Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Below a gray sky we bid adieu to the RV park, checked the post office one last time for any late packages, and towed the Airstream seven miles from our base elevation of 3,600 feet to the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park at 4,400 feet.
The Visitor Center and cave were virtually abandoned, which is not surprising considering the abysmal weather. All the winter tourists seem to be fleeing for warmer spots, which strikes me as an excellent plan except that there aren't any warm spots outside of southern Florida and Mexico. We had no trouble parking all 50 feet of Airstream & truck in the lot. The cave was so deserted that we walked for over 30 minutes before encountering another person.
We hiked down the Natural Entrance, which is about a mile and 850 feet of descent. This hike is strenuously cautioned by the park service. "Evalute your physical condition before attempting this walk!" "Weak knees are common!" Huh. It's a walk downhill on a paved trail with handrails. Last time Eleanor did it seven months pregnant.
Our National Parks pass got us in for free. Except now it's the "America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass," and now it costs $80 instead of $50. They've dropped the $15 eagle hologram, too. This new pass basically covers every Federal site that charges admission (but it doesn't cover camping fees or added-value tours). We got this latest pass in Vicksburg when our National Parks pass expired, and using it today saved us $18, so we've got a few parks to go before it pays off.
The cave is supposed to be a constant 56 degrees, but in winter the cold air above settles into the cave and causes a constant breeze at certain points on the Natural Entrance hike. Since today the temperature at the entrance was 29 degrees (with fog), we had a chilly hike in.
Still, the cave is magnificent and amazing for both its natural features and the incongruous man-made ones. This is confusing for Emma, who at one point marveled at the huge open space replete with hanging stalactites and said, "I cannot believe this is not man-made!" This is from a child who has visited numerous large caves and lava tubes and who can readily identify cave draperies, popcorn, soda straws, and "bacon."
Carlsbad is a park from the old school, so it features things you won't see in other parks from a more enlightened era. For example, at Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona, they are so concerned with protecting the natural condition of the cave that visitors are sprayed with a fine mist to remove dust, and walked through several air-tight doors to control humidity. At Carlsbad, they have a restaurant in the cave.
The restaurant was built in 1928, and not surprisingly the bathrooms directly adjacent arrived shortly after. There's also a mailbox, so you can post a letter from below the Earth's surface. In fact, you can do quite a bit of shopping underground if you care to. After an hour of hiking we stopped in for a snack and asked Emma if she wanted to see more cave, or ride the elevator up and out. "More cave!" So we hiked the entire Big Room tour too, for a total of about 2.5 miles.
Considering that it was a totally dismal day, hiking underground beat the other options available. I had hoped for clearing by the time we emerged, but at 1 pm it was still very cold and cloudy, and we high-tailed it for the south. Along the route (Rt 62/180 to be specific) you have to climb up to 5,695 feet in the Guadalupe Mountains. Up there it was dense fog, temperatures in the upper 20's and windy. I had to drive carefully, constantly on the lookout for ice on the road, until we descended back down before 5,000 feet.
We are covering a lot of miles in order to have time to explore some things in New Mexico and Arizona before we have to fly out. So we have stopped for the night in Las Cruces, boondocking in the retail center while we consider our options. We may stay here a few days (in which case we'll get a campground) or move on, depending on how things look.