Monthly Archives: April 2016

Elevator Appreciation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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What goes down, must come up – Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. That always seemed a bit of an understatement to me, especially with certain select nouns such as: life, an oxygen supply, or an extra ten pounds. While on a recent trip to New Mexico, U.S.A. I quickly recognized another one – elevator access.

The inspiration behind my epiphany stemmed from a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for visitors to the US Southwest. This subterranean wonderland is an amazing natural gem. The thing is, it’s underground. WAY underground. And those elevators that we all take for granted in our everyday life were undergoing renovation. In practical terms, that meant a hike of over a mile to descend 750 feet below the surface. And what goes down, must come up, so it also meant a 750 foot ascent back to the visitors center. That’s like taking the stairs down a 75 story building and remembering that you left your car keys back at the penthouse. Forget about using a Stairmaster machine – at that point you become the Stair Master.

So while my party was eager to see the sights beneath our feet, our calves and glutes were a bit reluctant. But we didn’t drive all that way just to stare at the big entrance hole (though it was pretty cool), so we resigned ourselves to guaranteed soreness and made our way past the impressive bat-watching amphitheater (they didn’t yet arrive for the season so there were no bats to see) to the large yawning maw dissolving into blackness. Sounds appealing, right?

Going Down

The Natural Entrance trail is a series of switchbacks that were easy enough to navigate while going downhill. The trick is not letting your mind dwell on what it’s going to be like coming back up. And even though you’re going with gravity at this point, you will still get a tremendous lower-body workout, as your trembling knees and heavy breathing will remind you. The good part, is that if the walk doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery most certainly will. Discreet lighting illuminates surreal formations of all types of stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, draperies and other cave-related formations – all on a huge scale, with chambers taller than your average cathedral. After about an hour of walking (more if you’re stopping like I did to take pictures) you will make it to what is appropriately called “The Big Room”. Even more importantly, you will reach a rest area where you can use the bathrooms, buy some snacks and drinks or even a souvenir t-shirt. You can also look longingly at the silent elevators with the “Closed for Renovation” sign stationed out front.

The Big Room

This series of interconnecting chambers some 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide is thankfully rather flat, winding you on a route past imaginatively-named formations such as ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Hall of the Giants’. I had my fun coming up with names of my own like ‘The Gates of Hell’ and ‘The Uvula’ (Tell me that’s not a great name for a cave formation!). There are small pools of water dotting the area and some great panoramas. The only thing that won’t have you gushing with praise is the prospect of climbing your way back out.

The Ascent

Before you start the long climb up, I recommend three things: 1) Use the bathroom, as both guests and park staff alike frown on unauthorized ‘erosion’ activities 2) Take a rest on the provided chairs and buy a reasonably priced bottle of water and a granola bar. You’re going to need the energy. 3) Resist the temptation to pry the elevator doors open with your bare hands, and take your time going up; preferably slow enough to catch your breath and take in a different angle of the formations you saw before. Eventually, you’ll see daylight again, and as you double over from exhaustion, you will still feel that it was well worth the effort.

Things to Know

All kidding aside, if you have health or mobility problems I strongly recommend that you wait until the elevators are working again. At the time of writing they have a tentative date of May 31, 2016 to be back in operation – the operative word there being “tentative”. For real-time information, you can and should check the park website before planning your trip.

There aren’t a ton of lodging, eating or shopping options in the immediate area of the park, which has some scenic wilderness surrounding it and is good for some mountain goat watching and lovely turn-offs. The city of Carlsbad is many miles away and while tiny Whites City is literally at the gates, there isn’t much there.

The visitor center is large and modern, with excellent educational displays detailing the park’s history along with theories on how the caves were formed. There’s also an extensive and very reasonably priced gift shop and cafeteria, so feel free to treat yourself to a hoodie and a hot dog upon completing your trek. I’m pretty certain you will have burned off enough calories to indulge.

You should also keep in mind that temperatures in the caves are a steady 56 degrees, so a light jacket or sweatshirt will come in handy until you sweat so much from the hikes up and down you’ll want to take it off. Also, you’re going to be asked if you have worn your same shoes to any other cave systems in the past ten years. Apparently, certain cave systems are home to microbes that are harmful to the bats and whatnot in Carlsbad Caverns, so if you’ve been off spelunking somewhere in the recent past, bring some fresh footwear.

