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Carlsbad Caverns National Park
It’s not just a big cave in New Mexico; it’s an unexcelled experience
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
First a bit of science: The basic rock in the Carlsbad Caverns area is limestone, which was formed more than 200 million years ago when the region was much lower and covered by an inland sea. Movement of the earth’s crust (plate tectonics) began to lift the land above sea level about 20 million years ago, and the processes of erosion started their work. Deep underground, various oils and minerals combined to form hydrogen sulfide which, when mixed with rainwater percolating down from the surface, became sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved limestone, creating most of the hundreds of caves in North America.
The Guadalupe Mountains, of which Carlsbad Caverns is a part, continued to rise. As they did, water in the caves drained out. Through thousands of tiny cracks in the rock, rainwater trickled downward into the caves, dissolving limestone as it traveled. Countless billions of drips re-deposited the limestone within the caverns – mostly as stalactites and stalagmites.
The first white man known to discover the caves was teenage cowboy Jim White. In 1898 he noticed swarms of bats flying out of the ground. Investigating further, he discovered the cave opening, and entered. Thousands of bats hung from the ceiling. Directly beneath them were the accumulations of hundreds of years of their droppings. Realizing the value of the bat guano, White spent the next 20 years shoveling it for a living (it makes very good fertilizer).
Fortunately for all of us, White also investigated the caves. Park visitors can now explore the caverns, but please leave your shovels at home. There are many things to do in the park. Mostly though, you’ll want to explore the main cave.
Those with minimal energy to spend walking on dimly lit, uneven paths might choose to take the elevator from the surface down to the Big Room. Many of the best features in the caverns can be seen on the mile-long looping path. When you’re finished, return by the elevator.
People with a fair amount of energy will want to take the 1.4-mile walking path down, down, down to the Big Room, take the loop and then return to the surface by elevator. People with more energy than smarts will take the elevator down and hike up the trail.
The main features of the Caverns are: the stalagmites – they go from the floor up, and the stalactites – they go from the ceiling down, and the columns – where dripping stalactites connect with the stalagmites that formed directly under them. There are also mineral deposits called draperies, soda straws, and popcorn.
And Carlsbad Caverns is lit magnificently! It’s good enough to show shape and texture, but not so much brightness that it washes out all the good stuff with white light. True, the color comes as much from filters as from mineral content, but it’s done well. And the lights are hidden.
Several hundred-thousand Mexican Free-Tailed Bats roost and raise babies in Carlsbad Caverns. You won’t encounter them in your explorations of the main cave, but you can watch them every evening between mid-April and mid-October. Just go to the Bat-flight Amphitheater and listen to the Bat-flight Ranger as you wait for the Bat-flight. Tens of thousands of the little critters leave their topsy-turvy world of hanging upside down from the ceiling of the cave, and head out to search for flying insects. They eat them by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions. That’s where all those tons of bat guano came from that Jim White spent so many years standing knee-deep in.
By the way, Mexican Free-Tailed Bats will not attack you or get tangled in your hair (even if it’s coiffed like Marge Simpson’s), and they don’t suck blood. They just want to clear the skies of all mosquitoes, and for that they should be loved by one and all.
Carlsbad Caverns is open every day except Christmas – weather and road conditions permitting.
There are only a couple of walking paths in the caverns. They’re paved and lighted, and the lights don’t create so much glare that it lowers the quality of sightseeing. The walking surface is uneven, however, and no walking sticks are permitted because of the potential of damaging some of the thousands of small stalactites hanging from low ceilings.
Although paths are self-guiding, the Big Room also offers interpretive ranger-led walks. If, after seeing the main rooms of the cave, you want to do something a bit more exciting, why not sign up for “spelunking” in Slaughter Canyon Cave or Spider Cave? These are also ranger-led and civilian-friendly. Although they’re not hard-core, they will certainly give you a taste of caving. There are no paths, no electricity, no nothing. When you sign up, the rangers will tell you what you need in the way of equipment. Mainly, you bring water and a flashlight, and you plan on crawling around on your hands, knees and belly.
Caution: Many people have a mild form of claustrophobia – but don’t know it. Find out before you go cave crawling, because if you wait until you’re slithering through a narrow opening 200 feet below ground, you might panic. It’s no fun. Trust me; I found out the hard way.
Get Some Pictures
The best photos will be when you do not use flash. A big blast of white light from in front of the features will eliminate the textures that give them their look of shape and depth. The only way to get really good photographs is to use a tripod and no flash. Set exposures manually using some sort of spot metering technique. Or bracket like crazy (taking different exposures of the same picture).
If your camera can’t be set on manual control, and if you don’t want to use a tripod, there are three pieces of advice I offer: Use ASA settings of at least 800. With digital cameras, you can check your pictures. If ASA 800 doesn’t look good, try a different setting. Turn your flash off. Buy a bunch of postcards before you leave the area, because if you don’t use a tripod, it’s very difficult to come anywhere near accomplishing what the pros have.
One of the best reasons to take photographs when you travel is to get photos that can’t be bought, such as those with you, your family or friends in them. Clever travelers always buy high quality postcards of famous stuff and then keep them for themselves. Mail letters, not postcards.
When You Go
RV camping is found just outside the park at White’s City Resort and RV Park. The resort offers swimming pools and a spa. It’s the only camping place for miles, but it also happens to be very nice. Check your Woodall’s Campground Directory for further information.
Because Carlsbad Caverns is so far from most other places of interest in the southwest, and is not on any major east/west highways, it is sometimes overlooked as a destination of note. That is a mistake. There are other caverns worth of visiting – Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave comes to mind – but none is more magnificent than Carlsbad. And, with a little adjusting to your primary route, you might also include White Sands National Monument in your itinerary.
A visit to Carlsbad Caverns should definitely be on your short list of things to do.