I was in charge of making the reservations, and considered signing up for one of the tours that requires ropes and ladders and belly crawling (what in the world was I thinking??). Fortunately, the only tour available was for the King’s Palace, a 1.5-hour exploration that descends into the deepest part of the caverns, but doesn’t involve anything challenging—other than the ability to stay calm in a pitch-black maze 830 feet below the surface of the earth.
Just to be clear about this adventure—neither Eric nor I is enamored with caves, caverns, mines, or anything subterranean. We much prefer our adventures above ground, in the sunshine and fresh air. But Carlsbad Caverns was on our trajectory north, it’s a National Park, and it seemed like we should go see it. We actually got pretty excited about our expedition.
To add to the adventure, the elevator that normally transports visitors from the surface to the Big Room was undergoing repairs. We had already planned to hike down into the caverns from the Natural Entrance, a 1.25-mile steep winding trail that drops 750 feet down into the caves. No elevator meant that we would also be hiking back out that same trail—which is totally fine, unless you start thinking about how far beneath the surface you are, and how dark it is, and what if the lights go out, and what if you freak out…. and the only way out is up that long, steep trail. There were a few moments when I had to have a reassuring talk with myself.
Our tour of the King’s Palace was great, except for our guide’s penchant for hanging out in the dark. We were told that we would have the “opportunity” to experience total darkness for a few moments during the tour, but she left us in an abyss of darkness for a good 15 minutes while she talked about how wonderful it was. As much as I appreciate dark nights, I also like a teeny bit of light to orient myself—a few stars, crescent moon, something.
We took a break after our tour to eat our picnic lunch in the darkness of the underground café, huddled in a dank corner like a pair of pack rats. “We’re already here,” said Eric. “I think we should go ahead and do the Big Room.” And so we did, walking the mile-and-a-quarter loop, taking in the beauty of the various formations created drip by drip over centuries. Five hours after our descent into the caverns, we hiked out the 1.25 mile trail on which we had entered the caverns. We emerged, blinking, into the glorious sunlight. Are we happy we did it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? No, once was enough. (The Caverns at Sonora in West Texas, however, are still on our list—glittering formations of crystals—we’re definitely up for that.)
As far as above ground adventures, we walked the short trails at Brantley Lake State Park, and spent part of a day exploring the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park near Carlsbad (about 10 miles from our campground). This small and lovely park is focused on the flora and fauna of the Chihuahuan Desert. We happened to arrive in the reptile house at feeding time, and the snakes were going berserk. It was fascinating—and unnerving—to be surrounded by a symphony of rattlers rattling in anticipation of their meal.
One day plunged into an abyss, the next in the company of rattlesnakes. Our stay in Carlsbad was kind of like an immersion camp for overcoming phobias.
About the campground:
Brantley Lake State Park isn’t exactly close to Carlsbad Caverns, but from what we surmised, it’s the nicest place to stay. It’s a beautiful park, with spacious sites, many on the lake, and each with a covered picnic table. Water and 30/50 amp electric hookups, peaceful, dark night skies (but not too dark), nice bathrooms and showers, good Verizon. And lots of birdlife, which we love. It’s a bargain at $14 per night. The park is 12 miles north of Carlsbad, and 38 miles from the caverns.
Next Up: Back To Hiking: Oliver Lee State Park, NM