SW Deserts #03 – Tombstone & Carlsbad Caverns

October 12, 2020  •  4 Comments

MARCH 2020

Desert Southwest #03 – Tombstone & Carlsbad Caverns

This is part 3 of a 3,246 mile driving trip we took in early March 2020 to the desert SW of the USA.  On this trip we visited Lone Pine, Alabama Hills and Manzanar all on the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains in California, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Tombstone Arizona, Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, White Sands National Park also in New Mexico and a quick run through Painted Desert – Petrified forest National Park in Arizona.

This installment is for the Tombstone & Carlsbad Caverns part of the trip.

Entire Trip map
01 Map 1 - Whole Trip01 Map 1 - Whole Trip

After leaving Joshua Tree National Park, the five and a half hour drive through Phoenix to Tombstone was uneventful.  We really had no reason to stop over at Tombstone other than getting all the way to Carlsbad in one long drive was too much and Tombstone was about in the middle and sounded more interesting than either Phoenix or Tucson.  So, Tombstone it was.  And, as it was Tombstone why not spend the night at ad “Dude Ranch” called the “Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch”.

Joshua Tree to Carlsbad Caverns
02 Map 7 - JT to Carlsbad02 Map 7 - JT to Carlsbad

Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch

The guest ranch is located 2.5 miles from town in the Tombstone Hills of Cochise County. The ranch itself is built in the image of an old western town. The guest rooms line “Main Street” and each room is styled after a famous building form the folklore of the wild west.  For example, you can stay in the “Grand Hotel”, the “Marshall’s Office” the “Blacksmith’s” or even the “Jail”.  For some reason that I’m still trying to figure out, we were assigned to “Miss Kitty’s Whorehouse”. 

On the first floor of the “Grand Hotel” is the “Old Trappman Saloon” complete with swinging doors a massive bar to slide a whisky down along with a vintage pool able as well as card tables where Arizona Bill or Wyatt Earp will teach you how to play 5 card draw, Texas Hold ‘em or Faro (Wyatt Earp’s game).  They bring in live western music 2-3 nights a week.

We were only there one night so didn’t have time to take advantage of their “ranch” activities.  As a dude ranch they offer activities such as horseback riding at several different levels of riding skill, shooting and archery lessons and tours into the Dragoon Mountains to explore where Apache Chief Cochise and the Warrior Geronimo had a stronghold.  They also offer trips to Wilcox or Sonoita and Elgin for wine tasting and visits to Kartchner Caverns.

Old Trappman Saloon, Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch
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Good Advice
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Guest rooms along Main Street
Guest rooms, Tombstone Monument Guest RanchGuest rooms, Tombstone Monument Guest Ranch

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Tombstone, Arizona

After leaving the guest ranch the next morning, we went on into the actual town of Tombstone for a look around.

There are certain town names that have become synonymous with the “Wild West”.  These are places like Dodge City, El Paso, Deadwood, Virginia City, Cody, Durango and the best known Tombstone, Arizona. 

For those of you too young to remember the age of Westerns on TV and in full length feature films (mid-late 1950’s through early 1960’s, these town names may not mean much.  But to us old geezers, who can forget the Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp, the Hole in the wall gang, Kit Carson, the Lone Ranger and many more.  Much of this real, as well as made up, folklore took place in Tombstone. 

As far as Wild West towns in the USA go, this one is probably the most recognized even though its role in the Wild West era was more toward the end of the period.  It was a big mining town, and it had plenty of cultural activities (like an opera house) for the rich folk, and a great selection of saloons, gambling halls, and other less respectable places for the grittier types.

But it is most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral made famous by the 1957 movie, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” starring Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday as well as the 1993 movie “Tombstone”, starring Kurt Russell.  Both of these movies give great representations of how events went down back in the day and have cemented Tombstone as the epitome of the Wild West.

Tombstone has a current population of around 1,400 and they are milking their Wild West connection to the hilt.  Today Tombstone offers a glimpse into the past with historic attractions such as museums, history tours on foot, by stagecoach or trolley, underground mine experiences, paranormal adventures, shopping, dining and of course gunfight reenactments!

