Friday, June 13, 2008

What Lies Beneath – An Underground Journey

Daylight vanishes as we walk down the steep serpentine trail leading into the huge mouth of Carlsbad Caverns. My two daughters and I were glad to be wearing good walking, non-slip sole, shoes as we traveled the 1.25 mile journey from the original natural entrance to the Big Room cavern below. Visitors wanting to conserve energy for caverns below can take the high-speed elevator down 750 feet without shedding a drop of perspiration. My wife and 82 year-old mother-in-law opt for the elevator to get them to the bottom, where the one-mile loop is a pleasant stroll.

My daughters and I pause just inside the gapping 40 x 90 foot entrance, and look back at daylight streaming in through the huge opening. The darkness of the cave swallows the daylight as we descend further into the earth. We talk about what it must have been like for Jim White, who is credited with the modern exploration of the cave, and earlier explorers who journeyed this way. Could they have known this cave had been here for centuries and that pre-historic people explored areas in and around the 300 known caves in this part of the Guadalupe Mountains? Did they marvel, as we did at the delicate and ornamental stalactites and stalagmites? We will never have the answers to these questions, however there is much we do know.

While many people knew of the existence of the cave it took teenager Jim White, in 1898, to begin a life long exploration and promotion of the cave. While in the desert late one afternoon Jim saw smoke rising in the distance. Looking for the source of what he thought was black smoke he discovered the huge opening where hundreds of thousands of bats were escaping the depths in search of food. Over the next 24 plus years, he ventured into the caves and brought out stories of its incredible size and beautiful rock formations. Many people thought he was exaggerating and didn’t pay him a lot of attention. His persistence paid off when Carlsbad Caverns was named a National monument in 1923. Seven years later it was designated a National Park on May 14, 1930.

Back in the cave, my daughters and I make our way downward through the narrow trail passing larger and more impressive outcroppings of rock. The walk from the Natural Entrance is equivalent to walking down 79 stories. The temperature is a comfortable 56 degrees Fahrenheit and the air is dry and fresh. The entire cave is lit with great artistry to illuminate the huge ceilings, stalactites and stalagmites, a scene that Jim and others could never appreciate without the modern wiring and lighting we have today. At one point we see the remains of old steps off to the side that was used by early tourists to the cave in the 1940’s and 50’s. According to the very useful, and recommended, audio guide that we rented at the surface, the first tourists were actually lowered one or two at a time to the bottom of the cave entrance inside a guano bucket. Bat guano, or bat poop, is a good source of fertilizer and with over 400,000 bats in residence most of the year the harvest must be very good.

After about an hour, we meet my wife and mother-in-law near the elevators just outside the much anticipated Big Room. This area has a snack bar, souvenir shop, rest rooms, and a meeting place for the ranger guided tours. After a quick drink of water we begin the mile loop through the Big Room aptly named for this 8 acre wonderland that soars 255 feet to the ceiling.

Many of the rock formations named by Jim White capture the imaginative designs created by nature. Formations evoked names like the Hall of the Giants, Temple of the Sun, Rock of Ages, Lions tail, Devil's Spring, Iceberg Rock, Boneyard and the Witches Finger. We could see how well the names matched the formations, but would you? Take your own flashlight so you can study the formations and come up with your own names.

Of course, in order to enjoy this wonderful experience you must first make your way to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Getting to the caverns is a bit out of the way from just about everywhere. We started our trip from El Paso, Texas. After more than 100 miles and what seemed like hours of monotonous driving through the Chihuahuan Desert, I began to question if my decision to venture across two states for a family outing was a good one. I found my answer as soon as we caught sight of the Guadalupe Mountains on the horizon. Rising before us was the highest summit in all of Texas, El Capitan, and a beautiful sight that served as our gateway into the higher elevations with hilly terrain and deep arroyos that led to White City.
Calling this one gas station stop a city is a stretch but it was named in tribute to Jim White. You have to pass through all of White City (about a block) to take the seven-mile winding road to the caverns. In addition to the gas station, there are a few souvenir shops, the Million Dollar Museum, an RV park, a couple of restaurants and a motel. Looking at the brown hills and desert landscape, it was hard to image what could lay beneath all this sand and scrub. In contrast to the dry brown desert surrounding the caverns the trip below is a wonderland of not only stalactites and stalagmites but of sharing the discovery with those who first ventured into this massive cave. For the complete Carlsbad experience, you should visit between mid May and mid October so you can see the bats leaving in the evening. I was surprised to find that bats migrate like birds. They head south to Mexico to feed on insects in a warmer climate then return to their home in one of the uppermost chambers of the cavern. You will also want to check out the guided tours that take you even deeper into the cave. These tours fill up fast so book online early at This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever witnessed, it is incredible, don’t miss out if you get a chance to visit.

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