We drove through the virtual eye-of-the-storm to get here. In hindsight, we probably should have aborted. But we were soooo close to this national park that we were looking forward to bagging. The discussion never came up whether to take refuge while the front went through . . . it was just one of those situations that continued to degrade with every passing mile.
It was an unusually strong cold front that blew in from the west, increasing in intensity as it swept through the southwest states. It brought snowfall as far south as Tucson, it was a slippery mess as it passed through New Mexico. It was cold rain in Texas. The good news for us is that the road crews had cleared the highways by the time we were driving into New Mexico; the bad news was they used a lot of sand/salt mixture on the pavement which is very unhealthy for an Airstream’s exterior. By the time we pulled into the campground our rig was encased with a mixture of ice, snow, and sand thanks to the semis blasting us as they passed by.
We could only hope Carlsbad Caverns would be worth it. Next morning dawned clear and cold (26 degrees). The snow wouldn’t be melting today; but that was of little consequence when going below ground. We headed out.
The vast caverns began as an organic reef complex in the inland sea which covered southern New Mexico about 240 million years ago. This reef was covered by the sediment of subsequent seas for millennia and then about sixty million years ago, earth movements caused an uplift that fractured the reef, which was now buried beneath the surface of the earth. This fracture allowed water to filter down through the reef, which mixed with a brine originating from oil and gas deposits, rich in hydrogen sulfide, creating sulfuric acid.
This acid dissolved the limestone creating crevices, then pockets, and finally the huge rooms one can see today. As the Guadalupe Mountains continued to lift up, the water drained out of the cave allowing fresh air to percolate through and leave minerals on the ceiling, walls, and floors that we know as cave decorations. It took millions of years before these decorations began, but eventually, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture built an extraordinary variety of glistening formations.
The cave was first discovered by a young cowboy who happened to be chasing a recalcitrant cow across the Chihuahuan Desert early one evening. He spotted a dark vortex rising into the sky and didn’t know what it was. A tornado? A wildfire? In the desert? But it didn’t seem to be moving across the land, carried by the wind. Curious, he moved closer until he finally saw that the whirling cloud was made of millions of flying bats rising out of an opening in the ground.
The next day he returned to investigate the opening. With a make-shift ladder, he went down into the dark void. He progressed a short distance, far enough to realize he had found a huge cave. Although the folks back at the ranch didn’t believe what he was describing, he made a point to return for further explorations, this time accompanied by a young Mexican working on the ranch. Supplied with food, water, lanterns and oil, and a huge ball of yarn to mark their way, they descended into the cave where they spent three days exploring, giving names to formations that they saw. Ten years went by before news of this discovery circulated beyond the ranch when a photographer accompanied the cowboy back into the cave. From his documentation the world learned that there was something very special under the Guadalupe Mountains.
The natural opening is one of two ways today’s visitors can choose to enter Carlsbad Caverns, but you’d better be in good physical condition. The paved, switchbacking path is easier to navigate than what the early explorers contended with. Still, it is a 1.25-mile route that descends more than 750 feet into the earth along a steep and narrow trail. The other method to reach the cavern floor is by elevator originating inside the Visitor Center. We chose to follow the pathway of the early explorers, giving a more realistic feel to what we would be experiencing.
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. And the jaw-dropping spectacle begins when you enter the heart of the cavern, walking out of the entrance passageway or stepping off the elevators. The Big Room is the cave’s largest room, and easily its most decorated. Spanning an area of 8 acres with a maximum height of over 250 feet, your mind struggles to comprehend the scale of what you’re seeing. Giant formations fill the space, yet seen in the immense space, their size seems much smaller than what they really are. Among the shadows are alcoves filled with stalactites and soda straws, crystal clear ponds reflect images above, turning the room upside-down. Time here has been frozen; with no changing light to indicate its passage, your mind attempts to grasp the millennia it took for this creation.
Visitors began arriving here early in the 1900s. Slowly, improvements were implemented to help make their explorations easier. Paved pathways were laid in the 1920s, about the time President Coolidge made it a national monument. Seven years later an act of Congress established Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Two years after that, there was a Visitor Center and elevators supplemented the switch-back ramp walkway.
Today, park visitors have several choices of ranger-guided tours. Some are available everyday, others only certain days of the week. The Cave itself is open everyday except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. We chose to take the King’s Palace Tour in the morning, where a ranger provided additional facts and information, supplemented by folklore and personal experiences.
The Left Hand Tunnel was our afternoon tour, limited to a small group and only illuminated by candle-lit lanterns. A completely different method of seeing the vastness of this cavern system.
But it was the self-guided tour of the of the Big Room that packed the biggest punch of all for us, and made it possible to see the sights at our leisure. It was simply an awe-inspiring, memorable experience, which regrettably our photos can’t truly convey.
As an interesting postscript . . . the phenomenon that led to the discovery of these caverns has now become the park’s most popular draw. Visitors flock to the twilight event and an entire outdoor amphitheater has been constructed at the cavern’s natural opening in order to accommodate the crowds. By early November the bats have migrated south to Mexico for the winter; they return in April or May. That is when the show begins, with the best viewing occurring in July and August. The exodus can last 20 minutes or as long as 2.5 hours, when a thick whirlwind of bats spirals out of the cave up into the darkening night sky. They reenter the cave in a fashion almost as remarkable as their departure. Unfortunately, that was an experience we would miss.
Early the following morning, as the sun broke over the desert, we were moving on down the road. Before making another long drive to our next destination, we were able to take a quick visit to another rather obscure national park—its entrance just 40-some miles away.
. . . to be continued in Part Two!