Rope Ladder To Lower Cave
When I first came across this ladder on the Big Room Walk I felt some anguish. The ladder looks so tenuous and the descent into the lower cave so deep. However according to the information provided on the sign post this was how some of the first cave explorers made it into the lower cave. The remains of the ladder are a reminder of another time. Thanks but I think I will try another way down than the rope ladder.
Soda Straw Formations on Big Room Walk
Soda straws can be viewed in several rooms of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park. They look so fragile as if they could break off at any time.
Technically speaking for us VTers that are not cavers, soda straws represent the earliest growth of stalactites. They are hollow, elongate, generally translucent tubes of calcite equal in diameter to the water drops conducted along their length. Apparently little tiny dops that hesitate at the growing tip of a soda straw before falling to the floor lose carbon dioxide to the cave atmosphere and so precipitate some of the calcium carbonate they carry with them. This calcium carbonate mixture is added to the thin blades of the soda straw that extend down from the ceiling of the formation.
Crystal Springs Dome- Big Room Walk
One of the more impressive domes in Carlsbad Caverns this particular dome had a sort of crystally glow to it. There are pictures of it taken by the NPS that have people standing next to it. However from my photo here I estimate the height of the dome to be around 40-50 feet.
Kings Palace Tour: Mirror Lake
Mirror Lake is only one of two pools I have seen on the various walks and tours within Carlsbad Cavern National Park. It is relatively small and you can no indication how deep it is or how clear the water is. It can be found on the Kings Palace Tour.
One of the most exciting events at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the departure in the evening and the return of bats in the morning through the Natural Entrance. The NPS has constructed a large amphitheater just outside the Natural Entrance. During the summer months from just after memorial day to early October a nightly program is presented by a park ranger. I have only seen this event in 1989 and the ranger provided some basic information on the bats, their habits, their migration and what influences when they leave and come back every morning.
The bats leave the Natural Entrance sometime after sunset. The time varies based on sunset and other conditions. The NPS does not allow any photographs or videos during the bat flight. It has been found that the flash affects the bats abilities to navigate.
See almost my page on White Nose Disease a recent phenomena all over the United States and world that is affecting bats.
Lower Cave Tour
In 1989 I made my first trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I had been attending a board meeting of a charity in Midland, Texas and decided to make the long trip to Carlsbad and back to catch my plane home. Fast forward twenty three years later and the Lower Cave Tour was not available when we visited the park in the winter of 2012.
I was totally mystified by the beauty of the park. I took a tour that involved going to the Lower Cave or as I was told the fourth and lowest level of the Caverns. Within that area I ran across many spectacular formations. Unfortunately my little camera at the time was not digital so I could not document the beauty of what I saw.
One formation in particular was so amazing it is called the Rookery. So here with the permission and credit to the National Park Service I wanted to document what I saw and encourage you to see it.
So if you can handle a fairly rigorous cave tour and don't mind climbing some pretty steep ladders please go on the Lower Cave Tour.
Rock of Ages- Big Hall Walk
The Rock of Ages is one of the most interesting places to stop and sit on the Big Hall Walk. The "Rock" is towards the end of the walk. There is a significantly sized area that is available for seating suggesting at first that this was and/or still is an area for ranger discussions.
The reason for focusing on it, and using a photo from the NPS, is to illustrate the changing attitudes towards preservation of Carlsbad Caverns National Park over the years. In the 1930's and 1940's the area around the Rock of Ages was used for all sorts of celebrations. Weddings were held at first and most notably the local air base in Carlsbad used the Rock of Ages area for the graduation of its cadets. The ceremony was a big deal in the area and friends and family of the cadets went down to the Rock of Ages area to take part in the celebration. The continuation of these public events became very controversial at the National Park Service. The issue was over whether it was both appropriate to hold such events as well as the damage that was being done to some of the formations in and around the Rock of Ages. Finally it was decided in the 1950's to formally drop all public and private celebrations around the Rock of Ages. The decision was made by a new park administrator who saw that the responsibility of the park was to make it available for the public and not for private events.
Carlsbad Caverns Visitor Center
The Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center is large by national park standards. There are several rooms comprising the facility. The displays about the history, geology, wildlife, and fauna around the park were o.k. but nothing unusually good. What was interesting was over by the window they had some rangers who were showing some of the gear people had used to descend into the caves years ago. Very interesting! The rangers at the visitor center were also very helpful in answering the questions we had about the park and what we will see on various tours.
