New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands

By Britta DeVore

It’s a hot day in the Chihuahuan Desert. As you cruise down Highway 62 and take in the sights of the rising Guadalupe Mountains, you hit the turn you’ve been waiting for. A twisty road climbs up several miles as you drive toward your destination. Pulling into the parking lot of Carlsbad Caverns National Park and heading for the entrance of the geographical namesake, you’re faced with two options: take the elevator down to the depths, or hike in via the incredibly steep 1.25-mile natural entrance that will see you losing around 750 feet of elevation as you make your way into the depths of the cave. This is a great way to get the full experience, but it’s not wheelchair accessible and isn’t suggested for those with a heart condition, so take that into account before you make your decision. If you do decide to take the leg stretcher, the heat that you’ve been sweltering in will quickly dissipate as you enter the mouth of the cave. Greeting you upon entry will be a slew of birds who call the caverns home.

Once inside, a world of wonders awaits you. Stalactites and stalagmites spring from the top and bottom of the cave, respectively, and with the multiple lights set up by the park, they glisten and gleam with water dripping down each one. Coming in all shapes and sizes, it’s an awe-inspiring journey to make your way around the cave. If you’ve come down the elevator, you’ll immediately find yourself in the Big Room, which the natural entrance also leads to after its trail winds through other famous formations including Devil’s Spring and Whale Rock. The Big Room holds the title of being the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America.

Photo by Christian Collins.

The park itself is rich in history, something you’ll learn about as you stroll the trails deep inside the cavern and read the informative plaques along the way. Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the Guadalupe Mountains some 14,000 years ago, with much of their imprints discovered in cooking sites and pictographs in the park. You’ll also learn about the history of how the caverns were “discovered” in 1898 by a 16-year-old boy named Jim White and the risky explorations that would follow. If you’re looking for a more informative tour, sign up to take the King’s Palace Tour with one of the park’s rangers. The in-depth, guided experience will drop you into the deepest area of the cavern that’s accessible to the public.

Once you make your way out of the caves, keep your eyes peeled on the rocky outcroppings on the way home as you may spot a long-horned sheep or two blending in with their surroundings.

Taking a trip to the newly-established White Sands National Park is an out of this world experience. On a clear, sunny day, the white sand clashes against the blue skies, making it look like you’re floating on clouds or on a different planet altogether. Fans of photography and bike riding will really love the activities available to them at this desert hot-spot, but with its number one activity being tobogganing, it’s a great stop for all ages.

For a brief history lesson, the area where the park stands today was once part of an ancient sea that sprawled across most of the southwestern United States. One of the main minerals found at the bottom of this ocean was gypsum, which is primarily made up of sulfate. When the sea vanished, the gypsum was left, leading to the creation of the famous ivory white sand that draws in millions of visitors every year. 

Whether you’re traveling through the park by foot, vehicle, bike or horse (equestrian permits are required), there are plenty of places to stop and take it all in. The main road leading through the park is suitable for bikes and vehicles. It’s a 16-mile drive that you should plan on spending about an hour on if you’re making little to no stops via car. While this is a great option for bike fanatics to get their workout in for the day, be forewarned that the road changes from pavement to packed sand, so road bikes aren’t suggested for this one. 

If you’re a hiker, venture out onto one of the park’s five established trails. From the fully accessible interdune boardwalk to the misleadingly named Alkali Flat Trail, there are some great options available. If you’re looking for a quick way to enjoy the dunes, but don’t have the time to commit to a full hike, park your car at one of the many pullovers and walk over a dune or two. This is a great speedy way to snap some pics and check out the sand up close and personal. It’s also an excellent way to experience the park’s most talked about activity – tobogganing. 

Whether you brought your own or need to pick one up from the visitor’s center, the most fun activity available at the park is shooting down the dunes on your sled or sandboard. Tobogganing is allowed all over the park, making each tower of sand your own personal playground. While the sand does a great job of creating the friction needed to carry you downhill, a little wax never hurts. If you forget yours, wax is also available at the gift center. 

Finally, White Sands allows visitors to experience the park in a totally different light through overnight backpacking excursions. Check the park’s website for details.

Photo by Matt Harding.