Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The sun rises over a dry, barren landscape. A mule deer roams through the hills, nibbling at the dusty stalks of grass, and a hawk soars over the ridges, catching the air currents as they swoop over the hillsides. Bats spiral out of a hole in the ground, searching for their nightly dose of insects. A nocturnal ringtail explores the underground world of darkness in search of food. Crystal-like cave formations, extremely delicate to the touch, rise from the floor and hang from the ceiling like needles and curtains. Deep in the cave, a pit drops, seemingly bottomless, into darkness. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what Carlsbad Caverns has to offer.

The entrance to an underground world!

The entrance to an underground world!

Some 250 million years ago, this region of the U.S. was covered under an inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore was a large limestone reef that bordered the shore of the sea. The sea eventually withdrew, leaving the reef exposed hundreds of feet above the ground, later to be buried under tons of soil. The earth never stopped creating, though. Around 15-20 million years ago, the ground stirred and pushed upward. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the old limestone reef, slowly enlarging them to form a multitude of underground limestone chambers, and creating the passages we know today as Carlsbad Caverns. But the cave decorations began much later. Millions of years after the chambers formed, the limestone mixed with water that was seeping down from the above world, and, drop by drop, formed an amazing variety of different formations—some six stories tall; others microscopic and ultra-delicate. 


Native Americans have known about the cave for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The Mescalero Apache called this area Jadnut?udebiga (Home of the Bat) while the Zuni Pueblo named it Asho:sti an alaluckwa (Bat Cave). The caves were sacred to them, and became a place of discovery. They left signs of their existence here, like cooking pits for the mescal plant, which was a major part of the Mescalero Apache’s diet. It was actually why they were called the Mescalero. They lived in peace for a while, using what they needed from the land, and giving back what they could. While there is no evidence that they ever went deeper into the cave, they did know of it’s existence. Eventually Spanish and European Americans began settling in the area. In their explorations, they discovered what the Mescalero Apache had already found: a cave. Several of those individuals claimed to have been the first to enter the cave, but those notions have mostly been forgotten over time. 

Draperies like this are can be over 30 feet long.

Draperies like this are can be over 30 feet long.

the first credited cave exploration happened in 1898. Sixteen year-old cowboy, Jim White, was rounding up cattle in the hills one evening as the sun was lowering itself behind the horizon, when he spotted smoke from a wildfire off in the distance. He went into high alert, as wildfires could be deadly in this dry landscape. He cautiously rode closer, hoping to gather more information. How big was it? Was it spreading fast? Was direction was it moving? These questions and more pushed Jim to ride toward the fire to report back with the most accurate information possible. As he approached the smoke, he noticed something unusual. He couldn’t smell smoke, he couldn’t hear the crawling of flames burning the grass, or feel the heat of what should have been a fire. He soon realized that he wasn’t seeing smoke. He was watching bats. Thousands upon thousands of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats. Jim rode closer, mesmerized at the sight of the bats funneling out of the cave mouth and flying above him in search of food. He watched the bats for as long as he could, until it turned too dark to see, to he headed back to camp. Because he knew the other cowboys would mock him, Jim didn’t instantly describe the sights that he saw with anyone. He thought it over for several days. The mouth in the ground and what secrets it might hold gnawed at him. He just had to find out what was down there. Jim finally went back armed with some wire and a few pieces of wood. He constructed a ladder of sorts that he hung and anchored at the opening. It twisted and turned like a bucking bronco as Jim descended with one hand hiding the ladder, one hand holding the light. After about sixty feet, sims feet touched the cave floor. His lantern barely penetrated the smothering darkness. At first, he was uncomfortable exploring the cave. The names he gave to the formations he saw give some insight to what he was thinking when he was exploring. He named the first drip pool “Devil’s Spring.” That was followed by the “Devils Armchair,” “Devil’s Den,” and finally the “Witches Finger.” As he spent more time in the cave, though, he became more comfortable and matter-of-factly named “The Big Room” and ”Left Hand Tunnel.” Soon, his imagination took over and led him to naming the “King’s Palace,” with a royal family living down there. Jim’s exploration continued for many years. On one of his expeditions, he guided a photographer named Ray V. Davis down into the cave, and finally gained real interest and belief in the stories Jim told about the majesty and wonder of Carlsbad Caverns.

