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Carlsbad Caverns National Park – SE New Mexico

February 24, 2011

I had always heard of Carlsbad Caverns, but had never been and didn’t really know anything about them except that folks kept telling me it was worth a visit.  The only caverns I had visited previous to this were the Luray Caverns in Virginia and that was a very long time ago.  So as I mentioned in the last post, I headed north from Big Bend, passed through another Border Patrol checkpoint, and landed in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  It was amazing how quickly the temperatures cooled down as I drove north, I think over 20 degrees in 2 hours.  Sights I passed, but did not stop for along the way were the Judge Roy Bean Museum.  You guys likely remember him by his more recognizable moniker, “the hangin’ judge”.  It seems he was judge and jury in these parts awhile back when the West was wild.  I also passed through Pecos, Texas which claims to have held the world’s first rodeo, but I didn’t stop there either I guess because I had Carlsbad on my mind.

Two days ago I found myself enjoying a gorgeous day in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Guadalupe Mountains as I drove south the 20 or so miles from the town of Carlsbad to the Caverns.  The caverns are 750 ft below the surface and can be reached via an elevator located in the Visitor’s Center or by walking down through the natural entrance or mouth of the cave.  The cave had been discovered thousands of years ago as evidenced by the drawings (pictographs) near the mouth and as late as the late 1800’s, was referred to as the Bat Cave due to the high bat population, but it had never been explored much past its entrance until the turn of the century when a young (16 year old) cowboy named Jim White took the plunge and discovered much of the caverns that we know today.  And I’d agree that they are worth a visit, especially if the bats are in residence.

Once down and well inside the caverns, I felt like I was in an underwater reef which my audio guide confirmed.   I’ll paraphrase in snippets from the brochure:  The story of Carlsbad Caverns begins 250 million years ago with the creation of a 400 mile long reef in an inland sea.   The reef was not a coral reef, but was formed from the remains of sponges, algae, and seashells.  Eventually the sea evaporated and the reef was buried under deposits of salt and gypsum.

Fast forward to a few million years ago when uplift and erosion began to uncover the buried rock reef and start the development of the Guadalupe Mountains.  Throw in the rising of hydrogen sulfide-rich water from below and mix it with the rain water seeping down from above, and you got the formation of sulfuric acid, which dissolved the limestone and opened the fractures and faults into the large chambers we see today.  The stalactites, stalagmites and other formations began over 500,000 years ago after much of the cavern had been carved out.  It happened slowly-drop by drop- at a time when a wetter, cooler climate prevailed and it took billions upon billions of drops to create the thousands of cave formations we see today.  I understand it takes a minimum of 8 months for a drop of rain from the surface to reach the cavern below, but there really are no drops at this present time since the climate above has gotten so dry.  With the exception of a few very small remaining pools of water, Carlsbad is a dry cave and is no longer creating formations, but take a look at what it did create while it was active.  First we have the natural entrance which, other than the paved footpath leading down into it, has remained basically unchanged over time.

And here it is again looking out from the inside.  This is “door” the bats use each dusk and dawn during the summer.

And before I forget, let me tell you about the bats.  Unfortunately they were not in residence during my visit as they are away south in Mexico for the winter so I was not able to witness their fantastic evening cave departure.  They arrive back here sometime during April or May and will stay until October.

We are talking about Mexican Free-tailed Bats, by the thousands.  I understand it is a sight to see watching them leave the cave at dusk, in fact there is an amphitheater at the mouth of the cave for just this purpose.  I’ll paraphrase from the brochure again.  The spectacular flight of the Mexican free-tailed bat begins with a few bats fluttering out of the natural entrance of the Cavern.  Then in a matter of minutes a thick bat whirlwind spirals out of the cave up into the darkening night sky.  The exodus can last from 20 minutes to 2 ½ hours.  Once out of the cave the mass of thousands of bats undulates, serpentine fashion, toward the southeast to feed in the Pecos and Black river valleys.  They will stay out all night feeding and will return just before dawn individually or in small groups.  They reenter the cave in a fashion almost as remarkable as their departure.  Each bat positions itself high above the cave entrance.  It then folds its wings close to its body and plummets like a hailstone into the blackness of the cave, making strange buzzing sounds as it does.  Cool huh?  I hope the bats are here next time I’m this way since I’d surely like to see them in action.

That’s it for Carlsbad.  I am now in southeast Arizona at the Kartchner Caverns State Park where I have signed up for a cave tour later today.  I’ll let you know how these compare to those at Carlsbad.  In addition to caves, I am most excited to report that I am within spittin’ distance of Tombstone, the Wild West town where Wyat Earp and his brothers along with Doc Holliday had their famous shootout at the OK Corral.  I can’t wait!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Devin permalink
    February 24, 2011 3:47 pm

    Your photos of the caverns are awesome! What a trip you are having! I’ve really enjoyed your blogs detailing your trip. Can’t wait for the next installment of Alaskamargetravels.

  2. Thomas Noble permalink
    February 24, 2011 3:58 pm

    Next visit tryi to arrange time enough to do the tour of New Cave. It is a lantern tour and completely different experience from touring Carlsbad Caverns. (It’s the other cave they tour at Carlsbad.

    BTW, please add my name to the list of people volunteering for you to practice massage on when you get back to Alaska. We wouldn’t want you to lose any of your new found skills.

  3. Lil Eubanks permalink
    February 25, 2011 12:42 am

    We went to Old Tombstone many years ago when the kids were little. (It was the same time that we watched the bats come out of Carlsbad caverns, which was indeed worth watching) We enjoyed the stop at Old Tombstone and I recommend trying the Sasparilla.

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