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.

Looking down into the entrance to Lower Cave, via ladder.

Looking down into the entrance to Lower Cave, via ladder.

Looking up at the ladder entrance to Lower Cave.

Looking up at the ladder entrance to Lower Cave.

Inside the cave; note the ranger tour guide at right.

Inside the cave; note the ranger tour guide at right.

Another view inside the Lower Cave.

Another view inside the Lower Cave.

A narrow passage way on the cave tour.

A narrow passage way on the cave tour.

A narrow passage way on the cave tour.

Deep into the cave, it gets quite dark. At one point we turned out our headlamps to experience a darkness more complete than what most people ever encounter.

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 ceiling is covered by stalactite. These take thousands of years to form, yet a vandal can destroy one in seconds - note the broken stalactite in the foreground.

The ceiling is covered by stalactites. These take thousands of years to form, yet a vandal can destroy one in seconds – note the broken stalactite in the foreground.

Cave popcorn. (Nomnomnom…I love popcorn! You can’t eat this stuff though - these caves and the formations are protected as a national treasure.)

Cave popcorn. (Nomnomnom…I love popcorn! You can’t eat this stuff though – these caves and the formations are protected as a national treasure, for future visitors to enjoy.)

Three columns.

Three columns.

Straw with popcorn growing on the sides.

Straw with popcorn growing on the sides.

Not all straws grow straight down - this one is curved to the right.

Not all straws grow straight down – this one is curved to the right.

This stalactite is a J for John.

This stalactite is a J for John.

Looking up at John and the stalactite-covered ceiling.

Looking up at John and the stalactite-covered ceiling.

Birds nest containing cave pearls. This is a rare formation in the cave world, but this room is called the “rookery” because there are so many of these nests full of pearls.

Birds nest containing cave pearls. This is a rare formation in the cave world, but this room in the Lower Cave is called the “Rookery” because there are so many of these nests full of pearls.

A drapery hanging from the ceiling.

A drapery hanging from the ceiling.

Rafts and lily pads formed over what used to be a pool. Note the red and white caution tape directing us to not step on the thin part of the raft.

Rafts and lily pads formed over what used to be a pool. Note the red and white caution tape directing us to not step on the thin part of the raft. 

This formation looks like delicate ice crystals. I do not know if it has a name.

This formation looks like delicate ice crystals. I do not know if it has a name.

Not the crack in the middle of these two columns. The cause is hypothesized to be an earthquake.

Note the crack in the middle of these two columns. The cause is hypothesized to be an earthquake.

Our tour guide calls this speleothem a “New Mexico Pepper”.

Our tour guide calls this speleothem a “New Mexico Pepper”.

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.

Looking up at the “Jumping Off” point in the Big Room above. It is so named because before the ladders were installed, visitors on the Lower Cave tour were lowered down at this point.

Looking up at the “Jumping Off” point in the Big Room above. The name is historical; before the ladders were installed, visitors on the Lower Cave tour were lowered down at this point.

Before the Lower Cave was open for tours, National Geographic sponsored a six month expedition to explore the cave in 1924. Up at the hole you can just make out the remnants of the handmade ladder installed to access the Lower Cave. In six months they mapped five miles of the cave.

Before the Lower Cave was open for tours, National Geographic sponsored a six month expedition to explore the cave in 1924. Up at the hole you can just make out the remnants of the handmade ladder installed to access the Lower Cave. In six months they mapped five miles of the cave.

A close-up of the ladder fragment from above.

A close-up of the ladder fragment from above.

Near the Jumping Off Point stands this giant column. Behind the teeth-looking formation are two hollow tunnels where some scientists took core samples in the 80’s for carbon dating. The tour guide did not know the results.

Near the Jumping Off Point stands this giant column. Behind the teeth-looking formation are two hollow tunnels where some scientists took core samples in the 80’s for carbon dating. The tour guide did not know the results.

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.

The Mexican freetail bats that inhabit Carlsbad Caverns migrate south for the winter rather than hibernate, so we did not have the opportunity to witness the living bats. We did, however, see many bat remains along the tour.

The Mexican freetail bats that inhabit Carlsbad Caverns migrate south for the winter rather than hibernate, so we did not have the opportunity to see live bats. We did, however, see many bat remains along the tour.

The body of a cave cricket in a pool of water. This cricket likely met its demise due to the parasitic horsehair worm.

The body of a cave cricket in a pool of water. This cricket likely met its demise due to the parasitic horsehair worm.

That dark ‘C’ in the middle of the picture is the four-inch horsehair worm that grew to its adult size in the body of a living cricket.

That dark ‘C’ in the middle of the picture is the four-inch horsehair worm that grew to its adult size in the body of a living cricket.

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.

This white ‘O’ only forms in the winter; we do not know what it is or why it appears only in winter in the constant cave environment.

This white ‘O’ only forms in the winter; we do not know what it is or why it appears only in winter in the constant cave environment. 

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.

On the way out of the caverns we spotted some non-cave wildlife, our first mule deer.

On the way out of the caverns we spotted some non-cave wildlife, our first mule deer.

Sunset from the BML road. We did not make it up this road very far, but found a decent place to pull off for the night. We slept there two nights.

Sunset from the BML road. We did not make it up this rough road very far, but found a decent place to pull off for the night. We slept there, undisturbed, for two nights.

9 Thoughts on “Carlsbad Caverns Part 1: Lower Cave

  1. I’ll definitely follow your siren call to visit Carlsbad. Given all you’ve seen, I can’t ignore your enthusiastic endorsement of the cave’s wonders. Even though I won’t see you in Tucson, I’ll plan a road trip to the caverns.

    • More awesome stops are coming soon to your computer screen! This part of the country is definitely worth a road trip. You must visit us at some point! 🙂

  2. Tom Boyd on January 30, 2014 at 6:09 am said:

    Great tour! Hope you had time for “New Cave” located not to far from C B
    How about Road Runners & Big Tarantula spiders?

  3. I’m glad you made the math easy. Lol. Lovely and thoughtful shots of the caves. You might want to stop at Mammoth caves in Kentucky. They were incredible as well. As I’m sure you have heard Atlanta has been on lockdown for two days now. Most of the ice is now melted in the cars cleared away and I was able to drive a little today. The roommates here took hours and hours to get home from their jobs Tuesday night. They averaged a little less than 2 mph. I am relieved to know that you have not faced any crazy stuff on your travels.

    • We travel in our home, so being stuck on a highway for two days wouldn’t be bad for us at all…beats parking in a Walmart with “No overnight RV parking” signs and hoping for the best 😛

      In all seriousness, the traffic mess in Atlanta is the poster child for bad urban transit planning. It was an awful situation, but it would take some serious leadership to avoid a similar situation in the future; a level of leadership and political power that is beyond what any mortal can muster. So watch the weather reports and stay home at any sign of snow, to avoid being locked on a highway by millions of other cars.

  4. maudie engel on February 1, 2014 at 12:25 pm said:

    Glad you two are young & healthy enough to do the exploring! you will have to take John to the APE cave on Mt ST HELEN , not as interesting with stagtites & mites, but still dark & climbing over rocks !! Maybe the LEWIS & CLARK CAVE in Montana for another road trip, like Rita said the Mammoth cave In Kentucky, close to the birth place & home stead , did those with my cousins , grandma wasn’t not in to that. Be safe … love you

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