Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 3, 2016

Carlsbad Caverns National Park: Underground Magic

One of a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service.

New Mexico has a number of sites managed by the National Park Service, including National Monuments, National Historical Parks and one National Park, Carlsbad Caverns. Like all caves, it’s a big underground open space. The beauty and spectacle of what it contains, however, can’t be described in terms that do the scene justice.

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Speleogenesis: how the Caverns formed

Like most of the world’s highly-decorated caverns, Carlsbad originated as a deep accumulation of marine life, which over millions of years was compressed and became a mass of limestone. That limestone “reef” lay below the subterranean water table, and, drop by drop, hydrogen sulfide from petroleum deposits beneath it percolated upward, combining with oxygen in the water to form sulfuric acid. The acid dissolved away the limestone, forming extensive vacant spaces, caverns.

In a further phase, requiring more millions of years, the water level drained away, leaving airspace into which rain and groundwater from above leached into the limestone — again, drop by drop — and as each drop evaporated, it left behind a tiny deposit of calcium. With the passage of more time, the calcium deposits formed columns, draperies, straws and other shapes in calcium.

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No theme park is complete without some mystical, magical representation of an underground cavern. Visiting Carlsbad, you’re in an immense, endlessly varied world beneath the surface, seeing the real thing rendered by mother nature in a way that beggars description.

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I mean immense. The largest space, simply called the Big Room, is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and, at its highest point, 255 feet tall. There are innumerable other rooms, and the park, in all, encompasses 119 explored caves. You walk through myriad underground landscapes of constantly shifting shapes, colors and textures.

Here are four more images. Click on the first to expand the view, then use the right arrow to navigate to the next.

The Bats!

Carlsbad Caverns is home to 17 species of bats. Most common is the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat. It’s estimated that about 800,000 of them inhabit the cave, much reduced from millions that once lived there, their population drastically decreased thanks to pesticides.

They won’t bother you as you walk around the caverns. If you’re there at sunset between April and October, though, you can sit in an amphitheater and watch ALL 800,000 bats fly out for a night of feeding down in the Pecos River valley. A huge, spiraling mass of bats. A whirling tornado of bats! It’s an experience worth having.

I suggest not even trying to photograph the bats. A nearly impossible subject for amateurs to capture effectively. I don’t have a bat photo to show you. Find one online, like this one on the NPS site. WATCH them. The NPS prohibits the use of any electronic devices, computers or cameras, in order to minimize the electronic signal and camera-flash interruptions of the bats’ sensitive navigation. Here’s the amphitheater.

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Check the park website for estimated time of bat departure when you’ll be there. The rest of the year, they’ve migrated elsewhere. Oh, yes, you can get to the park between 4 and 6 a.m. to see the bats return, which is also said to be remarkable. I haven’t done it.

Practicalities

The Caverns are eminently visitable. There are two self-guided tours, each about 1.25 miles long. The tour of the Big Room is level and easy going. You need a ticket to take the self-guided tours. There are ranger-led tours which require additional fees. I’ll repeat myself from other articles, saying that you never go wrong taking the opportunity to have one of the NPS rangers talk to you about any National Park Service site you visit. They’re knowledgeable professionals, passionate about what they do, and focused on making certain visitors get the greatest possible benefit from their time.The park is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The website lists visiting hours.

Parts of the Big Room are wheelchair accessible.

You can walk down into the cave or ride the elevator. The walking route is steep, strenuous and not wheelchair accessible. It descends about 750 feet over the course of a 1.25 mile walk.

The bats fly in all weather except heavy downpours. The bat watching will be canceled in case of lightning.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is in the Guadalupe Mountains in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, very near the border with Texas.

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The park is 20 miles along route 62, southwest of the town of Carlsbad. The closest large city is El Paso Texas, 150 miles away at the bottom center of the map. Albuquerque, NM is at the top center, for reference. We found accommodations in Carlsbad, and, while there, enjoyed walking along the Pecos River and seeing the old town.

Have you been to Carlsbad Caverns National Park? Any details you’d like to add for the benefit of future visitors? Leave a comment.

For more articles about U.S. National Park Service sites, select the item under Travel in the Categories section of the right-hand navigation column.

© Brad Nixon 2016. Most photos © Willard Nixon 2016, used by kind permission.

Map © Google.

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Responses

  1. Very interesting post which again has beautiful pictures! I have actually been to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Unfortunately, I have nothing to add as far as the actual visit goes since I was a baby and don’t remember it. However, I could share stories of my 6 siblings who got in trouble…Well on second thought that’s not such a great idea! 😉

    Like


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