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.

On the way, we stopped at the post office in Whites City to drop off our postcards.

We took our time and stopped at all of the informational pullouts. The best of these boasted a short trail to a protected, north-facing overhang in the wall of Walnut Canyon that was apparently used by Native Americans for centuries, although exactly when it was used is unclear.

The path to the overhang had interpretive signage about how native peoples, ending with the Mescalero Apache, may have used the various desert plants.

Walnut Canyon

Algerita

Juniper

Along the path was a pool, a semi-permanent water source for wildlife.

Texas Walnut

While Phil and Sylvan dozed in the car, Adam, Sean, and I explored the shelter.

The ceiling held evidence of char and smoke from fires.

And there was evidence of other prehistoric human impact in the shelter.

We returned to the car.

The road rose out of Walnut Canyon toward the visitor center on top of the Guadalupe escarpment. We stopped at the pullout for a short trail (some five-hundred feet only) to Walnut Canyon Vista.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Catclaw Acacia

Phil and Sylvan continued their naps.

Walnut Canyon Vista

Walnut Canyon Vista

Walnut Canyon Vista

It was about a quarter to twelve when we turned off the paved road to the visitor center to head out on the one-way groomed dirt road of the scenic drive. We didn’t have the guide brochure, so Sean tried to find it online, as he had with the Permian Reef Geology Trail, but he couldn’t. What he did find, though, was a hilarious one-star TripAdvisor review of the drive. Sean did a dramatic reading:

An hour of hell!

This was a rutted, poorly maintained road that would never end. You truly could not go more than 15 mi. per hour and in places even less. Feared bottoming out my car. There was nothing of interest along it or that you hadn’t seen driving through the deserts of N.M. It said it was 9 miles I believe but it took us at least 45 min. to drive through it and we were laughing so hard about how ridiculous it was that that was the only thing that made us be able to tolerate the hour or so it took.

It was a thickly overcast day with low visibility. It made the view down onto the dessert from the escarpment very mysterious.

One thing we noticed in the gently rolling slopes was the flow of the striations in the rock tracing the topography in a very tactile way.

Great-Tailed Grackle

Ocotillo

We stopped at the Rattlesnake Canyon Viewpoint and Trailhead.

Rattlesnake Canyon

We could see down the length of the range into the Carlsbad Caverns backcountry.

Rattlesnake Canyon

Gazing out into the canyon, we resolved to add hiking it to the list for a return visit.

Rattlesnake Canyon

Silver Prairie Clover

From the trailhead, the dirt road dropped down into Walnut Canyon and swung back toward the paved road.

The whole time I was scanning for Javelina and sometimes murmuring “Javelina, Javelina” to the tune of Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa.”

We also discussed our favorite National Parks and the ones we’d most like to return to.

Rock Squirrel. Video: Sean M. Santos

At every opportunity, Sean, Adam, and I got out and explored.

Barbary Sheep

Near the end of the drive, three ungulates appeared on the top of a ridge. At the time we assumed they were Bighorn Sheep, although they looked very weird.

Actually, they were Barbary Sheep, native to North Africa. The sheep first entered the Park in the 1940s, when some escaped from a nearby ranch. By then, Desert Bighorn Sheep had already vanished from the Park, so the Barbary Sheep more or less took over their role in the ecosystem. The Park Service even introduced additional Barbary Sheep in the Park in the 1950s.

Barbary Sheep

Now there is discussion of removing the Barbary Sheep and reintroducing Desert Bighorns, which have successfully returned to other National Parks in the Southwest.

An hour after we started the drive, we turned back out onto the paved road.

We headed to the visitor center for lunch.

It was much busier than it had been on Friday. We remarked that we were glad to have done our cave explorations on Friday instead of Saturday.

Unfortunately, the concessionaire was slammed and running out of food, so our lunch took over an hour to prepare.

So we hung out and took turns checking out the gift shop. We also watched other people getting increasingly irate. More bad TripAdvisor reviews were likely coming!

After lunch we took one more turn through the exhibits in the visitor center.

This artifact was from a case featuring tourism at the Park. The more things change…

A little after 3pm, we said goodbye to the visitor center.

We hit a few more pullouts on the way back out of the Park.

Walnut Canyon

Big Hill Seep

Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon

Image: Sean M. Santos

Back at the house, we set to packing up to leave the next morning.

We took our time, goofing around and dancing to Kishi Bashi and such. We used mac and cheese as a base for eating various leftovers. Adam and Phil offered to take some of our things (like the “appreciation blankets”) with them in the car to Detroit, since we’d see them there over the holidays. They ended up taking two boxes and bag’s worth of items, which saved Sean and me from having to take them on a plane.

Then it was time for the final roaring bonfire, wine, and chatting before we went to bed.

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