Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico: What to See and Do
Awe-inspiring hardly describes the feeling one has when first viewing the vast chambers of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is difficult using just words to describe the sights discovered below ground in this area.
My traveling companion and I had just enjoyed hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the south of Carlsbad, and since we were on a mission to enjoy seeing many national parks and other natural sites on our vacation, this was the next obvious place on our itinerary.
Carlsbad Caverns was a part of the same geological composition that had created the Guadalupe Mountains. And as we had already learned, there were numerous known caves in the Guadalupe's.
These caverns dwarf most other caves because of the gigantic size of its many chambers, particularly the one known as the Big Room.
Speaking of big...the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns is the second largest of its kind known in the entire world. Fourteen acres (6 hectares) of the open area would hold a significant number of football fields placed back to back or easily house an aircraft carrier with room to spare.
Geology of the Area
For those people reading this post before learning about the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I'll recap some information in layman's terminology laying out the history and geology of this area and just how this massive cave came into existence.
The Permian Sea once covered this entire part of the country encompassing parts of Texas and New Mexico. An inland sea with finger-like spokes with lime-secreting organisms lived and died in these mineral-rich waters.
Gradually over eons of time (this all began approximately 250 million years ago) evaporation and solidification of these skeletonized organisms took place. Salts and sand covered what used to be a liquid sea, and the area gradually turned into desert.
At the edge of what used to be the Permian Sea was the formation of a fossilized reef that eventually grew to many hundreds of feet thick and several miles wide. As the sea was receding thousands of feet of sediment was filled in over this location. Time altered the compressed organic material into precious oil and gas which has made parts of the Southwest valuable real estate for petroleum companies who try to recover those commodities for our modern lifestyles.
Progressing forward in time, parts of this fossilized reef became uplifted as happened with the Guadalupe Mountains, Apache Mountains and Glass Mountains in Texas which is all a part of this same Permian Basin. Most of the Permian Basin remains buried underground.
As areas became uplifted starting some 20 to 40 million years ago, fresh water mixed with the saltier water and began filling in some of the rock areas.
Limestone gradually dissolves in acidic conditions, and this is how the ongoing process of cave formation began. Some of the softer rocks fell to the ground as air-filled chambers began growing and nature started its decorating process within the caves.
Discovery of the Cave
No one knows for sure just who discovered this massive cave first, but there is evidence of Native Americans knowing of its existence due to pictographs on some of the walls near the entrance. Also discovered are nearby cooking pits which the Indians would have utilized. Native Americans had also lived in the adjoining Guadalupe Mountains until they were driven out onto reservations in the late 1800s by settlers moving to the West.
In 1883 a boy by the name of Rolth Sublett was lowered into the cave by his father according to some early reports. What or why this happened is not known. Perhaps just curiosity as to what was below the surface?
Bats emerging from the cave drew a young man's attention two years later when accompanied by his father, Ned Shattuck was looking for a missing cow. More and more people began discovering this cave due to the valuable guano (excretions) left behind by what was found to be millions of bats residing in this cavern.
Guano is a useful source of fertilizer due to its rich nitrate composition. Mining operations soon began after Abijah Long filed a claim for the guano and other minerals in this area. Shafts were dug, and mining cars brought valuable resources up from the depths. This mining did not last long, but the cave became better known and more people started exploring its depths.
One of my photos shows one of the ladders strung down from one opening in the cavern that would have been used by some of these early explorers.
Steps to Becoming a National Park
Seen below are the words in the report of Mineral Examiner Robert A. Holley who was assigned to investigate the cave to determine if it was worthy of being named a national monument. This quote comes from a booklet of Carlsbad Caverns that I purchased on site.
It is more than understandable his wording as he would have been exploring these huge chambers with the help of lit torches and probably miners lights. The beauty of the rooms with the stalactites and stalagmites that had originated over many thousands of years must have been overwhelming when first sighted.
Also being one of the first to do this type of exploration would have been a daunting and somewhat scary task. One false step and one could fall into a seemingly bottomless and dark as night abyss.
" I enter upon this task with a feeling of temerity as I am wholly conscious of the feebleness of my efforts to convey in words the deep conflicting emotions, the feeling of fear and awe, and the desire for an inspired understanding of the Divine Creator's work that presents to the human eye such a complex aggregate of natural wonders in such a limited space."— Robert A. Holley
After more exploration by others such as geologist Dr. Willis T. Lee and with his heartiest of recommendations, President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation making Carlsbad Cave National Monument a reality in 1923.
More and more people started discovering this beautiful and large cave, and pictures like those in National Geographic helped to widen knowledge and interest.
