ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Visitors are returning to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, but gone are the postcard-like vistas along its main highway.
A fast-moving wildfire reduced many of the spiny cactus pads and leggy ocotillo plants that lined the canyon to ash.
"It looks very different. It's very black," Paula Bauer, a park management assistant, said of the vegetation along the road that winds into the heart of Carlsbad Caverns. "We know eventually it will grow back but right now it's in a stark, barren state."
The fire started Monday and scorched more than 30,400 acres in four days, including 8,200 acres inside the southeast New Mexico park. It shut down the popular tourist destination for three days.
Crews bolstered lines and conducted back-burn operations to protect the park's visitor center and employee housing, along with the natural entrance to one of its main attractions, a giant underground cave.
The smoke was gone by Thursday, and crews had the blaze 90 percent contained by the end of the week. They continued to mop up and watch for hot spots Friday as visitors made their way along the highway.
There were some signs of the fire retardant that had been dropped along the roadway, but more obvious was the charred swath that stretched from one limestone canyon to the next.
"There are pockets of green, but otherwise it's all been burned over," Bauer said.
She said one person remarked that it looked "like a moonscape out there."
In addition to park land, the blaze blackened state and federal land and private property to the north.
About 150 visitors turned out at the park Wednesday night after authorities gave the all-clear. They were there to see the evening bat flight, one of the highlights of visiting the caverns. Countless bats stream from the cavern's natural entrance at dusk as they head out to search for insects to eat.
As the group waited, they spotted one of the firefighters walking by. They called him over to the amphitheater for a round of applause.
"They did a great thing," Bauer said of the firefighters who saved park headquarters. "A standing ovation is the least of what we can do."
Park officials said they were just happy to have a park to return to, but the hard part will be moving forward.
The park, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, sits at the intersection of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, southern Rocky Mountains and southwestern Great Plains.
The area is covered with more than two dozen species of cactuses and numerous flowering plants and trees that have adapted to the dry desert heat.
Some of what's left on the 47 square miles that were burned are piles of ash. It's too early for the ash to have been washed or blown away.
"Right now, it's at its most raw," Bauer said.
Park officials have concerns as monsoon season approaches. With little to no vegetation holding the soil together, a hard rain could wash away everything.
The park usually gets around 13 inches of rain every year, but it has not had any measureable precipitation since September so the prospect of getting any rain soon is slim.
"It's a Catch 22. We need the vegetation to hold the soils in place, but we need rain to keep the vegetation grown," Bauer said. "What we'd like is a really nice, soft rain. That would really help everything burst out."
Another factor park officials have thought about is whether the fire retardant dropped to stop the flames will have any impact on the caves, some of which are decorated with pristine white calcite and gypsum formations.
Dyes in fire retardant can stain and the chemicals that make up the retardant, particularly in large concentrations, can change ecosystems. But there are several factors that determine whether the retardant would actually end up having an effect, including where it was dropped and whether rain or runoff could transport it through pores and cracks in the rock.
In most cases, park officials say a chemical would become very diluted by the time it reaches the cave system, which is several hundred feet below the surface in some spots.
Carlsbad Caverns has conducted prescribed fires in the past around the park headquarters, but there have been no wildfires to hit the park in its heart like this.
Park officials believe some of that previous work helped the firefighters stand their ground around the visitor center and housing earlier this week.
"Standing out there in the smoke and the heat and the soot, breathing that in, their efforts went a long way," Bauer said.
The park was offering free passes to firefighters to check out the cave, but many were already being reassigned as wildfires continued to rage across the West.
Susan Montoya Bryan can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM