A recent work assignment in San Antonio gave me the opportunity to explore some new territory in western Texas and New Mexico.My job was only 3 days, starting on a Tuesday, and I had the prior week free.After clearing it with my boss, I decided to fly out a few days early.That would give me five full days to play before I had to start my assignment.


My top priority was a return to Big Bend National Park.I had visited the park under similar circumstances the previous spring, but that had been over a weekend.Big Bend is huge, and I was only able to hit a few highlights.I wanted to return to see some of the places Iíd missed on that first trip.My first visit had included a dayhike on the South Rim Trail in the Chisos Mountains.That hike had been dramatic, but part of the loop was closed at the time due to Peregrine Falcon nesting season.My second visit would include that stretch of trail.Also, for this trip I would backpack the full loop.I was looking forward to spending more time on the rim, and hopefully catching sunset and sunrise.


I easily couldíve spent all 5 days in Big Bend, but Iíd never been to Guadalupe Mountains National Park or Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Those parks are a couple hundred miles from Big Bend, so combining all of them into a single trip seemed reasonable.There would be a lot of driving, but that was unavoidable anyway.From San Antonio it takes 6-7 hours to get to each of those parks.


I flew into San Antonio on Wednesday morning, picked up the rental (which turned out to be a mini-van, even though Iíd reserved a compact) and picked up lunch, stove fuel, and groceries.While I was at REI I realized that Iíd forgotten my Yaktrax.I called Guadalupe Mountains National Park to check on trail conditions.It was January, and the higher peaks are over 8,000í, so there could be some ice.The ranger told me that some of the high elevation trails had snow drifts of 2-3 feet!I picked up another pair of Yaktrax, knowing that I could return them to REI later if I didnít need them.


The drive was long but smooth as far as Fort Stockton.From there I headed northwest on highway 285.This was a mistake.This rough, 2-lane road passes through West Texas oil country.Truck traffic was heavy, and with a 75MPH speed limit, the drive was scary.The open flames of the oil fields set quite a mood as I sped through the dark desert landscape.


I reached the Pine Springs Campground in Guadalupe National Park around 8pm Mountain Time.The campground is fairly small, and there were only a few spots available.The wind was howling, and that was expected to continue for the next couple of days.I picked site 16 because it was somewhat sheltered from the wind.I set up camp, made jambalaya for dinner, and headed to bed.With temperatures already in the 30ís and campfires prohibited, there was no reason to stay up late.


My original plan had been to hike up Guadalupe Peak (8,750í) on Thursday.The hike to the highest point in Texas gains about 3,000í over 4 Ĺ miles.However, winds of 25-35mph, with gusts of 70mph, were in the forecast.That didnít sound like fun, and the park specifically discourages hiking to the summit on windy days.I decided to push that hike back to Saturday.Instead, Iíd visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park on my first day in the area.


I got up at sunrise on Thursday.It was below freezing and I had some time constraints, so breakfast was limited to a bagel with cream cheese and coffee.I made the 45 minute drive to the park, arriving around 8:15.The wind was howling, and the short walk across the parking lot to the visitorís center was brutal.I was really glad I wasnít on my way up Guadalupe Peak!


I had originally reserved the $8 ranger-led tour of the Kings Palace on Saturday.I had picked that tour because it was the only one currently offered.There are several other ranger-led tours, but some of them are offered only seasonally, or on certain days of the week.I would like to return to Carlsbad Caverns when the Lower Cave tour is being offered.That tour is more adventurous than the Kings Palace or the areas that are open to unguided exploration.


There was plenty of space available on the Kings Palace tour that day, and they were able to switch my reservation at no additional charge.The tour was scheduled to start at 10am, and the ranger warned me that it would take an hour to hike there via the natural entrance.That was the only option, as the elevator to the main part of the cave was being repaired.I was fine with that.In fact, my preference was to hike there anyway.


I eventually found my way to the entrance and followed the paved path down a long series of winding switchbacks.The initial descent is 700í in less than a mile.I took my time along the way so that I could appreciate the various stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and other features.My favorite part along the initial descent was Devilís Spring.It features an impressive column in a pool of water that isnít an actual spring.


It took me only 40 minutes to reach the meeting place, and that was at a leisurely pace with lots of photography.There were a few others already there.A couple of minutes later a younger guy came running up.The rangers had tried to prevent him from joining the tour, telling him that heíd never make it in time.He jogged it in 20 minutes and arrived 15 minutes early.


