Carlsbad Caverns – A Jewel Underground
[Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Jan 18, 2020]
Late last year, I was eyeballing my work holiday schedule and tried to figure out if there is a national park I can visit during the three-day weekend for Martin Lurther King’s birthday. Normally, I stay put during that weekend, trying to give both my bank account and vacation day balance a break from all the previous year’s travel. For 2020, though, I already had a couple of big trips on the books that were going to take up most of my vacation time, and so I looked at my holiday schedule hoping to be able to utilize it.
Finding a national park to visit in January in the West is no small feat. Most parks are at high elevation and are snowed in. After consulting an old-fashioned map and looking up weather info, I finally settled on Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains national parks in New Mexico and Texas, respectively. Don’t let the different states fool you – they’re only 30 minutes away from each other and about 2.5 hours away from El Paso, Texas, which was serviced by plenty of non-stop flights from Los Angeles.
We landed in El Paso on Friday afternoon and headed straight for Carlsbad after picking up our rental car. After checking into our hotel (Hampton Inn & Suites), we decided to have dinner at the Chili’s right across from it. It was a convenient option that did not require driving!
The national park itself was about 25 minutes away from our hotel. We had a 10 am tour reserved, so we left our hotel around 8:30 – we wanted to have plenty of time to enjoy the drive and take photos along the way, including at the sign, which is one of my little traditions.
The visitor center was well appointed. A very cool exhibit mapped out some of the different caves and cleverly emphasized the fact that they are about 800 ft underground. We also learned about how the caves were formed. Unlike most caves, which are formed from rainwater eroding limestone, these caves were formed because this whole area was at the bottom of a sea. When the sea level fell, rainwater mixed with seawater formed an acid, which in turn dissolved the limestone into gypsum, a soft sulfate mineral. It is widely mined and is used as a fertilizer and as the main constituent in many forms of plaster, blackboard/sidewalk chalk, and drywall. Rainwater continued to trickle in, dissolving the gypsum into the formations we see in the caves today.
We also learned that the lights down there had just been replaced in 2017 – a three-year project! The new LED lights use a fraction of the energy, work better with the natural environment in the caves and, based on the poster comparing the old and new lights, provided for a much better ambiance!
There are several parts of the caves you can explore on your own, but we booked one of the ranger-lead tours because we figured we’d get a more intimate look at the caves as well as learn more about them. We picked the King’s Palace tour because it wasn’t too long (1.5-2 hrs) and it seemed like it was the most popular one. We booked about 3 weeks in advance.
The tour began at the cave entrance, which we reached by taking an elevator down from the visitor center.
The ranger went over the cave formation process, which we already read about upstairs. She also explained how the caves were first discovered by Western settlers (indigenous people had known about them for thousands of years).
At the turn of the 20th century, local man saw a bunch of bats flying out and wanted to find out where they came from. He stumbled upon the same cave we were in, and as word spread about the caves, people started coming down here to mine bat poop – also known as guano – because it is a highly effective fertilizer.
To protect the caves, Carlsbad Caverns was established as a national monument in 1923 and became a national park in 1930. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1995.
Many different types of decorations adorn the cave ceiling and floor, and they have different names depending on their shape. Some of the formations found on the ceiling may be stalactites, soda straws, draperies, ribbons or curtains. A wide range of decorations on the cave floor include totem poles, popcorn, lily pads, shelves, cave pools, and of course stalagmites.
We kept going into different “rooms” and each seemed to be even more decorated than the previous one!
One formation on the floor reminded me of a similar formation at Crater Lake national park. What do you think?
We didn’t realize this until later but King’s Palace is a much more intimate experience than any of the rooms you can explore on your own. The rooms on the tour also used to be accessible without a ranger, but people kept damaging them and now they are only accessible through the tour.
Towards the end of the tour, the ranger actually turned all the lights off and we got to experience complete darkness. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. She asked us to wave our hands in front of our faces – and nothing. We could not see our own hands millimeters from our faces. The other cool thing was that we could now hear the slow drip of rainwater seeping through. Although most of the cave is not active any more, there are a few spots were rainwater still makes its way through.
I think curtains and draperies are my favorite formations.
The lighting in the caves makes picture-taking challenging. I was so happy to have my new camera with me!
B asked the park ranger if any celebrities have visited. As it turns out, Brad Pitt did a photo shoot here for GQ a couple of years ago. Sadly, despite the park requesting he not do this, he took a photo touching the walls. We joked that I’d have to break up with him for it – he’s my celebrity crush/boyfriend.
After our tour, we decided to check out the publicly accessible Big Room, but we found it much less impressive than the King’s Palace rooms. We meandered through there for a bit, then decided it was time to head to Guadalupe National Park.