Jane and I woke up on Saturday morning in Roswell, NM to slate gray skies. We planned to spend the morning exploring Carlsbad Caverns, so rain would not impact our agenda. We reserved a campsite at Rio Grande Village in the southeast corner of Big Bend National Park for Saturday night, so we could only afford to spend three or four hours at Carlsbad Caverns.
By the time we pulled into the visitor center a steady rain was falling from the overcast sky, and we welcomed the shelter of the visitor center and the cave. Since we had limited time, we elected to take the elevator 750 feet below the surface to the level of the Big Room, and there we followed the well marked path that circled the floor of the the cavern with stops at all the well known formations. We rented an audio tour guide and stopped at each numbered station to listen to the narration. In our opinion the lighting was well done as the best formations were spotlighted in a subtle way, but we never felt like the lighting overwhelmed the pervading sense of being in a dark underground environment. I snapped quite a few photos of stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, columns and subterranean ponds. Visiting a large cave was certainly very different from our many other experiences with national parks.
Park rangers roamed the Big Room and made themselves available for questions. At one stop we approached a young lady wearing the national park uniform and asked her if the natural air was supplemented with oxygen. She replied that it was all natural and then mentioned that it takes 18 hours for air to move from the entrance to the Big Room. I was curious how she knew that, so she went on to explain that she has a very acute sense of smell, and the park service recently executed a controlled burn just outside the entrance. Her super sensitive olfactory gland enabled her to smell traces of smoke in the Big Room 18 hours after the smoke from the burn was created. I suggested that she could get a job working for a perfume company, but she stressed to us her love for Carlsbad Caverns, and her desire to remain an employee of the national park service.
There are two ways to enter the Big Room, and we chose the quickest and easiest route by taking the elevator. With some time remaining before our scheduled departure, we decided to try the walk-in approach. As we left the visitor center, we realized that the rain continued and in fact was heavier than when we arrived. The hike from the visitor center to the gate to the walking entrance was longer than we expected, and the rain was beginning to soak into our coats. A park ranger was standing under a canopy with a group of visitors, and he hooked a chain across the trail just before we arrived. We were left standing in the rain while he delivered the safety speech to the group under the small shelter, so Jane exercised some initiative and unhooked the chain. This prompted an instant reprimand from the young ranger, Ross, but Jane replied that we were simply trying to stay dry, and he relented and allowed us to join the gathering.
After the safety speech was completed, Ross opened the next chain gate, and we along with the herd of visitors began the switchback descent to the cave entrance. The steep path to the dark entrance was interesting, but we quickly discovered that the .8 mile walk to the Big Room was largely devoid of interest since we had already seen the more spectacular attractions and formations. We essentially power walked the narrow path until we once again reached the base of the elevator, and then we ascended to the visitor center and left Carlsbad Caverns.
The rain continued as we returned to the town of Carlsbad and then turned on to route 285 and continued south through southern New Mexico and then into west Texas. The stretch of highway from the New Mexico border to the northern entrance to Big Bend National Park was two lanes, and it would be an understatement to call the terrain desolate. The land was relatively flat with sparse vegetation, and oil pumps, piping and gas reservoirs dotted the landscape. Every mile or so a dirt side road branched to the east and west, and we were constantly behind large slow moving oil field services vehicles. The frequent traffic that moved from the side roads to the paved two lane highway tracked dirt on the asphalt, and the steady rain of Saturday converted this coating to mud. The oil industry vehicles splashed spray from their over-sized tires and generated a steady wall of muddy water on to our windshield. I counted at least three occasions when a pebble or small piece of gravel catapulted from one of the muddy trailers and struck our windshield creating yet more chips that eventually grow into cracks.
It was a miserable drive, and the rain intensified as we moved south. We attempted to stop for lunch in Pecos, but the establishments were rather basic so we moved on until we found a Subway sandwich outlet at a truck stop. Pecos and Fort Stockton were clearly oil and gas outposts, and the truck stop was populated with numerous oil field workers attired in one piece uniforms. Apparently the trucking hub also served as a locker room for the workers, and a voice periodically announced that shower number 60 was available for John or Rex or Javier.
Finally after some tense driving through heavy rain, we reached the northern Persimmon Gap entrance to Big Bend National Park. By now the sky was clearing, and we were dazzled by a huge rainbow in the eastern sky. The northern segment of Big Bend was clearly a desert as a variety of cactus plants covered the barren earth. I’m sure we were rare visitors that saw the landscape after heavy rain, and we crossed many gullies that were normally dry washes, but on this day a muddy torrent of water rushed downhill to join the Rio Grande River.
As we traveled closer to Rio Grande Village the dark clouds that shrouded the mountains to the east disappeared, and we were treated to spectacular views of the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. These tall rock mountains were distinguished by alternating layers of blue-gray and white rock. At last we entered the Rio Grande Campground and skirted the perimeter until we found campsite number 25 which was situated along the outside road near the trailhead for the nature trail. Huge muddy puddles of water swamped many of the campsites along with mounds of small hail balls, but much to our amazement, we selected a campsite that was devoid of accumulated water.
We quickly read the javalina warning that was affixed to our picnic table and then unpacked the Santa Fe and set up our tent. Saturday evening was quite cool and wet, but we prepared a quick meal and then kicked back and rested after a long eventful journey.We both anticipated warm dry weather for Sunday, and anxiously awaited the opportunity to explore this vast remote national park on the southern border of the United States.