Larry Henderson, now 83, spent a lifetime working in the national park system. Starting just after college, his career included eight years as park manager at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southeastern New Mexico. He finished in 1998, after eight years as park superintendent at the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The two parks lie within 45-minute drives of Carlsbad. Since his retirement, Henderson has slowed down—albeit just a bit.
At Carlsbad Caverns, I managed the day-to-day operations of the cave system. Shortly after I arrived, we began exploring Lechuguilla Cave, one of the park's 119 known caves. There was just a big pile of broken rubble, and a huge wind that whipped through there. We knew there was a lot of cave to be found. In 1984, the first team began digging through the rubble. By the end of my time there, they had discovered 30 miles of cave. [Since then, explorers have mapped more than 145 miles of passages and measured Lechuguilla as one of the 10 longest caves in the world.]
I encourage visitors to the park to go down to the Big Room through the Natural Entrance, if they can. If they don’t, they miss so much in terms of the difference between the section of cave you see before you arrive at the Big Room itself. The Big Room is spectacular with high ceilings and rooms off to the side. It’s one of the best decorated and most accessible caves in the world.
If visitors want to do more exploring, they can join guided tours of the scenic rooms, like King’s Palace or the Lower Cave. That one requires climbing down 60 feet of ladders and using a knotted rope to hang onto while walking down a slope. You wear a hard hat. I like to peek into the little side passages there—the floors of them are covered with bat bones. It’s a whole different environment than the Big Room.
Above ground, the park has 30 miles of hiking trails. There’s a great trail, North Slaughter Canyon Trail, where you can see spring wildflowers. There are also backcountry caves that are accessible to people with spelunking skills. Most require you to drop in with rope access. Some of the backcountry trails connect to forest service trails and then into Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where there’s 80 miles of trails.
I was at Guadalupe from 1990 to 1998. It’s a great park with lots of hidden gems. It has a large field of white gypsum dunes that spreads over 2,000 acres on the west side of the park. It’s the third largest gypsum dune field in the world, behind only White Sands National Park and a field in Mexico. The dunes there can be 75 feet tall. Next to this field lies pink quartz dunes. It’s pretty spectacular to see the fields together.
Guadalupe Peak is one of the best hikes in the park, most of which is in Texas. It’s an 8.5-mile round trip up Texas’s tallest peak. From the top you can look out on the whole area, from the salt flats that created the dunes down to the historic Williams Ranch house below. In the spring, winds can blow 85 miles an hour up there. On one hike, I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl around one of the turns or I would have been blown off the trail. Guadalupe has a lot of good trails that take you down into the desert or up into the tall timber.
After my retirement, we moved to Carlsbad. We still go out to the parks quite a bit. However, these days, we’ll often take a drive after church on Sunday along Walnut Canyon Drive at Carlsbad Caverns and have a picnic. I’m hoping I have one more ascent of Guadalupe Peak in me before I kick the bucket.