TIP: If you are 62 or over, or a disabled Veteran, and a U.S. Citizen definitely buy a Senior Pass. For $ 10 you get unlimited free access to all the national parks and other discounts. The Senior Pass saved us $18 for admission and a discount on the tour.
Kings Palace Tour
The Kings Palace is by far the most popular guided tour at the park. In the 1.5 to 2 hour tour you ascend and descend into four different rooms filled with some amazing formations of stalagmites, stalagtites, soda straws and flowing limestone. According to the ranger on our tour, this area was open to the public until 1989 when it was determined that too much damage to some of the features necessitated a guided ranger tour.
The tour only is about a mile long and does not involve any strenuous activity. The rooms are well lit and it is easy to see the formations. About two-thirds of the way through the tour, the ranger turns out the lights so everyone can appreciate the darkness of the area. In the case of our tour the ranger left the lights off for over five minutes. Absolutely nothing could be seen of course.
The highlight of the tour for me was the Queens Draperies and the Lovers Kiss. Two very interesting formations.
Walnut Canyon and the 2011 Loop Fire
The entrance into Carlsbad Caverns runs through the scenic Walnut Canyon for about seven miles until you reach the Visitor Center. The canyon has many places to pull out and enjoy the solitude of the Chihuahuan Desert. There is even a minor cave entrance or two where Native Americans use to live hundreds of years ago.
Unfortunately the entrance to the park was significantly affected by the Loop Fire of 2011. The fire burned over 16,000 acres in and adjacent to the park. At one point the fire was within two miles of the Visitor Center. Both the park and the neighboring town of White City had to be evacuated. As you make the drive up to the Visitor Center you will see the charred remains of much plant life that was stoked by the fuel from the juniper and pinon fuel that spread quickly over park lands. It is a reminder of how sensitive the desert ecosystem is.
Dolls House- Big Room Walk
The Dolls House is towards the end of the Big Room Walk. The intricacy of the stalagtites and the existence of thin soda straws make this a particularly beautiful display. The background lighting was such that I was able to pick it up easily with my camera.
Choice 2: Natural Entrance or the Elevator?
Another choice that you will have to make rather immediately after deciding on whether or not to take a cave tour, is to how to get down into the caverns.
There are two ways to descend into the caverns. The first and easiest is just to descend the some 750 feet into the cave via elevator. It is quick and easy and the way for anyone with a disability or a fear of steep descents should consider.
The second and most enjoyable, in my opinion, way to descend is through the Natural Entrance. The descent will take you anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour depending on your health and how many stops you make along the way. At first the descent is rather steep but it is well lit and there are guide rails all along the paved trail. There is a lot to see as you descend into the cave and there are many exhibits to stop at and view. Helpful information placards help with your understanding of the Natural Entrance. The cave maintains a temperature of around 56 degrees which during the winter is a lot nicer than being outside!
On my latest descent using the Natural Entrance I ran into several NPS employees who were climbing out of the entrance. One of them told me that he can make it out from the Big Room to the visitor center in under twenty minutes running. I would be lucky to do it in two times that time.
Choice 1: Tours or Big Room Only?
Arriving at the Visitor Center you are relatively quickly hit with two choices. The first is whether to go on one of the guided tours or just walk the Big Room.
The Big Room walk is a little over a mile and takes at least a half an hour depending on how many stops you make. You do get to see some fantastic cave formations even in this part of the caverns. There is not the extra cost of the tours which can run from $8 to $ 20 per person.
There are a wide variety of guided tours depending on your interest level and desire to get dirty. For me the tours led by NPS rangers are the only way to really see and understand Carlsbad Caverns. All reservations are made in advance at the Visitor Center. In my two visits to Carlsbad Caverns I have been on two guided tours. Here is a ranking of the tours in level of increasing difficulty;
Kings Palace- About a 1.5 to 2.0 hour tour of an area that was previously open to the public without a tour guide up until 1989. There are four main rooms with some pretty spectacular formations. All of the walking is done on a paved trail and there is some climbing and descending. However the difficulty level is far less than the steep decline or ascent out of the Natural Entrance.
