Carlsbad Caverns National Park: What Lies Underneath The Surface
As you drive through the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico; at first glance it may seem like every other ordinary desert, with miles of cacti and agave as far as the eye can see. But what many don't realize is that underneath the surface lies Carlsbad Caverns, a whole other world of wonder.
"Ok sir as you may or may not know the elevator is currently not working; so you'll be required to hike down the Natural Entrance for 1.25-mile and back out the same way," is that ok? The Park Ranger asked..."Yea that's fine, how steep is it? I replied, "750 feet!" Wait... what? At first, the 750 feet made me a bit nervous, but nevertheless I showed my parks pass and confidently agreed to hike down into Carlsbad Caverns.
Up until that point I had never been inside of a cavern, or any type of cave for that matter, but as soon as I saw the trail leading down into the dark abyss I was filled with excitement. I had seen this zig-zagged entrance photographed countless times, and it looked even better in person. During the months of April to September, a colony of up to 300,00 Mexican free-tail bats emerges from the cave at sunset, which I'm told is an incredible and surreal experience. Unfortunately for me it was March and I was told that the bats spend winter in the warmer climate of Mexico... probably sipping margaritas... or at least that's what I'd be doing.
As soon as you walk into the cavern, you are instantly greeted with a unique smell and some humidity. It was also much colder than expected, with a year round temperature of 56°F. But after a while of walking down the steep and windy trail, that cool temperature was a blessing. I was in constant awe... I had never seen anything like it. At every corner there was something new to see. I could only imagine how Jim White, the first person to explore the caverns, felt as he stumbled across this incredible place as a young boy. In fact, many of the rooms and formations are still called by the names that he gave them.
In May of 1930, Carlsbad Caverns was officially established and recognized as a National Park. Visitors to the cavern had to walk down a switch back ramp that took them 750 feet below the surface. The walk back up was tiring for a lot of visitors, so in 1932 the national park opened up a large visitor center that contained two elevators. They made it easier for visitors to experience the caverns below... not easier for me though, these were same elevators that weren't working on the day that I arrived.
One of the parks most prominent cave chambers is the Big Room. It's about 8.2 acres in size, which is equivalent to roughly 6.2 football fields! It's name is definitely fitting, especially being the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. Other caves might be longer or deeper, but few can live up to the grandeur of the Big Room.
When it seems like so much of this planet has already been explored, it's incredible to know that there's still places like Carlsbad Caverns that have yet to be fully discovered. It's no wonder as to why the great Ansel Adam's once described it as “something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything.”
THINGS TO DO IN CARLSBAD CAVERNS
There is no car camping within the park itself, but you can find a KOA campground on 62/180 near Carlsbad. Backcountry camping requires a free permit and is best in the (relatively) high country beyond Slaughter Canyon Cave. Pack in lots of water, as there are no reliable water sources in the backcountry for much of the year. When rising in the morning, always check your sleeping bag and footwear for scorpions and snakes.
The Natural Entrance self-guided trail is a 1.25 mile steep hike down, descending about 750 feet. You have the opportunity to follow the footsteps of early explorers as you see formations like Devil's Spring, the Whale's Mouth, and Iceberg Rock. The most popular route, the Big Room, is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America. This 1.25 mile trail is relatively flat, and will take about 1.5 hours (on average) to walk it.
The park offers scheduled tours of "wild caves" that give the visitor a taste of what visiting an undeveloped cave is like. All require reservations and have fees; see the link below for details. Visitors should be in good health and be prepared for some hard work, possibly including crawling in tight spaces depending on the tour; wear clothes that can get dirty -- seriously dirty.
- Tours in the Big Cave reach areas of Carlsbad Cavern not on the main tourist path, which only covers a small part of the cave. As of 2005, there are tours to Kings Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Lower Cave, and the Hall of the White Giant.
- Slaughter Canyon Cave, also known as New Cave, is a separate "wild" cave that can be reached on a ranger-led tour. This cave is in the detached part of the park containing Slaughter Canyon, reasonably enough, and requires a short but testing hike aboveground before the cave entrance is reached. Several spectacular formations are visited on this tour.
- Spider Cave is another "wild" cave that requires considerable crawling -- not for the claustrophobic. The visitor who pays the fee and endures the entrance crawl is rewarded with up-close views of a number of delicate and remarkable formations, perhaps the most famous of which is "The Mace."
During the months of April to September visitors can watch for the swarms of bats from a small seating area/outdoor theater near the natural entrance in the evening. There is usually a brief ranger talk before the flight. The bats do not emerge from the cave in a single massive swarm, but there is usually a relatively well-defined peak period some tens of minutes after sundown; inquire at the visitor center to learn when to show up at the seating area.
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About The Author
In 2015, Founder of TMDE Paul Martinez left a career in sales for a life of exploring. In just a matter of months he had visited over 10 countries, 30 cities, 10 states, countless national parks, taken thousands of photographs, and did a ton of soul-searching. His search uncovered a deep passion for exploration; which he now believes to be the essence of the human spirit, and led to the birth of The Modern Day Explorer. You can follow him on his personal journey by visiting his Instagram, and hopefully continue to support TMDE by following us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.