Since Halloween is just around the corner, this seems like the perfect time to tell you about our visit to Carlsbad Caverns, a series of dark caves full of bats!
Established in 1930, Carlsbad Caverns National Park protects a system of more than 119 caves located under the rocky, cactus-covered Chihuahua Desert. These caves have been formed over many, many years as the limestone walls have been dissolved by the sulfuric acid found in the caves. This is to say that they are being eroded away from the inside out and not by any external agents and this process of erosion continues today.
When you visit Carlsbad Caverns, you will be able to see only a very small part of the cave system. We spent two days there yet we did not get to see and do everything. To help you explore the caves, there are both self-guided tours and also ranger-led tours. On the ranger-led tours, you will gain access to parts of the cave that you cannot see on the self-guided tours. So we decided to take the only two ranger-led tours available now and one self-guided tour. For all of the tours that we took, you must either walk down or take the elevator down 750 feet below the Visitor Center. It is a surreal experience to be that far underground. Although they have just installed a new LED lighting system, the caves and passageways were dimly lit with lights shining on certain unique cave formations.
Can you spot the person in the bottom-right corner? That will give you an idea of the vastness of the caverns.
On our first ranger-led tour, we were able to go into the deepest part of the cave. We went to King’s Palace, a large room which is known for the large castle formation. Also we saw the Queen’s Chamber that had some lovely drapery formations hanging from the ceiling. Finally, we saw the Papoose Room and the Green Lake Room, so named for the emerald green pool of water found there. Along the way, we were impressed by a number of calcite formations.
We also took a self-guided tour of the Big Room, also called the Hall of the Giants. This massive room is the largest at Carlsbad Caverns measuring 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 250 feet tall. It’s the fifth largest in North America. In the Big Room, there are some massively large stalagmites on the chamber floor and large stalactites hanging from the vaulted ceiling. It is difficult to describe the immensity of this room and to capture its unique formations on film. It is something that you just have to experience.
The second ranger-led tour took us into Left-Hand Tunnel, an underdeveloped part of the cave where there was no lighting. We were provided a candle-lit lantern to light our way and to help us navigate the passageways just as the original explorers had.
It was an experience unlike any other that I have had and it gave me a great appreciation for those brave spelunkers like Jim White, who at the age of 16, was the first to explore the cave using a homemade wire ladder. He named many of the rooms that you can visit today like Big Room, King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, etc. He also ascribed names to many of the formations. While on this tour, we also learned that there are many, many bats living in the caverns.
In Carlsbad Caverns National Park, there are 17 different species of bats living there. Over half a million bats live in different parts of the caves. Among the bat colonies, are the Brazilian free-tailed bats who make the caves their home from April until late October. For the winter, they migrate to Mexico and Brazil. While at Carlsbad Caverns, these bats emerge from the main entrance to the cave and go out to feed on insects during the night. At the park, there is a Bat Flight Program led by the rangers every evening around sunset. During the program, you learn about the bats and also get to see them swarm out of the mouth of the cave. (How the bats know when to come to the opening of the cave is still a mystery.) When they exit the cave, they fly upwards in a clockwise corkscrew pattern until they reach the top of the exterior wall of the cave and then they fly off. Many of them must fly up to 7 miles through the caves just to reach the opening of the cave. The bats continue exiting the cave for up to three hours. It was fascinating to see that many bats flying out of the cave. (Cameras, phones, other electronics are not allowed during the bat flights)
Although there are many caves, most have yet to be explored or even mapped. In fact, we learned that a new cave was discovered recently and it is 147 miles long. In that cave, scientists have found a micro-organism that may result in a cure for cancer. In the laboratory, these organisms devour cancer cells. Hopefully, these caverns will provide the cure for cancer and other cures as well.
Carlsbad Caverns definitely got us into the spooky mindset but we also found out why hundreds of thousands visit this fascinating place of discovery.
If you go: September and October should be good months to visit. The crowds can be very large and there is up to a two hour wait to take the elevator back to the surface during the height of the vacation season. We only had to wait a few minutes each time we made the trip. After October the bats will have left the area and this is something you don’t want to miss. The bats start to return in mid-April.
Book you cave tours as early as possible, as even now we had difficulty acquiring tickets. There are more tours offered earlier in the year and more variety of events. They can be reserved online or by calling the number on the park website. The cave temperature is always in the 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so that will be welcome respite during the hottest times of the year in the desert.