Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Rattlesnake Springs

On Friday, November 16, after a full day of exploring the underground palaces of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we decided to visit a very special aboveground part of the Park in our final hour of daylight: Rattlesnake Springs, the site of a lush oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert beneath the Guadalupe range. Rattlesnake Springs is a small, twenty-four acre unit of Carlsbad Caverns National Park purchased by the National Park Service in 1934 as a means to ensure a reliable water source for the development of the National Park. Because of its water and array of trees and shrubs, Rattlesnake Springs hosts 350 bird species, forty species of reptiles and amphibians, and thirty species of mammals. John had been monitoring the site’s bird lists on eBird and was keen to visit, so we decided to check it out on our way back to Carlsbad.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park from Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Before we got in the cars, we had a look at the southern escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains (the part that encompasses Guadalupe Mountains National Park) from the main Carlsbad Caverns parking area. I don’t know that I’ve ever had the experience before of standing in one National Park and gazing at another National Park. The closest we’d have come would have been spotting Mount Whitney (in Sequoia National Park) from Dante’s View in Death Valley National Park.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We climbed into the cars and drove out of the Park. At Whites City, we turned right onto the National Parks highway. Adam pointed out Javelina roadkill, which broke my heart because I really wanted to see a Javelina, but not like that.

The drive was only about twenty-five minutes, with signage leading the way from the highway past some ranches and back onto NPS property.

Wild Turkeys

As soon as we parked, we were greeted by a skittish flock of Wild Turkeys.

Video: Sean M. Santos

As they flew off, John and I distinctly heard one hit a tree…thwack! Ouch.

Rattlesnake Springs picnic area reminded us of a forest preserve or metropark, definitely landscaped and maintained.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Cottonwoods, oaks, and other large trees grew tall here, much taller than in other lowland parts of the two Parks. The site had been homesteaded in 1880 by a man named William Henry Harrison (who claimed relation to the president of the same name). Harrison died in 1930, allowing the Park Service the opportunity to purchase the site.

While the others waited in the fading light, John and I walked over to the oasis’s pond, near a pump house built in 1933. Other nearby structures had been built by the Park Service in the 1940s and 1950s. And the site had once held a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Ring-Necked Duck

The first bird of note that we noted was a Ring-Necked Duck.

Mule Deer

Twilight was coming on quickly, so we returned to the parking area.

American Robin

Our time at Rattlesnake Springs had been too short. We decided that we should return the following afternoon and take advantage of the grills to have a cookout dinner.

Guadalupe Mountains

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

As we drove back to the highway, we stopped to take in a particularly spectacular view of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in silhouette.

Back at the highway, something was definitely going down across the way with a series of trucks racing away down a dirt road.


As we reentered Carlsbad, we hit a bit of Friday evening traffic.

This is what a twenty-first century boomtown looks like.

We went to dinner at Marion’s New American Restaurant, where the guys and I had had my birthday dinner on Monday. I had a pasta carbonara…with green chiles.

Back at the house, I built a bonfire in the backyard, while John did an Albertson’s run to get supplies for breakfast. Catherine tended to Mariana, and Adam laid down with Sylvan. John, Sean, and Phil eventually joined me at the fire, which we dubbed the Gifford Pinchot Memorial Fire.

Later I did first aid on my finally healing blister and worked on some photos and notes before bed. (I was able to work on photos because John had graciously brought my laptop with him on his drive down from Chicago.)

Next morning, Saturday, November 17, I tossed and turned around dawn before falling back to sleep and waking up to the smell of coffee at 8am.

The whole household was up, and John was busily creating an omelet bar for us.

Image: John Cawood

Mariana provided musical accompaniment.

We all gabbed, and I worked on postcards until the food was ready.

Yum! Thanks, John!

A note on the house. The AirB&B absolutely served our needs perfectly. But there were a few things that made us laugh, like a giant pink mermaid doll for the kids.

And a lot of word-based art with vacation-rental phrases and sentiments.

Living Desert State Park

After breakfast, we drove over to the edge of town to Living Desert State Park, which is dedicated to interpreting the Chihuahuan Desert.

