Prologue: Possibly the most famous caverns in the world. . .that is, below its crust. I, myself, never felt entirely comforting doing the spelunking kind of exploration, but I did enjoy touring the main and secondary caverns in this national park, and one or two tours crawling on my belly. For the most part, Carlsbad Caverns is an easy tour, when walking. I highly suggest visiting this locale if you're ever in this part of New Mexico. Just head for these towering heights, the Guadalupe Mountains and prepare yourself for one of the most awesome underground cavern networks on the planet. . .bar none!
Location/Geography: Southeastern New Mexico, Eddy County. Guadalupe Mountains (8,749 feet), on a plateau at the south side of Walnut Canyon. Entrance is 18 miles southwest of the closest town, Carlsbad. Area: 46,766 acres (73 square miles).
Spotlight: Bats, galore! An subterranean haven of colossal chambers called rooms. Donʼt touch anything along the way! One of the premier caves in North America; also premier for an exhilarating evening bat show (in season).
Snapshot: Carlsbad Caverns, “The Show Cave Tour,” begins rather dramatically, there in the Underground Lunchroom some 750 feet below the entrance. Approximately two-thirds of the park has been set aside as a wilderness are to preserve the fragile habitat of these subterranean environs. The interior of the caverns is illuminated (to some degree) and highlight the formations. Carlsbad includes a large cave chamber––the Big Room. This natural limestone chamber is nearly 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 350 feet high at the highest point. Itʼs the third largest chamber in North America and the seventh largest in the world. (The largest chamber is in Malaysia, called the Sarawak Chamber.) There are well over two dozen chambers––rooms––to explore. Most tours are guided, although there are some sectors of Carlsbad that can be self-guided. These are also the more squeeze-tighter places, such that spelunkers (commonly called "cavers") enjoy exploring, often on their bellies. The town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which lends its name to the celebrated caverns and the national park, is in turn named after a Czech town formerly known by the German name Carlsbad (whose modern spelling is Karlsbad). In 1923, the cavern setting had become quite popular and therefore deemed important by the government to protect its sanctuary. It was soon designated a national monument. Seven years later it was proclaimed a national park. In 1978, Carlsbad Caverns Wilderness was additionally established with the National Parks and Recreation Act.
Guided Tour Essentials: Carlsbad is all about the underground, including bats that live in extreme darkness. Specifically, literally hanging out in solution caverns. The story of this massive underground setting begins about 201 and 51 million years ago with the creation of a 400-mile-long reef in an inland sea that once covered this region. This horseshoe shaped reef was formed from the remains of sponges, algae and seashells; also from calcite that precipitated directly from the salty water. Cracks developed in the reef as it grew seaward. Eventually, the sea evaporated and the reef was buried under deposits of salt and gypsum. Then, and a mere few million years ago, uplift and erosion began to uncover the buried rock reef. Rainwater, which was made slightly acidic from the air and soil, seeped down into the cracks of the reef, slowly dissolving the limestone. Incredibly, this simple and timely process would eventually form large underground chambers free of water. At the same time, hydrogen sulfide gas migrated upward from vast oil and gas deposits beneath the ancient reef. The chemistry reaction is important, because the gas dissolved in the percolating ground water and resulted in sulfuric acid. The collateral effect of this potent corrosive substance explains the size of the passageways. Over time, the exposed reef became part of the nearby Guadalupe Mountains and the underground chambers became the marvel of Carlsbad Cavern.
Progressive decoration of the caverns with its myriad stalactites, stalagmites, including a wide variety of other formations, began more than 500,001 years ago. This embellishment occurred after much of the cavern had been carved out, and of course not submerged by water. Drop by drop the alteration of a bare environment to that of adornment happened at a time when a wetter and cooler climate prevailed. Each unique stalactite, stalagmite formed, as did any cave formation depended on droplets of water that dripped or seeped down into the limestone bedrock and into the cave. Chemistry and rain therefore formed a viable team. Their interaction was the catalyst that eventually created a nocturnal and perpetual wonderland––all because of rainfall percolating downward which absorbed carbon dioxide gas from the air and soil.
(Note: As seepage continues to move downward, a weak acid is formed and dripping dissolves some of the limestone.)This described lesson of elementary chemistry shows how limestone comes from the mineral calcite which denotes the formula for calcium carbonate (CaCO3). In short, limestone absorbs the basic ingredient needed necessary to build most cave formation––calcite.
Bonus Details: To continue this exposition on Chemistry 101, the so-called solution caves like those chambers inside Carlsbad, are formed in limestone by the action of water. Specifically, ordinary rainwater. One can think of these cave-worlds as a subterranean plumbing system. Calcite is barely soluble in pure water, while rainwater absorbs some carbon dioxide when passing through the atmosphere. More carbon dioxide is absorbed when rainwater drains through the soil as well as decaying vegetation. This chemical combination (water with carbon dioxide) is what makes a weak carbonic acid solution. Hence, the name of this type of cave: solution. Acid slowly dissolves the calcite and this process forms solution cavities as well as excavates passageways. The calcium bicarbonate solution that results from the process is then flushed into the underground drainage system.
