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National park in the Eddy County, New Mexico

The Guadalupe Mountains span the Texas / New Mexico border and rise to 8,749 feet high, in great contrast to the surrounding flat Chihuahuan Desert. There are two national parks within their range; Guadalupe Mountains (in Texas), featuring rocky peaks and varied wildlife scenic valleys, and Carlsbad Caverns, one of the world's oldest and most famous cave systems. The caverns are a full-day drive from any of the other major Southwest attractions, but well worth the long journey-they include several vast underground chambers, up to 250 feet high, filled with amazing formations of many colors and shapes.

A long straight road is a common feature of the Southwest, and one such route leads to the caverns; US 62/180 connecting Carlsbad to El Paso. The western stretches in Texas pass 100 miles of salt flats, sandy wasteland and grassy prairie before the forested Guadalupe Mountains slowly come into view, then the highway straightens out again after a steeper and more winding section, crossing more desert flats to Carlsbad. A collection of Western-style souvenir shops, restaurants and lodgings, known as White's City, including the last 130 miles westward gas station, marks the turn-off to the national park. A rather narrow and winding side road climbs for 7 miles through a shallow calcareous gorge (Walnut Canyon) which has attractive rocky scenery with particularly abundant Chihuahuan Desert plants like agaves and opuntia cacti. There is no campground in the park, and the only nearby official site is the rather expensive White's City establishment, although free primitive camping is possible along several dirt tracks heading east from US 62/180, a few miles south of the junction of the park. The park is set up to allow everyone a chance to see the vast interior with walkways installed and ambient lighting. I highly recommend walking all the way in down the natural entrance trail before walking around the Big Room. (You can do all this on your own without being in an official tour group.) If you're feeling extra brave, walk back out the natural entrance! You're climbing essentially an 80-story building. It is tough, but cave air is perfect for exertion, it's cool and damp all the time.


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