I'm writing to you from the couch, after a miserable 6.5 hour drive home in which my children still expected me to function and help them do things, and am currently surrounded by a new box of tissues, a tiny trash can, all the medicine a small town Walmart could give me, and a big glass of hot water with honey, lemon, and a splash of honey bourbon. Most importantly, I am ALONE and The Great British Baking Show is on and no one is making me speak so my throbbing headache is slowly slowly starting to abate. My nose, throat, sinuses, and ears are still a hot mess though. And I have a fever. I love them so much, but after a scientifically rigorous experiment of two trips, I've concluded that National Parks make me sick you guys. Devastating.
But they're worth it.
They're SO worth it. And I say this with sinuses I want to smash with a hammer. It'll make them feel better, I'm SURE of it.
I woke up on Monday at 6:30 with a throat of fire and a facebook message from a friend who just happened to also be in Carlsbad telling me they waited 1.5 hours to get into the Caverns the day before and we should get there when it opened. So when Cora was chirping cheerfully from her bed with Claire, we all just got up, rather than pacifying her with her road trip kindle. We drove the 25 minutes from Carlsbad to the Caverns and got there 5 minutes before the tours open up. There was still a line for tickets in the Visitor's Center (you have to buy a ticket even if you're walking in via the natural entrance and not taking any guided tours; it's just your entrance fee- $10/adult, kids are free. They check your tickets at the cavern entrance.), but we moved through it quickly and the kids were able to get their Junior Ranger Workbooks.
At 8:35 we were walking over to the Natural Entrance. It's a 1.25 mile walk down into the Caverns main room (the "Big Room") and I highly HIGHLY recommend it. Even if you don't end up doing the full walk around the Big Room inside (there's a short cut), don't miss the winding extraordinary experience of walking 71 stories into the earth through the mouth of the Cavern. I actually enjoyed it more than the Big Room itself (though I enjoyed the heck out of that too).
Every step was incredible. Thousands of bats flew overhead. The water drip drip dripped, slowly adding another millimeter to the stalagtites and stalagmites. The formations were incredible and blew us away with every step.
The total walk is supposed to take about an hour? I think we did it in 45 minutes, thankful again to have gotten there early when we could move at our own pace without any crowds at all. No strollers are allowed (the pathway is very narrow and frequently wet; it has guard rails on both sides the whole way), so we put Cora in the hiking backpack. She may be heavy and probably too big now, but I think James was more than a little thrilled to get to carry her one more time.
And all of us were definitely thrilled to have her contained because that child is CRAZY and it would have been a lot of yelling "Cora!" to keep her from touching all the untouchable formations. The Ranger at the entrance told us to whisper because sounds travel far in the caverns. That is not conducive to the nagging of toddlers.
Mostly though, we just walked, awed at the width and breadth of what we were seeing. I kept reminding the kids to "look up!" because it was so hard to remember that many of the most fantastical things were actually above us.
We got to the Big Room and did the full 1.25 loop around it. 1.25 miles! to walk around the inside of a Cavern! It's incredible.
I cannot recommend Carlsbad more highly. There are even restrooms down below and then you can take an elevator the 71 stories back up (or walk back out, if you want to wind your way up again; that would be... hard. It was a very steep walk down; my legs are still killing me.)
The kids finished their Ranger Guides in the Visitor's Center and got sworn in as Junior Rangers. I love that program. I stamped our passport books; the Caverns have a beautiful stamp!
We made lunches in the car, eating PBJs made from the ingredients we packed in our cooler from home. We'd planned to make a picnic of it, but it was too windy outside and we really didn't mind some quiet car time. Fueled up, we drove out of the park (it takes about 7 windy, beautiful miles to go between the cave and the park entrance) and then out of New Mexico as we headed to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Salt Flat, Texas. Between the time change on Sunday morning and the crossing between CST and MST every time we crossed the Texas/New Mexico border, we really never knew what time it was.
