Southeast New Mexico – Big Caves, Big Desert, Big Oil


BIG CAVES – Carlsbad Caverns National Park was our destination attraction, and indeed, it’s huge and impossible (for me) to convey through photos, but of course I gave it a shot.

BIG DESERT – The caverns are located within the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, which covers nearly 250,000 square miles in the U.S. and Mexico. It’s the largest desert in North America.

BIG OIL – Evidence of oil and gas drilling is everywhere in southeast New Mexico. Eddy County, home to Carlsbad the town and Carlsbad Caverns NP, currently ranks seventh largest in the nation based on barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) production. And there is a giant oil refinery in the county as well, all of which was conveniently omitted from our New Mexico travel guidebook.

Big caves . . . big desert . . . big oil – stay tuned for more.

The five-hour drive from Nambé to Carlsbad (the town) was largely unremarkable (i.e., boring), with the occasional distraction that warranted a glance or two. The terrain was flatter and drier than we expected, and towns, people and especially rest stops were scarce.

The most interesting visual image during the drive was hundreds of commercial jetliners (around 500 as of October 2020, according to the Roswell Daily Record) parked at the airport in Roswell. Runner up in the “Things to See” category was the number of large orchards, which we concluded must be pecan trees.

We stayed a week in Carlsbad and visited the Caverns on our first full day. Designated a national monument in 1923, a national park in 1930 and a World Heritage Site in 1995, the park includes over 45,000 acres and 100+ caves.

The 8.2-acre “Big Room” – the park’s most popular attraction – has instituted a timed reservation system to limit the number of visitors, so we were able to meander on the self-guided trail without being caught up in a mass of humanity.

I quickly learned that taking good photos requires specialized skills and equipment, both of which I lack, but it was fun to experiment. Here’s the best of the bunch. Click on any photo to enlarge.

I think the vertical shots are a little more dramatic.

In 1986, explorers at Carlsbad Caverns discovered the Lechuguilla Cave – an underground network of passages that extends a mind-boggling 140 miles! It’s the the eighth-longest explored cave in the world, and until 2014, it was the deepest known cave in the continental U.S. at 1,604 feet. (The title of deepest cave now belongs to Tears of the Turtle Cave in Montana.) Lechuguilla is only open to scientists and researchers.

We’re disappointed that we didn’t see more of the park’s attractions. In non-COVID times, park rangers lead guided tours through impressive formations not otherwise accessible to visitors. The 9.5-mile scenic drive through Walnut Canyon was closed because the road had washed out. And the renowned bat flight spectacle featuring hundreds of thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats exiting the cave at dusk for their nightly insect feast was a bust. As of Memorial Day weekend, only a fraction of the flying mammals had returned from their winter home in Mexico.

Nonetheless, our visit to Carlsbad Caverns was a winner. So glad we made the effort!

Four Facts about the Chihuahuan Desert

  1. The Chihuahuan Desert covers nearly 250,000 square miles – just a wee bit smaller than the whole of Texas. Only 10% lies within the U.S., and southern New Mexico sits at the very northern edge.
  2. This desert is a little different than others in the U.S., with colder winters and more precipitation. The wettest months occur during the summer monsoon season.
  3. Around 3,500 plant species grow in the Chihuahuan Desert, including nearly a quarter of the world’s cactus types. About 1,000 plant species grow only in this desert and nowhere else in the world. 
  4. Animals in the Chihuahuan Desert include 170 species of amphibians and reptiles, 400 types of birds, and 130 species of mammals, including mule deer, pronghorn, jaguars, mountain lions, Mexican wolves, javelinas, grey fox and two types of prairie dogs.

One thing I would tell my younger self is that there is more to a desert landscape than first meets the eye. The more we visit, the greater our level of appreciation for the beauty, diversity, richness and fragility of these special places. However, without the dramatic vegetation of the Sonoran Desert (e.g. saguaro cacti) and the Mojave Desert (e.g. Joshua trees), it wasn’t love at first sight for the Chihuahuan Desert.

