The world that exists below the surface in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains is a subterranean marvel, full of formations that dazzle the eyes and flirt with the imagination. The most commonly heard response from visitors upon first sight of these incredible creations is a resounding “wow!” With mouths agape, they stand transfixed by the unexpected magnificence that greets them. Everyone reacts the same way, even those who have been to the caves more than once. It’s simply impossible not to be awed by this geological wonder.
One of twenty World Heritage Sites in the United States, Carlsbad Caverns is both a gem and a testament to time. To truly appreciate this place, it’s important to understand its history. The caves began to develop about 250 million years ago when a reef formed along the edge of an inland sea. Eventually, this sea evaporated, leaving the reef buried under deposits of gypsum and salts. Then, a mere 20 to 30 million years later, the Guadalupe Range was raised thousands of feet above sea level, causing the reef to fracture. Rainwater permeated down from the surface and mixed with sulfuric acid to carve out the large rooms and passageways that exist today. Slowly, the formations were created, shaping and molding the chambers into palaces of exquisite beauty.
Legend has it that Native Americans most likely first discovered the caves while seeking shelter, but it wasn’t until later when settlers came to the area that word got out about their existence. Jim White, a young ranch hand, is credited with exploring the caverns and calling attention to them. The teen was out riding around the area when he spotted what he thought was smoke coming out of the ground. As he grew closer, he realized the smoke was actually thousands of bats swarming out from rocks. Curious, he crawled inside and realized he’d discovered an incredible cave system. Fascinated with his findings, he continued to explore the caverns, going further and deeper into the chambers.
Though White tried to tell others about the extraordinary features he saw, very few believed his improbable tales of a huge underground wilderness. It took photographs by a man named Ray Davis to finally convince skeptics that the caverns were everything White described and more. People clamored to go in the caves once they saw the pictures, and White started taking them on tours that began with a descent in a bucket once used to haul bat guano. Word reached Washington and Department of Interior inspectors were sent out to see the caverns. In 1923, they were proclaimed a National Monument and seven years later designated a National Park.
Visitors today can enter the caves via two methods. The easiest way is by taking an elevator from within the visitor center, descending 750 feet to the Big Room, the largest single underground chamber in the world, covering an area of 8.2 acres. This vast arena can be explored on a self-guided tour that circles the room’s 1.25 mile perimeter. Paved and lit trails allow you to easily view the jaw-dropping formations, and interpretive signage provides interesting geological facts. Highlights include such famous features as Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages and Painted Grotto.
The other way to get into the caves is by using the historic natural entrance route, which follows the traditional explorers’ access way – without the guano bucket, of course! The path is steep, with numerous switchbacks that lead you down 750 feet where you’ll then be able to enter the Big Room or take the elevators back up to the visitor center.
Ranger-guided group tours are also offered at the park. The benefit to having a knowledgeable and experienced guide is the information and stories that he or she shares along the way, which serve to enhance the experience tenfold. On a number of the tours, rangers will even turn off any artificial light source to momentarily plunge participants into the complete and utter darkness of a cave’s actual environment. This eerie sensation makes you appreciate the efforts of early explorers, who often had poor light sources or lacked back-ups for when their primary methods failed.
Guided tours range from the easily accessible and ever-popular Kings Palace, located in the deepest part of the cavern, to the complex backcountry Spider Cave, an adventurous and strenuous tour that’s not for the faint of heart. On the more challenging expeditions, you’ll descend steep, vertical ladders, climb up slippery flowstone passageways, squeeze through tight spaces and crawl long distances through undeveloped areas of the caverns with only a headlamp for light. After exploring the caves in this style, you’ll feel like a true spelunker.
However you choose to experience the caverns, you’ll no doubt be impressed by the extensive and intricate formations. Along with imposing stalactites and stalagmites, there are translucent cave pearls, elegant draperies, skinny soda straws, sparkling crystals, lily pads, twisting helictites and popcorn-studded walls. Some formations look like animals or people; others appear as buildings such as skyscrapers or castles.
Exploring the caverns and viewing all the exhibits in the visitor center can take a great deal of time; thankfully, the park’s entrance fee is good for three days, allowing visitors to have a quality experience during their stay. As for the best season to visit the caverns, the answer is “anytime is a good time.” The temperature in the caves remains a pleasant 56 degrees year-round, so you’ll have natural air conditioning in the hot summer months and during the winter, it will most likely be warmer down below than it is outside.
While winter is quiet and peaceful at Carlsbad, summer is high season with the added attraction of the bats. As many as seven types of bats may roost in the caves, with the most prevalent being the Mexican free-tailed. The creatures migrate to Carlsbad and take up residence in the caves from late May through October, then head south for the winter. On most evenings, visitors can gather at the amphitheater outside of the natural entrance to watch the spectacular bat flight. The event begins with a few bats fluttering out of the cave. In a matter of minutes, a whirlwind of bats take to the night sky in an undulating, serpentine exodus, which can last from twenty minutes to over two hours. This is the bats’ time to feed and each one may catch and eat more than half their body weight in insects in a single night. At dawn, they begin flying back to the cave where they sleep until it’s time to leave again at dusk the next evening. Witnessing a bat flight is a remarkable experience, one that will provide you with plenty of Kodak moments and ever-after memories.
To complete your Carlsbad getaway, make sure to make time for all the other attractions and activities in and around the area. Despite being a small town, Carlsbad has much to offer visitors. The nearby Guadalupe Mountains provide prime terrain for hikers and mountain bikers, while the Carlsbad Museum and Fine Arts along with the highly touted Walter Gerrells Performing Arts Center give the city its cultural edge. There’s also the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park, a unique indoor/outdoor museum where you can learn about the plants and animals that inhabit this diverse region.
About the Author
Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.