After leaving the southern bend of the Rio Grande, I jumped north towards Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In this park, a fossilized reef system has transformed over time into a stunning range of limestone peaks that run from New Mexico through most of western Texas. The chalk-like bedrock runs underneath desert shrubs and low pines, almost making the mountains look as if they are wreathed in a layer of fresh snow. I drove most of the day to get to the Guadalupes and, as I crossed into the Mountain Time Zone, they loomed just in front of me. I pulled up to the visitor center and checked in with a ranger. I considered hopping directly into the backcountry, but instead opted for a parking spot at the base of Guadalupe Mountain and prepared for an early summit.
Even though my alarm went off, as usual, at 6:00 AM, my 9:00 PM bedtime had not been helpful. Until the early hours of the morning, the Guadalupes had channeled major winds through their canyons and blasted them directly against the vehicles of the parking lot. Sam rocked all night long. When I rolled out of bed in the morning, it was still dark, but the horizon was stirring with blurry rays of light. I quickly jumped out of bed and climbed on top of a dumpster to await the sun. Soon enough, fiery wisps of cloud and patches of golden light were drifting higher in the sky. Although it might have been better from that backcountry site, but my dumpster provided a truly glorious vantage point for the mornings celestial festivities.
As the sun transitioned from fiery red to pale yellow, I prepared to climb Guadalupe Peak. Clocking in at 8751 feet, it ranks atop the list of Texan peaks. In true western fashion, the trail slowly slogged up the mountain, cutting back and forth in an endless stitching of switchbacks. The grade was more or less constant throughout, yet the scenery changed drastically as the trail wrapped around the mountain and unveiled in the canyons and valleys of the Guadalupes. With no one else on the mountain at that hour, I had the whole place to myself. Deep in Devil’s Hall Canyon, the colors had just started changing, unleashing sporadic bursts of deep red on the stark white of the canyon walls. With heavy, but non-threatening clouds overhead, the ascent was relatively chilly. Finally, I began my ascent of the final peak. Just south of the trail, El Capitan, the imposing face of the Guadalupes, lay below me. Its sheer face almost seemed like a sentinel guarding the range from a southern offensive. I wondered if climbers braved the limestone face…
On the way down, I stopped and chatted with numerous hikers heading up to bag the peak. I even met a park ranger who would be stationed in Yellowstone this winter, I promised to check in when I was there to see if he was working. For some reason, I had never really considered working for the Park Service, but his job made me relatively envious… After the hike, I washed up in a sink and headed back down to the visitor’s center to us the WIFI. Realizing Carlsbad Caverns was within striking distance, I hustled through my tasks and hit the road once more.
Less than an hour away from Texas’s highest point, New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns drop more than 750 feet below the surface. As soon as I started down the path into the Natural Entrance, I realized that Carlsbad Caverns is a truly spectacular place. Having just spent time in Mammoth, the depths and cathedral-like chambers absolutely took my breath away. In Mammoth, most of the caves were relatively low and only dropped 280? Ft below ground level. The natural entrance of Carlsbad, however, drops over 75 stories beneath the surface through a tunnel that often stood hundreds of feet high and wide. While both caves have an obvious effect on visitors, Carlsbad commands the reverence of all who wander into its caverns.
Once inside the Natural Entrance, you are left to the mercy of a system of 1,069 fluorescent and LED lights that illuminate the way. Even though these lights represent a remarkable achievement, they proved problematic for me. I struggled with the lights photographically and ideologically. My camera did not always pick up the white undertones of the light, instead it plastered the walls with blue green shadows every now and then. This did not seem realistic to me. The idea of lights, however, also proved problematic because I realized that those lights determined the colors that we associate with caves. If red lights had been used, we would assume caves had a reddish hue. They are somewhat false in an environment of darkness. As a result, I opted to shift all my images to black and white as I processed them. I hope no one finds this too cumbersome.
My journey through Carlsbad had many side quests and pit stops, but can be categorized into two main sections: the Natural Entrance and the Big Room. For me, the Natural Entrance was the more impressive of the two. From a whole in the ground no larger than a small house, the cave opens into a cavern the size of a flipped skyscraper burrowing deep into the ground. As you wind down the carefully cut path, the ceiling towards hundreds of feet above you and the walls are scarcely closer than fifty feet away. It is like a massive wormhole into the center of the earth.
It dead-ends at the Iceberg Rock, a 200,000-ton boulder that dropped from the ceiling, blocking the cavernous expanse of the Natural Entrance. Further onwards, however, you enter the Big Room. This aptly named space is one of the largest caverns in North America. It stretches for roughly 4,000 feet with a width of 625 feet and a height of 255 feet. It is truly colossal. In fact, it is almost impossible to capture the grandeur of any part of Carlsbad with a camera, but I did what I could.
The same limestone that created the Guadalupe Mountains is at work at Carlsbad. I don’t fully understand the science of cave formation, but the presence of water and limestone is simple enough for me. Erosion and chemistry creates thousands of stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, draperies, soda straws, and countless other formations that adorn the ceilings, walls, and floors of Carlsbad. I was lucky enough to see this cave in its off season. Although the temperature of the cave hovers at 56 degrees, most people visit during the summer months. There were maybe a few dozen other people in the cave when I was there. As a result, I experienced the same feeling of solitude and the same overpowering silence that I felt in Mammoth Cave. I feel incredibly lucky to have seen Carlsbad in this way. Most people walk in queue for hours through the many caverns. I took my time. I have not done this marvelous cave justice and I have hundreds more photos that I could have shared, but it is one of those places that must be experienced to be understood.
After the elevator whisked me back into civilization, I watched the park’s film and stepped outside to watch thousands of bats exit into the dusky atmosphere.
What. A. Day.