In an isolated corner of New Mexico, not too far from the border with Texas, is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: Carlsbad Caverns National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, a visit to the complex of underground caves is like embarking on The Journey to the Center of the Earth. Although not the largest caverns in the world, they are among the most famous because of their diversity and beauty of mineral formations.
One of the things that surprised me most was how deep the caverns are. From the visitor center, you take an elevator 750 feet (229 meters) down. That’s the equivalent of a seventy-five-story building! After you reach a vestibule at the bottom, you pass through set of doors into the caverns. The air is quite humid and it takes some time to adjust to the dim lighting. In fact, I had a difficult time seeing during my entire visit. I suppose they keep it dark in order to appear more natural. You enter the largest chamber at Carlsbad Caverns, aptly named the Big Room. It is almost 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) long, 625 feet (191 meters) wide, and 255 feet (78 meters) high at the tallest point. The Big Room is the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world.
A 1.25-mile (2 km) path follows a counter-clockwise route down one side of the chambers and back along the other. Visitors are greeted with countless stalactites (the formations that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that point up). I learned a new term on my visit: speleothems, which is the all-encompassing term for the different types of these decorative rock forms. They take many shapes, depending on whether the water drips, seeps, condenses, flows, or pools. Many speleothems are named for their resemblance to man-made or natural objects like soda straws, chandeliers, columns, draperies, and popcorn. The most spectacular speleotherms have inspiring names such as Rock of Ages, Hall of the Giants, and Temple of the Sun. Rainwater trickles down through the soil and picks up carbon dioxide gas, creating carbonic acid. This acid slowly dissolves the limestone in the earth, and then re-deposits it in the cave as calcite decorations.
For visitors without much time, the easy way to reach the Big Room is to descend in the elevator like I did. Another option is to hike down from the Natural Entrance in the desert plateau. A 1.25-mile (2 km) pathway zigzags down into the darkness, descending the equivalent of seventy-nine stories from the cave entrance to the Big Room. The hike takes about one hour and is recommended only for those in good physical condition. I wish that I had had time to do this, but i arrived to the caverns too late in the day.
Another thing I missed out on happens only from mid-April to mid-October when thousands of Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the mouth of the cave at twilight. Visitors to Carlsbad Caverns can grab a seat at the Bat Flight Amphitheater to watch the nightly flight, which I’m sure is incredible to witness.
Below are additional photos from my visit. It’s impossible to visualize the magnitude of this place in a picture, but these will give you a sense of what it was like. As I mentioned, the light was extremely dim and I forgot my tripod, so some of these are a little out of focus.
A view of the pathway inside the caverns.
The bottom of the elevator — 750 feet down!http://www.nps.gov/cave/index.htm
Have you ever been to Carlsbad Caverns? What about any other caverns elsewhere in the world? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below!
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author