As tourist from all over the world pass us going uphill, some speak to us, some don’t, or can’t. Those that do speak tell us- “It’s not too late to turnaround.” “Too much for me!” “Wow, you’re carrying a lot of camera gear!” Those that don’t speak are either shy or gasping for oxygen as they struggle, pause and continue their hike up the steep switchbacks to exit Carlsbad Caverns. A handful are jogging upslope- Yes, jogging!
Soon after lunch, Tricia and I arrive at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. As we purchase our tickets, we are immediately informed that the elevators are not working. We are already aware of of this fact so we begin to walk a hundred yards or so downhill to the the cavern entrance. About half way to the entrance, we are met by a park ranger that briefly describe the cavern rules and reminds us that the elevator is out. Also, he says for emphasize, “It is a 750 foot walk down switchbacks into the cavern and you have to walk back up!”
Entry, Switchbacks & Extraordinary Views
I don’t know what to expect. The entry is huge; the switchbacks below look intimidating! I’m thinking and mention to Tricia, “We are not in the best shape to be doing this.” But, we agree to take our time and enjoy the experience. I am in awe as we enter the cavern! It’s beautiful; we see 100‘s of cave swallows dropping into and spiraling out of the mouth of the cave. It is still warm near the top, and as we descend it smells like bird poop and bat guano! But, the birdcage odor lessens, and temperature decreases to 57˚F as we descend further and begin to lose the natural light.
About halfway down, I sound like a child- “Are we there yet? This is awesome. My feet hurt.” Tricia says, “Stop it, you haven’t seen anything, yet!. Wait until we get to the bottom.” Seriously, the switchbacks are sometimes steep. Therefore, I am constantly asking Tricia if we need to slow down, take a break. I’m concerned about both of us, knowing that we have to ascend 75 stories on the return. Finally, 45 minutes after beginning, we reach the bottom, the interesting part, the ‘carrot’ that Tricia has been using to lead me down to the bottom. This is the intersection which leads to the food court, the currently out-of-service elevators and the “Big Room”!
The Big Room
As we circle the Big Room, I am amazed at the size of the cavern and the many speleothems (cave formations). These speleothems are complex and difficult to describe. Some look like volcanos, irregular columns, drapery, soda straws, etc. Tricia was right! Although the views while descending are awesome, the views at the bottom are difficult to describe in detail. The size of some of the formations are gigantic, 40, 50, 70 feet tall. Some are fragile and narrow in diameter; some are several feet in diameter.
What’s the rush!
We think we will have plenty of time to explore the caverns, but we discover that we significantly underestimate the time needed to fully explore the caverns. At some point, as we tour the Big Room, a park ranger advises us to take the short cut. She says, “This will prevent you from rushing to complete the tour before we start encouraging visitors to leave.”
We take the short cut, taking photos along the way. Again, astounding formations are before us and I’m frustrated knowing that I am rushing my photos.
The Ascent Begins
It is now 3:15pm as we pass the foodcourt intersection and start the switchback ascent. I’m watching the clock, and nag Tricia with the question- “Are you OK?” She tells me “Yeah.” But then I notice that we are both short of breath. We are beginning to push ourselves harder as people start to pass us. I’m still taking photos, but skipping many opportunities.
Are You OK?
We’re about halfway out. I ask Tricia for what seems like the 100th time, “Are you OK?” Her 101st answer alarms me, “Not really.” She is beginning to have a nagging pain in her left hip. Quickly, I look up; no daylight is visible and I calculate that we still have 200 feet of switchbacks to ascend. We joke that we are going to be the last out as we pause after each set of 2 or 3 switchbacks. At one point we pause, enjoying the scenery; and realize it’s now really quiet. Then, as I look down the switchbacks, I see flashlights and hear a couple of people talking. We continue slowly up the steep switchbacks. We are 4 switchbacks from the cavern entrance gate when the park rangers catch up to us. They pause behind us and I ask, “Guess you’re waiting on us?” “Yep”, they both reply. So, we start moving. We stop and rest at least one more time. We both want to stop more often, but keep going until we pass not one, but two gates that are locked by the park rangers.
Learn From Us Before You Go!
As I type this, I now realize that we did not see half of the Big Room due to taking the shortcut. Also, Tricia and I are fully recovered; we just had to work through and endure the muscle pain that comes from doing too much too fast.
Here are some suggestions for your trip:
- start your trip in the morning;
- if you plan to descend or ascend through the natural entrance, be prepared for the steep switchbacks and 750’ elevation change
- be prepared to hike greater than 4 miles if descending and ascending through the natural entrance
- if the elevator is in service, consider walking down, then taking the elevator up
- wear comfortable shoes appropriate for long walks
- wear layered clothing appropriate for 56 degrees F
- bring a backpack with water, food is available at the cavern food court
- consider reserving and attending a Park Ranger tour
- review the National Park Service website prior to your trip for updates and alerts
Would we go back?
Thanks for reading!
To read about more the Cajuntrippers and U.S. National Parks that they have visited, Click Here.