Geology And Wonder Of A Cave: The magnitude of Carlsbadʼs grandeur is indeed spellbinding. Itʼs also difficult for some people to comprehend how rainwater and carbon dioxide fabricated the interior, as well as decorated the ceiling and floor. The process comes down to this finer detail and process: Once a drop of rain percolates through the thick layer of limestone it finally emerges in the cave. From there the carbon dioxide escapes into the air inside the chamber. No longer able to hold the dissolved calcite, that single drop of percolating rainwater deposits its minuscule mineral load as a crystal of calcite. Billions and billions of drops later, thousands of cave formations will have taken shape. This is just part of the wonder of how ordinary caves become extraordinary! Consider how these various formations are created and imagine how much time it takes to reveal the process. Where water drips slowly from the ceiling, soda straws and larger stalactites appear. Likewise, water falling on the floor creates stalagmites. Sometimes a stalactite and stalagmite even join, forming a column. In some caves, draperies hang where water seeps down a slanted ceiling. Water flowing over the surface of a wall or floor also deposit layers of calcite called flowstone. Beyond these marvels are cave pearls, lily pads and rimstone dams that appear where pools of water or streams flow into in the cave. Like oyster pearls, cave pearls are made as layer upon layer of calcite increase around a grain of sand or other tiny object (which is how travertine processes). Lily pads form on the surface of pools, while dams form where water flows slowly on the floor. Another phenomenon of formation decorating some cave walls, even adorning other formations, is cave popcorn. This event occurs when water evaporates and leaves behind calcite deposits.
Stalactites And Stalagmites––Whatʼs The Difference? Stalactites are formed by the deposition of calcium carbonate and other minerals which is precipitated from mineralized water solutions. Beyond the aforementioned chemistry components, limestone is calcium carbonate rock dissolved by water containing carbon dioxide and forms a calcium bicarbonate solution. This solution travels through the rock until it reaches an edge, and if this happens on the roof of a cave it will simply drip down. When the solution mixes with air the chemical reaction that created it is reversed. Particles of calcium carbonate are then deposited. An average growth rate is something like .005 inches a year. The quickest growing stalactites are those formed by fast-flowing water rich in calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide. These cave artifacts can grow at about .12 inches per year. So, what is a stalactiteʼs counterpart? A stalagmite entails the same chemical process, only these formations rise from the floor.
The Weirdness And Wonder Of Helictites: These special formations also grow in Carlsbad Caverns. This mineral is known as a speleothem and is often found in limestone caves. They are also some of the more unusual formations on display. Strangely, helictites grow seemingly without regard to gravity. Their twisting forms are governed by crystal shapes, impurities and the force of water under pressure. Other rarer formations of this variety are those composed, not of calcite, but of aragonite (a mineral chemically identical to calcite, though with a different crystal structure). These singular and enigmatic formations tend to be small, delicate and needle-like. Helictites are fascinating studies even beyond their singularity. Their ultra delicate forms begin their growth as very small stalactites. They are enigmatic because their axis from the vertical at one or more stages changes during the growth process. Helictites are considered the most delicate of all cave formations. With curving or angular forms, they appear as if grown in zero gravity! They are usually made of needle-form calcite and aragonite. In some caves, helictites group together and form a kind of bush, only made from minerals. Some can be as tall as 6-feet (1.8 m)! Then, and just like organic bushes, helictites grow up from the floor of the cave. When this rare event happens these marvels of creation get a new name: heligmites. Most likely, scientists figure helictites are the result of capillary forces acting on tiny water droplets. Surprisingly, this seeming benign force is strong enough at this scale to defy gravity. The reason these cave formations are given special mention here is because helictites are among the most favored formations viewed by visitors. Their forms have variously been described as ribbon helictites, hands, rods, saws, butterflies, curly fries, even clumps of worms. Typically, helictites have radial symmetry. They can also be easily crushed or broken by the slightest touch. Because of this, helictites are rarely seen within arm's reach in caves renown for their tourism, such as Carlsbad. Incidentally, Timpanogos Cave NM in Utah has one of the largest collections of these wondrous formations in the world.
