VI: Carlsbad Caverns


Better late than never, this post finishes out (for now) the New Mexico section of this blog. As you may remember, I was living in northern New Mexico about a year ago for an internship, and having a blast. I stalled out in updating this blog with only one New Mexico post left, and I’m finally getting back to it now – our trip to Carlsbad Caverns in the far south.

Driving from Carlsbad, NM to the caverns, with blue skies as far as the eye can see.

On a three-day weekend I drove down to Albuquerque where I met my two friends from Tucson, AZ, both of whom ended up living in New Mexico (one of them works at the Very Large Array, so check that post out too). I probably didn’t mention it in previous postings, but it was a blast being able to see them so frequently once again. We took a leisurely drive south through the country, passing through Roswell, NM to see what all the fuss was about. We only stopped for a milkshake, but saw plenty of alien statues as we drove down the main drag. We rolled into Carlsbad late, got some delicious margaritas from the Chile’s next to our hotel, and stayed up late playing cards. The next morning we woke up relatively early to finish the drive to Carlsbad Caverns, just about 30 minutes outside the town. The weather was perfect, and the day was amazingly relaxing. Can you tell I’m looking back on this memory fondly?

To get a couple of details out of the way: the park is open year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Visitor Center and cavern hours vary depending on time of year. Some tips: pay special attention to the shoes you wear, don’t bring food in the cave, and bring a sweater (the cave averages about 56°F year round)! Ranger-led tour tickets must be purchased online (some of them look pretty intense, good for adventurers).

A slight inconvenience while we were visiting: their elevator was down and the tour tickets we purchased required meeting at the very bottom of the cave. We expected, like most tours, that it would start at the Visitor Center, but instead we arrived 15 minutes early to discover that you actually had to start walking to the meeting point about an hour and thirty minutes before the tour was due to start. This was written in the small print on the bottom of the tickets; I would argue it should have been indicated much more prominently than it was. However, that’s neither here nor there anymore, because it appears that a year later, the elevators into the cave are back in operation, making the meeting point much easier to access.

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Once we came to terms with missing our tour, we went with the flow and walked down into the caves ourselves, on the self-guided tour. Even without a ranger and special access, we quite easily spent several hours exploring the caverns. We walked a short distance from the Visitor Center to the Natural Entrance, which, as you probably guessed, is the natural way to enter the cave. Switchbacks descend into a large, gaping hole set into the desert floor. Even when you still have natural daylight, the temperatures drop fast in the shade. Before you know it you are in almost total darkness. Just imagine how many bats could be around you!

Carlsbad Caverns is home to 17 different bat species, the largest of which is the Mexican, or Brazilian Free-tailed bat (they’re super cute). In the summer, free “Bat Flight” programs are held nightly, weather permitting, to watch many thousands of bats rush out of this natural entrance. If you are here during the off-season, you are still welcome to sit in the amphitheater and wait for the bats to emerge. We skipped this as we finished our tour relatively early in the day and didn’t want to drive back to the caves a second time later on (plus we weren’t there during the ideal season).

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The Natural Entrance path is 1.25 miles long and descends 750 feet into the Earth (almost 70 stories)! The beginning of the trail in the cave starts in almost pitch darkness and there is little to look at. The views become better illuminated and more spectacular as you descend. The rock formations here are called speleothems, as they developed from secondary mineral deposits within the cave: the original limestone and additional sulfuric acid rising from even deeper beneath the Earth’s surface. The speleothems can be further categorized into stalactites and stalagmites (remember stalaCtite has a “C” for ceiling, and stalaGmite has a “G” for ground).

At the end of the Natural Entrance path you can continue onto the Big Room, another 1.25 mile path in the bowels of the caverns. If you’re not up to walking down the 750 feet from the Natural Entrance, or back up the 750 feet, the elevator is another option to return to ground level. Located nearby the elevators are bathrooms and even a small cafe. (Due to the elevator being out of service, food was very limited while we were there. I imagine the options are more expansive now.) The Big Room path is much more level, and cuts across the middle of the cavern at one point, allowing you to shorten the length.

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Along the trails are the occasional informational signs describing points of interest. Unlike astronomy,  the formation names somewhat depict what you are viewing. One I remember vividly is the Whale’s Mouth, which actually did look like a Whale’s Mouth. Another favorite spot was the Bottomless Pit (aptly named). For a long time the depth was unknown. Stones were dropped into it and never heard to hit rock or water. Later exploration revealed that the pit was 143 feet deep, and the stones weren’t heard hitting the ground due to the soft sand at the bottom. As you stand there looking out over the abyss, it’s easy to imagine that it is in fact bottomless: the dim lighting within the cave can’t illuminate the pit more than 10 feet from your vantage point.

If it’s not too busy while you’re there, definitely try to get your group to stay silent for a moment or two and listen to the cave sounds – it’s quite peaceful. Also watch out for the small pools of water hosting beautiful reflections of the speleothems (I tried to take several pictures of these, but with the low lighting and no tripod, the photos were incredibly noisy).

While the caverns are a bit off the beaten path from other major attractions in this area (southern NM and SW Texas), they make an impressive sight. All three of us felt it was something we should definitely see while living in NM, and we were very happy with the trip. If you do visit, check out some other activities to do in Carlsbad. Some of them looked like they could be fun, specifically the zoo and a hike at Sitting Bull Falls, but we didn’t have time to make it to them.

Definitely visit Carlsbad Caverns if you get a chance, and consider doing one of the ranger-led tours. Some of them look very exciting!

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