Living Desert State Park

We strolled along a one and half mile trail planted with representative desert species (clustered by ecosystem type) and past buildings and enclosures housing Chihuahuan Desert birds, mammals, and reptiles.

Living Desert State Park

John had been to the state park as a teenager on the aforementioned family trip. On this return he recreated two photos from his album of snapshots. First was the one above of him touching a cactus.

Cow’s Tongue Prickly Pear, Living Desert State Park

Bunny Ears (Prickly Pear), Living Desert State Park

Cow’s Tongue Prickly Pear, Living Desert State Park

In addition to the zoo and gardens, the state park encompasses 1,500 acres of rolling Chihuahuan Desert terrain just on the edge of Carlsbad.

Faxon Yucca, Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park.Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean was unsure what to make of some of the interpretive elements.

Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park

But he knew exactly what to think about the tortoises. (Love.)

Living Desert State Park

Living Desert State Park. Image: Catherine Game

Above is the second photo from John’s youth that he recreated that day.

Mescal Pit

Image: Sean M. Santos

After our walk, we checked out the visitor center and gift shop.

Image: John Cawood

Making cornmeal the old-fashioned way.

Refreshments? Video: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Back at the house we were all sleepy. We had thought about doing the scenic drive in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but the kids needed their naps. John and Catherine, who had to leave the next morning, said that they were fine with missing it. The rest of us had talked about possibly driving to White Sands National Monument…or even the Very Large Array…on Sunday, but we decided that they were too far. So the plan for the remainder of the trip was to have a rest on Saturday afternoon and then have our planned cookout at Rattlesnake Springs. Sunday morning, John and Catherine and Mariana would depart. Then the rest of us would hit the scenic drive before our own departure on Monday morning.

But first, nap time.

I worked on notes in the sunny backyard while John curled up in front of the Michigan State-Nebraska game.

After we were rested, Sean and I headed out to Albertson’s to get supplies. The others would meet us at Rattlesnake Springs.

They weren’t too far behind us, and when they arrived, Sean got the coals going for our cookout.

John brought chips.

White-Winged Dove

While the others sipped on wine and tended to supper, John and I drove back over to the pond to see what we could see in terms of our avian friends.

Pied-Billed Grebe (left) and Ring-Necked Duck

A Pied-Billed Grebe had joined the Ring-Necked Duck we’d seen the day before.

Ring-Necked Duck

We walked around near the pond scanning the shrubs with binoculars.

Curve-Billed Thrasher

Pay-off! A Curve-Billed Thrasher.

I’ll let John tell it:

The bird of the trip–Curve-Billed Thrasher–a thrasher that is native to the Southwest, specifically West Texas, the SE half of New Mexico, and southern Arizona. Sooo…narrow range = a special bird. I saw one at Petroglyphs in Albuquerque, and then Brandon and I found at least one at Rattlesnake Springs, and he got a fantastic photo.

Back at the picnic, Sean had the burgers and portobello mushrooms going on the grill.

While we were eating, a couple cars drove up. A photographer and some young women got out. They walked over to a sunny spot for a photo shoot. Phil quipped that it was a cover shoot for “Sister Wives Magazine.”

Before we left, Mariana got in on the photography action by taking pictures with her “camera” (an old phone) of dancing Sean.

The sun vanished behind the low northeastern section of the Guadalupes, so it was time to go.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Image: Sean M. Santos

On the way back, we stopped one more time for the astounding silhouette of the Guadalupes.

Back at the house, after the late afternoon cook-out, we had a long evening to hang out and relax.

It was a mild evening, so we built a roaring bonfire in the backyard, popped open some more wine, and had a dessert of eclairs and cupcakes we’d picked up on the way back to the house.

Next morning, Sunday, November 18, we had a breakfast of bagels and cream cheese and breakfast burritos while John, Catherine, and Mariana packed and got ready to say goodbye. They would head north that day to Santa Fe, where they’d spend a few days before Catherine and Mariana would fly home to Chicago and John would drive back. He would arrive on Thursday of that week, Thanksgiving Day.

Image: Adam Geffen

Adam pulled out his drone and took this wonderful photo of us just before the Cawood-Game family drove off. “See you on the other side of the Mississippi!”

The rest of us had not-quite twenty-four hours before we too would have to head our separate ways.

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