Guadalupe Mountains is a national park I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of until I was planning this trip. Previously, I'd thought Big Bend was the only one we had. But nope, this lovely place is just 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns. Despite my lack of awareness, apparently everyone else in the world knows about it because the main Pine Springs Visitor's Center parking lot was full and we had to turn around. Five national parks and this was our first full parking lot. Luckily, you can park at Butterfield Station just 400 or so yards back and hike in to the Visitor's Center. Or drive on 7 miles to McKittrick Canyon Visitor's Center and do the hikes there.
But I'd already fallen in love with this Devil's Hall hike a bunch of people on Tripadvisor told me to do, so I was determined to make the Pine Springs Visitor's Center happen. We loaded up with water, sunscreen, hats (even me!), and the hiking backpack yet again and headed out. Devil's Hall was supposed to be 4.2 miles and we were only adding about half a mile with our offsite parking, and though my throat was still full of fire and my sinuses were increasingly full of cement, I was pretty sure this would be fine.
Except, turns out, the Visitor's Center is nearly 3/4 miles from the trail head. And we made a wrong turn or two on the hike... all together I think we hiked about 6 miles. Plus the 3 at Carlsbad. That was probably ill-advised.
But this little Bear never complained once! A first, as she usually prefers her daddy hold her for at least a mile or three on all hikes. She's growing up.
So is Landon, obviously. Every picture I see of him I'm shocked at how mature he looks. Who is this man child and where is my little Lanman?
After much trail walking, lots of rock climbing and hopping, and then even more rock hopping, we made it to the Hall!
It was super cool. Love the shale formations and striations and all the new opportunities for climbing.
Obviously, we did lots of that. And by "we," I mean James and the kids while I sat on the rocks and watched, wondering if I could make it home.
I did! And so did the kids and I'm really glad we stuck with the plan. It was great to hike with the kids again- I always get worried if we go too long between trips they'll forget how much they like it and how good they are at it. But confidence remained high. In the words of Landon, "I'm just a really good hiker mom." True.
And while I'd actually felt pretty good during the day, other than the fire throat, I felt thoroughly terrible by the time we started driving back to Carlsbad (past a time zone line AGAIN; my poor watch, but there are NO hotels near the Caverns or GMNP) and had to make James stop at the town's Walmart to buy all the medicines. We ate at a diner (the "No Whiner Diner" a name which thrilled me, even as I felt awful) and I counted down the minutes until everyone was done. Back at the hotel, I took a lot of medicine, hoping something would work, and tried to pass out. Nothing says "sickness recovery" like sharing a hotel room with four other people. I survived until morning and discovered the nearest Starbucks was 68 miles away and I was very sad. Also stuffy.
But even with my National-Park-induced illness, I deeply enjoyed the trip. It was the perfect length, we loved the Sand Hills (the kids each said tonight it was their favorite stop; though James and I both said the Caverns was ours and the kids agreed they were a CLOSE second, they just didn't have enough sliding), LOVED the Caverns, loved exploring a new mountain range. I just checked our credit card and for all meals, gas, entrance fees, gift shop purchases, and hotel suite fees, we spent precisely $527. Not bad for 3 days and a family of 5.
I've rounded up some facts I found helpful or wish I'd known about each park. Let me know if you have any other questions! I'm mildly high on cold medicine right now, but there's a chance I'll know the answer!
Carlsbad Caverns NP
- Located about 30 minutes from Carlsbad; the Visitor's Center is another 7 miles once you pass the park entrance sign and the drive is quite beautiful.
- You must enter the Visitor's Center to pay your entrance fee; there are a number of amazing ranger-led hikes, all of which have minimum age ranges, none of which Cora met. That said, "just" doing the Natural Entrance tour and the walk around the Big Room blew our minds and we didn't not feel like we missed out at all.
- CCNP is the rare park with a restaurant in the Visitor's Center, so for once, you don't have to pack like it's the apocalypse before entering the park.
- ONLY water is allowed in the Caverns, to protect the formations and the bats; they are very strict about this (as they should be), so save yourself a walk back to your car and clear all snacks from your backpacks or hiking bags.
- Wear shoes with good tread's, it's wet in there (though the gravely cement walkway keeps things from being too slippery).
