This past weekend, my DH and I took our camper down to the southern part of our state of New Mexico. We’ve lived here for 13 years and have talked about going to see Carlsbad Cavern and although we have driven through the area, we’ve never stopped to spend any time exploring. I have a vague idea that I’d like to see as many National Parks as I can in my lifespan, and this is one of them, so an added incentive to visit.
The cavern is part of a set of limestone caves in the area, which are the remnants of a large inland sea and fossil reef in this part of the Southwestern United States. The caverns were “discovered” in 1989 by local cowboy, Jim White. (And by “discovered” that’s discounting all of the Native American people who lived in the area for far longer than any settlers and who obviously knew about the cave system since there have been many artifacts and petroglyphs found in it. That’s a discussion for another day.) The entrance to the cave is HUGE and in the warmer months, the cave houses a large colony of migratory Brazilian free-tailed bats. There is a nightly exodus out of the cave to go hunt (which you can reserve a spot to watch) and then a return in the early morning hours. The bats also breed and raise their young in the cave, and the first industry associated with the cave was the exportation of bat guano to serve as fertilizer in the growing agricultural industry in California. The day we visited, it was too early/too cold for the bats, but there is a large population of swifts who also nest near the opening. (They are the small gray specks against the darkness of the cave mouth.)
The interior of the cave is only dimly lit. They try to keep the light levels as low as possible to prevent birds and animals from entering too far into the cave itself, as well as to keep down algae growth levels on the limestone formations. However, there are paved paths with handrails throughout the caves. We opted to walk down into the caverns, but there is also an elevator you can ride down (we rode it back up) if you’re worried about some of the steeper sections or just don’t want to take the time to walk the hour or so into the cave to get to the biggest room in the complex.
The limestone formations are really amazing. I’ve been to other smaller cave complexes in the past but really was not prepared for just how BIG this one is. You do lose a bit of your sense of depth and perspective underground since there’s not really any way to judge distances in relation to typical landmarks like a tree or a building.
Some of my favorites of the formations are the ones where stalactites (which drip from the roof of the cave) and their partner stalagmites (which rise up from the floor of the cave) almost meet, but I also really love the “drapery” ones that look like folds of fabric.
We really enjoyed the opportunity to walk through all of this amazing geology. We were also pleasantly surprised at how respectful and courteous everyone taking the tour was. For the most part, people kept their voices down (things echo A LOT down in the caves), and although some of the paths were narrow, people either stepped to the side, or carefully navigated around families or people trying to take photos. I decided to wear my mask due to my very limited immune system, although masks were not required, but even the folks not wearing masks (most people) kept a good 6-foot distance between each other whenever possible, which was appreciated.
I wondered if I’d feel claustrophobic at all but despite being under 700 feet of rock, the space is just so big, I never felt confined or like I was in close quarters. They have made most of the cavern’s trail system handicapped accessible. There was one very steep section, which was also a bit slick due to the dripping water from above, through which they did not allow wheelchairs, but otherwise, you could navigate with a bit of caution if you needed to use a wheelchair. (They do not allow baby strollers, however.) There is a nice amount of signage through the caves, explaining how the different types of formations are created, and a small exhibit in the main visitor center where they discuss the history of the area, both geological and sociological, which is quite informative.
We spent the better part of the day at the park, between taking our time to explore and enjoy the cavern, and walking around outside a bit afterwards to have some snacks and drinks before we headed back to the camper.
A second short post tomorrow on our visit to Guadalupe Forest National Park (which is nearby) to finish up the trip travelogue.