What do you do when the temperature reaches 95 degrees and the air is so dry that you can practically hear your skin crack? You go underground of course! Seven hundred and fifty-feet underground where the temperature remains a constant 56-degrees, and the humidity is a dew inducing 90%. This is not just any ordinary underground though. A trip to Carlsbad Caverns takes you through an underground world full of skinny dangling rock formations called soda straws, giant pillars resembling massive stacks of broccoli, and rocks covered in a bumpy “popcorn” coating. This is an underground world like no other. It is also one of the coolest national park experiences I’ve ever had.
We set out bright and early for our day at the caverns, arriving around 9:30 to find a surprisingly full parking lot (who are all these people who get up so early on the weekend). Skipping the guided tour option, we flashed our America the Beautiful pass and received our ticket good for two entries into the depths of the underworld. If you don’t have a pass it’s $10 each and your ticket is good for 3 days. We chose to enter the cave through the natural entrance as opposed to riding down in the elevator because…I mean come on…an elevator vs. a trip through a giant gaping hole in the ground. The choice is obvious.
The natural entrance begins with a series of somewhat steep switchbacks that snake down into the mouth of the cave. At first, the sphere of light from the entrance followed us and lit the way. As we descended farther into the cave it grew smaller and smaller until eventually, all natural light disappeared.
We continued to follow the path as it zig-zagged 750 feet down into the earth over a distance of 1.25 miles. Even though it’s called the natural entrance, it’s actually quite a tame journey with a paved surface and secure handrails the whole way down. Despite the number of cars in the parking lot, we didn’t see too many other people, and the path was easily wide enough for those that we did see to walk around us as we stopped periodically to marvel at the wonders all around. The lighting in the cave is expertly done. There’s enough light so you can follow the path without the aid of a flashlight, but not so much that you forget you are in a cave. Occasionally a particularly impressive formation is lit from below, above, or behind.
Eventually, we reached the Big Room. This is the part of the cave that you can reach by traveling down in the elevator instead of walking through the natural entrance. I totally understand that for various reasons this is the better route for some people, but you really miss a lot by skipping out on the natural entrance. The Big Room should probably be called the gigantic room. Its total size is 357,480 sq. ft, or big enough to fit 6.3 football fields, for all you sports minded folks out there. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Big Room is its height. When I think of a cave I think of a place that you need to stoop or crawl to get into. That is not the case at Carlsbad. The Big Room has a soaring tall ceiling that reaches 275 feet at its highest point!
We followed the one-mile path around the big room stopping to read the informative signs and take as many photos as possible. Which wasn’t easy. Here’s the part where I give praise to my oh so patient husband for taking the time to get these shots. The truth is that I am a lazy photographer. Even though we have a DSLR camera, I almost always just keep it on auto and honestly have very little interest in learning how to use the different settings. For the most part, it works out okay, but in a situation like this with no natural light that wasn’t going to cut it. So Tim stepped up to the plate and took the time to set up the mini tripod and adjust the settings to get what I think are some pretty cool shots of this underground wonderland.
It probably took us over an hour to walk around the big room. It was hard to go very far before wanting to stop and marvel at yet another crazy looking rock formation. By the way, there is some interesting science behind the formations of the caverns and all that they contain. It has to to with limestone, a shallow inland sea, faulting in the earth’s crust, sulfuric acid and all sorts of other science-y things. I’m not even going to attempt to explain it all, but it is interesting, and if you want to know more I would highly recommend checking out the Carlsbad Caverns website. Or if you’re like me and learn best from pictures, then be sure to look at this nice graphic that explains how caves are formed.
We ended our tour with a very fast elevator ride up and out of the cave, a quick trip through the crowded gift shop for a sticker and magnet, and then back out into the dry heat. What an amazing experience! One that I would highly recommend to everyone.
I want to mention real quick that we stayed at Brantley Lake State Park while we visited the Caverns. Located about 45 minutes to the north, it’s not the closest campground, but judging by what we saw on the drive it was the nicest. We arrived on Friday evening just before dark and headed down to the shore to find a spot in the primitive camping section ($8/night or free with the NM park pass). There was no one else around and we found ourselves a really nice spot right next to the water.
We only planned to stay Friday and Saturday night, but when we arrived my initial thought was that we should stay longer. It just seemed perfect. Until it wasn’t. First, there was the crazy strong wind that whipped up on Saturday night causing our door to make a horrible howling noise. At some point in the middle of the night, Tim went out and moved the truck so it was parked parallel to us and blocking the wind, which reduced the howl from constant to occasional. Does anyone else have this problem? We think we might need a new door seal.
And then there were the bugs. The awful, awful bugs. Hundreds of tiny, gnat-like bugs that came in through our screens and infested our house. Luckily they weren’t biting bugs, but on Sunday morning we had tiny dead bugs everywhere! It was so gross and after all that, I was more than ready to leave. Despite all of this, it was a nice campground that we would give another chance. We really didn’t have time to explore, but the lake was very pretty and the actual campground had some nice spots overlooking the water.