On October 25, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge signed a proclamation issuing the creation  of Carlsbad Caverns National Monument. It was not until 1930 that Congress gained more land for the park, and finally, on May 14, 1930, The United States Congress established Carlsbad Caverns National Park to be directed by the Secretary of the Interior and administered by the National Park Service.

The many rooms of Carlsbad Caverns can hide wonders still unseen by many people who visit this National Park.

The many rooms of Carlsbad Caverns can hide wonders still unseen by many people who visit this National Park.

The diversity of animals in Carlsbad Caverns is surprising. The desert hides many secrets. The park is home to 67 species of mammals (including 17 different species of bats), 357 species of birds, 55 different reptiles and amphibians, 5 species of fish, and an incomplete list of some 600 species of insects, with more being identified each year. 

An interesting species living in the upper world of the park is a Barbary Sheep. This hoofed mammal is in fact not native to Carlsbad Caverns. It is not even native to the U.S. It is a native of Northern Africa’s mountains. It was introduced into the Carlsbad Caverns area as a part of a exotic game ranch, which shipped in animals from many other countries and placed on a ranch for hunters to come and shoot different creatures for fun. Eventually when Carlsbad Caverns was created, the land was bought from the game ranch, and the Barbary Sheep roamed free. The sheep filled in the same ecosystem niche as the native Bighorn Sheep, so they gradually pushed the Bighorns out of the area, causing them to become extinct from the region. Another interesting animal is the Ringtail. It is a nocturnal animal that lives around the caves, and sometimes even goes into them to search for food.

The plant community at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is diverse and beautiful.This diversity is benefited by the position of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, the southern Rocky Mountains, and the southwestern Great Plains. Th plant families in the park with the most species are species in the sunflower family, with 153 species and grasses, with 135 species. The park’s diverse ecosystem supports plants that are at the very edge of their geological range limit. For example, the Ponderosa Pine stretches to its extreme eastern limit here and the Chinkapin Oak is at its far western range.

Very little of the cave can be seen from the outside.

Very little of the cave can be seen from the outside.

At the bustling visitors center, it can feel a bit crowded. Just out the back is the Natural Entrance trail, which slopes gently downward towards a bowl-shaped depression. After checking up on the rules, you arrive at an amphitheater. Rows of stone benches slope down towards a gaping hole in the earth. Imposing it is, although not very large. Once at the rim, little of the interior can be seen. You might feel, as I did, a feeling of apprehension. The trail zigzags down into the cave upon steep switchbacks. Eventually you arrive directly beneath the hole, from which the sun shines down like a spotlight, leaving all else in darkness around you. 

 Continue along the path, and immediately you can feel the difference. The air is chilly and wet, contrasting with the desert climate outside. Lamps illuminate different areas of the cave, leaving others in darkness. Distance is hard, if not quite impossible, to judge. Most of all, the only noise aside from hushed whispers and the crunch of hiking boots is the occasional drip, drip, drip of water from the ceiling.

 The trail continues to descend, passing piles of rocks and coral-like formations known as “cave popcorn”. On the sides of the cave, the rock seems to “flow” over boulders, creating formations known appropriately as “flowstone”.

Soon, after yet another zigzagging drop and several short tunnels, the cave opens again. Stalagmites reach up from the ground, sometimes as high as 15 feet. If you look up, thousands of stalactites hang down like needles, thin and sharp. It is impossible to tell how big they really are, for the half-light plays tricks on your eyes. It is a spectacular and disturbing sight, for it reminds you of the thousands of tons of rock above your head.

 The next part of the trail will also remind you of that fact. As you continue going down into the cave, the trail skirts along Iceberg Rock, an utterly massive white boulder. If you look up above it, you can clearly see where it broke off from the cave ceiling, 200,000 years ago. The thought may give you shudders, but you will quickly forget about it once you reach the bottom of the rock. 

 The cave again opens up into a large room filled with weird, wild-looking formations. Making your way along the trail, the cave quickly narrows again.

 If you are lucky enough to be in an area where no one else is around, stop for a minute and listen. Silence surrounds you, enveloping you in its embrace. Inside the earth, there is nothing to make a sound, nothing to disturb the quiet. It can be deafening, or simply peaceful.