It did not take that long to go from National Monument status to National Park designation. It was only seven years later when President Herbert Hoover signed the paperwork creating Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Lighting of the Caves
My husband had visited Carlsbad Caverns with his mother in the year 1966 before my knowing him. He described the cave as a "big hole in the ground." My friend and I were the beneficiaries of being able to see much more of the cave illuminated than did my husband and others who visited Carlsbad Caverns in earlier years.
The extra brightness all happened when a California movie lighting specialist visited the cave and realized that with better illumination much more of the cave could be enjoyed by the masses of people who were coming to enjoy this spectacle. His offer to help light up more of the cave was accepted, and in 1976 his efforts culminated in what my traveling friend and I had gotten to view. It was no longer a "big hole in the ground" but a spectacularly lit chamber of wonders.
The project of adding lights to illuminate these spectacular stalactites and stalagmites as well as other formations would have been a delicate job of execution so as not to harm the delicate structures.
While my friend and I were in one of these scenic rooms with many other people, the tour guide told us that he was going to turn out all of the lights so that we could experience what the first explorers of the cave might have felt.
It was a brief but eerie feeling as the darkness is complete. No filtered light was seen from any angle as we were many hundreds of feet below the surface. The guide then lit a torch, and it was a welcome sight, but it barely penetrated the inky blackness of the surrounding cavern.
There is a continual source of fresh air which permeates the chambers.
It gave us a good sense of what it must have been like to have been some of the first explorers in Carlsbad Caverns at least regarding visibility. They were certainly brave, hearty and adventurous souls!
At the time of our visit, they had discovered over 70 caves within Carlsbad Caverns, and most of them are not open to the public because of accessibility problems and to help protect the delicate formations.
New ones keep being discovered. Some are large, and others are minuscule. Research of these caves continues regularly.
Underground Post Office and Lunchroom
Seven hundred and fifty feet (225 meters) below the surface is a lunchroom that has been built into place in Carlsbad Caverns with concession stands selling cold and hot drinks and box lunches. Picnic tables are also set up in this area so that people can rest, relax and enjoy refreshments of their choice. There is also an underground post office selling postcards, stamps and the like.
My traveling companion and I both purchased postcards and stamps which indicated where they originated thinking that our families might appreciate the uniqueness of this post office deep in the bowels of the earth. It is hardly the norm!
Various Ways to Enjoy Carlsbad Caverns
Depending upon one's physical condition and desires as well as available time, one can experience Carlsbad Caverns in different ways.
For the adventurous spirits, there are parts of this locale where, and one would be going through narrow passages on one's hands and knees with headlights on one's helmet.
The majority of people probably choose one of the three following ways to experience the caverns:
# 1: The easiest method is to take the elevator down to the lunchroom, 750 feet below the surface where one can walk the 1 1/4 mile ( 2 kilometers ) trail around the circumference of the Big Room.
Wheelchair access is available for this portion of the cave. It is a self-guided tour, and it takes about one hour to enjoy this well lit circular route and most everyone going to Carlsbad Caverns if they go underground sees this part of the national park.
# 2: If one has more time one can take the gradually descending 1 3/4 mile (2.8 km.) walk from the natural entrance which transports one to a depth of 850 feet (250 m.) to what is called the scenic rooms where one is guided through the following chambers:
- Papoose Room
- Queen's Chamber
- King's Palace
- Green Lake Room
# 3: My friend and I took the optional King's Palace guided tour (which includes the scenic rooms) and it takes about 1 1/2 hours, and a park ranger is there to describe what one is getting to view. One must be able to not only walk a mile but be prepared to descend and later ascend the equivalent of eight stories in height. One needs reservations for this optional tour and having seen it; I would highly recommend taking advantage of it if at all possible.
We skipped walking down into the canyon just for time constraint reasons and took the elevator instead. Everyone takes the elevator up out of the canyon no matter which way they decide to enter the canyon.
After spending about four hours underground at Carlsbad Caverns my friend and I took the scenic nine and a half mile one-way tour along the Walnut Canyon Desert Drive which is on a gravel road above the canyon.
For those who wish to backpack and explore this primitive backcountry, there are more than fifty miles of trails in the national park.
We merely drove and stopped along the way to look at the desert scenery as our next destination was Cloudcroft where we had reservations for the night at The Lodge.
Many people try and time their visits to Carlsbad to see the seasonal emerging of the thousands of bats in the evening from the cavern. It reputed to be quite a sight! We had more miles to travel so elected not to stay for this evening nature show.
Awe-inspiring certainly fits what we saw underground at Carlsbad Canyons National Park in New Mexico. It is indeed worth a visit if you ever find yourself in that area of the United States.
Just For Fun, a Vintage Postcard
I am inserting this photo of a non-copyrighted postcard picked up by my grandparents as they traveled in these same areas many decades ago. On the back was the handwritten notation "Wed., Dec. 30th - Ate dinner."
Have you visited the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns National Park?
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© 2009 Peggy Woods