This post is part of a series of stories from our 2018 Spring Break road trip across New Mexico.
Click here for all posts.
One of the biggest reasons we headed to New Mexico for Spring Break in the first place was the opportunity to see (and hike!) unique landscapes and a few amazing national parks and monuments. Every national park I’ve ever been to has been both an incredible memory and a reminder that we live in a country that values the protection of what’s special. New Mexico did not disappoint.
After a whirlwind road trip across Oklahoma and western Texas, we arrived in New Mexico and at the first stop on our week-long journey: Carlsbad.
As we drove into town, one thing was unmistakable. THE WIND. We couldn’t believe it. As we approached our motel, it was early in the afternoon and we’d planned to stretch our legs on a quick hike outside of town — but we went for Plan B on account of the wind nearly blowing our car right off the road and that it was Sunday and most things were closing earlier than we anticipated. Plan B was to check in to the motel and venture across the street for a bite to eat at the Cactus Cafe, and a quick wander around the quirky nearby gift shop.
After turning in early for a good night’s sleep, we were up and at ’em Monday morning for the officially official kick-off of our Spring Break adventures!
First things first – the Visitors Center for a lay of the land, a good map, and – of course – a stamp in the passport.
I wish I’d started one of these for myself years ago, but it’s just as much fun being there with Colt when he gets a new stamp. (Order your own National Park passport here. They’re also available in every national park visitors center I’ve ever visited.) Before we left the Visitors Center we also bought tickets for a ranger-led tour later in the day. And we were off!
The main attraction at Carlsbad Caverns is what they call the Big Room, and you have two options: an elevator ride or the 1.25-mile Natural Entrance Route that winds 750 feet below ground. You can guess which option we chose.
Immediately it got DARK. And cool. As your eyes adjust, you start to take it in and 8.2 acres of the cavern seems to keep going and going and going. Here’s a good map of the cavern – the Natural Entrance is in the upper right corner. The self-guided tour of the Big Room follows the blue line (the Natural Entrance hike underground) and the red line (the path built around the Big Room).
We were underground. WAY underground. The only light came from a system of lights trained on the walls and ceiling of the cave, highlighting what the rangers call “decorations”. It was incredibly difficult to take photos — not that any photo could do it justice. (Warning: I will say this about every single thing we did and saw all week.) It didn’t keep me from trying and I filled a memory card with mostly blurry but endlessly beautiful glimpses of the caverns.
After exploring the Big Room all morning, we grabbed lunch at the tiny snack bar in the bottom of the caverns, and headed to the meeting place for our ranger-led tour of King’s Palace (the green line on the above map). Ranger Katie — endlessly patient with endless questions from curious kiddos — was an incredible storyteller and we spent an hour and a half with her touring a particularly scenic section of the caverns. As she put it, it was like the Big Room – but closer. In the King’s Palace we were inches away from decorations that were further off the path in the Big Room.
At one point, Ranger Katie turned off the lights in the chamber we were in and we just listened. You’ve never been in a room that dark. It took my breath away. We learned about tourism in the caverns over the years and about the first brave souls who explored it before 1900. We learned about different decorations: stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns, “cave popcorn”, and so many more.
After our tour, we headed back to the Big Room for a final section we hadn’t seen yet.
At this point, we’d covered every walk-able inch of Carlsbad Caverns and we were ready to see the sun again. We opted for the elevator up from the bottom — though the “Natural Entrance” is an (uphill and ambitious!) option. Back in the Visitors Center, Colt finished up his booklet of Junior Ranger requirements and as he headed to turn it in — Ranger Katie was there! So she swore him in.
Congratulations to Carlsbad Caverns’ newest Junior Ranger!
What an incredible, incredible place.
As we piled back into the car and headed back to the highway, the boys had thoroughly enjoyed their first real taste of The Land of Enchantment. As we drove on to our next stop for the night, we couldn’t help pulling over to snap a photo with the beautiful New Mexico sunset. Goodnight, Carlsbad!
A few tips from our crew if you’re headed to Carlsbad Caverns:
- Wear comfortable shoes. According to my FitBit, I walked 7 miles that day. That’s A LOT of walking. And most of it was uphill or downhill in the caverns. Be comfortable and prepared to cover some ground.
- Sign up for a Ranger tour. And don’t be shy about asking questions of the Rangers – they are amazing. We had a terrific experience on our tour with Ranger Katie and got some stories and intel we would have otherwise missed. We lucked out and there were spots available that day — register ahead of time during peak travel seasons!
- Take advantage of NPS goodies. If you have a 4th grader, print off a pass and get your entire family into parks and monuments FREE! And check out the Junior Ranger program — the requirements and activities vary from park to park but it’s always a good way for kids to get engaged.
- When it comes to photography, just… keep your expectations low. It’s DARK down there. Flash photography is allowed, so you can always go that way, but if you have attitude about flash (like me…) you’ll just have to do your best.
- Keep the logistics simple. We stayed at a motel just outside the park, ate dinner at the restaurant across the street, and had sandwiches for lunch in the bottom of the cavern. Low key is the name of the game at Carlsbad Caverns — you won’t find fancy food or accommodations so embrace the simplicity of it all.