Guadalupe and Carlsbad Caverns: It’s what’s inside that counts

Natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns is a national park many have heard of, as it’s famed for beautiful limestone cave formations and the underground fantasy world they create. Guadalupe? I never heard of it. It’s claim to fame is hosting the highest mountain in … Texas. And while it is striking to see any peaks in the barren desert and mild slopes in this corner of Texas, I wasn’t sure it justified us spending a week of dry-camping in a parking lot. (Indeed, the campsite for RVs is a parking lot, and the heat brought out all the loudest generators in Texas.) While I don’t have a favorite park, it’s a running joke between S and I that I have a least favorite.

Guadalupe National Park aka Tip of the Permian Reef

Carlsbad Caverns on the other hand…  Cave exploration there requires reservations for ranger guided tours, which fill up fast (hint: reserve very early), so we had just one day to explore underground.  Much to our dismay, for time seems immaterial in that underground realm, and the hours slipped away too fast. The world below was almost unreal in its spectacular beauty of pale delicate speleothems, moist rooms crammed with spindly stalactites and fragile draperies.

King’s Palace magic

We were blown away – perhaps even more so  because the cool fairy-kingdom depths of the caverns contrasted so strongly to our week’s exposure to the white hot sunlight and coarse rocky landscapes of the hills above.

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That contrast was the saving grace for me about our time in Guadalupe. It turns out the mountains of Guadalupe are made up of the same ancient sea reef as are the caves of Carlsbad. Once upon a time that whole area of Western Texas and Southern New Mexico was a warm shallow sea (much like the Florida Everglades we’re told), and as ancient sea creatures lived and died, their organic material created a giant limestone reef that over a long, long time created both the highest mountain in Texas and underneath, the most lovely of all cave systems in America.

Hiking around the Guadalupe mountains, where there isn’t a hint of the caves below.

The science of how all this came about is best explained by experts, but seeing the shocking visual contrast between these two parks while learning how the same ancient acts of nature created them, was one of the best geology lessons so far this year.  That, and relearning the adage to never judge a book by it’s cover – because for all my mocking of Guadalupe’s lack of charm, my day wander about the depths of Carlsbad Caverns was about as magical as any day I’ve ever spent.

Old ranch on the west side of the reef. The first bride to be welcomed there ran off after just one day in this barren land.

As a suggestion to the park service, why not just merge these two into one giant park, naming it the Permian Reef and protecting a larger area as one united and interconnected system? Carlsbad is known more for it’s beauty than its size, but the more recently discovered Lechuguilla Cave is rumored to be the 3rd longest in the US, 5th longest in the world, and as the largest limestone cave, is bound to be full of the delicate formations and beauty of Carlsbad. Who knows, it may just be directly underneath that parking lot we were so fond of…

Some hidden spots of beauty in Guadalupe.

The scientific importance of this type of cave system alone is worth protection, and while the cave boundaries are unclear and being mapped out, it is clear that there are numerous oil fields and drilling happening above.  If other underground treasures like this exist in the vast ancient Permian Reef seabed, and are to be preserved for future exploration, the land above needs some love and protection as well.

Enjoying a rest at McKittrick, a river valley retreat that is supposedly the most beautiful spot in Texas in the Autumn. I’ll admit that it was very lovely, and there’s nothing like a nap in rocking chairs.


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