carlsbad Caverns

The Whale's Mouth

 

Once more, Mother Nature has a few surprises in store for us. This formation is clearly reminiscent of a whale's mouth complete with fangs, hence its name, the Whale's Mouth.

 

The whole Carlsbad Caverns region originates in the cliffs that used to line the Permian Sea 250 millions years ago. This vast and shallow sea was very rich in various life forms, plants and marine animals. This is what explains the huge quantities of fossils retrieved in the park.

 

Later on, all the region was raised, and the former cliff found itself where it still is, about 5,000 ft. above sea level. But unlike Colorado Plateau, which was gently raised with almost no accident, the cliff was fractured and cracked at several places.

 

Once the water from the former Permian Sea drained out, rainwater began to percolate inside the various cracks, carrying along carbon dioxyde naturally present in the atmosphere, thus becoming a weak acid. This acid slowly began to dissolve the softer parts of the limestone cliffs. This erosion, along with massive collapses of weakened rocks, carved the caves and gave them their permanent shape.

 

The caves were almost formed about 2 million years ago. Water saturated with limestone particles went on percolating into the caves, decorating them with multiple formations : stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and the Whale's Mouth on the picture.

   TopArrow

Near the Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

Near the Big Room

 

We are proceeding on our descent. Indeed, we have spent more than one hour to walk about 1 1/4 mi., of course taking all our time along the way for pictures.

 

We are getting closer to the Big Room.

   TopArrow

The Big Room

The Big Room

 

Shorly before entering the Big Room, we make a break. There are even restrooms. Restrooms ? 750 ft. deep ? Well, they thought about everything ! I am mentally trying to figure out what kind of lift-pump they have to bring water back to the surface. My guess is that they must not leave it inside the cave.

 

There are also rangers and signs.

 

We then walk into the Big Room.

   TopArrow

The Giant Dome, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Giant Dome, The Big Room

 

Let's clearly face it, I have had a pretty tough time selecting the pictures for this article. First, Marie took more than 200. Then she got quite skilled at playing with her camera's settings and light. And last but not least, considering the quality of the show, I wanted to put a lot more. But it would have slowed down page load even more than it already is. So I had to radically refrain myself, and keep only the best and brightest.

 

The Big Room visit is roughly 1 1/4 mi. long. That speaks volumes about the otherworldly size of the cave. Like the descent, the path is paved and in good condition, but some sections, steeper, narrower, and cut with flights of stairs, are beyond mobility-challenged people's access.

 

One of the first formations we see is the Giant Dome in the picture. The stalagmite does not quite meet the ceiling of the cave, but only by a short distance. It will actually never meet it, this column is dry. Not a single drop of water drips here.

   TopArrow

Temple of the Sun, The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

Temple of the Sun

 

A little further, we cross the Temple of the Sun. This part of the Big Room is wider and higher, I assume this must be the reason for the name, as well as the two pretty high columns, not unlike the pillars of a temple.

 

However, in this place, we can see absolutely no animal life. We are now way too far from the surface for bats to have nested here.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

The Big Room is like a big, big church, lined with dozens of chapels of various sizes and shapes. Here, we would be back in the main nave, with its tremendously high vault. The column in the picture and the draperies hanging from the vault are an indication of those otherworldly dimensions.

 

To take pictures, Marie switches between with and without the polarizing filter. This is what gives those color variations, at times with a yellowish shade, at times more pastel. She also experiments with the settings and the angle of the flash.

 

Taking pictures is an art form in itself, and I am far from having mastered its subtleties.

   TopArrow

The Totem, The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Totem

 

The diversity of formations inside the Big Room is impressive. Here is the Totem, a needle which, despite its height, is quite far from reaching the cave ceiling.

 

The Totem was formed roughly the same way as the Giant Dome we saw a little earlier, water saturated with minerals dripping drop by drop from the cave ceiling. But whereas the Giant Dome is really massive, the Totem is thin and slim. Isn't that odd ? This is what Big Room diversity is all about. And we are far from done !

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

We are here in a lower part of the Big Room. Lighted by the floodlights on the ground, the beautiful draperies are reflected in yellow or orange, depending on the angle of light. With the polarizing filter, the result is outstanding.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

Big Room

 

Here, the path climbs a little, offering a panoramic view of the Big Room. From this only picture, where the few visitors are barely visible, it is hard to get a sense of the size of the room. Let us say that half a dozen cathedrals could fit in here. The large needle slightly on the left must be close to 100 ft. high.

