Carlsbad Caverns is the prettiest cave in the National Parks. The facilities make it very accessible to people of all ages and abilities.
Exploring the Pretty Cave
On a cold windy morning, we drove into the parking lot at the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center. This was great weather for a day at this National Park where everything is inside and it doesn’t matter what the weather is. We walked the mile down to the Big Room instead of the elevator. After all, we are not THAT out of shape. At the entrance, the park ranger told us don’t touch anything and don’t leave anything behind. She was perky and high energy, great role for her.
We saw the amphitheater before we saw the big black hole in the ground. Thousands of bats fly out of the cave each day at dusk during the summer for their nightly feeding, darkening the sky as they leave. The amphitheater holds the people to watch this natural wonder. We were there at the wrong time of the year so no bat watching for us.
Pretending to be a “Real” Photographer
I was real excited about the tripod. During our last cave tour at Mammoth Cave, tripods were not allowed, but at Carlsbad Caverns, it was OK. My pictures from Mammoth Cave were pretty bad, because my hands shake too much for the low light. With a tripod, I can pretend to be a real photographer, looking like I know what I’m doing. There was one dead giveaway though – I had a small point and shoot camera on top of this big tripod and it looked ridiculous. The few others with tripods all had big DSLR cameras that looked much more professional. I pointed this out to Loretta and told her I need a professional looking camera for our future National Park trips. She just shrugged and said “we’ll see how long you are willing to carry the heavy camera when hiking, because I’m not carrying it for you”.
My eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness as we left the outside world behind. At each point that looked even mildly interesting, I stopped, waited for other visitors to pass, setup my tripod and took a picture. I had to adjust the legs of the tripod because the the path was not flat. Each shot took a long time. Loretta said to me:
“At this rate, it’s going to take us four hours to get to the bottom. How many pictures of the cave are you going to take?”
“But these are beautiful formations! I’m putting my new found photography knowledge to use with this tripod! I have to get good pictures for my blog!” I said.
“Well, I’m not standing next to you then. You are blocking the path and people are looking at you funny with that little camera on top of that big tripod”.
She was very patient during the 90 minutes it took us to walk the mile to the bottom, with many stops for photos. As long as she didn’t have to be associated with this crazy pretend photographer, she was fine.
Formed Over Millions of Years
Carlsbad Caverns formed over 250 million years when hydrogen sulfide water mixed with rain seeping through limestone to create sulfuric acid that dissolved limestone to open up large chambers. After the chambers were created, rain seeped through the limestone, picked up carbon dioxide and calcite mineral from air and soil. As this mix dropped into the cave, carbon dioxide escaped into the air and the mineral deposited as crystal of calcite to create the formations. There are many different formations such as Stalactites (columns hanging from the top), Stalagmites (columns from the bottom up), Columns (when stalactite and stalagmites meet), curtains, flow stones, cave pearls, and popcorns. This variety of formations made Carlsbad Caverns very beautiful and interesting to tour.
The Big Room is, well, big. There were formations of all kinds with small pools of still water in places. The lighting was subtle and designed to showcase the most interesting formations. The small pools are perfectly still, except for the occasional drop of water that created perfectly concentric circle of waves that was mesmerizing to see. I continued with my “stop every 100 feet and take a picture” routine as we walked the figure eight path.
Please Have Some Respect
Most people were quiet, with minimal conversation in hushed voices. Quiet was essential to appreciate the stillness and the peacefulness of the cave. Most people respected this. There were a few families with young children and the parents were trying to teach them to be quiet. That was fine.
Then there were groups that carried on as if they were walking in a mall. One group of eight carried on a conversation loudly about Jimmy hitting a homerun and Jose’s college application process. They were totally oblivious to the people around them. Com’on people! Don’t you know your voice travels in a cave? If they were excitedly talking about the cave, I can almost understand but can’t you wait until you get out of the cave to talk about life? Why were they here if they were not paying attention to the cave? They wore flip flops and high heels on a hike. I call them the “theme park” people. I stopped, wait for them to pass far enough for the voice to quiet down. Fortunately, the vast majority of the people were quiet and respectful.
I am grateful to be in the US where people generally follow the rules. In some countries, the “theme park” people outnumber the respectful people.
As we walked to the back half of the figure eight loop, the crowd got much smaller. Apparently, many people didn’t want to bother with all of the Big Room. We didn’t see any “theme park” people in the back half of the trail. It was quiet and still. The only sound was the occasional drop of water hitting the pool. This was the most enjoyable part of the Big Room, well worth the extra distance.