We got there around 10:00 AM when the town was just starting to open for the daily influx of tourists.  The store keepers were putting their signs out,  The museums were unlocking their doors, the stage coach was just pulling up to the old hotel to await paying customers and the decked out actors who stage the many shows and demonstrations in town were arriving in the street to drum up business.  But, it was still a pretty quiet time as most the tourists had yet to show up.

Main street Tombstone, waking up in the morning
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Waiting for the first customers of the day
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Actors hawking their shows
Drumming up business in tombstoneDrumming up business in tombstone

Now there’s a combination you don’t see very often
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White’s City

After our evening at the dude ranch and morning exploring Tombstone we headed east, through El Paso, another 434 miles to the Town of Carlsbad New Mexico.

The Carlsbad Caverns are 28 miles from the town of Carlsbad.  Right at the entrance to the park is another town called White’s City which also has lodging and is only 7 miles from the caves, so why didn’t we stay there you may ask? 

White’s City had its start in the 1920s as a commercial resort owned by Charlie White. Currently it is an unincorporated community with a permanent population of 7 as of the 2010 census.   The town sports a café, grocery store, gift shop, gas station, RV park, and a motel.  It should be noted that in the gift shop you can get your fortune read by an automated “Zoltar” which is about the most exciting thing one can say about this town. 

But of course there is some history.  Folklore has it that White’s City was founded by James (Jim) Larkin White who is credited with the discovery of the caverns.  However this is not the case.  The town was first settled in the early 1900’s by Charlie White (no relation to Jim White).  Charlie (born in Kentucky) was a college educated and successful businessman with many varied enterprises in several New Mexico towns. 

One day, Charlie was on a family vacation to visit the Carlsbad Caverns, when he had the idea to purchase the land adjacent to the dirt road leading to the caves. With very little capital and a great vision, “White’s Cavern Camp” was established.  White’s City Cavern Camp originally consisted of a single home, 13 visitor cabins, and a fueling station. Years later (approx. 1963) the name was changed to White’s City and the city was officially registered as a recognized Census-designated Place in the state of New Mexico.

During the Great Depression, the Pueblo Motel was built to expand capacity for travelers. Charlie also opened a car garage, a drug and grocery store, and a museum to help serve Carlsbad Caverns’ visitors.  Over time, descendants of Charlie White eventually took over the family business and grew the city to have more attractions and offerings. Other attractions that previously existed early in White’s City’s history included a chair lift ride up to the top of Walnut Canyon, a melodrama theatre, The Million Dollar Museum, the Velvet Garter Saloon, and other tourist-associated shops.

It is not entirely clear why there isn’t a real town here or nearby on US-62 to cater to the Carlsbad Caverns crowd as there certainly is demand.  But the theory goes that good ol’ Charlie was a shrewd businessman and even though funds were scarce he did manage to buy up all the land along the highway in both directions in order to prevent any competition from gaining a foothold.  That is why you need to go all the way to the town of Carlsbad to find any sort of selection of lodging restaurants and other “proper town” amenities.

When we visited Carlsbad Caverns on a 1973 camping trip (we were living in Boston at the time), we had planned to camp in White’s City but when we got there it was well over 100 degrees and the campground was just open desert with picnic tables.  Not even a bush let alone anything resembling a tree for shade.  So, even though we were poor college students we decided to spring for a motel. 

There were two motels in town at that time.  One was contemporary and priced at about 4 times more than any motel we’d used on the entire trip.  The other was well past its expiration date.  Probably was the original one from 1920’s or 1930’s.  A long skinny building one room deep and maybe 30 rooms wide.  It was hard to tell how long it really was as other than the first 10 or so rooms the rest of the building had literally collapsed into a pile of rubble.  But the price was just very high rather than bank breaking ludicrous.  The room had a double bed the shape of an old horse on its way to the glue factory.  There was a separate bathroom with no door and a dresser but you couldn’t open the drawers more than a few inches as they hit the bed.  In fact, the front of the dresser was so close to the bed that you couldn’t walk past it to the bathroom without climbing on the bed. 