 

Hanging from the vault, the beautiful draperies lighted from the ground offer those gorgeous orange reflections.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

We are now back in a slightly less impressive part of the Big Room. Indeed, the shape of the cave is far from regular and some parts, as seen here, have collapsed under the level of the rest of the cave.

 

Above our heads, we can see those beautiful draperies, thin as lace.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

This picture was taken without the polarizing filter, and the shades are totally different. Flashlight allows to imagine what the natural colors are inside the Big Room. Pastel shades vary from almost white to a palette of pink, coral, light beige, and so on.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

The visit path winds up and down. We are here in a lower part, which offers us a sight of those two superb columns lighted from behind. The perspective effect makes them even more impressive than in real life.

   TopArrow

Panoramic view of the Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

Panoramic view of the Big Room

 

We have now walked back up to a higher part of the Big Room for this panoramic view. The few visitors on the right of the picture give an approximate idea of the size of the cave.

 

Up under the vault, the thin draperies are still as gorgeous.

   TopArrow

The Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

The Big Room

 

Shortly before leaving the Big Room, Marie takes a last picture of an alcove, interesting to more than one extent : diversity of colors, variety of shapes, and a more intimate vision.

 

We are back to where the visit started. We have spent two hours in the Big Room, without ever realizing how fast time goes by. This speaks volumes about the sheer beauty of the show.

 

This time, we take the elevator.

 

When we are back in the open, we can see that the weather, already less than promising this morning, got even messier. It is now raining quite hard, with clouds dragging almost down to the ground. There is no point in waiting for a respite that will never come. We take the road to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, less than 45 miles away.

 

The rain is still pouring like mad as we cross the state line between New Mexico and Texas, our last state line on this trip.

   TopArrow

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

 

We do not know yet, but we are right in the middle of a huge and very nasty weather system that covers the whole region. Guadalupe Mountains, 8,700 ft. high, are blocking clouds and concentrating precipitation. Let's face it, we have to forget about an actual visit of this otherwise beautiful park.

 

When we make it to the visitor center, I am convinced that we are going to find a locked door. Not at all. Owing to some subtlety that can only happen in this country, the part of Texas where the park is located is in the same time zone as New Mexico, and we actually have close to one hour left. We watch the beautiful documentary featuring the park and its geology, we stroll thru the various exhibitions, and I take a moment to have a chat with the ranger on duty, who is not exactly overwhelmed by activity. It even seems that we are the only visitors, late this afternoon.

   TopArrow

Guadalupe Mountains in the clouds

Guadalupe Mountains in the clouds

 

Quite logically, we forget about hiking in the park. Rain seems to be easing a little, but the sky remains very threatening. Lacking a better idea, and with the visitor center now closed, we take the road to Van Horn, our stopping city tonight.

 

The picture above was taken close to Guadalupe Pass, which crosses Guadalupe Mountains, 5,424 ft. high. Clouds are dragging down right before our eyes. That says a lot about the sky being totally obscured. Basically, there is nothing left to expect for the rest of the  day.

 

On State Highway 54 to Van Horn, it is obvious it has really rained an awful lot. This road has no bridges, but lower sections to cross temporary rivers. Those creeks are normally dry, hence the absence of bridges not expected to be much of an issue. What's more, road signs repeatedly warn drivers. But today is highly unusual, and I carefully watch for mudslides, sand patches, floods, and everything we can run into due to such unexpected weather. Wise move ! At some point, we cross at slow speed a mudslide that has totally covered the road on a few dozen yards. I have no interest in knowing what would have happened if I had been driving there at regular speed.

 

Van Horn is a small town of 2,000 souls, typical of this Deep America that has been sort of left alone when Interstate 10 bypassed it. Our Hotel, an Econo Lodge, is decent for its category, supposed to be quite basic. Never mind, we are staying just one night anyway.

 

A moment later, we walk back out to have dinner at Van Horn Cattle Company, a restaurant that mostly serves meat dishes, as shown by its name. It too is typical of this Deep America : concealed-carry, gentlemen with Stetson cowboy hats, interior design coming straight from the 1960s, but clean and well-maintained. Quite logically, the meat is really great. I also notice the impressively large knives !

 

Later, back at the hotel, I learn from a friend living there that the weather in Houston, TX, indeed more than 650 mi. east of us, is really gorgeous.

 

As every night, I update the blog while Marie writes her day's notes in her diary.

LeftArrow UpArrow RightArrow TopArrow