Living Desert State Park in Carlsbad features a self-guided walking tour that takes visitors through four different Chihuahuan Desert habitats – sandhills, gypsum hills, desert uplands and piñon juniper. Here are a few photos from our visit to the park:

The landscape of the Ocotillo Trail, adjacent to the state park, features the ocotillo plant, a semi-succulent also native to the Chihuahuan Desert. During dry periods, the long stems are bare. Green leaves appear almost immediately after a rainstorm, followed by red blossoms at the tips a few days later. I love these plants!

And if you’re looking to build a new home . . .

Our final outing in the desert was a trip to Sitting Bull Falls, a series of spring-fed waterfalls about 150 feet tall. The rock canyon walls and relatively lush vegetation offered yet a different look at the diverse desert landscape.

We struck out trying to hike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which is located adjacent to Carlsbad Caverns but across the border in Texas. The reason? Closed because of a wildfire within the park.

Regarding the future of the Chihuahuan Desert, I ran across a sobering assessment from the National Park Service: The Chihuahuan Desert Ecoregion is one of the most endangered regions in the world. Overgrazing, water depletion and diversion, changes in the fire regime, urbanization, increases in agricultural and resource extraction activities, invasive exotic species, and overcollecting of native plants and animals are among the greatest threats to biodiversity in the Ecoregion.

More about the area’s resource extraction activities can be found in this National Geographic article published in February 2021. The piece provides an excellent discussion of the risks associated with the seemingly endless expansion of oil and gas drilling in the Carlsbad area, including threats to drinking water, air quality and cave/desert ecosystems. (You may need to provide your email address to access the full article, but it’s worth it.)

Carlsbad the Town

Carlsbad is a boom town, with total population approaching 31,000 and an annual growth rate of nearly 2%. Our quiet, cozy cottage was located within walking distance of everything we wanted to see in the city itself, including the trails on either side of the Pecos River and the Carlsbad Museum and Art Center.

The Riverwalk area is the crown jewel of Carlsbad, in my humble opinion.

Four miles of paved trails wind alongside the Pecos River, which runs through the east side of town. A large municipal park anchors each end of the Riverwalk, with plenty of green space and other recreational offerings in between.

It was Memorial Day, so I spent extra time at Carlsbad Veterans Memorial Park at the far end of the Riverwalk.

We also visited the outstanding Carlsbad Museum and Art Center, which was larger than we expected. It’s a combo history museum and art gallery with free admission, but donations are appreciated.

The history museum boasts four excellent exhibits: Pioneer Gallery, Anthropology Room, History Room and the Carlsbad Hall of Fame,.

The Carlsbad Hall of Fame came on-line about five years ago and now has 26 inductees, all with a personal connection to Carlsbad. Here’s a look at a few members:

And one more – Sgt. Alejandro Ruiz, a U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient honored for extreme bravery during the battle of Okinawa during World War II.

Most Carlsbad Hall of Famers are not household names, and we weren’t familiar with their stories prior to our visit, but the concept is a keeper. Suggestions are reviewed by a nominating committee, and new inductees are honored with a formal ceremony that recognizes their accomplishments. Here’s hoping that more communities adopt the idea!

Allow 2-3 hours for a visit to the Carlsbad Museum and Art Center – there’s much to see, and you won’t be disappointed.

Here are a few odds and ends from our time in the Carlsbad area:

Time to head home after a good week in Carlsbad. It’s not on everyone’s bucket list, but we enjoyed it!

Categories: New MexicoTags: , , , , , ,

4 comments

  1. Nice to get back ‘out there’ I bet.
    We have our first flight since 2/2019 today….somber..to Milwaukee.
    First of two funerals postponed due to Covid…sigh. Things are looking up though! We’re determined. Take care

    Like

    • It DOES feel good – we really missed traveling! Funerals aren’t fun, of course, but I’m sure it will be good to reconnect with the people who will be there. You take care also!

      Like

  2. Ahhh! I remember it all too well…the drive through the oil fields, that is. The rest is spectacular!

    Like

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