Connecting Texas and New Mexico
Riding tonight I sense a change in hoofbeats as my horse moves through the desert. A hollowness unfelt before.
As I contemplate the consistency of his steps, a barn owl rises from a jagged hole of white strata. Layer on layer of rock descending into the earth. Soaring to the sky, his soft and fluffy underside match the crystal of gypsum blocks scattered around us.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is primarily known for what lurks beneath the surface. Along the Chihuahuan Desert of far west Texas and southeastern New Mexico hide over 300 known underground caves, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone of the great Capitan fossil reef. And and at least 120 caves of which, including the famous Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave, lie within the National Park boundary.
Inside the cavern you are asked to whisper, but it would be disrespectful not to and the request is unneeded. Stalagmites like cotton candy cupcakes stacked one atop another, icicles hanging from the cave ceiling. Giant tinsel around the tree. A drop of water lands on my head. It’s harder to breath here, humid and damp. The artwork surpasses any mid-evil or gothic church, and there is an unspoken holiness to it all.
The water table at Carlsbad is 1600 feet below the surface, the deepest explored area at approximately 1,300 feet – indicating there is still more. Lechuguilla Cave, with over 140 miles of mapped passages and a depth of 1,604 feet, is even today limited to research and exploration.
My visit to the cavern was brief, however. I’m eager to ride the Guadalupe Ridge Trail. My first taste of a thru trail, in any form.
Designated a National Recreation Trail in 2018, the Guadalupe Ridge Trail connects two National Parks via 100 miles of phenomenal Chihuahuan Desert views. Starting at the highest point in Texas (Guadalupe Peak, 8751’ above sea level) and ending with the final twenty-one miles in Carlsbad Caverns.
The trail crosses Lincoln National Forest, Sitting Bull Falls, and Bureau of Land Management property along the way. Most don’t know it’s there.
From the Carlsbad end, I ride through what appears to be prairie at first. A desert in hiding. Small junipers interspersed with yucca; it reminds me of the Texas Hill Country. The wind near constant, a high of only 75 degrees. Still, I keep my eyes open for rattlesnakes. Knowing the season is coming. And within the first mile, hidden in the brush six feet off the trail, we are greeted by the ominous hello of a rattler.
With every ridge there is another. Nothing but scrub brush and cactus surrounding us. The ground now dry, a burnt red and brown. In the distance, colors blend like a watercolor, yet nearby a golden flower peaks through the rock. A bright spot along the rust.
We break and I sit enjoying the view and sun on my face. Knowing I am likely the only human within thousands of acres. Certainly, the only one I can see.
Replacing my horse’s bridle, he drops his head down for a long scratch. I lean back as we begin our return. Letting him find his feet and take us down safely. This horse takes care of me, sometimes more than I do him I think.
He’s learned to navigate these rocks. Knowing which he will slip on, which he will not. Huffing and puffing, clearing his nostrils as he goes. Back through the gate, sun now warm and wind calm. The sky seamless. Quail and other birds abound here, and we startle now and then riding through their territory. My heels sit deep in the stirrups.
And I exhale. Knowing the worthiest of trails are not always the easiest to find. Sometimes hidden by the world around us.
A fly lands on my arm, sleeves now pushed up over my shoulders. I brush it away. I look down to see the shadow of my horse crossed by that of a raven circling above. Dog trailing behind, panting. I stop and pour water for her. Horse waiting beside me patiently. And in this moment, I pause – living the bond between the three of us.
Dusty and worn from the ride, coated in dirt and sunscreen.
Yet here, I lose track of time. I forget what day it is, and within four hours on the trail I am completely transported… found and then lost again.
Note: The drive to GRT in Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a relatively narrow road with switchbacks, small trailers only. Call and/or check in at the information desk first.