It is only a 27-mile drive from the city of Carlsbad to Carlsbad Caverns National Park via Highway 62/180 and a short road into the Visitor's Building, so I made use of my next Sunday off-day to explore this natural wonder for myself.
I decided to enter the hard way - walking down to 750-feet below the surface via the 'Natural Entrance' that first revealed this geological wonder to the world in 1898 when a local spotted hordes of bats emerging. Even today, a colony of Mexican Free-tailed bats inhabits a dark part of the cave near the surface, with as many as 300 bats per square foot hanging from the cave ceiling during the day as they sleep. As darkness begins to fall, each evening the entire colony begins to trickle out through this natural opening, with the exodus gradually turning into a torrent as thousands of bats take to the skies in search of moths and other flying insects. There are so many bats that their mass resembes a giant snake as they make their way up and away into the night before returning at dawn. The path down into the caverns starts from an amphitheatre that has been built beside the Natural Entrance, allowing visitors to watch the daily 'bat show'.
The map in the 3rd photo shows the 'Natural Entrance' at top right where the self-guided tour begins. Just to the left of centre is a white line going straight down from the Visitor Center on the surface - this is the elevator shaft for those who want to make the trip down a little easier for themelves. All visitors must exit via the elevator because it is one-way downhill traffic when entering by the Natural Entrance. The map also gives an overview of the most significant features in the caverns as well as some idea of the size of the underground grottos when you consider that the caverns are about 850-feet deep. Without rushing at all, I covered the entire Blue (top) and Red (bottom) areas in a bit less than two hours.
The final 7 miles into the NP is via the paved Walnut Creek highway (4th photo) which takes you along a scenic creek bed (dry when I visited) in the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains. There are several places to pull over to view interesting things (such as ancient native dwelling areas) and even a one-way 9-mile very scenic gravel loop road through the park backcountry as you near Carlsbad Caverns itself.
Altogether, it was a great way to spend the morning, only costing $6 for my self-guided walking tour of the caverns. At the cost of another few dollars (presently $3), it is also possible to rent individual headsets you can take with you on the walking tour.
In doing a bit of research into the attractions of Carlsbad, the one that seemed to top all the lists for the city itself was a visit to Living Desert State Park, located on a hilltop at the northwest edge of the town and within sight of our accommodations! They are open every day of the year except Christmas so a bunch of us headed up the hill for a look at just after 9 AM on our Sunday off-day.
According to Park literature, "it is an indoor/outdoor living museum displaying more than 40 native animal species and hundreds of succulent plants from around the world". For a $5 entrance fee, their modern Visitor Center was a great place to start our tour. The staff were very friendly and we enjoyed wandering around examining the many objects on display giving us a taste of the history, geology and plant/animal life in this part of New Mexico.
Located next door is a large Green House that we visited at the very end of our visit to the park. This structure is climate-controlled to a much more humid atmosphere than the 3100-ft natural outside elevation provides (I broke into an immediate sweat) as it shelters an amazing variety of weird and amazing cacti and succulents from all the world's Tropical areas. The last two photos show a couple of views as we walked around admiring these plants ranging all the way from pint-sized to giants towering many feet up to the ceiling. Each speciman had a small plaque providing information on it, including where it originated in the world. Because of my six years in Africa and the South Pacific, as well as a few trips to South and Central America, I could really identify with these plants!
The city of Carlsbad, with a present population of about 26,000 residents, started out in 1888 as a town called Eddy but later changed its name to Carlsbad after its nearby mineral springs evoked comparisons with a European spa of the same name. At the same time as Eddy was formally declared, it was decided that a large-scale water management project needed to be undertaken to tame the Pecos River flows to make better use of this extremely valuable resource.
