Local state parks and national parks across southeastern New Mexico offer unique holiday experiences that are guaranteed to make lasting memories.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is wrapping up a very special year that included Centennial celebration activities and even a visit by President Barack Obama.

Four members of the New Mexico Philharmonic performed a free concert underground on Nov. 3. It has been a few years since a similar event took place: in 1933, the Albuquerque Symphony performed “The Creation,” by Joseph Haydn, featuring a full orchestra and choir.

“The park was pretty young (as a national park) when we last did this,” observed Valerie Gohlke, park spokeswoman. “We’re going to seat people at the Top of the Cross and the quartet will be across the Big Room. We don’t usually allow music in the Caverns, but because this is the Centennial it will be a special, one-time event.”

Meanwhile, the Rock of Ages performance will also take place this year. The Rock of Ages is one of the more recognizable landmarks of the Caverns underground. “Rock of Ages” is also a hymn first written in 1763 by the Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady, referencing a smitten rock in the Old Testament.

The event sells out every year and has become a tradition for many families. The park held Rock of Ages ceremonies from 1928 through 1944 but then discontinued them for many years. The event resumed in 2000 and has been held ever year since with the exception of 2015, which was not possible because the elevators were shut down.

“That’s where we turn out all the lights in the cave and give every visitor, or every other visitor, a candle lantern,” Gohlke explained. “As we walk through the cave we meet characters, such as Amelia Earhart or (longtime park superintendent) Col. Thomas Boles.”

The trip begins at the elevator in the Big Room. The costumed historical figures are lined up at intervals throughout the route to the Rock of Ages. Visitors quietly reach the Rock of Ages feature in the park’s Big Room.“Then, out of the darkness, a beautiful voice sings the hymn Rock of Ages,” Gohlke shared. “Nobody knows where it is coming from.”

Different local singers are invited each year to perform the song, Gohlke added.

The event is limited to 40 people each evening, and children under 5 are not allowed to participate. This year’s performances will be held on Dec. 9, 10 and 16 from approximately 5:30 to 7:30pm. For more information, please call (575) 795-2232 or visit https://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, but remains open for the rest of the year. Gohlke said visitation is usually down throughout the winter, with the exception of the holiday break.

Across state lines to the south, the big season at nearby Guadalupe Mountains is actually the fall, where thousands of visitors marvel at nature’s color scheme across McKittrick Canyon and other similar hikes. Elizabeth Jackson, Public Information Officer with Guadalupe Mountains National Park, said the “Lunch with the Rangers” program at Pratt Cabin is especially popular.

“Amphitheater programs will also carry on into November,” Jackson stated. “Our camping numbers always start to go up as soon as the weather gets cooler and people come to camp,” she shared. “The program at the amphitheater begins at 6:30 or 7pm, depending on when it gets dark.”

The Guadalupes are closed on Christmas Day, though people with camping permits can remain at the park. There are also ranger-guided hikes offered through the winter months. “We identify animal tracks and talk about how animals prepare for winter,” Jackson explained.  “The scenery stays beautiful.”

The park’s popular “Coffee with a Ranger” program also remains active through the winter season, at the visitor’s center.  For schedule updates on ranger-guided trips within the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, visit the park’s website at https://www.nps.gov/gumo/index.htm

Meanwhile, at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park overlooking Carlsbad, the holiday season is celebrated with back-to-back weekend activities. There is no charge for the events, though regular admission fees to the zoo itself still remain.

On Dec. 3 a local group of handbell performers will provide holiday music at the visitor’s center. “The event begins at 11am.,” noted Kathryn Law, park ranger.

“All of this happens with volunteers,” Law explained. “It’s just a wonderful time of the year up here. It’s also a nice time to visit the animals, since many of them are much more active during the cooler months.”

On Dec. 10, from 1:00 to 3:00pm, the Living Desert will celebrate its popular “Holiday with the Animals” event, which has been going on for decades.

Park staff place dried fruit into egg cartons to provide the animals with a special treat. Local youth make cards wishing their favorite desert animals a merry Christmas. The park also celebrates with craft tables and face painting.

“We also have our Giving Tree up all of December,” Law explained. “We collect donations such as non-perishable food items, books and toys and give them out to local charities.”

The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens State Park is closed on Christmas Day only. Winter hours are 9:00am to 5:00pm., with the final entrance into the zoo at 3:30pm.

For more information, please visit: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/spd/livingdesertstatepark.html.

Psalm 145:5 states, “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.” Celebrating at least a portion of the Christmas holidays at one of the area’s natural wonders may just be the right recipe to tap into the true meaning of the holiday.