Carlsbad Caverns National Park
3225 National Parks Highway
Carlsbad, NM 88220
Carlsbad Caverns, known locally to southern New Mexicans as the "Bat Caves," are among the largest natural caverns in the Western Hemisphere. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is comprised of more than 84 major caves, featuring unusual formations such as the Giant Dome (an enormous pedestal of coral reef-like mineral projections) and the King's Palace (distinguished by a multitude of hanging stone draperies). Park visitors can fly into El Paso, Texas, and drive 150 miles to the park. In addition, there are flights available via Mesa Airlines from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Carlsbad.
Entrance fees: $6/adult for three days; children 15 and under are free. Entrance to some caves may require additional fees.
Visitor center: Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center is open daily except December 25
Accommodations: Some backcountry camping is available.
Visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Every sunset on summer evenings, in a corner of the Guadalupe Mountains in southern New Mexico, a dark cloud swirls out of the ground; what looks like a tornado is actually half a million bats flying out of an immense opening in the earth. The bats fan out over an area 100 miles wide, catching and devouring flying insects. At dawn they return to their home.
This nightly exodus of Mexican free-tailed bats led to the modern rediscovery of Carlsbad Caverns around 1900. This great cave is one of the largest caverns in the world. The size and boldness of its huge vaulted underground chambers are truly awesome. The cave contains formations of such startling shapes and colors, and of such monumental proportions, that country humorist Will Rogers called this underground wonderland "the Grand Canyon with a roof on it."
Most visitors choose to experience the caves by foot because there is so much to be seen overhead, down below, and up close. In the next section, we will detail the park's highlights, including the best photo opportunities.
Sightseeing at Carlsbad Caverns National Park
At Carlsbad Carvern National Park, the full extent of the underground labyrinth has still not been fully explored. To date, approximately 30 miles of passages have been mapped. Three of the most spectacular miles, which include the great vaulted chambers known as the King's Palace, Queen's Chamber, and Green Lake Room, are open to park visitors. Throughout the caverns there is a profusion of multicolored rock formations, such as Iceberg Rock, the Boneyard, and Rock of Ages, that owe their startling hues to iron oxide deposits.
In 1986 an extensive series of new caverns were discovered, many of the corridors of which lead off for many miles beyond what was originally known as the Carlsbad Caverns. Above the surface, the park protects a rugged region of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. Fauna includes such species as mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, and ringtails. Flora includes the agave, or century plant, prickly pear cactus, and ocotillo. Although summers are hot, winters are quite mild. As with all caverns, the air beneath the earth remains in the comfortable 50s year-round.
When you ride an elevator into the depths of Carlsbad Caverns or walk down well-made trails into the cave, remember that the first visitors descended into the caverns in guano buckets lowered by pulleys. Tours used to begin in the uppermost of the cave's three largest chambers, the Bat Cave, but this area is now closed to everyone except the bats.
At a level 750 feet below the surface, the Hall of the Giants contains the cavern's biggest stalagmites: the Rock of Ages, Giant Dome, and Twin Domes. These monster monoliths seem to be straining toward the great vaulted ceiling hundreds of feet above them. On this level you can also tour the Boneyard, which is filled with structures that only slightly resemble bones, and Iceberg Rock, by conservative estimates a 100,000-ton hunk of stone.
Everything else within the caverns is dwarfed by the Big Room, the largest known underground chamber in the Western Hemisphere. This immense enclosure is 1,800 feet long and up to 1,100 feet wide. It is so vast that it could contain more than a dozen football fields; it is so tall that you could build a 30-story building inside it.
At the 830-foot level are other large rooms: the King's Palace, with its statuesque stalagmites, and the lovely Queen's Chamber, with rock that seems to flow like draperies. The Park Service used to affix names to the cavern's rock formations, but rangers have removed most of the labels. Now you can let your imagination work its own wonders. What do you think these weird and improbable formations resemble? A ship? A wedding cake? A Japanese garden?
Many park visitors are fascinated by the mass exodus of the 250,000 bats every evening from the cavern entrance. Prior to the bat flight, you can hear an informational talk given by a park ranger between the months of June and September. Or, watch the bats re-enter the caves with spectacular dives in the wee hours of the morning.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park Photo Opportunities
Although you might have to do some serious crawling and climbing to get to the sights below, the views are breathtaking. Be sure to turn your flash on and have your camera ready for these cave highlights:
- Christmas Tree: Draped with a "flow" of crystals, a stalagmite known as the Christmas Tree stands in Slaughter Canyon Cave, which adventurous visitors can explore on special ranger-led tours.
- The Rock of Ages: If you take the elevator down to the Big Room, you can't miss Rock of Ages, a massive tapered pillar that is one of the cavern's biggest stalagmites.
- King's Palace: A vast chamber, King's Palace was the striking background for the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth. As they peruse the chamber, travelers will observe the formation known as Bashful Elephant, which appears to be the back side of an elephant carved from the cave walls into a smooth white statue. In the papoose room, flowstone draperies give the appearance of a curtained chamber.
Carlsbad Caverns are fascinating on both large and small scales: Imagine the enormity of the Big Room and the intricacies of stalagmites and stalactites like those in Doll's Theater. On the following page, we will discuss the forces that created the caverns.
History: How Carlsbad Caverns Was Formed
The same Permian-age fossil reef that forms the Guadalupe Mountains also spawned the stunning caves of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Over time, fractures in the ancient limestone sedimentation appeared, allowing mineral-laden water to cut through the rock and form the caverns.
The cave's stunning interior decoration is also the work of limestone-carrying water. Over the millennia, dripping water has built a nearly unbelievable array of formations. Some are six stories tall; others are as delicate as lace.
The History of Carlsbad Caverns: Inhabitants and Explorers
People have known about these spectacular caverns for thousands of years. According to archaeological evidence, nomadic hunters and gatherers used the cave's enormous mouth for shelter. Apparently, they did not penetrate far inside. Pictographs and cooking ring sites from American Indians have been found in the park.
Spanish explorers began passing through the area in the 1500s, which were held by Spain until the Mexican revolution succeeded in 1821. Two decades later, the U.S. acquired the southwest and in 1850 created the New Mexico Territory. The town known today as Carlsbad was established in 1888 as Eddy, New Mexico. Shortly after its turn-of-the-century discovery, miners began excavating the cave for its huge deposits of bat guano, which was shipped to southern California for use as a fertilizer in citrus groves. The state of New Mexico was inducted in 1912.
One enterprising miner, a young local man named James Larkin White, was so intrigued by the cave that he undertook a serious exploration of the labyrinthine caverns beyond Bat Cave. His passionate interest in the cave garnered the publicity that helped establish Carlsbad Caverns as a national monument in 1923 and a national park seven years later. White served as its chief ranger.
The underground marvels of Carlsbad Caverns awe hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Whether you want to crawl through twisting tunnels or just take a comfortable stroll, there are some stunning sights to behold in the caves.
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