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See Spectacular Carlsbad Caverns -- If You're Fit

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By Steve Bergsman

For a long time I had wanted to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but even though my home state of Arizona borders New Mexico, I had never made the trip until this winter. It was worth the wait.

I've done a number of cave excursions, including Kartchner Caverns in southern Arizona, but nothing prepares you for Carlsbad, which is humongous. I spent four hours in the caverns, and I'm sure I saw less than 50 percent of the total underground chambers.

The good thing about visiting Carlsbad is that you can do the whole cave on your own; you don't have to be with a guide or a ranger. There are audio programs you can take with you if you want to hear what a ranger would tell you about the cave if he or she were walking alongside.

As of 2015, Carlsbad Caverns has also become a real workout. Don't even try to do a visit unless you are in reasonably good health. Here's what's going on: The elevator is not functioning, which means not only do you have to hike down, but you have to hike up as well. This is a very long, steep walk as you decline into the bowels of the earth 75 stories.

With the elevator no longer functioning, a ranger stands before the entrance and warns everyone about the hazards of visiting the cave: that it will take about 45 minutes to walk down (1.25 miles), the full "Big Room" walkabout is 1.25 miles and will take about 1.5 hours, and that you need to allot anywhere from one to two hours to hike back up to the entrance.

My wife researched this before we arrived. We knew the elevator was not in working order and that we were in for a long day. We brought a backpack with a couple of bottles of water and some energy bars (which we could only eat in the rest area), and we changed into sturdy hiking boots before we began our walk. The only thing we got wrong was that we overdressed. It's very cool in the cave — a steady, mid-50 degrees — and you can feel chilled if you don't dress properly. We put on one too many layers of clothing and worked up a good sweat. It didn't help that we were rarely hiking on flat ground for any period of time. The paths are well-defined with a kind of rough gravel pavement, so you don't have to climb over any boulders or kick rocks out of your path.

The good part about the elevator being out of order is that there were no tours and no buses disgorging hundreds of tourists at one time. For lengthy periods of time on the descent we saw no one else in the cave, so it was kind of eerie.

Not everyone did the research, however. Hours later, as we were slowly making our way back up to the entrance, we passed a number of innocents coming down. I felt bad for them because so many were out of shape, unprepared or with young children who would probably have to be carried on the way back up.

There is a rest area with a snack bar and gift shop in the heart of the cave just before the entrance to the Big Room trail. Here you can also find the only restrooms. I strongly suggest making a pit stop before the walk back up to the entrance.

Also, grab a sandwich because you'll be burning some serious carbs on the way back to the entrance.

If I haven't spent a lot of time talking about the rock formations, it's because at four hours underground you'll see everything you've ever wanted to see in a cave except on a grander scale. The Big Room is the size of 6.2 football fields. There are drip pools, "bottomless pits," domes, holes, caverns and more caverns. Put this trip on your bucket list.

Carlsbad Caverns, located in southeastern New Mexico, is not near any major city except El Paso, Texas. Even coming from my home in Mesa, it was a long journey. You will need to stay over, but don't fret as there are hundreds of hotel rooms and more chain hotels being built every day. If you want a unique New Mexico experience I strongly suggest you make your way to Trinity Hotel in downtown Carlsbad.

Going back about 10 years ago, Dale Balzano and his son decided to take a historic bank building that was facing a dicey future and restore it into a bar-restaurant with nine hotel rooms mostly on the second floor. The building dated back to the 1800s and was so old that Sheriff Pat Garrett, after shooting Billy the Kid, ended up taking a job with the bank in this building. Tall, a crack shot and as mean as a rattlesnake, Garrett became a kind of enforcer. If you borrowed from the bank and didn't pay back your loans, you got a visit from Garrett, the last person you wanted to see.

The rooms are comfortable with large, modern bathrooms (the design is similar to that of the Bellagio in Las Vegas). However, the most amazing thing about the Trinity Hotel is the restaurant. For many years it has been voted one of the top 10 eateries in New Mexico. Considering that almost all the other restaurants are in Santa Fe or Taos, that's saying something for Carlsbad. Balzano also owns a small winery, and the restaurant does wine-tasting in the afternoon. An extra bonus: When you stay at the hotel you get free continental breakfast with coffee and pastry.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and find someone chatting to you about things you know nothing about, don't be alarmed. The building is supposedly haunted by two ghosts, but like Caspar, they are the friendly type. Just say hello and go back to sleep. It's not the ghost of Pat Garrett.

WHEN YOU GO

The nearest big city is El Paso, and even that is a two-hour drive away. Albuquerque is twice the drive time. The best idea is to tour picturesque south-central New Mexico with Carlsbad as part of the journey.

This is a national park. Expect to spend hours in the cave with the elevator not working. Prepare for it as you would for a long hike: www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm

Plenty of chain hotels are in the city of Carlsbad, but for a historic stay, try the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant. The food is great: www.thetrinityhotel.com.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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