Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Disappointment at Carlsbad Caverns

It only took about 20 minutes of waiting to get a 5 second window with no people in this shot. Well, no people except the three walking by there in the background but believe me, that was as good as it was going to get!

OK, to put the downer side of this post's title into perspective let me present both sides of the issue:

On the plus side:

The drive up Walnut Canyon to the Visitor Center is pretty.

Most of the information plaques along the drive are still legible.

There is a tiny but interesting little interpretive walk halfway up the canyon

The weather was great

And all in all, my visit rated closer to the awesome end than the what-the-hell-was-I-thinking end of the experiance-rating scale.


I'm not much of a spelunker to start with and the focus of this National Park is almost entirely underground, leaving one to scratch their head and speculate, largely uninformed, about the above-ground features. In fact I could find no mention of the 10 mile long one-way gravel Desert Loop Drive on the official NP website at all!

To reinforce that 'underground or nothing' vibe, the ranger at the information desk had absolutely no idea what the road conditions were on the loop drive. And since it is limited to high-clearance vehicles 20 ft and under, which means The Van qualifies, I still didn't want to go charging down it uninformed, so even though it was only half-a-buck I didn't bother asking for the mimeographed 'guide' to the rumored numbered stops along the way. 

It was a Saturday, with the attendant crowds you would expect during the painful and interminably long spring break season, and we all know how well I get along with crowds! (Anybody else remember years ago when there was a single week set aside as spring break for everybody??)

The cavern is way too gentrified for my taste, unless you're willing to pay extra for one of several guided tours into a less developed part of the caverns. (But remember, I'm not much into spelunking in the first place. I guess those several chapters where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher were lost in a cave scared me for life!)

If you've done any research prior to your trip you've seen photos of just about everything the entire Big Room, the main 'tourist' section of the cave, has to offer and somehow, probably because of all the special lighting hauled in for the photo sessions, those photos verge on being more interesting and dramatic than the real thing.

So, it was interesting and I'm glad that I went, but I left feeling like been-there-done-that-don't-need-to-come-back.

Whites City is the gateway to Carlsbad Caverns NP

But before the disappointment, first I had to get to the park.

If you remember, yesterday I was forced to vacate my campsite at South Llano by 2 PM, but day-trippers, which is now what I was, being site-less and all, are allowed to hang in Texas State Parks until 10 PM.

I've used this to my advantage before, hanging out at trailheads or day-use areas in a park through dinner and well into the evening before leaving to find some quiet corner (Quite takes on a new meaning when stealth camping. In this case it's less about noise level and more about freedom from door-pounding authorities.)  at a truckstop, a 24-hour store or even an ungated apartment complex parking lot if one is close enough,  (There are distinct advantages to being in a van rather than a motorcoach!) then returning bright and early the next morning when the park opens back up for the day.

This time I already knew where I was going to park for the night, the Fort Stockton Walmart, and there certainly wasn't any need for stealth as this place is overnight-central! In fact by late evening it looks more like a small RV show than a Walmart parking lot.

But still, I'd rather hang around a park than a parking lot, so I did; hang around the park; timing my departure on the 4 hour journey between park and Walmart so as to arrive sometime after sundown, 8 PM around these parts this time of year. (Early April.)

In the morning, after a decent night's sleep by the way, I headed north up US 285, right through the heart of Pecos and Reeves counties.

On the map this looks like pretty empty country, and for the first 30 or so miles it is, but if I zoom in closer then the the tangled hatchwork of angled and dead-end roads becomes evident, and this is the road-signature of oilfields.

Driving 285 along here is like driving the industrial roads on the wrong side of the tracks of any large city, industrial sites, machinery and trucks, pickups - with and without work-box beds - just lots of pickups, big trucks - box, low-boys, tankers, gravel-haulers, - everywhere, except here the industrial enclaves are sprinkled, thickly, across desert with not a single convenience store or strip mall around, and it goes on and on and on.

When I got to Malaga NM, up there on the far right of this map segment, I turned left onto Black River Village Rd. so as to avoid going all the way up to the small city of Carlsbad and all the way back down again just to get over to US 62 and Whites City. Malaga is more a name than a town but it's still busy here and this turn sneaks up fast so watch for it.

This is a county road in every sense of the word. It's not quite two lanes wide in many spots requiring you to set the right-hand wheels into the rough when passing anything other than a Smart-car, which must be too smart to be out here since I didn't see any, the road's surface has seen better days, it follows the contours of the land with barely any cuts or fills, and the turns are sharp, but if I thought I was going to get any respite from the truck traffic I was mistaken, big time!

The oilfields don't suddenly end just because the lines on the map change color and my puny 4-wheeled van was in the minority as big-ass, multi-axled dump, tanker, and equipment trucks went every which way around me! The truck traffic finally tapered off after I got to the actual Black River Village and away from the State Trust Lands. (Purplish on my map.)

But as bad as all that may sound, the drive from Fort Stockton to Whites City is only about 150 miles so it ends about the time the novelty wears off and before the teeth-grinding frustration sets in.

Capital Reef is a 1000 foot wall rising up out of the desert. It arches from White City in the northeast to the peak of El Capitan in the southwest. The Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center is 7 road miles from, and 1000 feet above, Whites City.

