Hidden Gems: Carlsbad Caverns (This Place Rocks!)

Recently, I had the chance to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park with my wife and my father. Driving from my grandmother’s house in El Paso, Texas, we reached the Caverns, located in southern New Mexico’s dusty Chihuahuan Desert, in about 3 hours. Carlsbad — immense, colorful, and magical — contains 113 caves, formed over millions of years as sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. The result is 2 miles of majestic, creepy, underground adventure — that feels like you’re exploring a very unruly planet. I had no idea what to expect before arriving. It doesn’t really matter, though, because no amount of preparation can get you ready for the enormity and the unusual beauty of the Caverns.

Happily, we managed to time our trip on the 90th Birthday of the country’s National Park System. Boy oh boy, that cake was good!

Some of you may take exception with calling Carlsbad Caverns a Hidden Gem. The Caverns see 500,000 visitors a year; are the jewel in the crown of America’s cave systems; and have had starring roles in various Hollywood films — so they’re clearly a Gem. However, they’re remote, dark, and underground, so I’m going to call them Hidden.

We arrived at the Caverns around lunchtime. Located about 20 miles south of the City of Carlsbad, the Caverns are situated just outside White City, a sleepy little village that’s been modeled after an Old West town. Although there’s a well-stocked convenience store, a gift shop, a tiny hotel, a water park, and some other facilities, I wouldn’t plan on all things being available at all times. In fact, the day we visited, the shiny new gas station was closed tight. In short: plan to gas up and stock up elsewhere.

Fortunately, we had brought some sandwiches with us, just in case we got hungry on the drive, and we gobbled them before entering the Cavern. This turned out to be a very good idea. After snarfing lunch, we posed for a photo on the way in.

Inside the Visitor’s Center — which provides an excellent overview and history of the Caverns — we learned about the Park System’s birthday celebration. When I asked the Park Rangers if I could snap their photo, one woman joyfully bubbled, “Wow…no one ever wants to take our picture.”

Just to clarify, the entire National Park System turned 90 years old that day. Carlsbad Caverns became a National monument in 1923; in 1930, the Caverns were upgraded to a State Park; and in 1995, the area became a World Heritage Site.

With that settled, we wiped cake from our faces and made our way from the Visitor’s Center to the Cavern entrance, which is about a 500-foot walk. Looking around, I was surprised with how green the surroundings were.

Green? Yes. Calling me to walk through it barefoot? No.

After being reminded (again) by a good-natured Ranger that we would go without a restroom break for more than an hour, and discouraged (again) from touching the Cavern’s formations (the oils on fingers coat the rocks, preventing them from growing), we headed to the yawning maw of the Cavern. This entrance is known as the Natural Entrance.

The amphitheater-styled seating is provided for the Bat Viewing. Each evening at sundown, from May to September, nearly 400,000 Brazilian free-tail bats exit the Cavern in search of dinner. These seats are provided for vistiors to watch the bats leave. Initially, I thought bat viewing sounded lame, but after leaving the Caverns, I wish we’d arranged to stay and watch. I mean, c’mon: when else will you see 400,000 bats flying at once? The experience would be equal parts horror movie and Wild Kingdom.

Appropriately enough, the first room inside the Natural Entrance — dark, musty, and endless — is called “the Bat Cave.” Forget taking photos — unless you like black pictures.

Entrance to the Caverns is cheap: $6 per person is the cost for self-guided tours. If you choose this option, I highly recommend shelling out the extra $3 for an audio player. You carry it with you on the trek, and when you approach a numbered marker, you punch in the number and listen to the pre-recorded hosts explain what you’re looking at. A bit cheesy? Yes, at times. But you learn a lot about what you’re seeing.

Speaking of tours, there are several kinds available. As mentioned, we took the self-guided Natural Entrance Tour, which takes about an hour and a half, and leaves you in the Big Room, which requires another hour or so. If you only have an hour, you might want to skip the Natural Entrance and head straight for the quickee-tour of the Big Room, which you can access directly via an elevator. (If you only do this tour, I think you’re short-changing yourself, but if you’ve got limited time, or you’re with people who don’t get around so well, this is the one to choose.) Finally, if you don’t want an audio tour, you can arrange for a Ranger-guided tour. Some of these tours even allow you to wear hard hats with lights and take you to otherwise inaccessible parts of the cave system, so if you’re batty for Carlsbad, you might want to explore this option.

Although the Caverns are, well, cavernous, there are times that visitors are required to walk through slightly narrow passageways. Consequently, the horribly-claustrophobic might not be interested in visiting.

Also, be aware that the temperature inside the Caverns is a constant (refreshing) 56 degrees. I found lightweight hiking pants and a short-sleeved t-shirt to be highly adequate; I never wore the long-sleeved t-shirt I brought. However, if you’re easily chilled, bring a lightweight cover-up. For your feet, sneakers are the only way to go: plan to be on your feet, on potentially slippery paths, for several hours.