The result was a couple of dams further north on the Pecos to impound the water flow at an elevation about 50-feet higher than that of the town. With the construction of canals from there, this water could then be channelled to both the east and west of the town to provide irrigation for the surrounding desert lands. What this meant in reality, was that one of the canals had to be constructed at a higher level than the naturally flowing Pecos River in Carlsbad if it was going to be able to use gravity to deliver its flow further out into the desert. The original wooden flume (another name for an 'aqueduct') that was built to carry the Pecos over its own natural channel was completed in 1890 and performed its duties admirably until 1893 when it was washed out by flash flooding that is common in this part of the USA. It was rebuilt but washed out again in 1902 - leading to the construction of today's concrete flume in 1903. At 475-ft long, 25-ft wide and carrying 8-ft of water, it was reported to be the largest concrete structure in the USA at that time and, although a bit leaky, is still there doing what it has to do! On either side of the flume are a nice little park beside the river as well as a replica of the first settler's (Mr. E. B. Eddy) house to be built in this part of New Mexico.
The last two photos show the 1907-built control gates on the canal system that feeds water into the Flume as it travels from the upstream Avalon Dam.
I was really taken aback by the number of animals the Park had living in various sections through which the walking trail winds. They started out with several Javelinas (type of wild pig) then had Porcupines, Foxes and a large Black Bear that was just retreating back into its cave as I reached its area. Next door to it was a very large enclosure with three Mexican Gray Wolves, an endangered species. The Zoo participates in an exchange program with other similar institutions to help ensure the survival of the species. Continuing onward from there is the Reptile House, a waterfowl pond, Tortoise area and a Prairie Dog Village. There are also a number of large open pastures on the side of the hill housing separate herds of Elk, Pronghorn Antelope, Bison and Mule Deer. We noticed one mule deer mixed in with the bison and park staff told us that he had lost his antlers to a disease and had to be kept away from other mule deer males during the rutting season because he could not defend himself.
One of the highlights for me was the very nice cliffside enclosure for a Mountain Lion and Bobcats - located near the end of the trail, just before it returns to the Visitor Center. The Lion was stretched out in the sunshine on his cliff taking time to lift his head every now and then to keep an eye on our progress. In the grass just beside the trail, a Bobcat was also sleeping but woke up long enough for me to get a half-decent photo through the mesh surrounding this enclosure. At the end of the day, all of us mentioned how impressed we were with the quality and variety of the experiences available for visitors.
I had often heard the expression 'west of the Pecos' in various cowboy and Indian movies while growing up - it meant that you were really in the Wild West if you had made it that far. As a result, I was very satisfied to finally be able to see the real thing - flowing through the middle of Carlsbad!
This river begins its 925 mile (1500 km) journey in the mountains of the northeast part of the state and ends up as a tributary of the Rio Grande when the two rivers finally meet in Texas. The Pecos provides many scenic views and a variety of entertainment for the locals as it passes through the city, with this view showing one of the weirs that has been built to help maintain a certain water level in the city even during the dry summer months. The large building in the background was formerly the local power plant but is now retired. The 2nd photo shows a bit of the long expanse of walking trails along both sides of the river, which I enjoyed myself one Sunday afternoon.
The area is a great attraction for the locals, with power boats and jet-skis roaring up and down as others enjoy walking, swimming and picnics in the sunshine. It is also possible to walk out onto the weir to get a closer look at some of the tame local ducks or that large fountain spurting water.
Leaving the rear of the Visitor Center, the Park is all set-up with a 1.3-mile (2-km) walking trail that winds its way up and down and around the property as it takes visitors through various types of habitat. With the changes in elevation provided by the hill, several aspects of the Chihuahuan Desert are presented, covering habitats such as the desert floor, sand dunes, pygmy forest, pinion-juniper zone and uplands. The landscaping was beautiful and there were many information signs outlining what was being displayed along the various sections of the trail.
While you are enjoying the trail, it also takes you through various buildings with tons of interesting things to view such as the Aviary with live Eagles, Owls and various other birds, another with reptiles and a darkened building illustrating how creatures of the night live and survive. If a particular building is not of interest, the trail also has a bypass so you can continue on the loop. The furthest reaches of the trail winds its way through various large animal pens or enclosures (next tip).
Well, the draw to Carlsbad is the Caverns. There really isn't much else in this town, but with all the caves have to offer What else do you need?
