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On Walkabout At: Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

The Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeastern New Mexico is the United States most expansive cave system that luckily for me is only about a 2.5 hour drive east of El Paso, which makes it a doable day trip.  The cave is located in a mountainous spur that extends from the main range of the Guadalupe Mountains:

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Like the main range of the Guadalupe Mountains, this spur is also the remains of an ancient limestone reef from about 250 million years ago.  The elevations of these mountains range from 3,595 feet (1,095 meters) to 6,520 feet (1,987 meters), which gives them plenty of room inside to form caves.  It is unknown who first discovered the caves, but it is known who was the first person to explore them.  In 1898, the Texas born cowhand Jim White entered the cave for the first time.  He would continue to explore and map the cave over the coming years.  However, it wasn’t until photographs from inside the cave were taken by Ray Davis appeared in the New York Times in 1923 that interest in this cave outside of the local area began.  The publication of the photos had the immediate effect of causing the cave to be designated a National Monument that same year.  The cave would soon begin drawing tourists to include Amelia Earhart who visited in 1927:

Carlsbad Caverns would eventually become a National Park in 1930.

My wife and I on a recent weekend decided to take a trip to see America’ second largest cave and has overall the seventh largest single cave chamber in the world.  If you are wondering Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the largest cave system in the world and  Sarawak Cave in Malaysian Borneo is the world’s largest cave cave chamber which is twice the size of Carlsbad’s Big Room.

To reach the park’s visitor a single lane road twists up the side of the mountain range through the native Chihuahuan Desert scrub:

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Despite the desert environment along one part of the road I was actually able to see a frozen spring of fresh water that is part of the water system that over millions of years has leaked through the surface of the earth to form the cave system:

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The visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns is mostly new, but seems more catered to sell things to tourists instead of educating park visitors about the cave.  Because of this I wasted no time heading towards the cave entrance to begin my hike to the cave’s bottom.  There are two option to enter the cave and one is by using the elevator, which is what most people do, or hiking down yourself through the cave entrance.  The elevator stops at the lunchroom located in the middle of the cave system at 750 feet (230 meters) in depth:

This map helps give a great 3D view of the cave within the Guadalupe Mountains:

According the National Park Service website this is how the 110 different caves in this area to include Carlsbad was formed:

Most of the world’s limestone caves are created when surface water flows down through cracks in limestone rock and slowly enlarges the passageways. In all surface water, there is a weak acid called carbonic acid. This acid slowly dissolves and scours out the rock in more than 90 percent of the world’s limestone caves. These types of caves are typically very wet and have streams, rivers and sometimes lakes or large waterfalls in them. However, there are no flowing rivers or streams in any of the hundreds of caves in the Guadalupe Mountains—and no evidence that these huge cave chambers were dissolved by carbonic acid.

It is since the 1970s that geologists have come to understand that sulfuric acid played the major role in the dissolution of all Guadalupe Mountain caves.

Evidence shows that when hydrogen sulfide (H2S) from oil deposits in the area and a whole range of newly discovered microbes combine with oxygen in the underground water table, sulfuric acid is the result. This very aggressive dissolution of passageways occurred at the level of the water table along cracks, fractures and faults in the limestone.

As the Guadalupe Mountains uplifted little by little, the level of the water table dropped in relation to the land surface; therefore, the highly aggressive “acid bath” drained away leaving a newly dissolved cave behind.  [NPS]

Now that the science lesson is over, I of course decided to hike down the natural cave entrance instead of taking the elevator like most people do.  My wife decided to stay at the visitor center and wait for me return since she didn’t want to bring our daughter in the cave.  So after exiting the visitor center and beginning the short walk to the cave’s entrance there is a checkpoint manned by a park ranger that gives a safety brief to everyone entering the cave.  Apparently in the past they have had to rescue a lot of people who thought they were physically able to handle the hike, but once inside they tired and could not continue.