- The caves are a constant 56 degrees year-round; I wore pants, a tank, and a thin GapFit long sleeve shirt. I also wore a jacket that I was thankful for for about 5 minutes and then took off and wished I'd left in the car. It's also really humid. 56 degrees and humid was a new combo for me. I'd straightened my hair before we left, but it was a mass of curls when we came back up.
- Bring flashlights for the kids. The Caverns are decently and artistically lit, but the kids loved having their flashlights to wave around and investigate formations further.
- There are tons of places you can stop and sit and rest along the way, all creatively built into the walkways. They've really done an incredible job with the whole set up.
- The Visitor's Center opens at 8 a.m.; the caverns open at 8:30. We arrived at 8:20 and it was perfect- we had our tickets in hand right when the Caverns opened.
- We found a morning to be sufficient, but if you had more time in your schedule, there are some above-ground hikes around the Visitor's Center and we could definitely have spent more time in the Visitor's Center itself. Someday I'd also love to do one of the Ranger-led tours of the other rooms, like King's Palace or Spider Cave, that we didn't get to see.
- Don't forget to get your Junior Ranger packet to participate in the awesome (and free!) junior ranger program!
Guadalupe Mountains NP
Salt Flat, TX
- Located above 30 minutes from Carlsbad Caverns NP, nearly an hour away from Carlsbad, NM. You cross back into Texas between the two and lose an hour. The Visitor's Center closes at 4:30 and the time-jumping can affect your kids' ability to turn in their Junior Ranger packets...
- Back to traditional park rules- there is no food. There IS a water fountain and pretty decent bathrooms. There are also bathrooms at the trail head for Devil's Hall and Guadalupe Peak. There are also parking spots and I wish to god we'd gotten one because it would have cut nearly 2 miles off our hike.'
- Butterfield Station is a few minutes before you get to the Visitor's Center and is a great alternative parking spot if the Center is full; there is a marked gravel path you can walk to get there.
- The mountains are really lovely. Not as imposing as the Rockies, but majestic in their own way and full of white limestone rocks the kids greatly enjoyed climbing.
- There is VERY little shade.
- Devil's Hall is the shortest hike off the Pine Springs Visitor's Center. It says it is 4.2 miles, and that is probably true from the trailhead, you have to walk about 3/4 mile from the Visitor's Center to get the to trailhead (follow the directions to the "camp ground," walk past all the campers, and then there's a new set of buildings with a bathroom and signs for the trails). There is NO sign at the Visitor's Center with directions to the trails. Just camping. We walked back and forth many times looking for it.
- If you do Devil's Hall wear the best hiking boots you have; you walk over about 3 miles of empty river bed, full of rocks of all sizes. The ground is very mobile and very uneven. Both big kids rolled their ankles multiple times. (They were fine, but it was the first time I wished I'd bought them real hiking boots instead of them just wearing their low-ankle running shoes.)
We stayed at the Comfort Suites in Carlsbad. They were about 3 miles further out than some of the other hotels, but the rooms are quiet large, with a sitting area sectional that can be converted to a bed, a mini fridge, microwave, and large bathroom. Even sick, it was genuinely comfortable for our family. Everything looked new, the bedding was really comfortable, and the freebies in the lobby were excellent- popcorn, tea, and coffee all day, cookies in the evening, and a solid buffet breakfast. We'd stay there again.
- Breakfasts: we ate the free buffet in the hotel each morning.
- Lunch: we made our lunches from the items we'd packed from home, though Carlsbad Caverns did actually have a cafe.
- Dinner: (1) Danny's Place- bbq, comfort food. Pretty good, very cheap, no alcohol. The bbq turkey was actually really good. (2) No Whiner Diner- American/comfort food. Solid, cheap, again, no alcohol.
James noted on night 2 that he wasn't sure he could stay more than 2 days because the food was all too similar. The kids were very pleased with getting to eat chicken nuggets and mini corndogs for two days, and I couldn't taste anything anyway. There is a taco truck that is supposed to be amazing, but by the time I was sick it didn't sound good and the first night we wanted a place we could sit inside, but you should all try it! We saw people at GMNP who had packed theirs to go to eat for lunch and that seemed like a brilliant idea.
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