Location: New Mexico
Established: May 14, 1930
Size: 46,766 acres
“The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.
Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil. Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture built an extraordinary variety of glistening formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.
Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles (five kilometers) on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.
Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects. The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.”
This stop was one that we were all excited for.
We are “cave people,” and I mean that in the kindest way possible…not that we are Neanderthals in our actions and manners…
well, perhaps a little bit,
but what I really mean is that our family loves touring caves.
As a family we have toured a dozen caves and never turn down the chance to explore another underground labyrinth.
Last year we had the opportunity to tour Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system in the world.
When we were planning our cross country trip and realized how close we would be traveling to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, we knew we needed to add this stop to our itinerary. This stop had two added benefits:
#1: We were within three hours of my brother, Travis, who lives in Midland, Texas. So we planned to combine our visit to Carlsbad with a visit with Travis.
#2: It was free to visit and take Travis with us on a cave tour with our America the Beautiful pass.
We arrived in the area on Sunday night. The plan was to meet up with Travis on Monday morning, but we drove over to Carlsbad Caverns the night before so we could catch their evening bat show. This show is a must-see event if you visit the caverns. This show that you watch at the mouth of the cave is just as spectacular as anything you will see below ground.
We arrived at 6:15 and found a seat in the open amphitheater that faces the bat cave entrance.
There we were instructed to turn off all electronics; including phones and cameras. No photography was allowed at the bat show as the lights put out by our cameras and phones can disorientate the bats in their flight and cause them to crash into vegetation.
We were also asked to sit still and quietly as we waited for the bats to emerge.
As we waited, a ranger spoke about the bats at Carlsbad Cavern, in the most interesting ranger led program we have attended on our trip. We learned that the colony of bats found at Carlsbad Caverns are Brazilian free-tail bats.
This colony is composed of 1/2 million bats, which was an incredible site to see when they began emerging from the cave, but we discovered that today’s colony of bats was a small percentage of the colony that was found there in the 1930’s. That same colony used to be 8-9 million strong.
The primary cause of the shrinking of the colony can be traced to the use of DDT in the 1970s.
Carlsbad Caverns is considered a maternity roost where the colony comes to give birth and raise pups each spring. These bats typically give birth to one pup every June or July. The pups are raised in the cave until the are old enough to join their mothers on their nightly flights beginning in September.
In October they leave Carlsbad Caverns for the winter, choosing to migrate to Mexico each year rather than hibernate like some other bat colonies do.
Around 6:45 pm the bats began to fly, beginning their flight pattern by flying in a vortex, creating a tornado of bats as they worked their way from the bottom of the cave up to the entrance.
The ranger explained that this movement is much like L.A. traffic and by flying in a spinning vortex bats are able to merge into “traffic” allowing 500,000 bats to exit the cave in a orderly way.
It was an unreal site to see 1/2 million bats leave the cave in search of the 4,500 pounds of insects the colony eats nightly in the 20 mile radius around the cave.
As the crowd sat in complete silence under a wave of passing bats, the experience was almost spiritual.
(Images taken from NPS website)
I don’t know when I have experienced something so affecting.
The only sound was the whoosh of air as they flew above our heads and moved in a dance of dips and spins.
It was one of the neatest experiences of my life.
The next morning we returned to Carlsbad Caverns to meet my brother, Travis, for the day. Since he moved to Texas, visits with Travis are a rare and treasured treat. We decided to make this his belated birthday celebration since last week was his birthday.
He arrived and the kids ran over to greet him.
Toby picked up our tickets for the tour and we began our visit in the visitor’s center, where we were able to learn a bit more about the formation of the cave, the history of the cave, and the bats that occupy the cave.
From there we moved to the elevators that would take us deep within the Caverns.
There were multiple cavern tours available from self-guided, walk through tours to more adventurous, ranger-led tours.
We opted for the Big Room tour:
“The basic tour through Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room route, a one-mile, self-guided underground walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave, the Big Room. Taking approximately 1.5 hours, this circular route passes many large and famous features including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. Highly decorated and immense, the Big Room should be seen by all park visitors.
Access to the Big Room is provided by elevators located in the visitor center.
Just how BIG is the Big Room? At about 8.2 acres in size, roughly 6.2 football fields would fit into the Big Room!
It is definitely well-named as this is 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 of Carlsbad Caverns”
We took the elevator down 750 feet into the heart of the cavern, which was equivalent to over 70 stories of descent and took about a minute to go down. Rangers operate them with a pre-orientation.
The first thing that greeted us below was the cafe and store carved under the rocks. It was pretty amazing how they were able to carve out a small underground center here.
The other thing we noticed upon stepping out of the elevator was the temperature, which remains a steady 56 degrees year round inside the cave.
The trail around the Big Room was incredible. Pictures didn’t prepare us for the vast size and incredible beauty.
We have toured many caves, with some prettier than others, but I have never visited a cave more beautiful than Carlsbad Caverns.
I’ve often said there’s no comparison with pictures and seeing things in person. In this instance, our pictures don’t even begin to capture the beauty and size of these formations.
These decorations were all spectacular sights. We saw the Stalagmites growing from the ground and created by water falling on the floor.
Water dripping slowly from the ceiling created the Stalactites hanging down. The thinner, hollow ones are called Soda Straws.
When stalagmites and stalactites grow and meet together, they create these massive formations called Columns.
Sometimes, water gathers in the cave and form Cave Pools. This one was clear and made for some wonderful reflections.
Their imagination ran wild picturing what some of the formations looked like. Some actually had names like this one called Lion’s Tail.
It was an amazing experience and it was fun to be able to share it with Travis.
After our 1.5 hour walk around the Big Room we stopped at the underground cafeteria for Travis’ birthday lunch.
Where else in the world can you say you had your birthday lunch 750 feet below ground.
“The Underground Lunchroom came into existence in 1928, two years before the cave became a national park. At that time there was a desperate need for food and drink for tourists who were exhausted by the six hours walk required to get in and out of the cavern’s Big Room. The hike had such a reputation for making visitors hungry that the last few hundred yards were known as ”appetite hill.”
The Underground Lunchroom serves small meals such as sandwiches, salads, yogurt, parfaits, and other food that does not involve cooking in the caverns, so as to protect the delicate cave environment, although in the early years of its operation there were no prohibition on cooking. Visitors can still eat at a personal lantern lit table.
One of the most popular activities for visitors is to write and send postcards from underground. There is a mailbox in the caverns, and you can stamp your postcard “Mailed from 750 feet below ground.”
We had a few postcards to mail out and sent them from this underground post office.
Then we took the elevators up to the surface where we headed back to the bus to give Travis a tour of our home on wheels.
There we gave him his birthday gift: a Carlsbad Caverns t-shirt and hat to remember his birthday visit to the caverns.
Travis also gave Tyler his birthday gift: a really cool mega squirt gun, that Tyler was thrilled with!
All too soon it was time to say our goodbyes. It wasn’t a lot of time, but we were thrilled to carve out some special one on one time with my Texan brother. It was a visit we will never forget!