The feeling of descending into the yawning mouth of a cave is one of largely excitement, but also a bit of trepidation. While today’s natural entrance into Carlsbad Caverns is a paved path of switchbacks, well marked and lit, this would have once been done with a rope ladder and lantern. As I descend, I am reminded of that. Caves are, with the exception of the deepest oceans, the least-explored portions of our planet. The sunlit entrance and its huge collection of swooping cave swallows is soon left behind, and if not for the lighting put in by the national park, I’d be in complete darkness.
Over the next two and a half miles of descent and exploration of the cavern’s “Big Room,” I am treated to an alien world, one of stunning beauty, of intricate rock formations not found on the surface, and one permitting a tiny glimpse into the history of this portion of New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is, in any sense of the word, spectacular.
Approximately 250 million years ago, this whole region was a shallow sea. What is now the Guadalupe Mountains, of which Carlsbad Caverns is part, was a reef system ascending to the shoreline. The organisms of the reef, as time moved past, turned into large limestone deposits. Limestone is soft, easily manipulated by acids, and sulfuric acid (created by a mixing of oxygen from the water and hydrogen sulfide from deep petroleum reserves below the current cave system) seeped into the area, dissolving some of the limestone, and forming caverns in the mountains.
Rainwater, meanwhile, picked up microscopic particles of dissolved limestone, and as it made its way through cracks in the cave system, deposited it as it dripped through the caves. Over millions of years, these tiny deposits became the “decorations” the caverns are known for: stalactites, stalagmites, and a myriad of other formations.
The result: a cavern system that is highly adorned, huge, and still “alive”, as evidenced by the sound of droplets nearly everywhere, a calming sound that I have to close my eyes to fully experience. The pathway, both from the entrance down as well as the one circling the Big Room, is well paved, well lit, and well placed. It travels past many of the prettiest features, some marked and named, others left to me and my imagination. One group of stalagmites looks like T-Rexes or Buddhas, depending on my angle. Another reminds me of a dragon. And some are aptly pre-named, removing the pressure of coming up with a description on my own.
While the entrance and Big Room are the only parts of Carlsbad Caverns open for self-guided tours, other rooms and passageways can be seen via ranger-led programs when available (Covid has caused the cancelation of most of these for the past two years). Some caves require true spelunking experiences, with hard hats and flashlights. And we still don’t truly know how far the caverns extend; scientists are still finding new passageways and figuring out how they all connect.
The temperatures outside can routinely exceed 100 Fahrenheit in the summer, but inside the caverns, the year-round temperature is 58, and even slightly colder in some of the upper passages with wind blowing through the entrance. I feel bad for those who are wearing shorts and t-shirts, and I zip up my hoodie. In addition to dressing in layers, comfortable shoes with good tread are necessary. The pathway is smooth, but even in the flat of the Big Room, some parts are wet and a bit slippery. (Most of the Big Room is fully ADA accessible; the elevator I’ll use to exit can also be used as an entrance to avoid the steep walk in the natural way.)
Each turn in the path brings a new decoration into view, or brings a new view of an already-seen corner of Carlsbad Caverns. Few places I’ve been give me such a sense of awe, seeing things I’ve truly never seen before (outside of here; this is my third visit to this place). Signs remind visitors not to touch the rocks. Oils in our fingers can cause them to turn black, and prevent future growth of the formations. It is hard, though, as it’s quite tempting to see if the rocks are as smooth or wet as they look.
In all, a reasonable exploration of this part of Carlsbad Caverns requires about three hours. You will need a reservation (available on the park website for $1) and will also have to wait in line to purchase entrance (or to show your parks pass). There was only a few minute wait at 830am when I went in, but at noon, I overheard a ranger tell people that the line was 45 minutes or more. Prepare accordingly.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is without a doubt one of the coolest places I’ve visited. Limestone caves inside an old reef system, carved by acid given off by petroleum reserves, it seems only by chance that it exists at all, and yet, it is here to be explored. You’ll love your time here in this unique and alien world.
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