“It’s got all the cathedrals of the world in it, with half of ’em hanging upside down.”Will Rogers, 1931
Years ago I flew into Las Vegas after Christmas break to help my friend Peggy drive her new-to-her car from her uncle’s house in Vegas back to Ft. Hood, Texas. Along the way we picked up another Ft. Hood friend, Rick, in Albuquerque and the three of us explored Carlsbad Caverns. It made a huge impression on me. Part of it was that we did not go in with a typical guide and tour group, but instead had an audio “phone” that we could listen to whenever we came to painted footstep indicators on the ground. It was so extensive that it took several hours to go through, all on our own, and there was even a cafeteria in the cave where we had lunch. I’ve always wanted to go back with Cal, so this was the day. Now, after seeing it twice, I still wouldn’t mind doing it again! I’m a person who enjoys cave exploration very much.
Carlsbad Caverns lies underneath the northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains, on the New Mexico end. The park was our destination for the day after our Guadalupe hike, and was not too far from our camping site at Chosa. We had to make reservations for our time slot and because it took less time than we anticipated to get into the park, we stopped at a “point of interest” along the way. It was a little trail to a rocky overhang used for millenia as a shelter for humankind. The roof of the overhang was blackened by multitudes of campfires over the ages. From the overhang, we could see across the road to more shallow caves.
On the trail to the overhang, all of the different types of plants were labeled, which was very helpful for someone like me who always forgets the names of things. In the southern Guadalupes, I had seen the yucca in bloom. Yucca is often used in landscaping back in Missouri, where I used to live, but it does not bloom there until at least August.
There are two ways to get into the cavern: by hiking to the natural entrance of the cave, and by taking an elevator down to the Big Room Trail. We opted for the natural entrance.
The park literature will tell you that “Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea about 265 million years ago. Twelve-to-fourteen thousand years ago, American Indians lived in the Guadalupe Mountains.” Spanish and European settlers may have entered the cave, but the first credited exploration was by Jim White in 1898. Jim was a cowboy who found the cave by accident; he thought he saw a wildfire in the distance, but upon closer examination saw that it was thousands of Brazilian ring-tailed bats exiting the cave. He returned later with some wire, wood, and a light source, and began exploring it. You can see his ladder in the picture below. Jim spent the rest of his life exploring the cave and guiding others through it. In 1923 he guided the General Land Office for surveying and mapping the cavern, and it became a national park in 1930 after first becoming a national monument.
My parents took me on cave tours from a young age and I loved to go. We lived not too far from one in Ohio, where I grew up, and I loved exploring deep under the ground and looking at huge cave formations. I learned that stalactites “hold on tight” to the cave ceiling, and come down from above, and stalagmites grow from below. Both are formed from drips of water over millenia, and are easily interrupted in their formation by the simplest human touch. Back in the day, the cave formations were given cute little names, like “Bacon and Eggs” or “The Pipe Organ”. Most of the cave tours I’ve been on recently focus on the scientific and conservation aspects of cave growth and preservation, and that’s a good thing. However, I noticed that Carlsbad couldn’t help but sneak in a few names for their formations. The sweeping panorama in the picture above was called “Fairyland” and the one below was a “Whale’s Mouth”, with cave formations of draperies and flowstone.
So, I came up with a couple of my own. Here is “The Hobbit”, or “Li’l Abner”. You have to look at the black space in the middle to see it.
And, do you see my cute little cave cat?
Just when I would think there couldn’t be anything more awesome to see, we would round a corner or go through a passageway, and there would be something else. The picture above was the entrance to the Big Room, and its soaring heights really could be compared to a cathedral as Will Rogers did back in the 30’s.
We were at the Caverns when things were just starting to open up after COVID. You can still tour the cave on your own without a tour group, and can rent the audio tour in the visitor center book shop. We neglected to do that this time but we were still down in the cave several hours even without having audio to stop and listen to. There were plenty of descriptive signs along the way, though. Before we arrived in the Big Room, there were many stretches where we were all by ourselves. It looks like it still may be possible to have lunch down in the cave, but all of that was closed for COVID. We rode the elevator up when we were finished seeing everything. We did both the natural entrance and the Big Room trails and walked about the same distance as the day before, in our Guadalupe Mountains hike, but without all the rock climbing, so it seemed much easier! The bats still do fly out of the cave at sunset, something I would have liked to see, although their numbers are diminished from Jim White’s day. They hadn’t returned yet from their winter migration, so we’ll have to save that for another visit.
Next time – Exploring New Mexico