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Deep Underground: The Hueco Tanks and Carlsbad Caverns

Journeys in Texas Continued: The Wind, Explorations of the Hueco Tanks, and Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico

sunny 75 °F

“One night a wild young cowboy came in, wild as the west Texas wind.” Marty Robbins

I understand these lyrics a lot better now. I have a full appreciation of the wind that whips the grassland and mountains of west Texas. I have fully experienced the Wild West Texas wind during two nights of attempted sleep. The wind was just as Marty writes, it came on all of a sudden, as a cowboy would enter a bar, and suddenly the wind turns violently strong whipping everything in its way. I have never experienced wind like this, and I was impressed.

In our sturdy little tent (named Columbus), we attempted to sleep, but it was a long time coming. The wind hammered, harangued, whapped the sides of the tent, pushing them in with such ferocity as to slap us around every few minutes. I was viciously slapped in the face, until I finally rolled over and let my back be massaged by the tumult. It took awhile to get used to the noise, and the beatings, but eventually both of us slept.

What was just as amazing was the how quickly it came and went (just like Marty‘s cowboy). At one point, I had finally fallen asleep. I awoke a few hours later to silence, with just a breath of fresh morning air under sunny skies for wind. I doubt anybody would believe me if I tried to tell them of the gale in the night.

The wind is part of the allure of west Texas.

Besides the wind, the geology of the northern Chihuahua desert is just as impressive. Ihave been spending my quality time exploring the Hueco Tanks, east of El Paso, and Carlsbad caverns of New Mexico. Between both parks, I have spent more of my days underneath the earth as I have spent walking above it.

Hueco Tanks State Park
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Huecos are hollows, or water carved recesses in rock. The Hueco Tanks area are just that, an ancient low lying mound of rock that are filled with huecos. The huecos store water in them even during the driest parts of the year. In the desert, water is life, and life has flourished here for thousands of years. Man has used these watering holes for just as long. The low rocky mountains are a jumble of humongous rock slabs, piled up boulders and narrow caves and crevices. Man has been leaving their signatures for as long as they have been coming to the tanks. The ancient visitors left pictographs of masks, and hunting scenes, more recent but still historical visitors (in the 1800’s) chiseled their names, dates, and home into the rock. Modern morons have left their mark-using spray paint, sometimes covering up the priceless ancient markings.
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The park is well regulated, and they keep track of who comes and goes, as they only allow a limited number of visitors each day. They are doing a good job preserving the ancient sites, yet allowing the boulders and rock to be used what it ought to be used for: the great playground that it is.
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Hueco Tanks state park is designated by four “mountain zones.” Three of the zones are closed to the public and are only reachable by ranger-guided tour. One of the zones, North Mountain, is open for day use only, and that is where I spent my time exploring. With a map, a climbing guide to the boulders, and my reckoning, I spent a day traversing north mountain.
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It was tremendous fun to explore through the giant boulders, rock slabs, slot canyons and caves. It reminded me of exploring Joshua Tree National Park’s rock islands, and my approach was much the same. With determined effort, I found I could climb, slither, slide, crawl and squeeze my way through the mountain. I was in my element, my urge to explore unleashed.
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Using these methods, we stumbled upon most of the ancient sites. One cave was filled with paintings of masks in exquisite condition. The rock was slick from the hundreds if not thousands of feet that have visited this amazing cave. This was a good place, an ancient place, and one I will never forget.
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Though we were not the first people to explore these mountains, and find these ancient sites, it felt like we were the first. It was exciting, and fun, and the thrill of discovery was intoxicating. I happily left the mountain in the late afternoon. I was satisfied with my efforts.

Creatures of Hueco Tanks
Lizards and Horse Lubber Grasshopper
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At the campground, late in the night, I had stepped outside to use the bathroom. Beware, when stepping out to go pee in the desert. EVERYTHING is sharp. As I found relief, I looked up at the stars and found my self gazing at the constellations. I wondered what the ancient people thought of the stars. I became inspired and I captured a photograph of Orion (the Hunter), and Taurus (the Hunted) before I crawled back into my sleeping bag.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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A few days later, I found myself once again heading down the natural entrance to the big room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. For once, I was prepared: I had a working camera with fresh batteries, and sturdy tripod. The caverns were mine to explore by camera. In past visits, I was hampered by a lack of batteries, or tripod, and unable to photograph the impressive decoration and wonder these caverns hold.

My traveling partner and I had made reservations for two of the wild cave tours, one for the Hall of the White Giant, and The Spider Cave. These tours were on two consecutive days in the afternoon, so we had the mornings to spend walking around the natural entrance and the Big Room. This turned out to be the perfect combination to exploring Carlsbad, (outside of dating a caving ranger).
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The Natural Entrance and Big Room are beautiful, and full of amazing decoration. The whole route is on an asphalt path, guarded by railings and lit up by decorative lighting. I had a great time setting up photos of the caverns, much like Ansel Adams had years before. The exposures are long, and a tripod is necessary to keep the images sharp. What is great about the tourist route of the caverns is that the lighting never changes. I had all day to get my exposure and focus the way I wanted it.
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Which do you prefer? Black and White or Color?
I can't decide which I prefer.
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I would highly recommend to any photographer who wants to learn to take long exposure extreme low-lighted photographs to practice in a cavern. Not only are the subjects beautiful and interesting, the lighting is constant, and a great place to learn.
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The walk was pleasant enough, but as this was my third visit to the place, I wanted more adventure than the easy routes could offer. That is where the ranger-guided tours of some of the other caverns came in. While I’ve gone caving on my own before, (a serious no-no in the caving world), I had never had the right gear, or gone on an actual caving exploration. I was curious to see what it was like to go on a modest exploration on well-explored routes.
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I was pleased to find cave exploration as fun and exciting as I hoped it would be. Once again, I found myself crawling, scooting, slithering into narrow, passages and crevices. I climbed up rock chimneys, and pulled myself up ropes, and ladders to get to our destinations. I was sweating from the exertion, I was filthy with mud, and dirt, and water. Above all, I was smiling.

The White Giant is impressive, a massive stalagmite rising up from floor, one of the cooler seldom seen decorations at Carlsbad. Spider Cave was full of pure white crystalline decoration, and rooms of delicate halectites, draperies, and soda straws. It was just as fun to crawl through the cave as it was to see these beautiful decorations.

The ranger talked of other rooms in the cavern that aren’t open to the public. Carlsbad has over a hundred miles of known passages, just about three miles of them are opened to the public. Granted, they are an amazing three, but just think about what other gorgeous views could be hiding under the ground.

The only way to see some of the other caverns is by applying for a permit to the four that are currently open to explore by permit, becoming a ranger, or by dating a ranger. The rangers have more access to some of the restricted caves in the area. I’m going to take the advice of one of the rangers and check out www.caves.org. I want to explore more caves, and this is a great place to get involved.

I am spending the day here in Carlsbad, New Mexico getting more supplies, (food, and gas) and taking care of some business. While on the road in the U.S., a great place to stop is the local library in whatever town you might be visiting. Not only are they clean, full of information, and quiet, almost all of them now have a WIFI connection.

It has been a great week here in west Texas. I am now heading into the Guadalupe Mountains to explore some of the high country, including a return to the highest point in Texas.

So long, and Adios, Amigos!
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Posted by Rhombus 13:56 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes rocks canyons photography caving texas philosophy boulders slot exploration caverns

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Comments

Thom, thanks so much for sharing your pictures and descriptions of your travels. Love to see the world by proxy.

by Ann Bimberg

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