Left Hand Tunnel- is a 2 hour tour over a dirt trail done through lantern light. Each person on the tour is provided with their own lantern. There are some cave pools, unusual formations on this trail. A lot of time is spent talking about how this area was first discovered.
Slaughter Canyon Cave- This is an off site tour in a more remote part of the park. You either carpool or caravan to this tour. Flashlights and headlamps are used on this tour. The Christmas Tree and Chinese Wall are the best parts of this over five hour tour.
Lower Cave Tour- This is a stunning area in the lowest level of the cave. I can remember the ladders and fear that I am not quite able to see where I am going. There is a also a rope that tour members need to descend, provided that hasn't changed over the years. The Colonel Boles Formation and Rookery are highlights of this approximately 3 hour tour. It is one area of the park where you can see a large number of cave pearls.
Hall of the White Giant- This tour involves a lot of squeezing through tight places in order to basically see three formations. There is also a lot of climbing of ladders and hard to negotiate spaces. The tour takes about four hours.
Spider Cave- Like the name says it is a cave that only a spider can really fit into. On this tour you crawl and climb in very tight spaces to see a spectacular cave spring and a few unusual formations that aren't available on the other tours. According to the information provided you will get very dirty on this four hour tour.
We went into the caves in 1948, and my dad took some pictures. It was difficult at that time as he didn't have any kind of flash unit. He had an exposure meeter, but films were not as fast in those days. I think we went in the Natural Entrance and not by the elevator.
Currently reservations are NOT required to see the Natural Entrance and Big Room sections of the cave. Visitors pay an entrance fee upon arrival and can either walk down through the Natural Entrance to the Big Room or can take an elevator down to the Big Room.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is open every day of the year except December 25.
Fall/Winter/Spring hours: September 6, 2011 - Memorial Day weekend 2012
Last Cavern Entry:
Via Natural Entrance: 2 p.m.
Via elevator: 3:30 p.m.
Visitor Center Open: 8 a.m. -5 p.m.
Summer extended hours: May 27, 2011 - September 5, 2011
Last Cavern Entry:
Via Natural Entrance: 3:30 p.m.
Via elevator: 4 p.m.
Visitor Center Open: 8 a.m. -7 p.m
Entrance Fee (Self-Guided Tours) Adults – $6, Children 15 and under – Free
All visitors who enter Carlsbad Cavern—for any tour—are required to purchase an Entrance Fee ticket. This ticket is good for 3 days.
There are also various guided tours
Tour Name Adult Child Schedule
Hall of The White Giant $20.00 $10.00 Saturday 1:00
King's Palace $8.00 $4.00 Daily 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 2:00, 3:00
Left Hand Tunnel $7.00 $3.50 Daily 9:00
Lower Cave $20.00 $10.00 Monday-Friday 1:00
Slaughter Canyon Cave $15.00 $7.50 Friday, Saturday, Sunday 10:00
Spider Cave $20.00 $10.00 Sunday 1:00
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I remember going to the cave at dusk to see the flight of the bats which my dad tried to capture on film. Currently cameras, including video cameras and cellular phones, are NOT permitted at the bat flight program. This is because of flash that people can't turn off and also because they probably won't get any kind of good photo. The bats are Brazilian (aka Mexican) free-tail bats and they eat insects.
The rangers have a program at the cavern entrance before the flight during the spring summer and fall (the bats migrate to warmer climates in the winter). The best time to go is in July August as the babies born that year are big enough to join in the flight. There is no charge for the bat flight program
Spaces to accommodate people using wheelchairs are located at the entrance to the amphitheater. Restrooms are available and fully accessible.
Pets are not allowed in the amphitheater area.
We didn't do this but the Park Service website says:
The daily pre-dawn return of the bats is different from the evening exit flights but are just as impressive. Early risers can see the bats as they re-enter Carlsbad Cavern with spectacular dives from heights of hundreds of feet. Individual bats diving in from every direction may reach speeds of 40 km/h (25 mph) or more.
Bat Flight Breakfast
Every summer the park invites the public to rise early and join park rangers in watching the bat's return flight. In 2011, the event will be held on Saturday July 16 from from 5 to 7 a.m. Breakfast is available for purchase at the Carlsbad Caverns Trading Restaurant in the Visitor Center starting at 5 a.m.
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