But we were out of the sun and the room had Air Conditioning – or at least that’s what the front desk clerk told us.  Yes, there was a unit stuck in the wall that was wheezing and groaning as it attempted to fight off the 100+ degree air outside.  Had there been a TV or radio in the room the noise from the AC unit would have completely drowned it out.  It was actually what is called a swamp cooler rather than a proper air conditioner. 

For those of you not familiar with swamp coolers here’s a comparison.  A proper air conditioner has a set of pipes containing a refrigerant (used to be Freon).  This fluid goes through a compressor and set of expansion coils.  The compressor squeezes the refrigerant making it hotter and a fan blows that heat outside.  Then, once inside the room the refrigerant goes through a device that lets the refrigerant expand which causes it to get very cold and a fan blows air over those cold refrigerant pipes and into the room.  On the other hand, a swamp cooler has a fan that blows air into the room but in front of the fan is a sponge like material that has water dripping through it.  In other words it’s like sitting in front of a fan with a spritz bottle of water.  It does cool the room (a bit), but also fills the room with moist air making everything clammy.  But, it was what it was and even as bad as it was it was better than sleeping in a tent that had been in the sun all day.  That old motel is now completely gone.

But, this trip we stayed in the town of Carlsbad, 28 miles away. 

Carlsbad Caverns

Carlsbad Caverns is in the Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico and is the most well known limestone cave in the US.  It is not the largest, longest, or deepest but is the most popular cave in the US.  This is probably due to it being discovered and opened to the public earlier than many other larger cave systems – some of which are also in Carlsbad National Park.  The park itself contains over 119 named caves three of which are open to public tours. Carlsbad Caverns is the most famous and is fully developed with electric lights, paved trails, and elevators. Slaughter Canyon Cave and Spider Cave are undeveloped, except for designated paths for the guided "adventure" caving tours. 

Another cave in the park is Lechuguilla Cave which is well known for its delicate speleothems and pristine underground environment. Over 120 miles of Lechuguilla Cave passages have been explored and mapped so far and they aren’t done yet.  Some of those passages have descended to a depth of 1,600 feet, making it the second deepest limestone cave in the U.S.  But to protect the fragile environment, access is limited to scientific expeditions only.  In addition to Lechuguilla, other cave systems in the US are also larger than Carlsbad such as Mammoth Cave (KY), Jewel Cave (SD) and Wind Cave (SD).  But, Carlsbad is far and away the first one that springs to mind when thinking about large caves in the US.

There are two ways to get into the cave.  You can either hike in through the natural entrance or take an elevator from the visitor center.  The hike in route descends 750 feet (vertically) over a 1.25 mile steep narrow and twisty pathway with many switchbacks.  Until the elevator was installed in 1955 the hike-in route was the only way into the cave which wasn’t so bad.  But the hike back out again was a bit more challenging.

Profile of Carlsbad Caverns cave system showing hike in trail (where bats are flying out) and elevator from visitor center (vertical white line)
12 Map 8 - Carlsbad Caverns12 Map 8 - Carlsbad Caverns

Although Native Americans had known about the cave for hundreds, if not thousands, of years there is no evidence these native peoples explored deep into the cave.  But they were certainly aware of its existence.  Eventually Spanish and European Americans began settling the area.  In their explorations they soon stumbled upon the gaping mouth of what is now known as Carlsbad Cavern.  Several of those individuals claim to be the first to have entered the cave, but they have mostly been forgotten by history.

The first credited cave exploration happened in 1898 when a sixteen year-old cowboy, Jim White, was rounding up cattle one evening and spotted smoke from a wildfire off in the distance. He went into high alert as even then fires were a serious event.  In order to report back to camp about the fire, he rode closer to gather information.

As Jim approached the smoke, he noticed something strange: he couldn't smell the smoke, hear the crackling of flames, or feel the heat of fire. Jim realized he wasn't seeing smoke. He was watching thousands-upon-thousands of bats which led Jim to the mouth of the cave.

