We chose to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park because spelunking is an activity John has wanted to experience for sometime. The caves at Carlsbad are open even while most of the caves nationwide have been closed in an attempt to slow the spread of white-nose syndrome (if you don’t know about the ecological disaster that is white-nose syndrome, please read this page).
As it turns out, the caverns under the Guadalupe Mountains that comprise Carlsbad Caverns National Park are so enormous that a cave tour here does not feel like spelunking; it feels like hiking on an alien planet. Pictures cannot capture the strangeness and awe of walking through these caverns. I highly recommend that you visit these caverns yourself to walk through the giant underground rooms and view the organically-shaped formations created entirely by inorganic minerals over millions of years. Carlsbad Caverns are a national treasure that you need to experience to understand. Even after touring the caverns, they are still mind-boggling.
[ John here: I can’t stress enough how spectacular these caverns are. As hard as I try to capture the size and scope of the incredible formations, I didn’t even come close. Because of the lighting, or lack there of, it was incredibly difficult to get great pictures. Of all our travels so far, these caverns were by far the most interesting and visually stunning. Like Heidi said, if you’re in the area, or even if you’re not, do yourself a favor and spend a couple days here. You’ll remember it the rest of your life. ]
A few of the cave tours at Carlsbad do offer more strenuous caving experiences, but these tours have very limited availability and book well in advance (weeks to months depending on the time of year). In order to leave ourselves open for spontaneous adventures and explorations, we do not plan ahead more than a week and missed our opportunity to purchase tickets on the most adventurous cave tours. We were able to get tickets for the “Lower Cave” tour; this tour is mildly strenuous as you need to walk down a steep incline with rope handline-assist and down three ladders to enter the lower cave, but the rest of the tour is walking through large open caverns, no crawling necessary.
Some cave vocabulary: speleothem is a general term for any mineral formation in a cave, including the familiar stalactites and stalagmites, and the less familiar structures I describe below; stalactite is the icicle-like structure hanging from the ceiling and stalagmite is the mound rising from the ground of the cave (the ranger guide told me a mnemonic to help remember which is which: a stalactite holds tight to the ceiling, and you might trip over a stalagmite); a column is a cave formation where a stalactite and stalagmite have met in the middle to form a solid pillar from floor to ceiling; a straw is a hollow cylinder hanging from the ceiling that is the precursor to a stalactite; a drapery is a wide formation hanging from the ceiling; a cave pearl is a small sphere or cylinder of mineral that forms in a small depression called a birds nest in the presence of a small puddle of water; cave popcorn are the bumpy amorphous growths of mineral that resemble the namesake food; lily pads and rafts are thin sheets of mineral that form on the surface of pools of water, which remain even after the pool has dried. Most formations in Carlsbad Caverns are made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form calcite, with some gypsum (CaSO4•2H2O) and aragonite (a different form of calcium carbonate).
The Lower Cave is so-named because it is below the “Big Room”, which is open for self-guided tours. The Big Room was the first cavern discovered and explored, and has been developed for easy access. Visitors enter through an elevator (an alternate “Natural Entrance” is an option, more on that later). The room is lit, a 1.25 mile paved path (wheelchair accessible) winds through the room, and features are explained by informational signs. At a couple points on the Lower Cave tour we passed by areas where the ceiling had collapsed between the Big Room and the Lower Cave. These areas were lit for viewers from the Big Room to see below.
We know that bats live in cave, but they fly out at night in warm weather to gobble up millions of tons of insects and help to pollinate many plants, including crops. Shockingly, some other life forms do inhabit these spaces absolutely bereft of light, living their entire lives in the dark.
Visiting in winter we sadly were not able to witness the bats exiting their home at night. During the season when bats inhabit the caves, April-October, a ranger offers a presentation each evening in an amphitheater at the cave opening preceding the bats’ flight. Visiting in winter did offer us one natural phenomenon not present in summer. A mysterious white substance forms an ‘O’ shape in one part of the cave, only during winter. The cavern’s temperature and humidity are constant, not subject to seasonality, so it is not know what this substance is or why it only appears in the winter.
Carlsbad Cavern National Park offers backcountry camping for backpackers, but no RV camping or developed sites. We wanted to return to the caverns the following day to explore the Big Room, so we needed to find a nearby spot to camp. After the tour, we stopped by the Information desk and asked the ranger there if there was a place nearby to boondock. I did not actually expect an answer; I thought the ranger would direct us to the nearby private campground. As soon as we asked the question, without so much as a pause the ranger whipped out a laminated map with a note taped on it pointing to “Meads Road”, a road less than four miles away through BML land open for public use.