Drop by drop, in total darkness, the beautiful rock formations slowly took shape.

Dunes at the White Sands National Monument, (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Dunes at the White Sands National Monument,
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
The American state of New Mexico is usually off the radar for the Israeli traveler.
Perhaps it is too far or maybe it seems too empty and less interesting than better- known options. Here is a second opinion that just may have you reconsidering a visit to the state.
This desert state in the southwestern US, along with its hidden treasures, is ready and waiting to be explored. A couple of these treasures are located close to the border with Mexico. We rented a car and drove down from Santa Fe. After reaching Alamogordo and continuing a bit on Highway 70, we finally reached White Sands National Monument. The visitors’ center is recommended for a good introduction to the park and helps in planning your visit. However, from there it is hard to actually see what makes this destination a big deal.
We started on a loop road of 25 kilometers that took us into the heart of the park. After a short drive, you will see them: the white dunes shining in the sun. (While at the visitors’ center, remember to pick up a few plastic sleds for riding down the dunes later on, whether you have kids or not.) From afar, these seem a little different from most sand dunes. They look alien and disconnected from their surroundings, which is mountainous and sharp – in contrast to the mounds of white sand that somehow appeared there.
Once you climb on a dune and really feel it, it doesn’t behave as you would expect. The sand feels a bit sticky and does not pass through your fingers easily. It is white and surprisingly soft compared to the hard quartz particles of sand we normally feel.
The reason for this is that these dunes are not in fact comprised of sand at all. This huge area is made up of massive gypsum flakes that merely look like sand dunes. They are laid and structured by the wind, water and sun.
The White Sands story began more than 250 million years ago when layers of gypsum were deposited in the Tularosa Valley. Some 70 million years ago, the whole region was raised up in a major process that was also responsible for the geological elevation of the Rocky Mountains to the North. About 10 million years ago, the last stage of the process created the basin and thereby locked the gypsum in place until today. It created a closed system affected by the water and the wind that created these magnificent white sand dunes, the likes of which are not found anywhere else on earth.
When it is time to leave the bright white sand behind, we moved into the darkness of the magical caves and caverns of Carlsbad. These caves were discovered in 1898 by Jim White, a local cowboy, who was looking for bat guano (accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats), which is used as a fertilizer.
To get to the caves from White Sands National Monument, drive southeast to join Road 180 that will lead you to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, established in 1923.
The site of the park used to be under an ancient sea. Over the millennia, it disappeared and underground caves and caverns were created. Water saturated with minerals and acids – dripping for more than 100 million years – carved rocks, creating these fantastic shapes you can see today.
Drop by drop, in total darkness, the beautiful rock formations slowly took shape.
Stalactites are the growths from the cave ceiling downward and stalagmites are formations that build up on the cave’s floor. Both are formed by the minerals in drops falling from the ceiling to the ground. There is a magnificent cave of stalactites and stalagmites in Israel – the Avshalom Cave near Beit Shemesh – which is much smaller in scale, but beautiful nonetheless.
At Carlsbad, the inland sea evaporated long ago and the movement of tectonic plates lifted up the whole region to create the Guadalupe Mountains, a process that took 250 million years. The deposits of limestone forming the stalactites and stalagmites grew at a rate of about a single centimeter over the course of a human lifetime.
Deep caves and huge sections, called “rooms,” form endless rock formations of many shapes and sizes. Many stalagmites and stalactites connect to create columns. Some of these are thick, and even whole walls can be found. This slow build up of stalactites and stalagmites still goes on, but at a rate so slow that you cannot really see the change unless you sit and wait for at least 30 years! Stalactites are formed when a drop of water containing dissolved calcium bicarbonate drops from a limestone ceiling of a cave. Once the drop is exposed to air, the minerals begin to harden into limestone again. That mineral layer clings to the ceiling and the rest of the drops fall to the cave floor. In time, after countless drops, the formation is elongated downward, while on the ground, drops hit and spread to the sides, climbing up over time to become a thick stalagmite. After millions of years, they can connect to create a column that grows thicker sideways.
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS supposedly “discovered” America – although we tend to be more generous toward the Vikings in this regard – more than 500 years ago, but Native Americans were present much earlier in many places throughout in the US. In these caves, they drew pictographs in the caverns that date back as far as 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
Originally, inhabitants of the caves used ladders to descend into them, but now a fast elevator will take you down 270 meters to the beautiful giant rooms. Alternatively, you can descend by foot on a two-km. trail. It is like journeying to the center of the earth, which was the title of a film shot in the caverns back in 1959.
From the main entrance, one can follow the curved trail down about 30 meters to where the last natural light fades away and you continue in artificial light. The lighting is planned strategically to emphasize the rock formations along the trail. The path is paved but steep at times. Soon, you find that you are jaunting easily down the trail, and that is because all of your senses are occupied with marvels surrounding you. The trail is a fascinating one, with each room more interesting than the one before.
Visitors should grant themselves at least four hours to explore the park. The more time you have, the more you will appreciate the immensity of this spectacular site. Don’t miss the big cave, which is more than a kilometer long and 200 meters wide and shows the vast dimensions of this underground complex of caves. The King’s Palace is a series of four caves that feature ripple rock formations. There is also the Hall of the White Giant, named after a huge stalagmite.
The underground temperature is a constant 13º, so you will want an extra layer of clothing for comfort. And in terms of illumination, many people pack a flashlight just in case the artificial lighting goes out (and who wouldn’t be scared of the dark in such a place?). As large as this cave complex seems, it is in fact much larger with more than 45 km. of mapped passages that are not open to the public. There are also ranger-guided tours that can be prearranged.
Also, we can’t leave out the bats. If you don’t mind them, you can visit Carlsbad Caverns between mid-May and mid-October. During this time, if you stay until dusk, you will see 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from the main entrance into the sunset light. If you hate bats, perhaps winter is better, when they migrate south.
A visit to the hidden treasures at White Sands and Carlsbad Caverns just might cause you to fall in love with New Mexico.