Figuring that the other cowboys would give him a hard time he didn’t tell anyone about his find.  But, his curiosity got the better of him and on a day off went back to the cave with some pieces of wood and wire to fashion a ladder.  So with a lantern in one hand and the other hand gripping the twisting and turning ladder he got to a floor 60 feet down and started to explore. 

At first, Jim was very uncomfortable in the cave which is indicated by some of the names he assigned to formations nearer the entrance.  He named the first drip pool Devil's Spring.  That was soon followed by the Devil's Armchair, Devil's Den, and Witch's Finger.  These features are still easily seen today as you walk down the natural entrance route.  As he spent more time in the cave, Jim became more comfortable with his surroundings. His naming became more matter of fact: The Big Room, and Left Hand Tunnel." There were some places that sparked Jim's imagination though.  He named the "King's Palace" and even found a royal family in residence.  Other places he named are New Mexico Room, Queens Chamber, Papoose Room, Green Lake Room, Totem Pole, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun, and Rock of Ages.

After a bit, Jim started to lead tours into the cave for the brave of heart as people did not believe his stories.  Eventually he tricked a newspaper reporter to come out to the area and convinced him to come along for a cave tour.  The awestruck reporter couldn’t believe what he had seen and returned later with a photographer to capture some of the sights in the cave for publication. 

Now, you have to remember that there was no lighting in the cave at that time and flashlights hadn’t been invented yet.  So, the only light they had were basically candles, a flaming torch or perhaps a lantern so the illumination went maybe 10 to 15 feet making the grand views of the large rooms we see today impossible to see back then.  But, once it hit the papers, people started coming. And have been coming ever since.

What Jim might have seen with his candle or lantern light
Kings Palace #2, Carlsbad CavernsKings Palace #2, Carlsbad Caverns

Same scene as we see it today
Kings Palace #2, Carlsbad CavernsKings Palace #2, Carlsbad Caverns

When we visited the caves in 1973 you could only see it on one of a half dozen or so guided tours.  As I recall the place was mobbed.  Each tour group was 30 or so folks and there were dozens of them in the cave at a time.  If you wanted to take more than one tour you had to ascend back up to the visitor center when one ended and then go back down for the next one.  But with so many people it was impossible to get onto more than one tour -- or if you were lucky (and rich) -- two on the same day as they all sold out quite quickly each morning. 

As I understand, it is even more crowded these days.  So, as we were just there, why did I say “as I understand”?  Well, if you’ve been following along on these blogs you’ll know that we visited in early March of 2020.  At that time the COVID19 virus was a “thing” but as of the day of our visit, there were only 402 known cases in the US.  There were some cruise ships with outbreaks but nothing was shut down, there was no shelter in place orders, no one talking about wearing masks or social distancing and the president was saying things like “… no worse than common flu” and “just stay calm, it will go away in a few weeks” and we were just introduced to Dr. Fauci. 

But despite the White House being in a state of denial, people were starting to become concerned.  Maybe not enough to abandon dining out or going to a movie, but apparently enough to postpone taking driving vacations.  Then add that it was just the beginning of the tourist season in the Southwest as the kids were still in school and still too early for major tour companies to start their tours for folks from other countries. 

Given the “Grand Central Station at rush hour” experience we had in 1973 we arranged to be at the visitor center when they first opened in order to book some tours.  Through prior research we had discovered that the bulk of the cave, including the “Big Room” no longer had guided tours, you just walked through at your own pace.  However the only way to see the Queens Chamber was on a guided tour.  So, we booked space on the 11:00 am tour.  There were about 20 people on this tour and the tour lasted nearly 2 hours. 

