Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks: Going Home

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Monday, November 19 dawned cool and cloudless in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and we were heading home. This was the twelfth and final day of my wonderful fortieth birthday trip to two National Parks. Although we were saying goodbye, we intended to make a quick stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park as we departed.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Walnut Canyon Desert Drive

Rattlesnake Canyon

After saying goodbye to our friends on Sunday morning, November 18, Sean, Phil, Adam, Sylvan, and I piled into the car and drove back over to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We wanted to do some exploring aboveground along the 9.5-mile Walnut Canyon Desert Drive.

Aboveground, Carlsbad Caverns National Park is 46,766 acres of the low, northeastern portion of the Guadalupe Mountains. Here, the ridges are low enough that they lack the more heavily wooded zones of the southern edge of the range. The ridges and canyons exhibit more typical plant communities of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Rattlesnake Springs

On Friday, November 16, after a full day of exploring the underground palaces of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, we decided to visit a very special aboveground part of the Park in our final hour of daylight: Rattlesnake Springs, the site of a lush oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert beneath the Guadalupe range. Rattlesnake Springs is a small, twenty-four acre unit of Carlsbad Caverns National Park purchased by the National Park Service in 1934 as a means to ensure a reliable water source for the development of the National Park. Because of its water and array of trees and shrubs, Rattlesnake Springs hosts 350 bird species, forty species of reptiles and amphibians, and thirty species of mammals. John had been monitoring the site’s bird lists on eBird and was keen to visit, so we decided to check it out on our way back to Carlsbad.

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The Natural Entrance and The Big Room

After finally coming together the day before as a group of eight for my birthday trip, on the morning of Friday, November 16, we split up with John watching the two children at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center while the rest of us went on the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. After the tour, we collected the three who had stayed above ground and assembled in the cafeteria for lunch. Our plan for the afternoon was for all of us to descend into the cave, since children of any age could go in via the Natural Entrance (with adult supervision).

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Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The King’s Palace

As a deep dusk settled across the Chihuahuan Desert east of the Guadalupe Mountains on Thursday, November 15, we moved from the second to the third (and final) phase of the trip to celebrate my fortieth birthday. Sean and I were about half an hour ahead of Phil, Adam, and Sylvan on the National Parks Highway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and the city of Carlsbad, New Mexico. On the way, we passed the phosphorescent light from the filling station in Whites City, the tiny boom town gateway to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns would be the focus of the coming long weekend. Our ultimate destination was an AirB&B in a quiet neighborhood on the north side of Carlsbad, across the Pecos River from the hullabaloo of the main thoroughfare and its traffic jams of souped up pickups waiting to make a lefthand turn against the light into the Wallmart parking lot. As we entered Carlsbad from the south and slowed in five and ten degree increments as the speed limit signs instructed, we hung up with John and Catherine, who had just arrived at the AirB&B, maybe twenty minutes ahead of us.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Gypsum Sand Dunes

The western escarpment of the Guadalupe Mountains: Bush Mountain (left), Bartlett Peak, Shumard Peak, Guadalupe Peak, and El Capitan

On the afternoon of Thursday, November 15, we concluded our adventures at Guadalupe Mountains National Park with a private visit to the gypsum sand dunes beneath the magnificent western escarpment of the Guadalupes. Beginning around twenty-six million years ago, the area west of the range began dropping and the mountains began rising along a steep vertical fault. Slowly the fossilized Permian coral reef emerged as softer rock layers eroded away. Meanwhile, the dunes out in Chihuahuan Desert lowlands west of the range and were formed by an ancient lake. Much like in Death Valley and huge portions of the Great Basin Desert, all of the streams on the western side of the southern portion of the Guadalupes did not reach the sea but instead flowed to a lake in the depression beneath the escarpment. When the climate became warmer and drier, the lake evaporated, leaving a huge salt flat basin. The gypsum dunes were formed by the wind collecting the sand from the vanished lake.

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park: Frijole Ranch and Smith Spring

Thursday, November 15 was our day of transition from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. With the backpacking trip as part one, car camping with Phil, Adam, and Sylvan as part two, we were now going to embark on part three and be joined by John, Catherine, and Mariana down from Chicago. But we wouldn’t be checking into our AirB&B in Carlsbad, New Mexico until the evening, so we still had much of the day to see a few more wonders in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Sotol and Hunter Peak
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