The Park has several great qualities and features. During the summer, the bats fly out of the cave in a feeding frenzy, thousand at a time, in the early eveings. This is weather dependent however. A certain must see.
The main Cave is great, but I reommend taking the time to investigate some of the wild caves. This can be done by purchasing tickets at the park headquarters. I hiked through Slaughter cavern and it was absolutly beautiful!!
I don't remember many details about Carlsbad Caverns. When I was there in '88, it was early in December, and the big bat flights were long past. The tour started at the visitor's center with a walk to the cave and down the long, winding pathway into the cave. The guide gave the standard talk about caves, conservation, and the 'named' formations. The guided part of the tour ended at a little rest area in the cave. There were restrooms and I believe some concessions. The elevator through which we would leave the cave was located in this area as well.
In addition to the guided tour, we were allowed to walk along a circuit that started and ended at the elevators. Maybe this tour through this area is guided during the main part of the tourist season, but in early December it was just a free walk. I could go at my own pace, take the pictures that I thought would be interesting, and just have a good time. Park rangers walked this area frequently, and most would stop to talk. I told them about my wild caving experiences, and they told me about lesser known features of the cave.
In the Hall of Giants, we came across this interesting formation. In the Hall of Giants, there's 3 huge stalagmites. Due to its distance from the trail & the darkness of the room, I didn't managed to capture it on films. If you are interested in how it looks like, please proceed to my travelogue section where there is a postcard of the Hall.
Stalagmites are created when water falls from the ceiling of the cave. Curved ceilings are one of the features of the Big Room. Massive formations found in this hall are due to water falling quickly over long distances & splashing over large area.
Giant Dome is in the shape of a column & was formed when a stalagmite & stalactite met. It is the tallest formation with a height of 60 feet & a base circumference of 100 feet!
Stalactites create this formation which are mostly made up of calcium. Its coloring is white with hues of yellow derived from sulphur while red derived from iron oxide.
Unlike other caves in the world, there are no colored lights in this caverns.
BIG ROOM SELF GUIDED TOUR: Tour the 14 acre chamber of gigantic formations with a roof of almost 200+ feet above ground! A well-paved 1 mile stroll took us about 2 hours or so to complete. One has a choice of descending over 750 feet through the Natural Entrance Route on feet which will take about 1 hour of strenuous walk on steep trail or take the elevator to the Underground Lunch Room & continue to the Big Room from there. For those with limited time to explore the caverns, take the elevator like we did.
The Big Room:
* Largest natural limestone chamber in the U.S.
* Length = 4000 feet.
* Width = 625 feet.
* Greatest Ceiling Height = 255 feet.
* Area = 57 acres.
The Giant Chandelier.
Made of ribbon staclactites. Created from water which dripped from the surface into the cavern & thereby deposited rings of calcite on the ceiling. Guess how long ago that was?
Ans.: 800,000 years ago!
The cave is almost on another planet-way out there off Hwy 62/180. Traffic can back up on this highway. The big cave opening is 8.2 acres for the Big Room. It is about 1 mile trek through this part. The other way in is the Natural Entrance which is the large opening when the cave was first found. It has a hike of around 1.4 miles.
Carlsbad is world famous for its caverns and indeed they are worthy of their reputation. As we have a little toddler we were only allowed to do the 2 hr self guided tour. Of course we walked in and took the elevator out, you can get the elevator both ways but to fully appreciate the size of the cave you need to hike in. The 2 hrs doesnot include the walk in which isnt the most beautiful part of the cave. To be honest I have seen prettier caves in Borneo and even the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas are prettier in my opinion but Carlsbad caverns are grand. If your passing through Texas its well worth a detour to New Mexico to see Carlsbad caverns.
Don't forget to go back for dust to see the bats, their show changes daily. It wasn't very impressive for us but you may have better luck.
If you go out towords Lake Brantly there will be a turn off going to the left. Traveling about thirty miles out there is a waterfall called sitting bull falls. It is really pretty. A lot of people pass through the area but few know that there is a beautiful cave behind the waterfalls. If you call the forest service in the area they can issue you a permit to go into the cave and explore on your own.