Yesterday, I left bright and early for Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I have wanted to visit this Unesco World Heritage Site for a very long time, and was excited to have the opportunity to spend a very special day there.
The drive from Las Cruces is around 3 hours. The sky was full of big fluffy clouds, with larger masses of condensation hovering at the tops of the mountains. When I got to El Paso, my route took me up through these mountains. The wind was whipping so strongly, I almost lost my car door when I got out at an overlook. Beautiful view, but probably not worth losing something that vital to my travels!
I continued on to the Texas Mountain Trail. After making my way through a Border Control Checkpoint, a sign informed me that there were no services (gas, restrooms, etc.) for 110 miles. With a quarter tank of gas, I was forced to turn around and drive 20 miles back to the nearest station. Suggestion: put that sign a little closer to the actual last amenities!
The scenery was beautiful along the way, but after losing nearly an hour on my gasoline excursion, I didn't stop to get any photos (I returned another day - read about it here). It went from desert landscape up into the mountains, through Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In the mountains, I was literally in the clouds, with drizzle and fog shrouding my way.
Carlsbad Caverns is inside one of those beautiful mountains. I took the natural entrance, hiking down, down, down. The smell of bat guano at the entrance was pretty staggering, although I believe the creatures just left for winter vacation in Mexico.
This cave is mammoth, but nothing like Mammoth Cave. The formations are unbelievable in both scale and quantity. Gigantic stalagmites, giant chandeliers of stalagmites, ceilings full of soda straws - no photo could possibly do their scale or beauty justice. I spent four hours wandering, photographing, and gazing. Then, it was time to wait for my big treat.
Months ago, I happened to see on Facebook that November 5 was a special day at Carlsbad Caverns. In celebration of the National Parks Service's centennial, they were hosting a string quartet from the New Mexico Philharmonic at the Top of the Cross section of the cavern's Big Room. The lucky first callers on the day they became available were rewarded with a free ticket to this once-in-a-lifetime event.
I was one of them!
The crowd at the rest area portion of the cave slowly grew, as most people filed in eight at a time through the venue's two elevators. Finally, we were led back 1/2 mile to the Top of the Cross. This concert was the first of its kind in 83 years, and it did not disappoint. For the next hour, the beautiful sounds echoed across the cavern to a hushed and delighted crowd of around 200 attendees. We were quizzed between one of the numbers, and I was privileged to be one of the only people there from the Eastern United States.
Three hours back through darkness, fog, rain, and mountains, I was exhausted, but still grateful to have been given such a wonderful treat. Happy birthday, National Parks Service!