I don’t consider myself a cave person. Reading Tom Sawyer as a kid cured me of any desire to explore underground passages (if you know, you know), and yet I have found myself visiting three major US cave systems this year. While I definitely see the attractions of each of the caves, I would have to say that if you are going to visit one cave, it should be Carlsbad. It is, without a doubt, the prototype of caves.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in New Mexico, and it is nearly contiguous with the Guadalupe Mountains National Park just across the New Mexico border with Lincoln National Forest filling in the gap. Besides the eponymous cavern, there are some nice surface level drives and hikes in the park. Unfortunately, during my visit many of those were closed or damaged due to floods. And I knew I would be exploring similar terrain at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, so I limited my time in the park to a half day dedicated to the cave.
Visiting the cave in 2022 required a reservation made online at least one day in advance. I was very glad to have noticed this as the other caves I visited this year had walk-up tours available. The cost to reserve a time slot for entering the cave was $1 per person. When you arrive at your designated time, you must then purchase your park entrance pass in the visitor center – $15 per person although any of the annual or lifetime park passes waives this. For $5 more an audio guide can be rented from the bookstore. I highly recommend this for background on the history and nature of the cave.
Unlike any of the other caves in the national park system, Carlsbad’s tours are self-guided. Some ranger-lead options may be available, but it is a unique experience to be able to wander through the passages unaccompanied. The path is very well-marked and there is zero chance of getting lost unless you are doing something really stupid. But on the less busy day I visited, I was able to be alone for much of the walk to the Big Room.
There are two options for getting into the cave. An elevator descends nearly directly into the Big Room, but I greatly enjoyed walking in from the Natural Entrance. Though it is just over a mile walk, the descent is pretty steep. If you are not used to doing a lot of up and down, don’t be surprised if you feel it in your joints or muscles. But the walk into the chasm was pretty incredible.
But nothing could really compare to the views in the Big Room. It is said the entire US capitol building would fit within this part of the cave. It is honestly difficult to wrap one’s mind around the expansiveness. It is amazing how quickly time passed as I explored the various formations. The audio tour mentioned that return visitors are often surprised at the new features they notice on each successive tour. I can admit that I only noticed a fraction of the amazing architecture created my water and minerals over the eons. The scale and scope of stalactites and stalagmites easily become overwhelming. It is no wonder there are folks who spend their lives exploring these passages.
Like many parks in the southwest, Carlsbad has a very strict policy about leaving pets unattended in vehicles. But this park has gone the extra mile in offering kenneling services via a concessionaire at the visitor center! Blue was still back at the campground, but I love seeing parks creating solutions to help many of their visitors. The kennels aren’t fancy, are available first-come-first-served, and require proof of rabies vaccination. Definitely a great option for those of us traveling with furry best friends!
One of the most popular events at the park is the great bat flight programs. At dusk and dawn during the summer months, thousands of bats leave and return through the mouth of the cave. Of course all of those bats were hibernating in winter caves when I visited. Oh well. Something to add to my bucket list!
Brantley Lake State Park
I did not spend much time exploring the park itself as I wrapped up my workload for the year. The park is about 20 minutes outside the town of Carlsbad and about an hour from the national park. There are some full-hookup RV parks a little closer, but from driving past them, many appeared to be geared more towards long-term residents. I think the mix of scenery and low state park cost makes Brantley Lake a great option for staying in the area.
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