Sitting Bull Falls

Sir Oisin and the Prince at
Sitting Bull Falls after a great swim.

Sitting Bull Falls
~ Eddy County Rd 409, Lincoln National Forest, Carlsbad, New Mexico USA ~ ~

This amazing oasis in the middle of the desert outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, is amongst my world’s favorite locations and cooling-off zones. I grew up with the Cave and the pools from childhood, hanging out there with friends from high school, partying in the pools above, stealthily camping, and cave exploring long before there were required permits and restrictive gates or access. It has changed quite a bit, but very much improved for recreation and protecting the natural resources on location. It is a day-use-only site. The site has pavilions, picnic tables, water, and restrooms accessible. There are established hiking trails from the site. It is open from 8:30 am until 6 pm with a $5 per vehicle parking fee.

The site is an astonishing dream-like 150′ waterfall that pours over canyon walls with a stalactite/stalagmite-filled cavern behind it, dumping down into crystal clear natural swimming pools beneath. It is one of a series of waterfalls found in this canyon lost within the Lincoln National Forest that are spring-fed through a series of streams and pools until reaching its drop-off. Most of the river’s water disappears into cracks, gravel, and bedrock and reappears in springs further down the canyon, eventually joining the Pecos Valley underwater aquifer.

The geology of the area is a remnant reef system known as the Capitan Great Barrier Reef, dating from the Permian period around 250 million years ago when the region was the edge of an inland sea. The name of the falls has never been proven, but legend has it that the cave behind the falls was used by Sitting Bull to hide. The Apache called the area “gostahanagunti” meaning “hidden gulch”. In 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a number of stone buildings that are now part of the parking lot and picnic area. There is a time capsule dated March 24, 1999, embedded into one of the buildings. The park was closed from April 27, 2011, through April 6, 2012, after wildfires destroyed the area, making it unsafe.

There are numerous sacred pools above the falls, which are great for swimming in. In order to explore the cave behind the waterfall or any of the other caves in the area, one needs proper equipment and obtain a permit.

The site is easy to get to, though quite a distance from Carlsbad, so it is ready for some bumpy dirt roads. Take US Highway 285 north from Carlsbad, turn west on NM 137 for 20 miles to County Road 409, turn right, and continue to the site. Another turn-off is right across the highway from the turn-off to Bradford Lake State Park.

Another family’s video of caving in the cave:

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