Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Carlsbad New Mexico


            Blackened heads and bodies of cactus and yucca litter the landscape, resembling alien life forms incinerated during an intergalactic war.  A human-started fire in July of 2011 charred 30,000 acres of Chihuahuan Desert in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  I pick my way through the death, dismayed by the destruction one careless person has wrought.

Charred carcasses of Torrey Yucca (left) and Prickly Pear Cactus.

           At Carlsbad Caverns though, it’s not this scorched above-ground world that people come to see—all the action takes places 750 feet below the earth’s surface.   

        Inside the Visitor Center the elevator doors close and with a whoosh I’m barreling toward the caverns at the rate of 8.5 miles per hour.  In one minute I’m deposited inside the entrance to The Big Room, the major attraction here in Carlsbad.  As I pass through revolving doors the sight greeting my eyes is anything but wild.  A cafeteria, souvenir stands and rest rooms fill the area.
I follow arrows to The Big Room and am relieved to find the commercialization outside replaced by a natural wonderland inside.  A 1.2 mile paved trail with handrails winds its way through lighted formations.  The cave is filled with sweeping draperies, giant cake-like stalagmites, long willowy stalactites and bulbous, popcorn-like stalagmites.   During my two hour cave exploration I see and hear other people occasionally, but on this weekday in March my experience is one of relative solitude.

Draperies are formed when stalactites grow
into each other.

Several of these "layer cake" formations may be seen
in The Big Room.

  The following morning I return to the park for the ranger-led King’s Palace tour.
Fifty-four other people join me and the ranger starts by asking for everyone’s home state.  New Jersey, Illinois, Vermont, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Oregon are represented today, along with one person from Utah. (That would be me.)
We begin our journey and enter a series of chambers not open to the general public.  While we admire hanging draperies, stalactites and stalagmites the ranger tells of the cave’s discovery.  Early Indians were the first users of the cave but they didn’t venture much farther than a natural entrance.  In 1899 a ranch hand named Jim White discovered one of those entrances and he was hooked, dedicating the rest of his life to exploration of the caverns.  As I look around I decide it was mighty brave of Mr. White to be down here with only a dim, candle-lit lantern and no lighted paths marked “Exit” to find his way out. 
After learning more about the creation of this cave and the wonders it contains I have a question for the ranger: 
         “Are the caves ever vandalized?” 
         “Oh yes”, is the answer.  Many visitors touch or break off pieces of the formations.  At one point, rangers discovered 200 acts of vandalism in one month.  The park service’s message of preservation and protection obviously isn’t getting through to everyone.  
That being said, I highly recommend a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  You’ll be amazed by the mineral masterpieces in this underground showpiece.

A ceiling full of baby stalactites, also
known as soda straws.

A popcorn stalagmite, caused by
condensation on the surface.

The easy King’s Palace Tour enables everyone from kids to Grandmas to see a restricted part of the caverns; however other, more adventurous tours are offered.  Reservations are required—sometimes months ahead of time—for all ranger-led tours.  Check out descriptions of tours and activities, as well as information about the creation of the caverns on the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/cave
I started the day above ground on the devastated landscape.  It may be 30 to 40 years before this area recovers; if you’re visiting Carlsbad Caverns and would like to see healthy, undisturbed Chihuauan Desert wilderness, travel 36 miles southwest to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 

This map shows the range of the Chihuahuan Desert.
The desert covers parts of New Mexico, Texas and the
country of Mexico.

A healthy patch of Chihuahuan Desert in
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas.


  1. Thanks for sharing this tour of a great national treasure.

    1. You're welcome!

      We're fortunate to live in a country which has dedicated so many special places as national parks, for the enjoyment of all.

  2. Sorry to hear about the fire damage, and what a long time to recover this natural habitat.

    But, what beautiful photos from inside the caverns. I'm impressed. When I was in Laos and Vietnam, we toured a number of caves, some with quite stunning formations, but it was next to impossible to get good photos, even with a digital camera. So glad you were able to bring back these natural wonders!

    1. Hi Vickie,

      I envy you your trip to Laos and Vietnam!

      Photography inside the caves is a tricky business. I found that I got the best exposures when I didn't use the flash and set my camera on a rock wall to steady it. By the way the rock wall was built by the park service-it's forbidden to touch or set anything on the fragile cave formations.

      Thanks for your comments,


  3. Thanks for sharing! The official website of Carlsbad Caverns National Park is www.nps.gov/cave
    The .com listed is privately owned and very out of date. If you're looking for information on a national park site, be sure it contains nps.gov (National Park Service).

    1. Thank you for setting the record straight on the park's official website.
      I've amended my post to show a link to the website you listed.
      Thanks again for commenting!

  4. Hi Rita!
    Your fine posting prompted me to do some research on Carlsbad, and I was delighted to learn that a huge chunk of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park is designated as a wilderness area. That is special! It wouldn't surprise me to learn that you have hiked some of the wilderness trails within the park. Perhaps you have a Blog report about such an adventure that I missed (or perhaps forgot . . . it happens!).

    Although I've never been to Carlsbad, I can sort of relate to many of the magnificent cave structures that you photographed. While attending the University of Kentucky I visited Mammoth Caves, and one of my best friends was an avid spelunker!

    Thanks for another educational and enjoyable posting!


    1. On this trip I spent the majority of my time on below-ground excursions so no, you didn't miss a blog post about the wilderness areas of the park! Maybe next time...

      I visited Mammoth Caves when I was a kid—a long time ago—and I remember being impressed, but I've forgotten much of that cave tour. If I get the chance to return to Kentucky I'd like to re-visit Mammoth Caves.

      Thanks for your kind comments, John!