Having arrived at Carlsbad, NM on the 27th, I spend a couple days working on the computer and hanging around camp. The van guy and I continue to be the only ones out here at this boondock spot off Dark Canyon Road, southwest of town. Traffic is pretty much non-existent on this spur road, it’s a good environment for getting things done. But I came here to see the caverns, and once the weekend is over, I make plans to do just that.
October 30, Monday
It’s windy today, like, really windy. But as I’ll be underground for today’s adventure, it matters little to me.
It’s a 45 minute drive to get to the caverns from camp. I point Bertha down 62 until reaching Whites City, where the turnoff for the park is. Whites City is pretty obviously a little tourist town that sprang up to support the park, that’s where you find lodging, restaurants, gift shops and the RV park. The visitor center inside the park boundaries has a cafeteria style eatery and a gift shop, but options are limited.
Much of the town is closed for the off-season and there are few people entering the park today. I stop at the entrance sign to get the obligatory photo, no one else is pulled over for it. There is no pay station at the entrance, you pay when you arrive at the visitor center, where the entrance to the caves is.
The road to the visitor center follows a canyon at first, which supports a wider variety of vegetation than out by where I’m camping. Later the view changes as the road climbs to the top of the canyon. It’s an enjoyable drive.
At the top of a bluff overlooking Texas to the south sits the visitor center, which is directly over the Big Room, the most famous of the caves in the park. There’s plenty of parking available this late in the season so I fight the wind instead of the crowds inside.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open year round, but the visitor center and caves are closed on Thanksgiving day, Christmas day, and New Years day. The summer hours and winter hours do vary so you’ll want to check them before your visit. The entrance fee is $10 per person 16 and over, 15 and under is free, and the pass is good for 3 days. Annual passes like America the Beautiful waive the entrance fee.
The entrance fee covers self-guided tours down the Natural Entrance, and in the Big Room. Both hikes are about 1.25 miles but very different experiences. The Natural Entrance starts at the surface behind the visitor center and descends about 750 feet to the Big Room with several switchbacks. It’s rated as a strenuous hike.
For those with mobility issues or fitness concerns (or simply less time), the other option is to take the elevator inside the visitor center directly down to the Big Room, as the trail following the perimeter of the cave is relatively flat and easy, parts of it are wheelchair accessible.
I opt to do both.
Situated at the natural entrance is an outdoor ampitheater. Carlsbad Caverns hosts 17 species of bat, the most famous being Brazilian free-tailed bats, which wow visitors with their spectacular outflights. That’s what this viewing area is for.
I do not intend to stay until the evening. With the wind the way it is and another cold night coming, it wouldn’t be a very fun experience.
A series of switchbacks leads into the steep opening of the cave. I can hardly imagine how challenging it must have been for early explorers to map out the caves here. It’s very different from the large natural opening into Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which is a much more gradual descent.
Not terribly far down is a darkened passage extending into the distance, this is where the bats roost and is off-limits to visitors. I imagine I hear noises coming from down there, but it may be just my imagination.
Otherwise, the sounds from the surface fade until it gets eerily quiet.
I’ve only ever visited caves before during their peak season, and I’m use to the echoing calls of dozens of visitors when I tour them. Visitation is low today, and I go long stretches of time descending deeper into the cave without seeing or hearing another soul.
At times I can stop and hear absolutely nothing. No breeze, no animals, no sounds of man, not even the dripping of water. The emptyness presses against my eardrums, startling in its completeness. You just don’t get quiet like this on the surface.
It’s amazing. Although I imagine to some people it would be alarming.
By the time the path ends at the Big Room, my knees are definitely feeling the climb down, and it’s good to be on more level ground. There are also more people here, those that chose to take the elevator down. But it’s still far from crowded.
The Big Room is the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated floor space of 600,000 feet – that’s comparable to 14 football fields. It’s not one large smooth space but a twisty passage with smaller openings snaking off into the beyond. Fortunately, there are frequent maps to let people know where they are, how far they’ve come in the loop, and how to get back to the elevator.
Don’t know what that word means? I didn’t know either until this trip.
From Wikipedia: “Speleopthems – commonly known as cave formations – are secondary mineral deposits formed in a cave. Speleothems typically form in limestone or dolostone solutional caves.”
And guess what, the caves in Carlsbad Caverns are made of limestone.
So stalactites, stalagmites, and columns are all examples of speleothems. The exact science behind how they form is actually quite complex and involves words that I don’t know the meaning of. But to simplify it, I believe it goes something like this: slightly acidic water seeps into the ground and dissolves the limestone, carrying the minerals along the path of least resistance through cracks. Where these cracks open up into caves, the minerals get left behind on the roof of the cave – creating stalactites over long, long periods of time – and collect on the floor, leaving stalagmites. When a stalactite and stalagmite finally meet in the middle, you have a column.
It’s not really that easy though, because the volume of water coming through the cracks and the chemistry of the water also make a difference on whether speleothems grow or shrink.
95% of the speleothems in the Big Room are dry and inactive. But Crystal Spring Dome here is still wet and growing. Granted, most cave formations grow so slowly that in a human lifetime you won’t see the difference with the naked eye.
I think my favorite of the bunch is the Tower of Ages, a fat column with tiered levels. It looks very grand.
All told, I complete both walks in about two hours total, stopping frequently for pictures and video. After taking the elevator back up, I have a late lunch in the cafeteria (not very inspiring), and on the way out of the park, take the 9.5 mile gravel scenic loop road. It’s not recommended for low-clearance vehicles, but at the time I toured it, most regular cars would have been fine.
To the north, the carved walls of the canyon look man-made.
To the south, Texas spreads out below.
At one point I round a bend to see a herd of mule deer munching on grass. They freeze when they spot me and then mosey behind some brush out of sight. I’m glad I took this detour.
* Note that besides these free tours that I took, for additional prices you can also attend ranger-led cave tours of varying lengths and difficulty levels, something that I think would be worth doing if you have the time and money.
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Upcoming dates of note:
1. My Patreon page will be launching on November 21st! For those who don’t know what Patreon is and how it works, next week I’ll be explaining that, along with the extra perks I’ll be offering to patrons. But, whether you choose to become a patron of IO or not, let me stress that this blog will always be free to read.
Missed the news on why Patreon? On October 30th, Amazon terminated my Affiliate account, which is how I covered the cost of web hosting, the e-mail list, my blog theme subscription, and occasional hiring of a web developer to solve technical issues and keep the back end of IO up to date.
2. I’m going to be attending the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous from January 11 to the 15th, and the Xscapers Annual Bash from January 15 to the 26th! Both of these are located in Quartzsite, AZ, click the links for more details and directions for each. The Xscapers event does require that you be an Escapees/Xscapers member and register to attend, the RTR is completely free. If you’ve wanted to meet me in person, these two events are good places to do so. Just please remember that I’m an introvert and need to work still too, so I will not be out and about all the time.
I’ll also be presenting on paid work-camping gigs at both events. The work-camping presentation for the RTR will be on Saturday January 13th, once I have the date for the Xscapers one I’ll let you all know. Looking forward to seeing you there!