To finish my trifecta of cave explorations, I went to the big one: Carlsbad Caverns.
While Carlsbad is possibly known just as well for its bats as its caves, I went the day before Thanksgiving and, sadly, the bats had all flown the coop to their southern homes for the winter. When the bats are in residence, visitors can sit right at the opening of the caverns and watch as thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats fly overhead and out into the night-cooled desert to catch their fill of bugs.
Today, the bats are a definite draw to the caves, and, historically, it can be reasoned that the discovery of the caves may have taken a lot longer if not for the bats. In 1898 Jim White, a young man working for a local ranch, spotted what he thought was smoke rising in the distance one day as he was checking cattle. He rode over to investigate with the sun setting behind him and found it wasn’t smoke, but clouds of bats leaving a huge, gaping hole. He went back many times, building wire ladders to explore deeper into the cavern.
Eventually, word reached the landowner, who then brought in workers to collect the valuable bat guano which was used as agricultural fertilizer (I also learned that bat guano can be used to make explosives, although it isn’t as efficient as saltpeter, and was also used in mascara during the early 1900s).
While modern visitors have a nicely paved path leading down into the caves, early visitors used to be lowered down in guano buckets, a hair-raising, smelly, and dirty excursion.
Unlike the other caves I visited, Carlsbad is self-led along well-developed trails with informational placards. I paid $5 for a handheld audio tour to take along, and I’m very glad I did since I learned a lot while walking between sites.
The park service has done a great job catering to its visitors’ needs: if you just want to see the cave formations, walk right through; if you desire some knowledge, read the few signs; if you want the most information on your own time, purchase the audio tour, and if you want a full immersion, hire a ranger to lead a tour.
So, how did this cave system stack up to the others I’ve seen? Wow – Carlsbad has it all: massive, echoing rooms, stalactites and stalagmites around every corner, glistening gypsum formations, and orangy-yellow columns for miles. While the Ohio Caverns were the most colorful, Carlsbad has all the things most people look for in a fun cave experience.
Another fun fact is that many may have already seen Carlsbad Caverns without even knowing it. A handful of commercial films scenes were shot in the caverns, including, but not limited to, the following list:
“Haunted World” – 1929
“King Solomon’s Mines” – 1950
“Cave of the Outlaws” – 1951
“The Spider” – 1958
“Journey to the Center of the Earth” – 1959
“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” – 1973
In the 1980’s, filming other than that used for educational or park services was outlawed in the caverns. Overall, early film production was detrimental to the caverns health; however, the cave’s brush with Hollywood did enable one of America’s most acclaimed lighting designers, Ray Granald, to redesign and construct the cave’s current lighting system in 1976. While most of the electrical system and light bulbs have been updated, the basic design is still that of Granald.
Walking around the Big Room (roughly three football fields in length), one feels very small when surrounded on all sides by massive columns and crazy formations.
Underground river systems with reflective pools give the space a bigger feel, as a gaze into the pool shows even more formations in its reflection.
By the end of my excursion, the formations were looking pretty routine, a testament to the sheer number of cool sights to be seen in the caverns. For the travel weary, an elevator awaited to take visitors back to the surface rather than climb those 79 flights on foot.
Carlsbad Caverns is definitely a place everyone should see, and it’s easy to do so since it is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas. I really enjoyed my time in the Chihuahuan Desert above the caverns as well, so there is no excuse not to go!