Carlsbad Caverns National Park Highpoint Trip Report

Date: March 25, 2006
Author: Edward Earl

The highpoint and prominent point (PP) of Carlsbad Caverns NP, though not the same, are close enough that they are best done on the same hike. Both are located near the park's western boundary adjacent to the Lincoln National Forest. The HP is a 6,535 foot spot elevation about 1.5 miles east of Cottonwood Well. It is a coincidence that this point is exactly on a straight park boundary yet is not a liner; the park boundary passes directly over the summit of a hill with nonzero prominence. The PP is the 6,238 foot triangulation point Double, which is located about 3 miles south of the HP. This point is the highest point on the ridge on the south side of West Slaughter Canyon. A jeep road follows the ridge system that connects the HP and PP.

My rental car was a Toyota Camry low clearance 2WD, and could only make it to this point.

I spent the night at a gravel pullout near this intersection and set off at the crack of dawn. In about 45 minutes I reached this point.

I left the road and climbed the ridge to the south. Upon reaching the top I turned east and walked along the broad ridge until I intercepted the jeep trail. From there I went 1/2 mile east to point 6632, then turned south and headed cross-country to the HP. I found and signed the pink Nalgene bottle register.

I then returned to the jeep road and followed it as it veered from west to south to Trail TP (6,733 feet). I bagged the summit, but did not locate the BM. About five minutes later I saw a cairn by the side of the road, with a side road heading downhill to the right from this point. There was no sign, and I had no way of knowing which road was the one I wanted, so I made a guess and went straight ahead. After about 5 more minutes, however, I realized that I was headed east, not southeast, and that I was on the wrong ridge, which would not lead to the saddle between my present position and the park PP. [Said saddle is the one just south of the word "West" in "West Slaughter Canyon"; this is also the key saddle of the park PP.] So I turned around, headed back to the cairn, and took the other road, which headed in the right direction.

At least for a while. After a mile or so, the road faded to a faint, intermittently cairned path, and then it began to veer off the crest of the ridge to the right, but I knew I should be staying on the ridge crest. So I abandoned the road/trail entirely and headed cross-country down the crest of the ridge. After a few more minutes, however, I realized that I was again headed down the wrong ridge; the ridge I was on was to the right the one leading to the all-important saddle. So once again I headed down to the right, across a ravine, negotiating a fence a couple of times, until I gained the correct ridge and encountered a cairned path, which I followed. As I made progress downhill to the southeast, the route became less and less distinct and the terrain became more rocky and rugged. I was almost on my own, though a few intermittent cairns suggested a route through two cliff bands down to the saddle.

After the saddle, two cairns headed off to the left and I could find no man-marked route of any kind, so I headed directly uphill, scaling two small rock cliff bands. The wind, which had been gradually increasing for the past hour, reached gale force as I gained the summit plateau; in fact it was so strong that I had trouble standing up. This was more than an inconvenience; it was a hazard because of the very stiff, sharp cactus everywhere. Should an unexpected gust knock me off balance, I could fall or be forced to take a step directly into the spines. In fact I had to choose my route in a way that minimized my risk of being blown over into a cactus, and when that wasn't possible, I had to squat down and wait for a relative lull.

I reached the summit, which is marked by a large cairn next to the 6,238 foot Double BM. I found no register, but I didn't spend much time looking because of the horrendous wind. Although the topo map shows two 6,200 foot contours, the highest ground is definitely at the BM.

The return trip down to the saddle up the ridge was relatively uneventful, compared to what I had been through. The wind continued for a while but eventually subsided. I returned the same way as several other visitors to the park HP: about 0.2 mile east of the tank at Point 6665, I left the jeep road and headed NW down the ridge to Cottonwood Well.

While walking the road back to my car, I encountered a pickup truck and had a chat with the driver. He said that the preferred way to reach the jeep road that traverses the ridge system is to head due east up the canyon on the north side of the ridge I had climbed that morning. The distance is shorter and the going is easy; brush and cacti are not a problem and the well-consolidated gravel footing is good. I'm not aware of any Carlsbad Canyon National Park HP visitor who has gone this way, but it is probably the preferred way.

All in all this was a rather strenuous day hike. I had estimated about 16 miles and 8 hours; as it turned out, it was 19 miles and 11 hours.