I have somehow been eaten 11 times. Nothing like a 4am wake up call with the most itchy legs ever and scratching the tops off your bites to stop them itching! I have lots of little itchy bites. Nathan has a couple of big ones! No idea where they came from unless it was whilst we were locked out in the pool area last night the mozzies descending on our flesh…

This morning consisted of another surprisingly awesome venture to a place called Carlsbad Caverns, about 30 miles away from our hotel. We arrived and were able to use our America The Beautiful Annual Pass to gain us free entry for the self guided tour, saving us $20! This cavern tour was going to be different from the others we have done because a) it didn’t involve going down in an escalator, b) we were entering through the natural entrance and c) we dint have a ranger guiding us. The cavern formed about 250 million years ago with a horseshoe shaped reef, 400 miles long formed from the remains of algae and seashells as well as calcite dropping from the water. As the reef rose, cracks began to form and as the sea evaporated the reef became buried under salt deposits and gypsum. 

A few million years ago erosion and uplift (which would turn into the Guadalupe mountains) of the area began to uncover the reef. Rainwater dripped down through the cracks in the limestone and water full of hydrogen sulphide went upwards and as the two waters mixed, the sulphuric acid dissolved the limestone and resulted in the large chambers we are able to see today. 

The cavern is full of stalagmites, stalactites, draperies, popcorn, soda straws, columns and a whole host of amazing formations. Whilst we have seen these in the Mammoth cave and also the Jewel cave, this was on a whole different level. As we exited the visitor centre we were greeted by a ranger telling us the usual rules of no food or drink, stick to the path and there’s no toilets for about an hour. Then we headed down to the natural entrance. There was an amphitheater outside it where you can watch the bats at night swarm out of the cave and then re-enter before dropping down into bat cave to sleep until the following night. 

We began our descent down the steep winding path. There was a distinct birdcage-like smell as we descended and the roof was full of little holes where I imagine bats would hide. As we got to 200 feet below the surface we hit bat cave which is where all the bats hide in the ceiling during the day. At this point in the cave it was still relatively light.The natural entranceDevils Den

At 500 feet below the surface we hit Devils Den and the light suddenly diminished. All we had to guide our way were the lights that were protruding onto some of the formations. It took a while for our eyes to adjust but it was incredible. The sheer vastness of this cavern, especially compared to those we had seen before was huge! 

Whales mouth

We were still descending, meandering down steep paths past the witches finger and iceberg rock which is a 200,000 tonne rock that fell from the ceiling many thousands of years ago.Witches finger Iceberg rock

We rounded past green lake room which looked like a treasure chest of stalactites. It was beautiful. There is a guided tour that goes off into the kings palace from here but we kept walking to the boneyard. You had an option to do a short loop by the hall of giants but we chose to do the whole cavern. It was about three miles in total. The green lake roomThe green lake room

Next up was the big room which was full of beautiful formations. Everywhere you looked stalactites hung from the ceiling. There were several pools of water throughout this cavern including mirror lake. The water was so clear because it had been almost purified as it took hundreds or more years to reach this part of the cave. Mirror lakeThe bottomless pit fell 140 feet under where we were standing and was pitch black. I felt sorry for whoever had to abseil down to find that out! The route meandered back round by the rock of ages and the painted grotto before passing through the Jim White tunnel on the way to the elevators to take you back to the surface. Jim White was a cowboy who became fascinated with the cave in the 1800s and spent a lot of time exploring it. He was desperate to show what natural wonders this cave had yet no one believed him. He had to take countless photos to eventually gain people’s intrigue. He eventually began to lead people on a 170 foot descent down in a bucket! It was in 1923 Carlsbad Cavern was made a national monument and Jim was the chief ranger. A ladder descends 90 feet into the lower cave. It’s how explorations used to take place in the early 1900sThe boneyardRock of agesThe giants

As we reached the elevator, at 755 feet below the surface the ranger called the lift and we began our ascent out of this truly wonderful natural beautiful place. It is definitely the best cave we have seen so far! Every room was different. The formations, while the same were also different. Some were huge some were small. The fact we were navigating our way around with minimal lighting in the eerie silence of the cave was mesmerising. Nothing except the hushed whispers of people in the distance. Epic.

Our next stop was to be White Sands National Monument which was a three hour drive north east. It was a drive through a whole lot of nothing. And I mean nothing. It looked like we were in the desert it was so arid. Whilst you could see for miles, the ground was flat and if there were any buildings they didn’t grow past one storey. All of a sudden we hit Lincoln forest and slowly began to climb up to an elevation of 8600 feet. The roads were winding and the mountains/hills were adorned with green trees and towns scattered here and there. They would have to drive for miles to fill up with gas or go and buy groceries as again, whilst there were towns with schools and ranches and the odd general store, that’s about all there was.

As we hit the highest elevation we began descending down the 6% gradient. At one point I thought I could see the sea in the distance. The rocks as we descended were rugged and distinctive.we even had snowfall lining the side of the roads! The temperature had dropped from 87 degrees to 54 degrees but I still can’t see it being cold enough for snow, but clearly it had been! Eventually we hit civilisation. Fuel for the car and for us before completing the last twenty miles. 

We were able to use our passes again at White Sands National Monument so we saved another $10 and have now recouped the cost of the pass so it is definitely worth doing! White Sands formed when the Permian sea retreated millions of years ago leaving behind deep layers of gypsum. Mountains grew and took with it the gypsum. As the glaciers melted, they dissolved the mineral and returned it to the basin. The steady incredibly strong southwest winds keep the gypsum moving and piling it up resulting in many dunes in all different shapes and sizes. The water below the surface of the dunes is what keeps it from blowing away. They are situated over the Chihuahuan Desert and span 275 square miles making the, the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. 

The first atomic bomb was tested 100 miles north of the Monument back in 1945! We have been unable to escape the storms and this is the sixth day in a row now that we have encountered heavy rain strong winds and lightning. We walked along the 600m boardwalk with the dunes a gleaming white against the stormy sky behind. You could even rent sleds to go down the dunes on and there were lots of kids doing it!Then we continued the scenic loop before pulling in, taking our shoes and socks off and climbing to the top of the dunes. It was harder than we thought as it gets deep towards the top and the wind is so strong it is pelting sand particles at you. I fell to my knees at the top 😂. We walked along the dune and then it was hard to determine where it ended and before we knew it we were descending into another one. The white colour was very confusing but was glistening against the backdrop grey sky.It looked like we were in the mountains or on a never ending white sandy beach. The sand got everywhere. I don’t think we have ever encountered winds so strong as on the dunes.

We returned to the car and began heading to our motel near the Arizona border. The plan is to head towards Las Vegas then work our way back east before heading north. It seems more logical zigzagging east to west than it does north to south. It would be nice to have some sunshine though so we can camp in these wonderful areas! As we were driving along the I-10 we had to venture through border control. It didn’t seem like anyone had a choice and they were checking everyone. It only took a second and we were back not speeding along the highway with Nathan at the helm chewing a toothpick like he is some sort of cowboy…#wheninrome and all that…

Until tomorrow…