Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The Natural Entrance and The Big Room

After finally coming together the day before as a group of eight for my birthday trip, on the morning of Friday, November 16, we split up with John watching the two children at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center while the rest of us went on the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. After the tour, we collected the three who had stayed above ground and assembled in the cafeteria for lunch. Our plan for the afternoon was for all of us to descend into the cave, since children of any age could go in via the Natural Entrance (with adult supervision).

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The King’s Palace

As a deep dusk settled across the Chihuahuan Desert east of the Guadalupe Mountains on Thursday, November 15, we moved from the second to the third (and final) phase of the trip to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Sean and I were about half an hour ahead of Phil, Adam, and Sylvan on the National Parks Highway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico. On the way, we passed the phosphorescent light from the filling station in Whites City, the tiny boom town gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns would be the focus of the coming long weekend. Our ultimate destination was an AirB&B in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of Carlsbad, across the Pecos River from the hullabaloo of the main thoroughfare and its traffic jams of souped up pickups waiting to make a lefthand turn against the light into the Wallmart parking lot. As we entered Carlsbad from the south and slowed in five and ten degree increments as the speed limit signs instructed, we hung up with John and Catherine, who had just arrived at the AirB&B, maybe twenty minutes ahead of us.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Gypsum Sand Dunes

The western escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains: Bush Mountain (left), Bartlett Peak, Shumard Peak, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

On the afternoon of Thursday, November 15, we concluded our adventures at Guadalupe Mountains National Park with a private visit to the gypsum sand dunes beneath the magnificent western escarpment of the Guadalupes. Beginning around twenty-six million years ago, the area west of the range began dropping and the mountains began rising along a steep vertical fault. Slowly the fossilized Permian coral reef emerged as softer rock layers eroded away. Meanwhile, the dunes out in Chihuahuan Desert lowlands west of the range and were formed by an ancient lake. Much like in Death Valley and huge portions of the Great Basin Desert, all of the streams on the western side of the southern portion of the Guadalupes did not reach the sea but instead flowed to a lake in the depression beneath the escarpment. When the climate became warmer and drier, the lake evaporated, leaving a huge salt flat basin. The gypsum dunes were formed by the wind collecting the sand from the vanished lake.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Frijole Ranch and Smith Spring

Thursday, November 15 was our day of transition from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. With the backpacking trip as part one, car camping with Phil, Adam, and Sylvan as part two, we were now going to embark on part three and be joined by John, Catherine, and Mariana down from Chicago. But we wouldn’t be checking into our AirB&B in Carlsbad, New Mexico until the evening, so we still had much of the day to see a few more wonders in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Sotol and Hunter Peak
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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Devil’s Hall

Devil’s Hall

Devil’s Hall is a short, narrow chasm a few miles up Pine Canyon from its wide mouth. It is accessible via a two-miles-and-change hike from the Pine Springs Trailhead. After the crazy events of the previous night and morning, our afternoon’s adventure on Wednesday, November 14 was a hike up to Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s only accessible slot canyon of note.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: The Curious Incident of the Truck in the Hotel Room

Before dawn on Wednesday, November 14, Sean nudged me awake. We were curled up in a nest of pillows and comforters left behind by Adam, Phil, and Sylvan who, not keen on another night of freezing temperatures, had decamped to a nearby hotel. “Nearby” is relative here. Adam had texted Sean the night before that there were no available rooms in Carlsbad, New Mexico an hour away so they’d continued on and found “the last available room” in Artesia, New Mexico an hour and a half away.

Lying there in the blankets, Sean nudged me and handed me his phone. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing in the texts from Adam. Around midnight, a truck had driven through the wall of their hotel room.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Permian Reef Trail

Mollusk Fossils

After lunch on Tuesday, November 13, Phil climbed into the tent with Sylvan for the little guy’s nap. Meanwhile Sean, Adam, and I decided to get in a second short hike for the day, this time one a bit more ambitious than our walk through the foothills with the baby that morning.

We chose to check out at least part of the Permian Reef Geology Trail near the entrance to McKittrick Canyon. The entire trail is a 4.2-mile out-and-back 2,000 feet up onto Wilderness Ridge near the Texas-New Mexico state line. We wouldn’t be able to do the entire trail, but we figured it would be worth it to see some of it. We were particularly keen to see fossils.

Wilderness Ridge
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