25/59 |Carlsbad Caverns National Park | 02.16-18.18

This is one of the only parks in the entire system that Brady had been to before and I hadn’t. And dang, I don’t even know why we never went there as a family because it is… wow, it is something else. I’ve tried in the days since we visited to describe it to people, and I end up with a lot of long pauses while I search for words adequate to describe it. I generally fail in that search, as words just simply aren’t enough- nothing is enough, honestly, even pictures- to describe the dizzingly massive, stunningly gorgeous, incredibly superb space that is Carlsbad Caverns.

We’ve had several friends who have visited the Caverns attempt describe it to us, and I admit that I thought, “it’s just a cave. I’m sure it’s cool, but is it really THAT cool?” The answer is yes. It is that cool. I’m not even afraid to over-hype this place, because it cannot be over-hyped. I regularly stopped dead in my tracks to exclaim some sort of sentiment of awe and disbelief. It really is simply amazing.

We arrived on Friday in the late morning to do the Natural Entrance/Big Room self-guided tours. I think this was the perfect way to do it, as we had ranger tours on Saturday (which were EXCELLENT, we’ll get to those) and doing the cave at our own pace first allowed us to really take our time to revel and wonder and absorb the magnificence of the cave, while also allowing us to later focus on more fully on the ranger tours the next day without feeling like, “Oh, dang, I want to go check that other place out!” This is definitely the way I would recommend doing it if you have multiple days. If you don’t, get to the park EARLY and do the self-guided tours first and then later ranger tours. Prioritize the cave over the visitors center, as the cave closes before the visitors center.

From essentially the first steps into the natural entrance, I was left in complete awe of how absolutely massive this cave is. We missed the bats by a few months (don’t worry, we’re going back), but imagining them streaming out of that cave opening was pretty intense.

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That opening looks small… it betrays the mass of the cave lurking below.

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I know, it’s grainy and blurry and terrible and I shouldn’t have even posted this… but this gives you just the tiniest taste of the size and steepness of the Natural Entrance. See the wee people at the top?
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“I have to duck a lot more now than I did the first time I was here…” (Over 20 years ago… he’s grown a bit.)

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This is the Boneyard, which is oddly free of any decoration, but is an excellent example of how the rocks had different levels of porousness which were more or less easily dissolved by the carbonic acid that formed the cavern.

After the Natural Entrance, we made it to the Big Room, which is the largest limestone cavern by volume in North America. It is absolutely massive. Just off of the Big Room is a lunchroom and restrooms, which is admittedly a super weird experience. I felt like I needed a PipBoy and a vault suit!

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This kind of ceiling is my favorite. I’m not sure why, because it’s honestly kind of creepy looking (like a giant slavering poisonous monster mouth), but it’s just fascinating to me to see such dense formations on the ceiling.

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This ladder was used by the 1925 National Geographic expedition that essentially put Carlsbad “on the map.” It descends 90 feet into the Lower Cave… and gets a big old “hell naw” from me.

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This part of the cave was really interesting- there was a cave in (you can see the remnants of what was once the ceiling strewn about the floor), so the ceiling and floor are both essentially void of formations. It’s crazy to imagine that underneath that rock is likely thousands (or even millions) of carefully formed stalactites and stalagmites, built up over millions of years and destroyed in an instant.
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Mirror Lake… which needs a more well-angled sign, if you ask me.

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It’s so interesting to me how gorgeous these formations are, while also being essentially devoid of color- it goes to show that you truly can create beauty even with a limited palette.

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After reveling in the cave for hours (and yes, there was the expected amount of stopping and exclaiming “this is so insane/gorgeous/cool/unbelievable!”), we headed back up to the surface as the cave was closing to peruse the visitor center, and do the Walnut Canyon scenic drive- which was totally worth it.

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I won’t lie, I really loved this car.

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Alllll of the posing animals this trip. Look at those little nubbies!

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There really is a lot more to Carlsbad than just the Caverns!

After finishing our drive and heading out of the park, we headed into Carlsbad to have dinner at the No Whiner Diner- and it was excellent! We randomly found it thanks to TripAdvisor, and we weren’t disappointed. Supporting little local businesses is one of the things we really enjoy about visiting national parks, and the No Whiner Diner was a great little insight into Carlsbad. Their specialty was prime rib, and it was crazy inexpensive for how good it was! The atmosphere was fun, the portions were great, and the food was delicious.

The next morning we headed back to the park to hop on to the first of our two ranger-guided tours- King’s Palace. And let me just say, it was hands down the best ranger tour I have ever been on in my entire life. I know that ranger tours can be “just alright” or “mind-blowing” depending on the ranger, but holy guacamole, people. Our ranger, Ranger Leah, might just be the best ranger in the entire NPS. She was just the right amount of energetic and fun without being silly, and the way she wove the story of the cave into a message of conservation and also really deep emotional themes was absolutely masterful. It never felt contrived, or forced, but I found myself crying multiple times (you’re shocked, I know). It was such a magical, incredible, and life-changing experience that I even wrote her a letter after we got home.

In the year following Sadie’s death and leading up to this trip, I had been seriously struggling. I felt like I was going through life on autopilot. I had been feeling especially bad about my photography (and wasn’t feeling too jazzed about my writing, either), which from a blogging standpoint was debilitating. I couldn’t even look at my photos- something which had previously brought me a fair amount of joy, and pride- without thinking they were trash, much less take the time to edit them to make them blog worthy. But something about the words Ranger Leah spoke deep in that cave stirred my soul back to life. As we sat in complete darkness in the belly of the earth, she talked about the light that we each have within ourselves, and how, when the world is bright and full of light, our light can seem insignificant and worthless. But in the darkness, even the smallest light can show us the way to beauty, and safety. I know that I can’t even do it any justice, but something about that experience caused a shift in my life that I will never forget.

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The King’s Palace. Just incredible.
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The stalactite in this photo is called The Guillotine, and it hangs over the stalagmites known as The Court. Do they look afraid of being beheaded?

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The King and Queen in their Eternal Kiss (though they’re actually not quite touching).

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Ranger Leah, talking about the National Park Service and making me feel all sorts of emotions.

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The Eternal Kiss up close.

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This is called The Veiled Statue – super accurate name, I think!

After King’s Palace, we headed back up to the surface for lunch and a little bit of gift shopping and visitor center browsing before our next tour – Left Hand Tunnel. I was super excited for this tour because it’s entirely lit by LANTERNS. That’s right- handheld, candle-powered glass lanterns. It was authentic and epic and highly recommended. The Left Hand Tunnel is not as highly decorated or detailed as the rest of the cave, but the experience of having your way lit by lights that you carry yourself is really neat.

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We got berated to “pick up the pace” while taking this… ooops. I felt a little bad, but it was the end of the tour and we walk fast enough that we quickly caught back up to the group. Of course, the ranger was just doing her job, but I still feel a bit guilty.

After our epic tour had concluded, we headed out of the park to take our last sign photo of the trip. We laughed a little, because as we were taking the photo we watched a couple drive past, flip a u-turn, and come take their own photo before turning back around and leaving. I always think it’s kind of funny that people don’t seem to think it’s a good idea until they see someone else doing it- that exact scenario is a somewhat common experience for us. I’m glad that we can at least inspire the capturing of some memories for others.

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Coolest stamp ever, am I right?

Our Carlsbad Caverns National Park “Must-Do”: 

Dang, this is a hard one. We liked everything so much and both of the guided tours we did were so epic! However, I think if I had to pick one, I would say Natural Entrance + Big Room self-guided tour is the absolute must.

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