As we approach what is normally considered the “off season” for camping and tourist destinations I thought I would share my experience of visiting Carlsbad New Mexico and Carlsbad Caverns National Park in March 2022, as precautionary tale for anyone who, like me, thinks it would be better to go when there are less people. While there were definitely less people at the national park, there were a lot of other considerations that would make me think twice about visiting at that time again.
Let me be clear, I have nothing against Carlsbad, but they are definitely set up as a summer, tourist destination. Most things are closed or have very limited hours during winter months, including some restaurants. There were a lot of people in the town and campgrounds, but they were workers for the nearby oil drilling operations, so while there were things open, they were catering more to that crowd. There were places to eat but mainly fast food or food trucks and they were very busy with workers at typical mealtimes, usually sitting with their loud, fume emitting, diesel trucks running in the parking lot the whole time.
Overall, we had a good time because I was working during the day, and luckily was in the T@B by then so we had everything we needed, but if you are just visiting you are going to struggle to find a week’s worth of things to do during the winter. Also, you need to be truly prepared for winter camping because it gets below freezing for long periods of time at night. I bought an electric water hose just for this trip and I was very glad I did. Bella had her jacket, but she was not a fan of going outside at night.
One place I would recommend, that we spent most of our time, is the Pecos River Walk. It is a 4.6 mile loop that goes along each side of the Pecos River, with multiple bridges across. It is open all year round but there were many attractions, like amusement park rides, a beach and water park activities that were closed. It also looked like there were places where food trucks would probably be during busy months.
There were still activities open that attracted locals, like the biggest playground I have ever seen, a skate park, a rec center with basketball courts and picnic tables. Even though none of those were things I was interested in, it still made for a dog friendly, evening walk. We went multiple evenings and saw some nice sunsets. I can imagine that when the grass is green it is a beautiful place to hang out. Bella’s only issue was the floating bridge but as you can see below, by the 3rd crossing you got the hang of it.
I ended up going to the National Park twice, but still not as much as I would have liked to because the caves close at 5:00 pm and the latest time they let you enter is 2:15. Also, the National Park is a 45-minute drive from the town of Carlsbad, which limited my time. There are campgrounds closer to the park but cell coverage becomes more unreliable out there and I needed better coverage to work.
There are two ways to enter the caves. You can take an elevator down and back up, or you can hike down and take the elevator out. There were many people asking about hiking out and they really don’t want you to do that. The only way it’s possible is to hike in, then go back up before going into the rooms, even then there are rangers all along the path making sure everyone has time to get down and out by 5:00 pm.
On my first visit I took the elevator because I got there late in the day. I also did not take my tripod because I assumed they would not allow it because a lot of National Park areas with enclosed spaces do not, but they are allowed. I did try to take some pictures using a high ISO to keep from having to use a super slow shutter speed and they turned out Ok, but the ones I am posting here, from later in the week with a tripod, are much better.
When I was able to go back the end of the week I hiked in, an experience I would highly recommend. As you can see from the sign below, you go down almost the depth of the Empire State Building. Even before you make it to the stalagmites and stalactites that Carlsbad Caverns is famous for, the cave is still enormous and amazing. I have tried to take pictures that show the walkways and railings to give perspective of how large these caves are. Although I took a lot of time, it was not a hard hike. Most of the path is a gentle slope down and has hand rails. I took my time to get a lot of pictures but I had rangers following me down making a big deal about how long I was taking.
From the top entrance the descent looks pretty steep but you don’t feel it a lot because you make a lot of turns back and forth, so you don’t do much looking straight down. There is a section right before you loose the view of the outside that is a spectacular look back up and I happened to hit it just as the sun was shining through the opening, for the shot below.
Once you make it to the bottom there are multiple “rooms” as they call them that you can tour. The total distance of the dedicated path to tour them all is an additional 1.25 miles. This trail is called the “Big Room Trail” because it takes you to the biggest room of the cave system, but there are a lot of interesting smaller rooms, narrow passageways and formations along the entire path.
Note that the glowing look in all my pictures comes from the many artificial lights that are found all along the path. One of the most interesting parts of the experience was being the last person out on my second trip. As I made my way to the elevator a ranger followed behind me turning off the lights and I got a sense of just how dark it would be without them.
As a National Park destination, I would recommend that everyone visit Carlsbad Caverns at least once. The vastness and other world feeling you get from the caves is something that can’t be captured in pictures. I would just not plan on spending a lot of time in the area if it’s not tourist season.