The early morning drive out to Carlsbad Caverns National Park was fairly uneventful, scenerywise – until you get to the canyons along the route to the memorial itself. The road winds through tall, rolling sandy mountains peppered with large swaths of bushes, cacti and trees still blackened by the fire that had closed the caves down last summer. The fire apparently spanned 30,438 acres along Highway 62/180 from Rattle Snake Canyon to Dark Canyon Road. Out of the over 117 known caves within the park grounds, Carlsbad Cavern is the largest and I believe the most well traveled. The lighting is fantastic and the winding way throughout the caverns is well paved. There are two options to get down to the caverns themselves.
One can take the natural entrance – a 1 1/4 self guided tour that is best taken if one is in good physical shape. The switchback inclines all the way down are very steep. There are many signs warning people with heart and respiratory issues or medical problems with their knees to avoid taking this route. STRENOUOUS HIKE is in large letters everywhere. They’re not kidding – but we’ll get to that later.
Along this route is the Bat Cave, a lovely cold, dark home for about 1 million Mexican Freetail bats. If you plan your trip right, you can witness the whirlwind of bats as they exit the cave in their nightly search of food. Sources state that this event can last from 20 minutes to two and a half hours. (sadly, I didn’t get to see this – I was only there for a day trip) Also located along the natural entrance descent are Devil’s Spring, the Green Lake Overlook and the Boneyard.
The second way down is the elevators. According to park personnel, it takes a minute for the cars to get from the surface to 750ft below. Your ears do pop on the way down – several times. I chose this venune when I first arrived, not wanting to tire myself out too early. I arrived at a little before 8am sunday morning, figuring that Easter sunday visitors would be busy at church, then flock out in droves later in the day. The visitor’s center opens at 8, and the self guided tours through the caverns start at 8:30am. I must say, I was VERY surprised and pleased that you can go through the caverns unsupervised and at your own pace. There’s a guided tour later in the morning/afternoon that takes you to the Kings Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel and Lower Cave, but I didn’t have the time (or the stamina) for any of those options. I’m just starting to get back into hiking, so didn’t want to push my luck.
I was with the first group of maybe 12 to 15 people that headed down on the first self guided tour of the morning. As you exit the elevator, there’s a snack and touristy item selling area, along with a set of restrooms, which I immediately used before heading off to the Main Room loop off to the left. With my camera at the ready, I sallied forth and marveled at the enormous dimensions of the chamber as I wandered through. I snapped as many shots as I could along the way, and kept my voice to a low whisper (as had been requested by the Rangers – voice carries VERY well in the caverns) as I interacted with other people wandering through. Two old guys ahead of us were loudly discussing their own photo taking process, which only became more annoying as I went on, so I took a local friend’s advice and went ahead and put in my earphones.
Spent a large portion of the walkthrough listening to the Avatar soundtrack, which opened up the experience in a way that I hadn’t at all expected. It was a very positive, emotional experience, this underground journey. By the time I got to the Top of the Cross, I started up Bolero on the iPhone and just lay back on a bench, looking up at the enormous stone cross that had been naturally formed in the ceiling. It was a complete and total fantastic head trip. At several points along the walk, I started slipping into a trance, feeling almost as if I’d ingested a mind altering substance. Very trippy. From time to time, I’d pause the music and take the earphones out – most of the time encountering loud children trying to make their voices echo or others trying to talk at normal volume. A couple of times, only blessed silence existed. I’d stop where I was and just soak it in, imagining that I was the only one in this almost 4,000ft underground wonderland, and smiling to myself. There was a serenity in the silence underground that let me clear my head and relax.
I tried to stay on my own as much as possible, and most people just wanted to keep going, or stay in their safe little groups as they walked around me. Was totally fine by me. For the most part, I was able to explore much of the cave by myself. The groups of people weren’t getting too heavy yet. It was a completely magical experience. Someday, I’d like to come back to do the Ranger Guided tours of the Kings Palace, the Left Hand Tunnel, the Lower Cave – if not Slaugher Canyon Cave as well.
I spent about 2 and 1/2 hours walking around the Main Room, and by the time I’d finished the main loop I was more than ready for a bathroom break and lunch. I will say that the restaurant has excellent food, which was surprising. And pleasing. Good nom noms.
After lunch, I decided to be brave and try my hand (or legs) at the natural entrance. Before you’re allowed to go down to the entrance, a ranger reiterates the numerous warnings you’ve already seen and heard at this point. They’ve had to rescue people that have gotten stuck on the way down before. I’ll say right now that it wasn’t easy. I sat and rested often, and by the time I got to the elevators in the depths of the cave, I was ready to leave. My body had had enough and was shaky with exhaustion. Granted, a great deal of this was likely coupling this with the earlier activity that morning.
If you like the cave/cavern experience – GO. It’s WELL worth it. Every minute. (PICS)