Once I passed the checkpoint I then saw the entrance of the cave where there is a seating area for visitors to view bats leaving the cave in the evenings:

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However, since I was visiting during the winter months, there was no bats currently calling the cave home.  They have all flown south into Mexico to spend the winter there:

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I can’t blame the bats for leaving because the day I visited the cave it was below freezing and the wind was blowing, which only further dropped the temperature outside.  So I entered the cave bundled up, but quickly discovered that the cave was much warmer than outside.  In fact by the time I reached the bottom of the cave I had taken off all my cold weather gear because it was so warm.  Nevertheless I definitely need to come visit the cave some time in the summer just to see the bats.

As I continued down into the cave, I found the hike to actually be quite steep at times with plenty of signs displayed warning hikers of the physical toll the cave can take on the unprepared:

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As I continued down the cave it was interesting to see the lone bit of sunlight entering the cave from its opening:

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The opening looks so big from the surface, but looks small from inside, which provides a great perspective of how big this cave really is.  Despite all the warning signs, I actually found the hike to be quite pleasant and not all that strenuous. However, all along the trail there were park rangers patrolling to help anyone in need of help.  In fact I have never seen a park of this size with this number of park rangers. This national park definitely has to be a major employment industry in the area.

Something else I noticed while hiking down the trail was that the cave was really not all that scenic except for the occasional unusual cave formation:

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The various information signs though along the trail were quite well done and informative about the various formations and wildlife found in the cave:

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After about 45 minutes of walking down the trail and working up a mild sweat due to the increasing temperatures; I found myself walking into the lunchroom in the middle of the cave system:

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Walking into this cafeteria has the feeling of walking into some kind of alien city because it just seems so weird to have a cafeteria and a gift shop so far under the earth in this unusual cave.  After stopping to eat the pack lunch I bought with me I then headed out to check out the Big Room, which is the real attraction of this cave system:

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One of the things about caves is that it is hard to take photographs due to the lighting conditions.  Sometimes the pictures look better with a flash and other times the pictures look better without the flash.  Here is a picture I took with the flash on:

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Here is how this same picture came out with the flash turned off:

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So I had to continue to switch the flash on my camera on and off in order to see how the pictures would come out.  Here is a strange rock formation hanging from the roof of the cave that I used my flash to take a picture of:

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Here is a picture of one of the prominent stalagmites in the Big Room:

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These stalagmites at Carlsbad Caverns are so impressive that even Ansel Adams made sure to make a trip to the caverns to see them:

Besides the giant sized stalagmites there are plenty of smaller ones to see as well:

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Then there are areas where you can see the small stalagmites mixed with the larger ones:

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Something I found of interest inside the cave was that evidence of early cave exploration is still visible:

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This ladder was installed in 1924 by cave explorer Jim White during a six month survey of the cave sponsored by the National Geographic Society.  This ladder extends 90 feet into the lower cave and is one of many examples of passages from the Big Room extending further down into the cave system.

Along the trail that circles through the Big Room there are a number of sides passages lit up that are to full of rock formations for someone to walk through:

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Then there was some of the rock formations that looked like something an alien would hatch out of:

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There was actually enough water dripping from the surface of the cave at this point that it actually appeared to be a flowing creek:

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Towards the end of the walk around the Big Room some of the passages looked like I was about to be swallowed up by some ghostly demon:

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This was the last significant rock formation before completing my walk around the Big Room:

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What was interesting about this rock formation is that I could see the both the stalagmites and stalactites slowly growing towards each other.  I can only imagine how many more decades of dripping water it will be before these cave formations form into one pillar.

Anyway, the walk around the Big Room takes about an hour or more depending on how long you linger to read all the displays and concludes back at the lunchroom area where the elevators are located:

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If you hike down the cave you have to take the elevator back to the surface because hiking in the cave is limited to one direction, which is down and I have no complaints with that.  So after a short wait a elevator opened and emptied its passengers and I jumped on for the ride up:

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The elevators are operated once again by the plethora of National Park employees that work at the park.  The ride up took less then a minute and before I knew it I was back inside the visitor center surrounded once again by more National Park employees trying to sell me things.  If you can believe it I didn’t buy one thing at the visitor center and didn’t even pay for a ticket since I have National Parks Pass.  So besides paying for gas for the long drive out to the cave it was a realitively cheap way to spend a day and hopefully one I can take again in the summer in order to see the bats fly out of the cave as well.

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