National Park Number: 41 of 59
A National Geographic Society expedition that explored Carlsbad Caverns in 1924 reported it in the magazine as “king of its kind,” a judgement we wholeheartedly agree with. We’ve been excited and delighted by every cave we’ve visited on this trip—Lehman, Wind, Mammoth—but for its scale, accessibility and decoration, I’m not sure Carlsbad can be beat.
Logistically, our visit was a bit weird: we wanted to go on guided ranger tours, but they all required participants to be at least 4, and many would only let older kids go. So we went with the “divide and conquer” method, which meant Graham and I did the King’s Palace tour in the morning, met up with David and Margie for a self-guided tour of the Big Room, then sent David on the Left Hand Tunnel tour all by his lonesome.
The cave has two main routes in: an elevator in the visitor’s center, which takes you down 754 feet into the heart of the cave where there is, weirdly, a gift shop, lunchroom, and bathrooms; and the Natural Entrance, which leads from the cavernous opening at ground level behind the visitor’s center, and steeply switchbacks 1.25 miles down into the cave. Both entrances take you to the Big Room, the largest natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere, and the site of some majorly impressive formations (but I’ll get to that later.)
We first entered the cave via the elevator. Graham and I met up with our tour group and our guide, Ranger Rick (yes, really; though his full name was “Richard” and I have to wonder if he actually went by Rick before becoming a ranger, but that’s neither here nor there.) He gave us a rundown of the cave rules and then we were off, walking up part of the Natural Entrance path, then splitting off into the King’s Palace room.
This part of the cave was open to the public for self-guided tours into the 90s, but it’s one of the most decorated parts of the cave, and the park was having trouble protecting the formations from idiots and scofflaws. So now these rooms are only accessible via ranger-guided tour. I was happy for this because ranger tours are the best, and we learned a ton of fascinating facts about the history of Carlsbad Caverns from Ranger Rick.
Though Native Americans have lived in the Carlsbad area for 14,000 years and there’s evidence that they knew about the cave all that time, they didn’t do much exploration of it. Some of the tribes believed mankind originated from the cave and shouldn’t return to it; some believed it was full of evil power and shouldn’t be entered; some believed it was too holy to enter. In the 1500s the Spanish came into the area, but there was nothing lucrative in the cave, so they didn’t care about it, and then in 1848 when New Mexico became American territory, still no one cared much to check it out.
So it wasn’t until 1898 when the cave first began to be systematically explored. Jim White, a 16-year-old working for the Triple X Ranch Company, was out riding fence one day when he thought he saw smoke in the distance. The smoke was strange, though—it was spiraling and breaking off and going in different directions, so he went to investigate. It turned out to be not smoke, but bats.
Jim rigged himself up a ladder with some fence wire and headed into the dark, thus beginning a lifetime of cave exploration. Even after Triple X moved on from the area, Jim stayed, exploring the cave and promoting tourism. He made a scant income leading cave tours, but it wasn’t until he took photographer Ray Davis into the cave and Davis’s pictures were published in the New York Times that things really started taking off. Davis’s pictures were published in 1923 and later that year, Calvin Coolidge made the area a national monument.
One of the monument’s early superintendents was Colonel Bowles (who was never actually a colonel of anything), a gregarious man with a knack for publicity that put Carlsbad Caverns square in the spotlight. Well-connected in all kinds of social circles, Bowles got celebrities (including Clark Gable) to visit, and personally led tours such as the immensely popular Rock of Ages tour, wherein groups of 100 people would stand around one of the Big Room’s large stalagmites and sing “Rock of Ages.” Amelia Earhart visited and signed a contract to work at Carlsbad, exploring some of the cave’s deeper passages—she told the NPS she just needed to finish up a flight project she was working on first.
As Ranger Rick told us the history, we moved from room to room—King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, the Papoose Room, and Green Lake Room—all highly decorated and absolutely stunning.
After our King’s Palace tour, Graham and I met up with David and Margie and we set off to explore the Big Room. This part of the cave is absolutely enormous—the U.S. Capitol Building would fit inside twice—and is home to some of the largest active cave formations in the world. The self-guided tour winds 1.25 miles through the heart of the Big Room and it is a jaw-dropping walk.
After our explorations, we headed aboveground for lunch, then David went off on his lantern-lit tour of Left-Hand Tunnel, which he later reported as being epic.
Meanwhile, the kids and I headed to the Natural Entrance to switchback our way back underground. Natural Entrance is not very decorative, but what it lacks in formations it more than makes up for in size and grandeur; it’s an incredible introduction to the rest of the cave. It’s also quite steep and we were very glad to be walking down instead of up. Right outside the mouth of the cave is an amphitheater where, from mid-spring to late fall, hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of the cave at sunset for their nightly insect buffet. We’re dying to come back for one of these bat flight programs in summer—if you’re visiting the area during that time, don’t miss it!
Graham, Margie and I took our time walking down from the entrance, then we worked on Jr. Ranger books in the cave’s lunchroom while we were waited for David to finish his tour. After that, we caught the elevator back to the surface, watched a gorgeous sunset over the Guadalupe range, and ended our epic day at the caves.
From delicate soda straws to massive stalagmite domes, it’s incredible what a few changes in mineral content, speed and flow pattern can create over time. I think this is my favorite thing about geology: what can be created by infinitesimal shifts taking place over eons. To see something so beautiful that was all created by slow drips of water, building tiny layers of minerals atop each other, staggers me—and inspires me. It’s good to be in the presence of ancient things, elemental things, things deep in the Earth, and to have impressed the inevitable sense of perspective: that life is long-suffering, and the world is vast and mysterious and precious, and we the people are both insignificant and vital.