You kind folks who have been reading Whack-A-Mole Wheels these past several years know that Ed and I have enjoyed visiting different caverns during our travels. In our last blog post, in reference to our visit to Longhorn Cavern State Park, I mentioned that back when we were teens we’d both done some spelunking. Between us, we have crawled and climbed about in a number of caves in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Ever since I was a kid I’ve known about Carlsbad Caverns and have wanted to see it for myself, so we left Ft. Davis, Texas where it was all about looking up. Staying on the quieter roads as is our habit (RT17 to RT166 to RT505 and US90 to RT54 to US62) we headed for New Mexico and an underground adventure!
Located in the Guadalupe Mountains, the visitor center for Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a lovely seven-mile drive to the top of the mountains. The beginning of this road is from/through Whites (White’s) City, (population 7 in the last census) which encompasses, and owns, everything a tourist might need; gas, food, laundry, hotel, post office, swim park, large gift shop and a RV park, of sorts. None of it is “anything to write home about” but adequate and VERY convenient to the caverns. We got a space to park the rig only because someone had just canceled.
As it was late in the day we decided to drive up to the visitor center and see what our options for the morning might be. I had seen on the web that all the elevators (YES there is an easy way to the center of the Earth 🙂 ) were seriously broken and the ONLY WAY to get into the caverns was to hike down the Natural Entrance Route, 1.25 miles. Quoting the park brochure….” a self-guiding tour available to visitors with plenty of time and in good physical condition.” The other self-guiding tour is referred to as “…a 1.25-mile under-ground stroll around the perimeter of the cave’s largest room….” the Big Room Route. Then there is the 1 mile long ranger-guided King’s Palace Tour that does require descending and ascending, the equivalent of an 8 story building. “Well heck,” I say to Ed, “if we have to climb down AND back up, we might as well see all three while we’re there!” Bless his heart, he agrees and we get our tickets and head back down the road to our campsite and a serviceable dinner at the Whites City Cactus Café.
Next morning, bright and early, we are back at the visitor center hiking out the quarter mile walk to the Natural Entrance shortly after they open.
The natural entrance, which is on top of a mountain, descends over 750 ft. into the Earth. This entrance is alive with Cave Swallows during the day and at night, when in residence, the exit for thousands of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats. This walkway was built because the entrance used to be accesible only by a rope.
Look closely and you can see the path climbing back up towards the entrance. We still have a lot of going down to do.
The story of the discovery of the caverns varies between the park brochure, the tour guides telling and Jim White’s version. All agree however, that in the late 1890’s it was Jim White, at the ripe old age of 15 or 16, looking for where the giant cloud of bats was coming from and upon finding their huge hole in the ground and lowering himself down into it, then extensively exploring it, telling about it and finally getting some photos of it to convince folks of his magnificent story, it WAS Jim White that “made” Carlsbad Caverns. Absolutely do put this magical place on your MVL (Must Visit List)!
Most of Carlsbad Caverns is no longer actively forming but 5% of the caverns are still alive. This drip-pool is formed by water droplets dripping off the stalactites and cracks in the ceiling above.
Wait a few thousand years and these two will touch and form a column. This is in the Big Room which covers 8.2 acres and is 255 feet tall at its highest point. BIG!
In the Big Room looking over towards the Hall of Giants. For our photographer friends, these photos are all hand-held, ISO 6400, f5.6 with a shutter speed of about 1/15th of a second. It was dark and we are thrilled that they worked as well as they did.
This interesting example of flowstone hangs in the air after calcite laden water dripped over the edge of that opening.
The tour guide for the King’s Palace tour of which this room is part, drove us nuts because most of what she talked about was her own fanciful make-believe fairy tales, rather than about the astonishing geology of Carlsbad Caverns.
Dating back to my very early teens when my dear friend Monica and I solemnly became “blood sisters” (just pricking our fingers) we have been family. Her father was one of the scientists that fled Germany (and the Russians) after World War II and I knew he had been at White Sands. So while in the neighborhood sort of, I suggested we go see White Sands Missile Range and White Sands National Monument.
Wanting to camp at Oliver Lee State Park just south of Alamogordo, N.M. on US 54 we headed off. When we arrived at Oliver Lee, we stopped to chat a bit with the park employee who confirmed what I expected, the handful of serviced sites were all taken. Even so, the campground was pretty empty and so we had our pick of dry camping spots and soon found a good one. Ed started setting up as I walked back to the entrance to register and pay. When almost there, here came the park lady on her gator to tell me the reserved, 2 way (water & electric) site 4 had just opened up due to a cancellation and it was ours if we wanted it! You BET…and it was really nice, proving once again, be friendly with folks and they’ll be friendly back 🙂
Dog Canyon at Oliver Lee State Park. He ranched all this land next to another man, Frenchie (because he was French). The longer story short is Frenchie was found shot in his bed, probably by someone who owed him money. There is much more about old Oliver at this very interesting website, Legends of America. Mostly, it’s just amazing they named a park after this guy.