Access inside the cave can be tricky. For example, this is one of the ladders we used.

I’m totally kidding. This ladder was used by National Geographic explorers in 1924 and is merely on display today. In reality, visitors walk on carefully laid-out paths, many featuring hand-rails and an occasional spotlight.

People on crutches or in wheelchairs can’t make the trip, but anyone else who can handle a 2% grade and stand for a few hours will get by fabulously.

Immediately, you’ll notice the odd shape of the rocks, which appear to be melting. Of course, they’re not melting, although sulfuric acid has been slowly dissolving the limestone for millions of years, and the result is the unusual formations we enjoy today. This particular formation is called the “Whale’s Mouth.” See the baleen?

Many of the formations — also known as “speleotherms” or (more simply) as “decorations” — grow from ceiling to floor and form massive columns that look like giant, melting candles. They’re everywhere in the Caverns.

One day, little guy…

While some decorations are relatively smooth, others look like popcorn — in fact, they’re even referred to as “popcorn” — and are created when water evaporates, leaving behind bumpy calcite deposits.

After about an hour and a half, visitors arrive at the imaginatively-named Big Room. While the decorations and scope of the Natural Entrance hike are impressive, it’s the Big Room that really takes your breath away. But before venturing into the Big Room, we stopped and spent some time at the Snack Bar, 750 feet below the surface of the earth.

That’s a bat holding the sign. Get it?

I’m going to be brutally honest here. Remember when I mentioned that we’d brought sandwiches and ate them prior to entering the cave. Yeah, well…that was a good idea, because the snack bar is woefully understocked. It has cool drinks and some candy bars, but the “meals” consist of plastic-wrapped, microwave-able burgers that resemble truck stop food and appear as old as the walls inside the Caverns. Word to the wise: don’t plan on filling up here. But the stop sure makes a cool photo!

Of course, before heading on, we needed to swing by the Gift Shop…

…and the restroom…

Usually I don’t take photos of men’s rooms, but I was so impressed and surprised by the rock formation over the urinals, that I couldn’t help myself. I even touched it to confirm it was real. It is. (Shhhh! Don’t tell the Park Rangers I touched it!)

Heading on to the Big Room, I was amazed by the vastness, scope, scale, and volume of what I saw. Helo-oo-oo-oo-o…if shouting were allowed in the Caverns, it would be deafening. Taking approximately 1½ hours, the circular route through the Big Room passes many gi-normous features including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. It’s wheelchair- but NOT stroller-accessible.

Much in the way that the Grand Canyon can not be captured in photos, some of the decorations in the Big Room are un-photograph-able: they’re just to big. Unless you’re Spielberg, I doubt you’ll have the camera equipment to shoot the entire Big Room. After all, it occupies 14 football fields! I did my best, however, with some of the smaller decorations.

One of the first things you see upon entering the Big Room is this decoration known as the Lion’s Tail. I have no idea why they call it that…

Fairy Land occupies a large portion of the 8.2-acre Big Room. Named by Jim White, the original explorer of the caverns, he thought these popcorn formations resembled fairies.

Remember that White only had a small lantern, not a battery-powered flash on his camera. I think he also had a pocket full of mescaline.

So where’s all the “big stuff”? We’re getting there…

This was the only photo I let my wife take. I was a greedy camera-hog that day. I think she did a good job, though. Maybe I’ll let her shoot more photos in the future.

This formation is roughly 40 feet tall, and the ceiling flies up more than 200 feet. I got dizzy several times looking up.

Don’t bump your head!

If you’re confused about how to remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, try this memory aid: stalgmites grow against gravity and are mighty; while stalactites cling tightly to the ceiling.

This decoration — dubbed the Rock of Ages — is one of the biggest in the Big Room. It stands more than 45 feet tall and is roughly 15 feet wide.

If you don’t think the decorations look like melting candles, I think these images will convince you.

And a closer look…

Not all of the formations in the Big Room are big. In fact, many of the decorations are small and exquisite. This particular formation is called the Doll’s Theater. It’s only about 15 feet tall at the mouth and only a few feet tall in the rear.

Here’s another small, delicate decoration.

Freud sees what?

Amusingly, everyone spent a lot of time looking at this decoration. As I snapped a photo of it, the grandmotherly woman standing next to me asked her friend where her husband was. When her friend said she didn’t know, the woman said, “I’m surprised he walked away already.”

We spent a little over 3 hours in the Caverns, but we probably could’ve spent an entire day, wandering amazed among the decorations amazed. There’s probably as much information about the Caverns as there are cubic inches of cave. If you want to learn more about the Caverns, check out these resources:

In summary, it was a great, big, huge day, filled with lots of walking and many unusual sights. There was only bad thing that happened…but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.