November 20, 2019.
We awoke to another ridiculously beautiful sunrise in the Guadalupe Mountains. The clouds were pretty, but that meant a storm was brewing. We reinforced the tent last night with lots of staked out paracord in order to feel confident leaving our site for the day. We had plans to do a “wild cave tour” in Carlsbad Caverns.
On our way up the windy road to the Visitor Center, I spotted a couple of animals in the hills on the side of the road. “Sheep!” I shouted. We pulled off the road as soon as we could to get a better look at the animals. They weren’t bighorn sheep, what were they? The longer we watched, the more sheep appeared. There must have been at least 30 of them bunched together in a herd. Big ones, little ones, munching on vegetation and strolling on by. Later we’d learn that these were Barbary sheep, an invasive species that is currently a scourge on the southwest. Oh well, they were neat to look at.
When we checked in at Carlsbad Caverns, we were informed that the tour we originally booked was canceled and instead we’d be visiting the Hall of the White Giant. Was that okay? She asked. I hadn’t researched that one, but I figured we’d make it work. We waited for our tour guide and the rest of the group to appear. Out of a maximum of 8 participants, there were only 4 of us plus our two young guides. This was going to be fun.
Before heading out on the tour we had to sit through an orientation. Our guides explained the nature of the tour and geared us up with helmets, headlamps, gardening gloves, knee pads and elbow pads. We were set!
Oh, there’s just one more thing. We’d have to squeeze and shimmy through some tight spaces on this tour. In preparation, we each took turns wriggling through a replica of the smallest opening in the cave to give us one last chance to back out before our group departed. We all eagerly accepted the upcoming challenge.
The entrance to our cave tour was located about halfway down the Natural Entrance Trail. This 1.25 mile trail drops steeply down into the gaping mouth of the canyon, losing 750 feet from start to finish. I gladly held on to the handrail as my eyes were drawn upwards to see the whole of the natural cathedral we were entering. I felt a strange burning sensation in my chest, that feeling of awe when you are experiencing nature’s finest. I had only put Carlsbad Caverns on our trip itinerary because it was a half hour away from where we were staying, not because I actually wanted to visit. At that moment I was so glad that my travels had fortuitously taken me there. And we’d only just begun…
Our tour group came to an abrupt stop. “We’re here!” said our guide, cheerfully. I looked around wondering what the hell she was talking about. She pointed to a portion of the wall that looked like Swiss cheese. “We crawl through that gap to start the tour.” I guarantee 99.9% of visitors walk right past that wall, oblivious that anything could be found through that hole. I would have been one of them!
With that, we adjusted all our gear and belly-slid through the hole, one by one. Unbelievably, on the other side, we entered what felt like a tiny hallway. At some points it was tall enough that we could stand up. At other points we either crawled, squatted or dragged ourselves forward. Our guide regularly stopped the group to talk about cave formations, the discovery of this cave, the history of caving in the park and the few critters that live there.
I took last place in the group (with the other guide acting as sweep behind me) in order to take my time to look around. The interior of the passageways was mostly uninteresting, with occasional flashes of color or unique formations. Mostly, it was just really fun maneuvering through the tunnels. Far into the cave, we reached the “obstacle course.” There, we scrambled over extremely slick rock with the aid of hand lines and ladders. Everyone was working up a sweat despite the fact that the temperature was only 56°F.
The real showstopper, the only reason this network of passageways had been turned into a guided tour, is the Hall of the White Giant. When we reached it, we were all dumbstruck. Out of nowhere, the tiny tunnel opened up into an enormous room. Every surface of the ceiling and floor was covered with speleothems (stalagmites and stalactites). In the beams of our headlamps, it all gleamed a bright white. And the grand focal point: the White Giant, a hulking mass of rock that stands nearly 20 feet tall and looks like it’s coated in white chocolate. Our group spent some time here just enjoying the view and learning more about the first people who discovered it.
Then, we all turned our lights off and sat very quietly. It’s a unique experience to be in complete darkness and complete quiet at the same time. The guide asked if anyone had a poem to share or a song to sing. I was glad no one did.
After putting our lamps back on and letting our eyes adjust to the light, we began the walk out through the obstacles and narrow hallways we’d traversed to get back there. Once we stepped back on the main trail we finished the hike to the main area of Carlsbad Caverns to take the elevator up and out.
The combination of physical exertion and nature’s beauty has always been a winner for me. I was really inspired by our morning’s tour. But I was also really hungry. We stopped into the cafeteria for some delicious New Mexican food before descending back into the cave. We hadn’t yet seen the Big Room, and I had no idea what was in store for me there…