I’m not much of a cave man. Going underground into a dark hole where I might be not able to get out doesn’t really appeal to me. I’m more of a mountain or beach type of guy. My wife on the other hand, loves to explore caves and unusual places. So while we were leaving west Texas heading into New Mexico, we visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And yours truly, J. Dawg, did go subterranean. Did it for you, Sweet Pea!
Not being a cave man, I had no idea what I’d experience at Carlsbad Caverns. Getting to the Caverns is a little deceiving as you have to drive up 7 miles to the top of a ridge of the Guadalupe Mountains. The park has a nice Visitor Center on the surface, but the “hole” attraction is underground.
I did a little research ahead of time for my wife and found that there are parts of the caverns you can explore on your own and other parts where you need to sign up for a guided tour. I read that the tours can fill up quickly, so we stopped by the National Park a day early on our way into Carlsbad and signed her up for one of the tours for the next day. In fact, we got her into one of the last slots of the only tour that was available for the next day. Note to future visitors – if you want to go on a guided tour, sign up ahead of time through recreation,gov or go the day before to sign up. The popular tours are usually booked days ahead of time.
My wife is not a morning person. On this trip, I’ve usually have to wake her up by 9:00 am so we can get going by around 10:00 am. But for this day, she was so excited to be going on a cave exploration, that she wanted us up early and at the park by 9:00 am so she could spend the “hole” day there. And being the good husband that I am, I got up early, got the RV ready to roll, and drove an hour to get us there by 9:00 am.
There are two major areas that you can explore on your own in the caverns. There’s The Big Room, which is 800 ft below the surface and area wise is about the size of four foot ball stadiums, and has a 1.25 mile paved path that goes through it. It’s reached by taking an elevator down 8 stories into the ground. There’s also the Natural Entrance which is the only surface entrance to all of the caverns. Here’s where you can walk down into the caverns. The trail is paved and steep descending 800 ft over 1 mile. It takes about over an hour to hike down and there it connects to The Big Room and all the other caverns.
We opted to hike down (versus taking the elevator – the rangers told us it was a dramatic way to enter the caverns) and get to the bottom in time for my wife to take her noon time tour of the Kings Palace room.
So, we hiked over to the entrance at 9:30 am, showed our tickets, and began our descent into the earth below. My wife was super excited about seeing everything. All I could think about was surviving the hike down, do it without having a major panic attack, and do it without shitting my pants (morning is not the best time for my colitis). It should take about an 60-90 minutes to hike down (per the rangers) where there would be bathrooms and the elevators to the surface. So, that became my singular focus. Get to bottom as fast as I could so I could get to the elevators (and bathrooms) and get the hell back to the surface.
The entrance is a dramatic hole in the ground. Its also a humongous hole in the ground that seems to go straight down.. I started walking down and kept going at a steady pace. I quickly left my wife behind who was talking it slow and gawking at everything. As I descended, one of my other fears started to kick up – my fear of heights. Its a steep trail which appears to be descending into a bottomless pit. The trail has you staring straight down. And as I kept going down and down the bottomless pit feeling became more real. While the path is dimly lit, its very very dark. I could barely see the path or my feet. Luckily my feet kept hitting pavement with each step. Eventually the path leveled out and I make to the rest area. Phew!!
I didn’t stop at all on the way down, but I did take some pictures on the move and marveled at how huge this frigging hole is. The words “Holy Shit” and “Ah Jeez” kept rising in my throat. Partly because of what I was seeing and partly because my fears kept getting pinged.
I made it down in 30 minutes (a new Carlsbad record!). I marveled at what I saw and I’m glad I did the Natural Entrance hike. It’s one of those unique extraordinary “wonders of the world” that should be seen in ones life time.
At the bottom, there are restrooms and a food concession with a seating area. It’s a dimly lit cavernous area where I sat waiting for my wife. Over the course on the hour that I waited, I became like a fidgety kid who couldn’t sit still. Finally, my wife appeared filled with wonder and glee from what she saw. I was happy for her, but told her I needed to get out of there and would see here some time later back at the RV. I was quickly on the elevator and a minute later I was back in the Visitor Center and could see daylight. My heart rate went back to normal, muscles relaxed, and my breathing eased. I was back on the surface and the world I know!
I spent the next 3 hrs in the RV (it was a rainy day on the surface) eating lunch, taking a nap, and planning our next destination stop. I was a happy terranean man! My wife had a great time. She spent about 5 hrs underground and got back to the RV around 3:30 pm.
Carlsbad Caverns is an impressive place to visit and experience. I’m glad I saw it, glad I hiked into it, and probably won’t be back.