Travel to an Underground World

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Travel Carlsbad cavern national park

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad Caverns was designated as a national monument in 1923, but to fully understand this park you need to travel back way farther.  250 million years ago it was flooded and was known as part of the Capitan Reef.  As part of the Permian Basin, you are really hiking all over an ancient coral reef.

If you want a better taste of hiking on an ancient reef head over to Guadalupe National Park.  Only a short drive away you can actually hike from Guadalupe to Carlsbad, and if you pay attention you will see what looks like brain coral that is 250 million years old under your feet.

More than just Caves

This park has a lot more to offer than just caverns, although it boasts over 115 caves.  The park has many hikes on the surface.  Many of these hikes do not have many visitors because they are all walking through the caverns.   Actually, most of the park is designated as a wilderness area, so there will be no further development, and that means a chance for you to get away from the crowds.  Just be prepared for hiking in the desert, that means water, shade, and maps.

Carlsbad also offers 2 historic districts that you can visit.  If you are into birding, Rattlesnake Springs is the place for you go.  It is an Oasis in the desert that supports many birds and animals.

Be sure to check the park schedule before you go, they offer star parties to gaze at the wonders of the brilliant night sky.

If you are really ambitious about caving, you can go on a guided crawl through 2 other caves in the park.  Be ready to get dirty and be in small spaces.  These tours often fill up fast so make sure you plan ahead.  There are restrictions in place for size because of the small spaces you must fit through, check the restrictions here.

Natural Entrance Hike

Travel down the natural entrance of Carlsbad Caverns, and you are faced with a sign "assess hiking fitness."  This display makes some hikers anxious about whether they are up to the task, but for us, this sign reads "fun ahead."  The Natural entrance hike is approximately 2.2 miles downhill.  Excitement builds along the serpentine pathway to the cave mouth.  The Chihuahuan Desert's dry air mingles with the moisture-laden vapor that hangs in the maw of a deep underworld.

Swallows tornado upwards in frantic flight, escaping the mouth of a giant subterranean creature.  Brazilian free-tailed bats have left their malodorous refuse in a repulsive carpet.  We travel to this fantastical place along a narrow path, moving in single file, with a hushed awe.  It is hard not to be reminded of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and consequently wonder: what adventure awaits?  We actually ran into a woman on the way down that had just had a knee replacement a month or so prior, she was in bad shape.  Dad actually notified a park ranger to assist her the rest of the way down.  Don't let the path fool you, it is paved but it is steep, well worth it if you are in for an adventure.

Inside the Cave

Carlsbad Caverns is a place of shifting perspectives.  You have arrived to experience a surreal underground world.  Admire a formation from a fixed point, travel some distance, and look again to see it revealed in a whole new way.  Spend hours here, discovering the nuances of this amazingly unique place.

Remember to close your eyes to experience the cave with your other senses, bringing new awareness to things first unrealized and unappreciated. You notice a cool draft from air currents shifting past from an opening unseen and left far behind.  Feel the damp mist clinging to your hair, lightly touching bare skin.  Listen to the steady dripping of water droplets impregnated with calcium.  They slap loudly into pools and onto rocks in stereo.

There is a myriad of ways to experience this world.  The imagination runs amok in this vast labyrinth.  It is as if you have been shrunk into a microorganism and are on some bizarre tour of the inside of an animal body.  Journey through a matrix of bone laid down by millions of osteocytes.  As you travel, pass through dendritic fields of nerve synapses and layers of gypsum fat deposits.

Instead, pretend that you have been swallowed by a whale.  Everywhere are festoons of baleen, draperies filtering microorganisms, such as hikers, for sustenance.  While the mind turns dark, you imagine frozen faces, twisted and reaching to free themselves from a quagmire of calcium.  However you perceive this wonder of the world, it is sure to be an experience you will not soon forget.

Cave etiquette

Please leave your flashlight at home, because the cave is well lit for you to see all the formations.  If you have trouble seeing in low light please use the red light function of many of the headlamps.  This will keep your light from being intrusive to other people in the cave.  Remember also to treat the cave like it is a library, indoor voices only, sound travels in the cave and can be overwhelming to others who may not wish to hear your conversation.

It is 56 degree in the cave, so if you get cold easily, bring a light jacket to keep you comfortable.  There is a snack bar down below for refueling and restrooms nearby.  Once you are done in the bottom, you can return the way you came down, or you can take an elevator ride back up to the top.

On our next adventure, we head to White Sands National Monument click here.

Travel Tips:

  • Plan to attend a bat flight program during the months of May through October.  Nightly times vary, so call ahead.
  • No need to limit yourself to just one hike because there are many trails both above and below ground.
  • Be considerate of another's experience.  Sound carries in the caverns.
  • For more information visit: https://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm

For great road trip ideas, click here.

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