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One of New Mexico's Greatest Natural Wonders: The Underground World of Carlsbad Caverns
Walking the Hall of the Gods
The History of Carlsbad Caverns
My encounter with Carlsbad Caverns National Park began in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains. But past the somewhat familiar surroundings of rugged mountains and broad plains is another world. Away from sunlight, away from the cactus, away from the soaring desert vultures and the howl of the coyote, lies the remarkable underground world of Carlsbad Cavern.
An estimated 250 million years ago the area surrounding Carlsbad Caverns National Park served as the coastline for a inland sea, today it's located in the Guadalupe Mountains in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. Carlsbad Caverns is situated in a bed of limestone covered by the remains of this vast inland sea, during cavern development it was within the groundwater zone. Deep below this bed of limestone are vast petroleum reserves, the Mid-Continent Oil Field. The economies of Eastern New Mexico and West Texas are still today fueled by this vast oil field. At one point in time hydrogen sulfide began to seep upwards from the petroleum into the groundwater, the combination of hydrogen sulfide and oxygen from the water formed sulfuric acid. As the sulfuric acid seeped upwards into the limestone deposits Carlsbad Caverns was formed. The presence of gypsum in the cave confirms the occurrence of this process, a byproduct of the reaction between sulfuric acid and limestone. Carlsbad Caverns includes a large cave chamber, called the Big Room, a natural limestone chamber that is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet at its highest point. At 17 acres it is the fifth largest chamber in North America and the twenty-eight largest in the world.
Jim Larkin White
Jim Larkin White
Sometime in 1898 while riding his horse through the Chihuahuan Desert looking for stray cattle with a fence mending crew, Jim White saw in the distance a huge dark cloud rising from the desert hills. This huge black cloud behaved quite like no other. He tied his horse to a nearby tree and worked his way through the brush to the edge of a large opening in the ground. Jim described the moment by saying "I found myself gazing into the biggest and blackest hole I had ever seen, out of which bats seemed to literally boil." Created over the last million years by erosion from rain and snowfall Jim gazed down at the natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns, as he looked down into the cave he viewed a sea of darkness so absolutely black it seemed solid. As I descended down the walkway into that very same entrance over a 115 years later, it is difficult to understand how Jim White managed to descend into this massive cave with a rope ladder and a homemade kerosene lantern. He would later name many of the rooms, including the Big Room, New Mexico Room, Kings Palace, Queens Chamber, Papoose Room, and the Green Lake Room. He also named many of the cave's more prominent formations, such as the Totem Pole, Witch's Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun, and the Rock of Ages.
The Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns
The Bat Flight of Carlsbad Caverns
Once I was finished with my tour of the caverns, I decided to take in the nightly bat flight. The park service has built an amphitheater for the sole purpose of witnessing the daily bat exodus from the massive chambers of Carlsbad Caverns. On my first visit I was unable to stay and view this miracle of the natural world, this time I made sure not to miss it and I wasn't disappointed.
The Carlsbad Caverns Bat Flight at Sunset
The Bats of Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns is a summer sanctuary for over 400,000 Mexican free-tailed bats (also known as Brazilian free-tailed bats). During the day the bats crowd together on the ceiling of the Bat Cave, a passageway not far from the natural entrance of the Carlsbad Caverns. At nightfall the bats leave the cave in gigantic swarms. Silhouetted against the night sky like a dark, swift moving cloud, the bats make a dramatic performance at sunset everyday at the natural entrance to the Carlsbad Caverns. The spectacular flight of the Mexican free-tailed bat begins with a few bats fluttering out of the natural entrance. Then in a matter of minutes thousands of bats spiral out of the cave up into the darkening sky. Once out of the cave the black mass of bats undulates, in serpentine fashion, toward the southeast to feed in the Pecos and Black river valleys. Once there, they gorge on moths and other night-flying insects. Using echolocation, each bat may catch and eat more than half their body weight in insects in a single night. At dawn, the bats begin flying back to the caverns individually or in small groups. They re-enter the caverns in a remarkable fashion, each bat positions itself high above the caverns natural entrance. The bat then folds its wings close to its body and dives like a dive-bomber into the blackness of Carlsbad Caverns, making strange buzzing sounds as it dives. One by one the bats return to the safety of the Bat Cave, where they sleep until dusk the next evening.
A Visit to Carlsbad Caverns
Visit a Natural Wonder: The Three Routes
I hope to get back to Carlsbad Caverns again it's something I would recommend to anyone who has the time and interest. There are three tours of the Caverns, it's best to arrive before noon to make the guided tours since the last tour is at 1pm. Some just take the elevator 750ft down and take the basic tour, the Big Room Route which takes you on a one-mile underground stroll around the perimeter of the largest room of the cave. The Natural Entrance Route, this one-mile tour follows the traditional explorers' route, entering the cavern through the large historic natural entrance. The route finishes in the lunchroom at 750ft below the surface near the elevators and the Big Room route starting point. The third option is the King's Palace tour, a 90 minute ranger-guided tour through four highly decorated scenic chambers. Departing from the lunchroom the tour descends to the deepest portion of the cavern with paved trails, 830 feet beneath the desert surface. A separate fee is charged for this tour.
I just want to give a special thanks to the Carlsbad Caverns park's rangers they were so informative, they were always ready for my questions and there if you would happen to need any help. They make you feel so welcome and safe as you venture down into the darkness of what is Carlsbad Caverns.
For More Information:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
3225 National Parks Highway
Carlsbad, NM 88220-5354
Wiki Media Commons 2015
Park Rangers at Carlsbad Caverns and the visitors center at the park.