November 2nd, 2011
Heading east into the mountains outside Alamogordo as I drove higher above the desert plains suddenly I was in another world, one with trees, fertile farmland and even a ski field (with a little snow already)! This is the Lincoln National Forest and the terrain was totally unexpected, but soon it gave way to vast arid plains again and thus welcome to my further travels in New Mexico.
My destination today was the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in south-east New Mexico (just over a 3 hour drive from Alamogordo). Along the way I stopped in a little town called Hope, a nice place but alas it seems to have lost almost all hope, I saw no-one on the main street and half the businesses appeared to be closed down, time to move on to the next town Artesia. Nothing much of note to report about here as I just passed through (I did notice some nice western themed statues downtown), but my arrival coincided with strong winds and a dust storm so no real reason to hang around!
The town of Carlsbad appeared to be one giant road construction site, but this soon gave way to the road to the national park which you eventually enter through a little tourist oriented town Whites City. The park road winds its way through a series of arid canyons (the area seems to have had a major fire in recent times – burnt desert plants and cacti abound) and terminates at the top of a mountain, where there is a big visitors centre that has great views across the wide open prairies below (the park is actually in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains). The general entry into the caverns is only $6 (self guided), there are also guided tours in other parts of the caverns for an additional fee, but my arrival time didn’t allow me to do both so I set off on the self guided tour (the main tour).
I made my entrance into the caverns via the Natural Entrance which is a short walk from the visitors centre. The first thing you see is the massive mouth of the cave, at sunset hundreds of thousands of Mexican Free-tailed Bats fly out of this entrance (there is an amphitheatre located here to watch them take flight) – they live in the connecting Bat Cave (200 feet/61 metres below the surface). A path leads you into the cave mouth via a series of paved switchbacks, within minutes you are in the Devils Den 500 feet/152 metres below the surface!
Now these are seriously cavernous caverns! The scale of them is incredible and from the Natural Entrance you seem to go down, down, deeper and down until you reach the massive Iceberg Rock (a 200,000 tonne boulder!) 755 feet/230 metres below the surface. There are 2 paths here, one for the guided tour (leads to an area called the Kings Palace and Queens Chamber – the Scenic Rooms which is 829 feet/253 metres below the surface which you access via a series of ladders!) and the other for the self guided tour which leads to the Hall of Giants and the Big Room (this is where the path levels out and no longer takes you any deeper. I should point out that the paths are reasonably well-lit too).
Now they are not kidding when they say Big Room, the caverns are huge! It is almost impossible to explain how big they are, other than to say the Big Room covers 8.2 acres, could hold many Boeing 747 Jumbo jets and you are but an amoeba in there (the trail just for this “room” is 1.3 miles/2.1 kilometres long)! I was very impressed by them!
The “giants” are huge stalactites (hanging from the roof “hold on tight”) and stalagmites (rising from the floor “might poke you in the arse”). In other areas there are vast numbers of smaller stalactites covering the cavern ceiling. Small pools of water here and there add a special touch to the place, casting reflections of the “giants”. The way mother nature has “decorated” the place is quite incredible, such weirdly wonderful shapes and patterns have formed down there, it really is uniquely beautiful (the caverns have strategic lighting to show them off at their best).
It is interesting to note that the public tours only cover part of the caverns, there are many more passages leading to more underground rooms and altogether over 30 miles of passages have been explored, with the deepest chamber being 1,037 feet/316 metres below the surface! There is a place called the Bottomless Pit that you see on the self guided tour, it was named by early explorers who when peering into the darkness must have thought it went to the centre of the earth, unfortunately it is only 140 feet/43 metres deep!
I spent over 3 hours underground and saw all the self guided tour areas in that time. Mercifully you do not have to walk back up the steep path to the Natural Entrance, in the 1930’s they cut a shaft down to the Big Room level and built an elevator that whisks you back up to the visitor centre…phew! Plus at about 3pm they actually close the Natural Entrance so I really had no choice…I really didn’t! Some people just take the elevator down and back up, a shame as they miss out on the impact of walking down into the deep unknown.
I have been into many caves and seen many natural wonders around the world but I have to say that Carlsbad Caverns would have to be one of the most impressive. There are others places that may be more beautiful, but the sheer scale of this place is positively overwhelming, the shapes and forms of the stalactites/stalagmites are fascinating and the way you enter the caverns just adds to the impact they have upon you. I recommend a visit to this place as it is truly spectacular!
Stay tuned for my next adventures involving UFO intrigue in Roswell and tales of Billy the Kid.