"Caving" Carlsbad Caverns

Caving.  It turns out there are several definitions for caving.  Here is mine:  Exploring an underground cave with tight passages, peanut butter mud, cold clear water, grotto salamanders and more all with the necessary gear of knee-pads, gloves, headlamps, helmet and bathroom materials (pee bottle and just in case “burrito” bag).  My definition is not even extreme!  The extreme cavers spend weeks underground without surfacing and pack in all kinds of gear including tents, sleeping bags, scuba diving gear and much more.  Now that is extreme. 

With that being said, caves are unique, delicate environments that everyone should be able to explore to appreciate.  The problem lies in not everyone can explore caves.  For example, not everyone can explore “picnic” cave in Arkansas because as its title shows, “its no picnic” to get through that cave.  The main part of picnic cave I remember is squeezing your body through a narrow passage only wide enough for your helmet to fit, on your stomach maneuvering like a snake for what seems like an eternity.  Exhausting.

After exploring many caves in Texas and Arkansas and having to basically drag a 12 year old hysterical and borderline hypothermic girl through a wet exit that I don’t really enjoy either, I decided to slowly stop caving.  It was kind of a been there, done that kind of feeling.  Caves are amazing and extremely fun to explore but really, I love the sun.

So this past weekend we headed to Carlsbad Caverns to experience the same thing about 300,000 people a year do, visit the caverns.  There are over 110 limestone caves within Carlsbad Caverns National Park with the most famous of Carlsbad Caverns.  All of these caves were dissolved by sulfuric acid.  Amazing.

While experiencing Carlsbad Caverns and listening to fellow “cavers” another definition of caving has been defined.  Anyone, no matter age or disability can explore Carlsbad Caverns.  Since it was discovered long ago, it has been a point of interest and intrigued people’s sense of exploration.  The park has a history of being explored back to prehistoric times and even being mined for guano!  As a tourist attraction, first stairs were built to give people relatively easy access into the cave and then later an elevator was installed!  Now there is a paved and railed path into the cave, two elevators and a restaurant inside the caverns.  What takes about 1-1.5 hours to walk down into the cave can be done in a one minute ride by the elevator. 

The caverns were amazing.  The walk down is steep, but not that bad.  I definitely recommend walking down!  There are lots of warnings to walking down because they want to make sure you are in alright physical condition and don’t lose it halfway down.  But really, it is not hard.  It is worth the walk down to explore and gain a deeper appreciation for how deep and extensive the caverns are.  The trail is paved and has stainless steel railings the entire way.  Oh and no need for a light because they have light throughout the entire cave.  Weird.  Well, it is weird to me.  Usually when you cave, the first thing you do is turn your light off and sit in complete darkness to let your eyes adjust.  There is no light in caves.  That means, you can put your hand in front of your face and not see anything.  That’s the fun of it!

Because of the lack of light in caves, many species have adapted to cave life.  One of the coolest examples of this is the grotto salamander that has adapted to not need pigment and almost looks see through.  So I wonder, because there are lights in this cave, over time will species be effected by the low levels of light?

The awesome amphitheater right outside the entrance to the caverns.  Great for bat emergence.
The start of the decent into the caverns.  It is steep but not bad.  You can do it.

The walk down was probably my favorite part as you are moving at a decent pace, and walking under and over beautiful cave features.  It is lighted the entire way and I took some pictures but the pictures in this area did not come out bright enough to see.  Around every bend we were “oohhing and awwwing” over what took millions of years to form.

The main part of the caverns. 

The hike down opens up into the Big Room which can also be accessed by the elevator.  The trail around the big room is about 1.5 miles of fairly level pavement.  The trail takes about an hour because of all the stopping, looking and pictures you feel you need to take.

The pictures really don’t do it justice.

And then in the middle of the cavern at the base, a gift shop and restaurant!  Throughout the entire cave, signs and park rangers stress the importance of caring for the cave and how delicate the cave environment is.  They even have several phones throughout to encourage guests to report any damages being done to the cave.  Here is my opinion:  Carlsbad Caverns allows people of all abilities to access a cave environment.  Through paved trails, safety railings, elevator access and restrooms, people can safely and comfortably enjoy a trip into a cave.  But a restaurant and gift shop should be kept outside the cave.  Let’s keep it as natural as possible.  Formations can take millions of years to form and the slightest oil from your hand can alter the process.  
Energy in a cave is scarce and highly valued.  Disrupting or adding to that energy with crumbs of food or chlorine from our water can have an effect that is not easy to measure or monitor.  I did find some scat along the side of the trail way at the base of the cave.  It was fairly old but looked like ringtail scat.  With the development down in the cave I wouldn’t be surprised if racoons ventured all the way down there as well.  Both ringtails and racoons can sometimes be found around the entrances to caves and in the twilight zone and both species and other mammals have been documented eating fallen bats in cave environments.  I think the human development has aided in mammals (besides bats) being able to reach further cave depths.
Gift shop and restaurant at the bottom of the caverns.
Beautiful soda straw formations.

We took the elevator up.  Lazies! 🙂

Bats in Carlsbad – yes there are a lot of Brazilian free-tailed bats that spend their day in the cave and emerge at dusk.  However the bats roost in a part of the cavern that is not open to the public so luckily they are fairly protected from us nasty humans.   The warm months are the best time to head to Carlsbad to watch their emergence.  Many people are not aware that there are 17 species of bats in the area of Carlsbad Caverns.  Not all species roost in cave environments, some roost in trees or on the ground.  

All in all, Carlsbad Caverns is a great place to explore.  No where else can you easily walk into a huge underground cave with high heels on!  Carlsbad also offers guided caving trips where you can get as extreme as you would like!  Rangers can lead you on a guided walking tour or a full blown caving experience.  For me, I LOVED taking the elevator back up!  And I can tell you, the young girl I dragged through the freezing wet exit of a cave would have LOVED the elevator as well.  By the way, wet exit means the water is so cold when you hit it, your breath is taken away and you have only the space to keep your head above water but squished by an overhead rock.  Sounds great huh! 

So for $6 per person it is definitely worth the trip.  Supporting our National Parks helps to support wild habitats, wildlife and conservation.

Happy “caving”!

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