Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the twenty World Heritage Sites and the most impressive cavern I have ever visited. The development of the cavern began over 250 million years ago as a reef along the edge of a great inland sea. Twenty to thirty million years later the Guadalupe Mountains were uplifted, fracturing the reef. Rainwater percolating down from the surface mixed with hydrogen-rich gas forming sulfuric acid. This acid carved out the large rooms and passages that exists today. In many areas, ceilings have collapsed creating huge rooms, larger than anything I have seen before.
We made reservations ahead of time on http://www.recreation.gov for two Ranger-led Tours. The first one was the King’s Palace Tour. During this tour we learned how a 16-year old ranch hand with a third grade education, named Jim White, discovered the cavern and began the exploration. We descended by elevator 850 feet below the surface to the Underground Rest Area. From there we were led by a Ranger through a portion of the Big Room, the Boneyard, and the Green Lake Room to what Jim White described as a room fit for a king, the King’s Palace. Early in the tour we walked around Iceberg Rock, a 200,000 ton boulder that broke loose from the cavern ceiling thousands of years ago.
After lunch we joined another Ranger-led tour, the Left Hand Tunnel Tour. I consider this to be a “must do” activity at Carlsbad Caverns and strongly recommend that anyone visiting the park make this tour a priority. Much of the cavern that is accessible to the public has been improved with lights, paved walkways, and guardrails, but not this area. The only paths are those worn down by visitors walking through the cavern and your only light source are candle lanterns that you carry. I felt I got a real sense for what it was like for Jim White to explore the cavern. Our guides on both tours did a professional job of explaining the cavern, the “decorations” (stalactites, stalagmites, etc), and how it was explored. On both tours the Ranger turned off the lights and we were subjected to the pure blackness of the cavern – what an experience!
After spending the day underground we celebrated Veterans Day with a free meal at Chili’s.
The next day we took self-guided tours. The first one was the Natural Entrance Tour. I highly recommend that you purchase the audio tour for this to get the full benefit of the tour. The Natural Entrance Tour takes you into the cavern through the same entrance used by Jim White. The lighting isn’t as bright as we experienced on the King’s Palace Tour and we had to use our flashlights to see some of the features. On this one-mile tour we descended 750 feet from the entrance along what were sometimes steep and narrow paths. I could just imagine what it was like for Jim White following much of the same route with only a candle or oil lantern to light his way. Unlike other caves we have visited (Mammoth Cave, Carter Cave, and Jewel Cave), the rooms in Carlsbad Caverns are just huge!
The Big Room Tour is a one-mile walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cavern. The Big Room was SO HUGE that, no matter what I did, I couldn’t get a picture that would capture the size of this place. To give you an idea how huge the room is, it covers an area of 8.2 acres. Around every curve there was another geologic feature – flowstone, gypsum columns, “popcorn” ceilings, and crystal clear pools to name a few. It was a very impressive tour.
Our last morning was the worst part of the whole stay. The temperature dropped into the 20’s overnight and the campground water faucet was frozen. It made dumping our waste tanks a bit of a challenge, but we were soon on our way to San Antonio.