It, the visitor center, sits right on the edge of Capital Reef and I can't help feel that with the right conditions I could see the Fort Stockton Walmart from here.

As it is, since the information plaque is blank, I have to just guess at what I'm looking at down there. As I mentioned before, it seems like all efforts, and funds, at this park are focused on the undergound so there's probably not enough dollars left over to replace whatever information this placard once held, apparently not even enough to remove the useless structure.

Well, I just might be exaggerating a little here since the park-personnel living quarters and other support buildings built by the CCC have clearly been meticulously maintained.

The visitor center itself is one-third information and ticket booth, one-third gift-shop and one-third museum and educational. I would recommend taking the time to go through the museum and educational displays, and don't miss the 15 minute movie looping in the tiny theater there at the back.

For the basic $10 entry fee, free with geezer-pass, you have your choice of taking the elevator directly down to the Big Room and it's one mile plus self-guided tour, (Note that according to the text above, not only is the trail paved and mostly level, but it is non-skid as well!)

Or you can go out the side door on the far side of the museum, down a series of paved ramps

to go in through the natural entrance to the cave and eventually hook up with the Big Room trail there by the elevators.

This adds another mile-plus to the tour and the trail is steep, but you can see in the photo of the official park newsletter above that the switchbacks are paved and easy to negotiate.

That's the route I took but, especially on busy days such as when I was there, I recommend taking the elevator back up to the visitor center rather than buck the down-bound crowds in the natural entrance.

I tried a few photos down in the cavern but, despite the fairly decent constant artificial lighting down there, without enhanced lighting (My puny flash wasn't going to do the job.) nor a tripod (Not allowed!) the photos were a bust so I soon stopped trying and just looked instead.

The elevators are strategically placed to dump you out back out into the gift shop on your way out, It's full of the over-priced stuff you'd expect, though, being a puzzler, this caught my eye (By the way, I don't remember any one spot where you can stand down there in the Big Room and see this view.) and I was considering adding this unique puzzle to my collection,

until I turned the box over.

Now I own just as much Chinese made stuff as the next guy, and I'm not a rabid nationalist, but, recycled paper and and smaller box or not, this was disappointing!

There are 4 or 5 great all American puzzle manufactures in this country using responsibly sourced materials and soy-based inks, (Some Chinese puzzles still use heavy-metal based inks so be sure and wash your hands before snacking!!) and this is an American National Park for crying out loud!

I don't know who made that decision but I put the puzzle back and walked away.

On my way back out the 7 mile road through Walnut Canyon I found what is probably my favorite spot in the park, somewhere down there at the end of that arrow. (I didn't know about it when I took this photo so I'm not sure of the exact location.

For thousands of years the steep rock walls of the canyon have collected a little water

and provided this cool, north-facing shelter nearby, complete with patio!

The heavily sooted walls tell of thousands of years of use by man and there is a short little interpretive trail through the wash and up to the shelter, which isn't quite standing height, at least not for most of us modern people. Along the trail are information plaques that give a little idea of how the plants and other resources here have been used by the people taking shelter in the area.

So, again, looking behind the curtain of hype was predictably disappointing and I've had better days but, despite not being an 'Oh Wow! day, this one was also far from the worst.

For now I need to get a move-on. I have a reservation at the Carlsbad KOA, made with the intent of ensuring a place for the night on this heavily traveled Saturday, as well as getting my laundry done. Not that I was out of clothes yet by any means but I wasn't sure what the following week was going to look like and didn't want to have to worry about dirty underwear whatever I ended up doing.

It's called the Carlsbad KOA but it's actually halfway between Carlsbad and Artesia, about 16 or 17 miles from each, which is to say 16 or 17 miles from any services though the campground has a small commercial kitchen and provides their own carry-out dinners, and will even deliver them to your site!

A distinct advantage of traveling in The Van is the ability to utilize the smallish back-in sites around the edges of most commercial campgrounds. This keeps me closer to the grass and fields than expanses of gravel and asphalt, and well away from the ordered ranks of larger RV's. Often, as is the case here, I get even more isolation by being tucked in between camp-cabins.

Once I got parked I was getting my laundry ready and this guy turned up. Despite the racket I was making he hung around there outside my door and, regardless of those innocent bunny eyes, I had the feeling he was plotting to ransack the place for goodies as soon as I stepped away!

There were also a mess of these tufted-top birds, which, according to my Sibley's are Scaled Quail. They were pretty active and entertaining as the light faded.

Rather than using the Black River Village Rd to cross between US 285 and US 62, the next time I come this way I think I'll jump on FM 652 out of Orla TX which comes out about 40 miles later on US 62 right at the Texas - New Mexico border.

After the less than stellar review I just gave Carlsbad Caverns NP why the heck am I talking about a next time??

Well down there in the southwest end of the NP are a number of lightly used trails that climb up into Capital Reef and I think they are probably worth a look-see. As an extra bonus there's plenty of BLM land (Butterscotch on my map.) for setting up camp close to the trailheads.


  1. Hwy 137 just across from Brantley State Park leads to lots of free camping and scenic areas.

    1. Thanks Barney. A little remote but you're right, some decent scenery out there. I did manage to briefly poke my nose into the area and it will turn up in the next post or two.