Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 2: Canyons and Caverns

We last left off on October 29, in Woodward, OK. What excitements did we encounter during our second week? Read on to find out.

Oct 31 – Nov 1 (Wednesday, Thursday): Drove to Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Canyon, TX. The canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the US. The state park was fantastic – we descended 600 ft along a narrow, winding road to our campground and found ourselves for the first time completely isolated from the security blanket known as the Internet. (Amazing – there are places where a smart phone can not get a signal!) We had no problem finding a space without a reservation, though rumor has it they fill up completely on weekends this time of year. This was the most expensive park fee yet at $34 per night, but it was definitely worth it. All around us were spectacular canyon views accessible by miles and miles of hiking trails. We were also visited by a road runner and a group of wild turkeys during our stay. We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday so didn’t go on any long hikes, just wandered about getting the lay of the land. On Thursday we hiked about 6 miles on easy trails, while on Friday we hiked 5 miles on a more difficult trail to get an overlook of a feature known as The Lighthouse before heading off for parts west.

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Nov 2-3 (Friday, Saturday): Drove to an RV Park in Artesia, NM. Our lucky streak of finding places to stay without reservations almost ended when we were told the place was full, but the person in the office clicked away at her computer for a while and discovered that one reserved guest had delayed his arrival by a few days, so we got the only vacant spot. We paid $41 per night for the privilege, with my $2 per night senior discount, including electric, water, and sewer hookups, laundry, restroom and shower facilities, wireless, and cable TV service (although we did not at that time have an actual cable to hook up to the RV to WATCH cable TV). There wasn’t much of interest in Artesia, but we needed a place to do laundry, rest up from the hiking at Palo Duro and the long drive, and prepare for our next, more exciting location. We did have a nice walk around the town on Thursday, lunch at a local brew pub, including a Crude Oil Stout, and a lovely evening sky just before sunset.

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Nov 4-5 (Sunday, Monday): This part of the trip included a bucket-list highlight for me – my first ever trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I developed an interest in caves as a small boy, perhaps when visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota on a family vacation as a 4-year old. Later, I did some research on Mammoth Caves for a 4th grade school report on Kentucky. My first adult cave visit was to a rather disappointing Crystal Cave in Wisconsin. Subsequent cave visits have included Mystery Cave State Park in Forestville, MN, Oregon Caves State Park, and the aforementioned Mammoth Cave (with Pat, Nick, and Brian in 2004) all of which I enjoyed very much. But I always knew that Carlsbad Caverns would be the best, if I ever got there. And it was. THE. BEST. EVER.

We arrived Sunday around 11 AM, arranged free entry with my lifetime Senior National Parks Pass, and purchased tickets for two guided tours on Monday. My tour tickets were half-price ($7.50 for the two tours) because of the Senior Pass. That lifetime pass has to be the best deal I’ve ever gotten in my life – when I bought it six years ago it only cost ten bucks! After arranging for the Monday tours, we embarked on two self-guided tours accompanied by a nifty audio guide we rented for $5. The first self-guided tour was a 1.5-mile walk into the cave via the natural entrance, eschewing the elevator to the bottom. The walk follows a lighted, paved path with handrails, so it’s relatively easy, though there are some segments that are quite steep and others that are rough and uneven. At any rate, it certainly felt like a 1.5-mile hike, even though it was made as easy as possible for the multitude of visitors. There are many switchbacks and passages through dark, narrow spaces or arches, and with each turn or emergence from a dark area we were rewarded with another breathtaking view. Immense open rooms contained stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and boulders, many decorated with popcorn formations or delicate etchings. The second tour was the “Big Room” route, a 1.25-mile circuit around the perimeter of the cave’s largest open room. That was a bit of an understatement – I’d call it the ENORMOUS Room. This also followed a paved path, and the most impressive features were artfully lighted. Along the route, we passed the “Bottomless Pit,” its actual depth of 140 feet proving that the original explorers were also capable of overstatement.

Monday’s first guided tour was the King’s Palace tour, passing through four highly decorated chambers. This tour also followed a well-lit, paved path but was only accessible with a guide. We spent about two hours with a group of thirty or so as our guide explained the history of the Cavern and pointed out interesting features. Finally, the Left-Hand Tunnel tour included only nine guests and the guide, as we made our way along a much rougher, unpaved path using only hand-held candle lanterns for visibility. This tour provided a taste of the conditions experienced by the cavern’s original explorers. The guided tours each included a few minutes of total darkness, a time to drink in the silence, broken only by echoes of slowly dripping water, and think about on the amazing place we were visiting.

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These photos do not do justice to the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. The various formations were reminiscent of the Gothic Cathedrals we visited in Europe, though sculpted by Mother Nature rather than man and perhaps celebrating mythical creatures of the universe rather than the mythical saints revered by Renaissance sculptors. I was profoundly moved by the natural beauty and by the sheer immensity of it all. At one point while admiring a highly decorated formation I whispered to Pat, “That one looks like Mother Nature’s tinnavala!” (Finnlanders will understand …)

Just a brief word about our lodgings: We stayed Sunday and Monday nights at an RV Park in Whites City, a cheesy little tourist town located just outside the gate to the National Park. There is no overnight camping in the park, so that was the closest possible place for us to stay. Again, we didn’t have a reservation but were able to secure two nights for $44 per night, including electricity, water, restroom and shower facilities, and wireless service. Nothing to write home about, but it was close to the Cavern.

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Nov 6 (Tuesday): We made a brief stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park near Salt Flats, TX, on Tuesday morning since it is so close to Carlsbad, although the strong winds nearly blew the RV off the road as we approached. The park is unique in that it includes three distinct life zones known as the Desert Zone, the Riparian Zone, and the Mountain Zone. We walked a mile or so along a trail into a canyon near the Visitor Center before driving off again into the hurricane and catching a view of the famous peak, El Capitan. Luckily, the wind died down as we made our way toward Presidio, TX.

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In Presidio, we planned to stay a couple of days at the Loma Paloma RV Park and Golf Resort so I could play golf. Unfortunately, we discovered that the golf course had been ruined in a flood nearly a decade ago. Supposedly they are “remodeling” the course, but it didn’t look like it to me. Such is life.

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We did get a site with electric, water, and sewer hookups and wireless service for $15 with a Passport America discount. We spent the evening watching election returns before heading off in the morning to visit our third National Park in as many days.

Check back for updates as we continue to explore warmer regions of the USA …

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