We walked down the natural entrance again, because we didn’t want to be seen as wimps by taking the elevator down. No stops for pictures this time. We had a deadline. The ticket told us to meet by the gathering area 30 minutes before the tour started. Loretta, ever the stickler to rules, insisted we get there at least 30 minutes before the tour time. I told her they tell you 30 minutes before for those people who can’t plan properly. If we arrived 15 minutes before, that should fine. I gave in because I subscribe to the “happy wife, happy life” rule. We set out from the natural entrance an hour before the start of the tour. I figured it shouldn’t take us more than 20 minutes to walk the mile from the surface to the gathering spot. After all, it’s all downhill.
What took us 90 minutes the day before, with all the stops for pictures and audio tour, took us 25 minutes this time. Sure enough, we just hung out with not much to do until the ranger came around 10 minutes before the tour started. Most people didn’t show up until 15 minutes before the tour. I could say “I told you so” but I won’t. Gloating is overrated. Besides, there are much worse places to wait.
King and Queen
King’s Palace was the best room in the whole cave. To preserve it, only a ranger can take you there. Part of the tour took us to Queen’s Chamber, which is also impressive.
King’s Palace is so beautiful and ornate it belongs in the set of Beauty and the Beast, but wait, which came first – the cave or the movie? I wouldn’t be surprised if King’s Palace was the inspiration for some movies. I can imagine a king on his throne, holding court, with servants coming and going. NPS was nice enough to have stone benches for us to sit and admire, and we did for 10 or 15 minutes. All 50 of us in the group were quiet. The only sounds heard were the clicking of the cameras. No picture can do it justice. I was awed by it, especially after considering how long it took to form this beautiful room. Our lifetime is but a speck in the passage of time.
Tripods were not allowed on the tour, so I did the best I can to hold the camera still. It’s a shame I could not get good pictures of the most beautiful room in the cave.
Queen’s Chamber was also impressive, with tall curtains suitable for a queen. It looked like someone went to the curtain store and got long velvety curtains to drape over large windows. Walking through the room was like taking a tour of Versailles.
The ranger did the obligatory lights out trick common for a cave tour. He turned off the lights and the room was totally black. You literally can’t see your finger even if it was an inch from your eyes. The risk to early explorers, with unreliable light source like a lantern, was great, yet the sense of adventure in people propelled them to take the risks.
Thought for Carlsbad Caverns:
Preparation and perseverance prepares you for success. Be ready when the light shines on you. The formations in Carlsbad Caverns were created over 250 million years in the dark, just waiting for an explorer’s light to reveal its magnificence.
Impressions of Carlsbad Caverns:
Carlsbad Caverns is a joy to visit. NPS makes it accessible to people of all abilities. While it’s not the biggest or the longest, it is the prettiest. The Big Room self guided tour has a lot of variety. Formations of all types and quiet pools of water can be seen on this tour. I could not have imagined the size of the room until I was in it. King’s Palace tour is a must do. The intricate details of the formations are beautiful and the ranger gave us a ton of interesting information. Other tours are offered for the more adventurous and those willing to crawl on their hands and knees. The visitor center is one of the best I’ve seen in a National Park. Don’t expect anything above ground. The cave alone was well worth the trip.
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Carlsbad Caverns Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for Visiting Carlsbad Caverns:
- This is a one feature park. If you don’t like caves, don’t go.
- Get your tour tickets early through recreation.gov.
- Dress appropriately for the cave. It’s around 54 degrees all the time.
- King’s Palace tour is a must do.
- Weather is not a factor to decide when to visit. It’s always the same weather in the cave.
- Summer months offer more tours and the evening bat show, but crowds detract from enjoyment of the cave.
- Walk the trail from the natural entrance. There are many sights along the way.
- Don’t be surprised for a long wait for the elevator on the way up.
- Walking up from the bottom to the natural entrance can be strenuous. The elevation change is over 800 feet and it’s all uphill.
- One full day is enough if you just do the Big Room and King’s Palace. Allocate more time if you want to do any of the other tours.
- Carlsbad NM is a large town close to the park. Lots of services there.
Carlsbad Caverns Facts:
- Size: 46,766 acres, ranked 48th.
- Visitors: 466,773 in 2016, ranked 39th. Record was 1982 with 781,963 visitors.
- Peak Month in 2016: 89,963 visitors in July.
- Low Month in 2016: 13,046 visitors in February.
- Entrance Fee: $10 per person for self guided tour. Additional fee for ranger led tours.
Date Visited: February 19 -20, 2017