NATIONAL PARKS: Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns

Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg

Setting sun from a hidden rock niche in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns national parks are separated by the Texas/New Mexico state line. Still, they are close enough to be combined into a single trip. Taking these two parks together offers a big advantage for photographers, because the light in the two locations is complementary. While the Guadalupe Mountains will benefit from the same use of early and late light, as do most landscapes, subterranean cave photography can be enjoyed during the middle of the day when the light on the surface can be prohibitively harsh.

Winter weather in the desert Southwest is fairly mild, making it a good area for a winter location shoot. Additionally, the low-angled winter sun works well in these parks to help create long shadows and extend your outdoor shooting day.

El Capitan and ocotillo shrub.

El Capitan and ocotillo shrub.

One of the best big landscapes in the Guadalupe Mountains is where the road forks right along Routes 62 and 180 a bit south of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park visitor center. Here, two huge rock forms, El Capitan and Guadalupe Peak, jut up suddenly from the Earth and dominate the desert skyline. When seeing them from here, these two rugged mountains are almost superimposed with the more prominent El Capitan dominating the scene and Guadalupe Peak visible just to the right. At some angles, El Capitan can seem to be directly in front of Guadalupe Peak. Make sure to be there in plenty of time to catch the very first rays of dawn.

El Capitan.

El Capitan.

Along the same road are the entrances to McKittrick Canyon and the interesting Frijole Ranch. The foliage at McKittrick Canyon lights up with great color in the autumn and photographs best in overcast light. Frijole Ranch was the first permanent ranch house built in 1876. Today it is a cultural museum of local ranching history

For a very different perspective, consider a late afternoon drive along Texas Farm Road 1576 toward Dell City to see the same prominent Capitan Reef from the west side in evening light.

To get off the beaten path, try the area south of the visitor center. This is accessed via an unpaved side road off Route 62/180. This road requires passing through a locked gate. Ask for the key at the visitor center.

Primary access to the enormous and fascinating limestone caves of Carlsbad Caverns is through the visitor center where the tickets for a variety of cave tours are sold. You may descend in a convenient elevator or choose the somewhat more rigorous natural entrance.

Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns.

Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns.

The temperature in the caverns is a constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit around the clock every day of the year. Dress accordingly. Cave lighting is dim, and you will benefit greatly with the use of a tripod when making long exposures, and this will allow you to use a lower ISO for best image quality. Tripods are generally allowed along the self-guided paths of the Big Room, but not on the ranger-guided tours. For these, you will be limited to handheld shooting with flash and/or much higher ISOs. The latest generation of camera and lens stabilization will be a huge help, but even this great technology has its limits.

Make sure to check with park management in the visitor center for the latest updates to regulations concerning the use of flash and tripods.

The caverns are home to a large colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. From spring through about October, thousands of these little mammals darken the sky as they flood out of the natural entrance at sunset in search of fresh insects for dinner.

In addition to the caverns themselves, don’t forget to watch for compositions as you drive the short east-west road between Whites City, New Mexico, and the cavern entrance.

If flying in, your best choice for a gateway is El Paso, Texas. For the most part, renting a standard passenger car can suffice. However, Guadalupe Mountains has some rough areas in which a high clearance vehicle will be a plus to avoid damaging the undercarriage.

Finding suitable accommodations here can be a balancing act. The most convenient location is the one very nice Best Western motel in Whites City, New Mexico, just off Route 62/180. You will find accommodations with more amenities in the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico. Despite its name, it is farther away from these two parks and considerably less convenient.


Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry has been a national park artist in residence at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.