The next day’s forecast was for the 80’s with 23mph+ winds (gusting to the high 30’s) and visiting sand dunes just seemed silly, so we added a day’s stay and went to town, did laundry and had a very tasty hamburger at Hi-D-Ho Drive-In.
The next morning, as our two destinations were both on US 70 Ed wisely suggested we start at the bottom and work up, so we headed out on for the missile range on a lovely, not hot, not windy day.
It’s not every road in America where they close it down so they can shoot missiles at stuff. Rt. 70 had opened back up just moments before we got here, we don’t know if they hit their target but the road was OK.
After getting cleared (bring your drivers license and patience) we walked onto the grounds and headed for our first stop, the V-2 rocket building. Wernher von Braun was the technical director leading the development group in Hitler’s Germany that built the first successful V-2’s and this building holds one of the most complete still in existence. He was also the most prominent rocket scientist to come to America after the war.
The American scientists initially painted the V-2’s in this yellow and black pattern but quickly found out they could not see the rocket in flight so they switched to black and white which was much more visible at high altitudes.
We then headed over to the museum building. The first room is a small but very interesting history of the Indians, soldiers, ranchers, cowboys and outlaws including our friend Oliver Lee that lived in the surrounding countryside. The back of the building is to our eyes a sort of hodgepodge of left-over rockets, weapons, missile parts, supplies, army equipment, things about and from Trinity Site, etc. etc. and we did not look at and read everything as we normally do.
Both of us found the Missle Museum distressing. I guess we’ve just had too much war and blowing stuff up. But don’t let us dissuade you from going here. There is much to be learned if you are interested.
We headed back up 70 for White Sands National Monument. I’ll tell you now, put this on your MVL also!!
The dunes are creeping across the desert at about 35 feet per year. The Park Service has road plows to keep the access road clear of the blowing sand.
Gypsum from an ancient seabed is why the sands are white. In fact, they are the largest gypsum dune fields on the Earth. Millions of years ago the Permian Sea retreated and left behind layers of gypsum. Then the land lifted and the gypsum, which easily dissolves in water, was washed down the mountains and returned to the basin, which again held shallow lakes. With no outlet for the water and as it evaporated it left behind the gypsum in a crystalline form called selenite, which in turn was slowly broken down into smaller and smaller grains – sand. This process is ongoing.
Plants that take hold and grow dense deep roots form pedestals as the sand moves on.
As you can see, here in the desert the sand is wet enough to compact. That’s because gypsum dunes remain moist even during long droughts and the water table is literally as close as 12 inches below the surface. It also makes the sands very cool to the touch and lovely to walk upon barefoot as the Park Service invites you to do.
As we walked around, being mid-day and bright and sunny on the brilliant white sand, Ed kept saying the light isn’t any good, we need to come back later in the day. So we headed back into Alamogordo and had an early, really good dinner at CJ’s Si Senor Restaurant then back out to White Sands for the evening light.
Ed was absolutely, positively right about the evening light.
“I have a little shadow, that goes in and out with me…” can you find Ed?
The Kings Palace tour which is totally, unbelievably gorgeous has several rooms as exquisite as this one.
This ladder built and installed in 1924 by Jim White was used during a six-month exploration and survey sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Built of twisted barbed wire and sticks, it descends 90 feet into the lower cave. The explorers were uneasy about using it.
The Painted Grotto part of the Big Room Tour.
This gypsum deposit (the same stuff as the White Sands) is nearly 15 feet thick. The tubes are “drilled” by drops of acidic water dripping from above.
Marti thinks this may be the coolest formation in the caverns. Ed remembers that it was over 20 feet tall.
Our campsite at Oliver Lee State Park. Not too shabby.
Marti did not realize that Papa Schmid was part of Paperclip, but when she saw the man who is far right back row she was sure it was him, After checking with Monica, who had never seen this photo, she was right. Marti was really excited!
The sand is cool and soft except for where it’s rock hard and in the soft spots still very easy to walk on.
Lovely, magical, enticing and easy to get lost in, one just wants to keep walking to see what’s over the next dune.
The setting Sun adds so much drama. Marti wanted to visit the bottom part of this scene but found the steep downhill sand soft and almost knee deep.
As we enjoyed this magical white wonderland, our friends back home in the East were getting yet another dose of their white wonderland. Ours was more welcomed.
Almost done and what a way to end a day. We recommend early morning or late evening as times to visit.
And with that we say goodbye until next time!