First, Let’s Talk Aliens
I need to start by saying that we spent the night in Roswell, New Mexico the night before we went to Carlsbad Caverns. KC saw this sign when we were driving through the town:
Which led to him parking the car so we could go inside. Things escalated…
What can I say? We had a good time looking at all the exhibits and fake aliens. The museum presented both the pro-conspiracy and anti-conspiracy arguments. In any case… The truth is out there! (cue sci-fi music)
Back to hiking around in caves and other fun stuff in New Mexico.
A Brief History of the Caverns
In the middle of the New Mexican desert, at least an hour drive from any town, are the Carlsbad Caverns. The caverns consist of limestone and have been formed by water flows through an ancient reef. While there is evidence of Native Americans using the caves prior to settlers, Jim White, a 16-yr old cowhand, “discovered” the cave in 1898 and began exploring by candlelight. He realized the tourism potential and started guided tourists through the caves, having them enter and exit by guano bucket. Eventually, he had photographer Ray V. Davis take pictures in the cave between 1915 and 1918. These pictures were sent back east and published some years later in the New York Times and in the National Geographic.
The publicity from the photographs led to the recommendation that the caverns become a national monument, which happened on October 25, 1923. Now a national monument, funding was provided to build trails and stairs into the caverns from the natural cave entrance to the main cavern, known as the “Big Room”. Then, on May 14, 1930, Congress designated Carlsbad Caverns a National Park. Through all these transitions, Jim White, the first modern explorer, continued to give tours of the caverns and continued further exploration of the cave system.
You can read more about the cultural history of the cave on this nifty National Park Service brochure.
Exploring the Cave
There are three ways you can see the caverns:
KC and I did a Self Guided Tour around the “Big Room”, the main cavern, and one of the Ranger Led Tours, the “Kings Palace” Cave Tour. Both were amazing and very different from each other. I recommend taking a ranger led tour to learn more about the caves before doing the self guided tour around the Big Room. On the King’s Palace Tour, the ranger gave us a cultural history lesson of the caves and taught us a little about cave geology. Besides history and geology lessons, the ranger also showed us what it was like to explore the cave using candlelight and turned off all lights to let us experience the cave in pure darkness (she warned us beforehand). Walking around the Big Room after the ranger led tour was more exciting because we knew where to look to find hidden cultural artifacts and modern-day spelunking equipment that was not pointed out by the signs on the trail.
A side note on spelunking: while the national park does allow spelunkers, you must belong to a Grotto Club (a spelunker club) and apply for a permit. Or you can pay $20 to go on one of the ranger led spelunking tours, known as the “Hall of the White Giant” tour.
Show me Pictures!
All right, all right. Here are some select pictures from our cave tours:
Pictures can’t fully explain the experience of being in the Carlsbad Caverns. The trail around the Big Room is over a mile long and the ceiling is over a hundred feet above you. Walking around in such a big confined space feels like you are walking on another planet. Part of this, we found out from a ranger, is caused by the cavern’s lighting. Before the current ambiance lighting, the caverns looked like they were lit up by the sun. Back in the late 1970s, the park hired lighting consultants from Disney to create a “natural” ambiance with the least light necessary for visitors to safely walk around the cave. I have to say, the consultants did a phenomenal job.
You can check out more pictures of our time in New Mexico on our New Mexico Geological Formations Photo Journal Page
For More Information
Check out the Carlsbad Caverns on the National Park Service website.