 Continuing on, you pass the Boneyard. Full of rocks, smooth and twisted, it does resemble the bones of some ancient creature. This part of the cave is narrow and tight. Holes in the side, barely wide enough for an arm, extend 20 feet or more into the gloom.

 The cave widens again, this time into the largest room yet. This is the Big Room, 22nd largest cave chamber in the world. In the distance, huge gleaming rocks beckon for someone to walk among them in awe. The path splits here, with on going to the lunchroom and gift shop, the other towards those otherworldly shapes.

In the Big Room, each formation is weirder and more stunning then the last. The floor rises and falls here, covered in boulders. Massive stalagmites, tall and thick, rise above the path. Draperies hang off cliff edges, and rocks covered in “cave popcorn” coat the walls.

 As you walk along the path, you come across the Hall of Giants, a row of three huge stalagmites. The tallest is over 60 feet high, yet it is still 20 feet from the ceiling. Nearby is the Lion’s Tail formation, a thin stalactite with a popcorn-covered tip that really does look like a lion’s tail.

 As you continue walking, you pass a field of waist-high rocks. Resembling lava flows, this area is known as Fairyland. I can see why: this looks like an underworld version of a fairy village. As you continue past the junction with the other trail, look for the cave pools. There are several in the Big Room, and all are still and not quite lifeless. Small worms live in these pools, waiting for cave crickets to fall in for their meal.

 Further along the path, you reach the Jumping Off Place. Here, the ground drops more than 90 feet to the Lower Cave. The Lower Cave is only open to explorers, so one can only wonder what wonder lie at the bottom. You may see an old, broken rope ladder hanging into a black pit. This ladder was used by National Geographic explorers back in 1924.  

 Continuing on our way, we soon reach a cave pool resting beneath creepy-looking draperies. Mirror Lake, this is known as, with the name plaque humorously printed upside down so that it may be read on the surface of the everlastingly still lake.

 Soon we come to a place where the trail approaches the edge of a pit so deep, it seems bottomless. Actually, the Bottomless Pit is only 140 feet deep but when you stand at the edge, you can imagine that it goes to the centre of the earth itself.  Looking up, the ceiling juts upwards in a dome above the pit. Together the total height between ceiling and floor is 370 feet, tall enough to fit the Statue of Liberty!

 The path makes a sharp turn and circles back towards the rest of the Big Room. Looking back, the room seemed bigger than I thought at first. Lights shine through cracks in the rocks, illuminating bizarre looking shapes.

 Halfway down the trail back, a massive shape looms ahead. Crystal Spring Dome, glistening with water, is the largest active stalagmite in Carlsbad Caverns. As you go around the formation, look at the bottom: a spring underneath the rock creates a pool extending underneath the stalagmite.

 Further along the trail, delicate and strange shapes wait. Dolls Theater and Chinese Theater are filled with hundreds of delicate “soda straws”. Basically, a soda straw is when a drop of water hangs on the tip of the straw, deposits a ring of calcium carbonate, and falls off. Soda straws are extremely fragile. The Dolls Theater is full of them, for they are tiny.

 As we walk, we pass more pools, colored green and blue from the minerals in them. Stunning columns soar above my head. Draperies form waterfalls of stone over edges, and the drip, drip, drip of water from the ceiling above is sometimes the only sound we hear.

 Once you are done the trail, an elevator ride to the surface is the only way out. The prospect may seem frightening, but it goes like clockwork. Rock whizzes by as you move upwards at a fast pace. You arrive inside the visitors center.

If you look closely, you start to see what makes Carlsbad Caverns so special. A baby Barbary sheep climbs up a cliff. A breath of wind floats through the cave. Water drips slowly, steadily, creating a masterpiece. The size of Carlsbad caverns is only a part of the story. But when you look around, you see that the beauty is not in what is the biggest, the best, or the most beautiful. The beauty is in what is around you, the little things and the big things. It is in everything in this beautiful underground and aboveground world.

 The Carlsbad Caverns are amazing, unlike anything found on the surface of the earth. Strange yet beautiful, they are a world away from anything we know, and yet right beneath our feet. 

The spires of the Big Room have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

The spires of the Big Room have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Jack Malson