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?
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.
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. 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.
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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