One last note about cell phones and photography. You’ll want to put your cell phone on ‘Airplane’ setting, as you will definitely not be getting any service while in the caverns. Also, it is possible to get some decent photos using your cell phone camera. Whether it’s your phone or a real camera the same basic rule applies – in low light you need to keep the camera very steady, preferably on a tripod so that you don’t wind up with a memory card full of blurry shots. And whenever possible, include people in your photos, as depicting the enormous scale of the formations is difficult without a point of reference.

Summary

Carlsbad Caverns is a world-class site, worthy of its accolades and international recognition. It is worth the trip wherever you’re coming from, with or without elevators. It will take your breath away and help you appreciate the wonders of creation. And if you go before the elevators get fixed, it will also give you the leg workout of a lifetime.

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The persistence of stalactites – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brazos Bend: Stars Above, Gators Below

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Meet the locals at Brazos Bend State Park

As a lover of natural things, from time to time I have to get out of my semi-urban surroundings and get out into the wild. From my home base in Houston, I discovered one such place that left me feeling like I was way out in the wilderness, though in reality I was only about an hour away from my home. That place is Brazos Bend State Park, situated to the southwest of the ever-expanding Houston metropolitan area.

Passing the open expanses of ranchland, and the greenery specific to humid East Texas (a far cry from the arid landscapes of West Texas) the park is an oasis of swamplands, grassy fields, tranquil (though gator-infested) ponds, huge trees and its namesake river. It is also home to a large observatory, but more on that later.

From the visitor center, where they display maps, information and a collection of snakes that can be found in the park, the elm lake trail isn’t far away. This level loop of packed gravel sports scenic views of both the lake and swamps, and offers visitors the high probability of encountering alligators in the wild. Upon my visit, toward the late afternoon, they were most definitely out in force; we saw at least a dozen, some from just a few thrilling/frightening feet away, as the concept of a trail seems lost on the gators who will just sprawl out wherever the mood takes them. That means great photo ops and an adrenaline rush for the rest of us. It also means you should keep your kids and dogs on a short leash!

Along the trail are wooden overlooks jutting out in the water where at times the gators will be floating or swimming by. Or as was the case during my visit, fighting each other in a thrash of roiled water like something right out of National Geographic.

There are miles of other trails, each with their own appeal. Large oaks with dripping Spanish Moss are everywhere, and around sunset they catch the light in a mesmerizing way. There are picnic tables, campgrounds and other such facilities at various places, allowing for a full day’s outing. But in my opinion, the real fun happens after dark.

The George Observatory – a satellite complex of the Houston Museum of Natural Science (pun not intended) is open to the public on Saturday evenings. There are three large telescopes pointed at various attractions in the night sky, and it is necessary to pay a fee to look through them. On a clear night, it is also necessary to wait on a really long line as there’s no shortage of prospective stargazers. A free option for the frugal and less patient is to line up near one of the numerous volunteers that come out in force bringing their own massive telescopes, who will allow you to take a peek at the wonders of the cosmos. Granted, to a man they seemed a bit weird, but dealing with a little quirkiness was a small price to pay to gaze out at Jupiter and its moons or the Orion Nebula. If you’re there looking for a date, then that’s another story.

A few things to keep in mind if you’re planning a visit. First, there is a $7 per person entrance fee irregardless of how many cars you come in. The chance of you seeing an alligator and/or being up close to one is rather high, so be careful of your surroundings, especially near water, and if you have small children or pets with you be doubly so. In and around the observatory there are numerous signs forbidding the use of camera flashes or phone lights (everything is lit by eerie red lamps that are less stressful on the eyes) and if you dare use one you will invariably draw the very vocal ire of those around you. Be respectful and keep your lights off. For more information and tips, check out the informative park website.

No doubt about it, for a slice of the bayou, some wildlife viewing or amateur astronomy, Brazos Bend State Park has something for everyone. Bring your bug repellent, zoom lens and telescopes if you have them. Whether up, down or in the middle, this park has no shortage of things to see.

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Come for the gators; stay for the moss

 

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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