At 9:55 a ranger stopped by and asked how we were doing.He then left without saying anything.We all assumed that he would be leading our tour, and that he would return at 10.However, 10am came and went without any sign of him.Time passed, and by 10:20 we were all getting restless.Numerous tourists passed by, but no rangers.Although the temperature in the cave is a pleasant 55 degrees, I was starting to get a bit chilled just sitting there.By 10:30 we were discussing our options among ourselves.Unfortunately, our options seemed to be limited to waiting longer, or giving up.Then a maintenance worker passed by.Somebody explained the situation, and he picked up an ďemergencyĒ phone and called the visitorís center.Apparently the ranger that was supposed to give the tour had called in sick, but someone had dropped the ball and failed to notify the replacement ranger that he needed to give the tour.


The replacement ranger showed up at 11:20.He led us to a locked gate, which he opened.He then took us through the Kingís Palace at a faster-than-normal pace.It was a bit rushed, but at least I was able to see that part of the caverns.It features two highly decorated rooms, the Kings Palace and the Queens Palace, as we as the Green Lake Room.It was definitely worth doing, even with the extra 80 minute wait!


The tour normally takes 90 minutes, but we finished in an hour.That left enough time for a quick lunch and the walk through the Big Room.For lunch I headed over to the underground cafeteria, which features a snack bar, a souvenir stand, bathrooms, and the previously mentioned elevator.Itís funny to think that all of those things are 700í underground!


Afterwards I did the Big Room tour on my own.A paved path makes a 1.5 mile loop around the chamber, which is as large as 14 football fields.It features a lot of decoration and a number of intriguing spots.Some of the memorable ones were the Hall of Giants, the totem pole (a large column), the Rock of Ages, the Bottomless Pit, and the Painted Grotto.Also of interest was a 90 year-old ladder descending into darkness.The ladder was the original explorerís route into the Lower Cave.The ladder is in poor condition now, and a different approach to the Lower Cave is being used.


There are over 31 miles of mapped passageways in Carlsbad Caverns, but new passages are still being discovered.Carlsbad Caverns itself is only one of 120 different cave systems contained within the park.Lechuguilla Cave, which was discovered in the Ď80ís, is particularly beautiful, but it is not open to the public.The cave has over 136 miles of passage, with more still being discovered.It is currently the 5th longest cave system in the world.


I was impressed with the artificial lighting in Carlsbad Caverns.Obviously some lighting is necessary, but it wasnít overwhelming.Lights are strategically placed to showcase notable features, but I never lost the perspective of being far beneath the surface of the Earth.On the other hand, the artificial lights wrecked havoc on my attempts at photography.For most of my photos I used an extremely high ISO to maximize my shutter speed.The high ISO really seemed to emphasize the contrast between the lighted areas and the surrounding shadows.Most of those photos were garbage.I had better luck with the photos where I used my flash, though most of those pictures were still only marginal.


I started back out around 2:30.The rangers start to close the cave around this time, to prevent anyone from being left behind after hours.I actually caught up with the sweep ranger on the way back up to the natural entrance, so I guess I was nearly left behind myself.A lot of the tourists were moving very slowly on their way out, so I was able to take my time on the return.For a Thursday in January, I was surprised at how many people were visiting the caverns.I canít imagine what it is like during prime tourist season.


My visit to Carlsbad Caverns was enjoyable, and Iím glad I had the opportunity to experience one of the worldís most famous caves.Although there are quite a few concessions made to tourism (elevators, underground cafeterias, paved walkways, artificial lights, etc.), they arenít overwhelming.However, I still have a strong preference for exploring wild caves.


I spent a bit of time in the visitorís center before driving back.I made a brief stop in Whiteís City, New Mexico, which features a motel, a restaurant, a gas station, a post office, and a gift shop.On the drive back to the campground I pulled off to take in a breathtaking sunset over the Guadalupe Mountains.Although high winds were expected again on Friday, I was still hopeful that Iíd be able to do the hike up Mount Hunter that Iíd planned.


That evening, while getting dinner together, I noticed a suspicious hole in a single packet of oatmeal.There was also a hole in the bottom of my bag of tortilla chips, and I kept finding random almonds stashed in odd places throughout the minivan.Iíd seen lots of mice around the campsite, and I was beginning to suspect that one of them had snuck into the minivan.


I didnít sleep well that night, mostly due to the wind.It was like trying to sleep between two train tracks.There were brief periods of calm that were frequently interrupted by the howling wind ripping at my tent.I also woke once to the sound of footsteps outside my tent.The park has both bears and mountain lions, but I have no idea what this critter was.I suspect it may have been Javelina.I had actually seen two of them on the drive in the previous evening.

Continue reading about my trip as I hike the Devil's Den slot canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

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