May 31, 2017
After having traveled east from Las Cruces through the towns of Ruidoso and Roswell I spent the first of two nights in the town of Carlsbad, in southeast New Mexico. Today I was going to devote the majority of the day to visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park, about 20 miles southwest of town. My older brother was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Carlsbad Caverns.
(Photo credit: wiki-travel.com)
Carlsbad Caverns National Park covers about 73 square miles (above ground). The elevation is listed as 3,599 feet above sea level, although that number ranges from 3,596 to 6,368 within the Park. The town of Carlsbad is at 3,295 feet elevation.
On the road in to the Park from the main highway it was apparent that I was gaining altitude. As you can see, the vantage point from which I took these photos is higher than the road I came in on.
The Visitor Center is located at 4,406 feet elevation.
While there are other things to see and do on the property, most people come here for the namesake cave – Carlsbad cavern. There are over 110 caves in the Park but only three are open to the public. Carlsbad, covering 8.2 acres, is by far the largest.
From the Visitor Center the way most people descend to the cavern is through the cleverly named Natural Entrance. In front of that entrance is an amphitheater:
Two things happen here. For most of the day when the Park is open a ranger speaks to groups of people who are about to descend into the cavern (not in all the seats, mind you – only small groups). Basic rules are explained (don’t run, use your indoor voice, don’t bother the bats, etc). One extremely useful piece of advice was to put our cell phones in Airplane mode. She explained that if you don’t do that you will probably exhaust your battery as your phone searches frantically for a cell signal (which it won’t find underground). Although there were lots of cars in the parking lot everyone had plenty of room to scatter out so I never felt crowded at all.
Oh, did I mention the bats? The other use for the amphitheater seats (which many times probably does fill them all) is the nightly ritual of thousands of bats exiting the cavern in search of food. Thousands and thousands of Mexican freetail bats call the cavern home. Each night a single bat can consume up to half it’s body weight in insects. Since I missed the “bat show” when I was in Austin earlier this in trip I seriously considered coming back in the evening but strong thunderstorms were forecast to develop in the afternoon (they did – not a bad day to be underground) and there was a possibility they would cancel the event for safety (they did).
OK. Before I take the plunge let me show you what I’m in for:
(Photo credit: carlsbadnewmexico.com)
The photo above is on a postcard sold in the Visitor Center. From the Natural Entrance one must descend approximately 750 feet to get to the cavern floor. Don’t be misled by the image above – once you’re down there it is fairly level. Note that the gold color band is about 800 feet down but the lines follow the contour of the surface. The far end of the “Big Room” is closer to 600 feet down than 800.
At the right side of the photo is a depiction of the Seattle Space Needle which is about 600 feet tall. The bulk of the cavern is further underground than that.
There is a paved pathway the entire length of the cavern which dictates where you may go. There are sturdy metal handrails most places (both to hold on to and to keep people from straying off the path). Many of the formations are lit up and although the lighting is generally dim I had no feelings of claustrophobia or being in an extremely dark place. Most of the cavern is wheelchair accessible and there are emergency call stations located throughout the cavern to summon help in a medical emergency.
Once the small groups are “released” by the ranger at the entrance everyone is on their own. The cavern tour is “self-guided” and you may take as little or as much time as you like during business hours.
I believe the entire length of the path is about a mile and a quarter, including the descent. A great feature (especially for me) is that there is an elevator to take you back up to the Visitor Center (believe me, I didn’t mind going down but there was no way I was going to climb back up 750 feet, the height of a 75-story building!). Those with problems walking or in wheelchairs may also ride the elevator down.
OK – let’s do it:
There is a steep series of switchbacks which take you down in to the cavern.
One last look up at “daylight”. Not too late to turn back….
I proceeded down and spent a total of about 4 1/2 hours in the cavern. As I will explain in the next post, my photos are terrible. Many formations are lit up and although using a “flash” is allowed they ask that everyone be mindful of others and not get “flash happy”. I tried using my flash once or twice but found that it made things worse. I had all day and just took my time, stopping frequently to put my phone/camera away and just look with my own eyes. I actually try to do that everywhere I go. Believe me – this place is incredible and it was nice to just take a break and stand and stare…..
When I got back up to the Visitor Center I saw a, presumably scale, model of the cavern. You can clearly see the steep descent at the entrance, the elevator shaft, and I took two photos showing much of the “Big Room,” the main chamber. My photos might make it appear that everything is right in front of you but you are often in huge “rooms” with high ceilings and many formations are off in the distance. The Big Room is 4,000′ long and 625′ wide. At it’s highest point the ceiling is 255′ high.
Carlsbad Caverns is truly amazing and is among the highlights of my recent trips.