After the tour we headed back up to the visitor center to get some lunch, then went back down to do the self guided areas arriving in the big room a bit after 2:00 pm.  And we were all alone.  There was no one else down there!  Well, almost no one.  We spent over 2 more hours walking and photographing the “Big Room Loop Trail” and in that entire time we saw a total to 2 other couples.  One young couple passed by me and my tripod as I was shooting a feature.  We spied the other couple on the other side of big room when we were near a high point with a view of most of the room.  To be honest it was both amazing and somewhat spooky.  Great for photography as there were no other people getting in the way and I didn’t need to be concerned about blocking the pathway with my tripod as there was no one to block.  But that primal part of the brain was concerned at being 500 feet underground, in an unfamiliar landscape, and for the most part all alone.  Sure am glad there wasn’t a power outage.

Many people are surprised that the lighting in the caverns is not colored as it used to be.  Well, as it turns out, the lighting in this cave (which has been redone 3 times) has never been colored.  So what about all those photos from the past showing colors?  Well there are three probable causes of this.  First is that many caves around the world do utilize colored lighting and people may be remembering other caves.  The second is that in the black and white era of photography, many photographers hand tinted their photos to add some color.  But the most common cause of this is that different types of light photograph differently.  For example, florescent light (which had been used in places in the cave) tends to photograph green where incandescent lights tend to photograph with a yellowish tint.  Then add to that the choice of film.  Outdoor film is designed for white light and is what most people on vacations were using.  This film exaggerated the yellow color cast from the incandescent lighting.  On the other hand if the visitor was using indoor film, it blocked the yellowness of the incandescent lights but kept the greenish of the florescent lights.  One also can’t discount the possibility that professional photographers who procured permits for commercial photography in the cave brought their own color lights for the photo shoot.  So, all told, many old photos look like colored lighting was present when in fact it was not.

Now comes the hard part – picking the photos to show you.

Papoose Room
Kings Palace Papose Room., Carlsbad CavernsKings Palace Papose Room., Carlsbad Caverns

Queens Chamber
Kings Palace #7, Carlsbad CavernsKings Palace #7, Carlsbad Caverns

Big Room #11, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #11, Carlsbad Caverns

Small Reflecting Pond
Big Room #14, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #14, Carlsbad Caverns

Top of the Cross (seating area for Cave Talks)
Big Room #15, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #15, Carlsbad Caverns

Mirror Lake
Big Room #18, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #18, Carlsbad Caverns

The Totem Pole (Big Room)
Totem Pole, Big Room #25, Carlsbad CavernsTotem Pole, Big Room #25, Carlsbad Caverns

Pillar of Light, Big Room
Pillar of Light, Big Room, Carlsbad CavernsPillar of Light, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns

Flowstone in the Big Room
Flowstone Big Room #21, Carlsbad CavernsFlowstone Big Room #21, Carlsbad Caverns

Rock of Ages, Big Room
Rock of Ages, Big Room #22, Carlsbad CavernsRock of Ages, Big Room #22, Carlsbad Caverns

Lions Tail
Big Room #06, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #06, Carlsbad Caverns

Flowstone, Big Room
Big Room #23, Carlsbad CavernsBig Room #23, Carlsbad Caverns


I hope you enjoyed reading about our time on PEI and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.


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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website. 

         https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/american-sw-desert-2020-03  (all images)

Check out my travel blogs for other trips under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .


Thanks for reading – Dan


(All images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)




Dan Hartford(non-registered)
Hi, I'm not sure who "want to do that trip" is, but to answer your quesiton, no I have not gone mirrorless yet. I'm still shooting with my 2 Canon DSLR bodies and a variety of lenses.

want to do that trip(non-registered)
I think both my wife and and daughter will want Tombstone and the Carlsbad after seeing your photos - so do I!

The light in Tombstone really brought out the texture of the town, and the detail of the caves in lower light adds to the wonder.

Did you get a mirrorless camera yet?
Don S(non-registered)
Thanks for sending. Always enjoy your take on things. It looks like you snuck your trip in just before the clampdown.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan - makes me want to go to Tombstone! The young set who didn't get to enjoy all those westerns really did miss a special time! I loved Wyatt Earp - don't really know why.
I saw Carlsbad at about age 22 - sort of like you - and was completely amazed. I've thought of going back - and now your photos have filled a lot of the need. Thanks so much!
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