Human History: More than 1,000 years ago prehistoric people ventured into Carlsbad Cavern seeking shelter, but venturing into the umbra of the cave just so far. They also left some mysterious drawings on cave walls near the yawning entrance which descries some of what they thought of this nether world cloaked in darkness. Like most rock art, who can say what was in the imaginations of these explorers who made their marks, especially in such isolated environments? Much later in the 1800s, Anglo settlers discovered the main cavern. Most likely they were drawn to the setting by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of flying mammals––bats––racing out of a gaping natural entrance in the evening. (In that era, there were also substantially more bats.) Some of these gawkers were insightful given what they saw. Some even made a connection with the bats and their droppings. These, the enterprising visitors, stayed to mine the huge deposits of bat guano collected in the cave and sold it as a natural fertilizer. One such man, a cowboy named Jim White, was fascinated by the cave and spent many hours exploring its labyrinthian interior. He had a reason and another enterprising idea for coming here: he was eager to capitalize on the cavernʼs natural wonders and act as tour guide. However, few people believed his improbable tales of a huge underground wilderness full of unusual cave formations. It took photographs to convince skeptics that Carlsbad Caverns was indeed everything it was said to be, and more. During his younger years Jim explored his private underworld domain using a homemade wire ladder. He also gave many of the rooms their names, including the Big Room, New Mexico Room, King's Palace, Queen's Chamber, Papoose Room and Green Lake Room. He also named many of the cave's more prominent formations, such as the Totem Pole, Witch's Finger, Giant Dome, Bottomless Pit, Fairyland, Iceberg Rock, Temple of the Sun and Rock of Ages.
Fauna––Bats: Carlsbad Cavern is a sanctuary for about one million (Tadarida brasiliensis) bats, a medium-sized species (3.5 inches in length and weighing about .43 ounces/12.3 grams). This census figure has since been greatly downsized due to diminished populations of these energetic creatures, that is energetic during the night. The explanation follows below. During the day, bats crowd together on the ceiling of the aptly named, Bat Cave, which is a passageway near the entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. In their darkened home, they are seen only by scientific researchers. At dusk, however, the great throng prepares to depart the cave entrance in swarms. Silhouetted against the late evening skylight, and much like a dark, swift-moving meshwork, these amazing creatures make their most dramatic display. Bats are flying mammals with fur and considered the best creatures when it comes to devouring flying insects of all kinds, especially mosquitos and gnats. They are also insatiable feeders which makes them supreme ecologists in their own right. The most extraordinary characteristic of bats is their excellent maneuvering ability and speed; also, the fact they can fly and capture prey in total darkness. The agility to fly a seeming erratic pattern and still catch insects on the fly, so to speak, is nothing less than incredulous. Like most species of bats, Mexican Free-tails, which are dark to gray in color, navigate and locate their prey by emitting ultra high frequency sounds.
Known as echolocation, this natural sonar system is similar to that used by dolphins and whales, but also submarines. When a bat's signals strike an object, the signals reflect back and are instantly picked up. The agile avian then takes whatever action is appropriate. They seldom miss what theyʼre going after. There are even split-second photographs of bats using their wings to flip the insect into their mouths.
As many as seven species of bats may roost in Carlsbad Cavern, but none is as prevalent as the Mexican Free-tail. This particular bat species is distinguished by its long, narrow wings and a free-dangling, skinny tail. Their ears are also wide apart, a genetic design that provides better echolocation capabilities. Their colonies are the largest congregations of mammals in the world except for some large urban area. Today’s colony at Carlsbad is somewhat modest in size (perhaps around 400,000), yet still adds up to a mighty swarm. Only a part-time resident of Carlsbad Cavern, Mexican Free-tails are migratory. The colony lives here from the early spring through October. However, during the winter these bats do the sensible thing: they fly south to tropical Mexico.
The Show Of Shows Starts Around Twilight: In season, the spectacular twilight flight begins with a few bats fluttering out of the natural entrance of Carlsbad Cavern. Soon, the bats emerge en masse in a dense group, an acrobatic swarm corkscrewing upwards and counterclockwise. In a matter of minutes, a thick whirlwind of spiraling bats enhances the faint shroud of an advancing darkness. The fluttering bats leaving the cave can last twenty minutes or as long as two and a half hours. Usually, the main show in this vicinity lasts for a few hours. This period also marks the eating frenzy of these voracious avian ecologists. Once the colony is out of the cave the undulating mass of bats flies, in serpentine fashion, toward the southeast to feed in the Pecos and Black River Valleys. Once there they begin gorging on moths and other night-flying insects. The last stragglers wonʼt return until just before dawn. Using reliable sonar, each bat on its hunting foray may catch and eat several stomachfuls of insects in a single night. With the coming of dawn the bats migrate back to the cave individually or in small groups. They reenter the cave at dusk in a fashion almost as remarkable as their departure. Once inside each bat positions itself high above the cave entrance and folds its wing. Itʼs time to digest the food and rest and sleep until the next show begins, at twilight ad infinitum.
Meanwhile, Carlsbad Caverns may be one of the rarer national parks where people tend to show up in droves––after the caverns are closed for the day. Here's a sequence of photos that depicts such activity, starting with a setting sun:
Eventually, the sky darkens by thousands and thousands of bats. After lingering for a bit these voracious ecologists are ready for the night of steady feasting.
These busy little creatures dodging this way and that at lightening speeds seek out tasty flying morsels, like this:
Of course, sometimes there are injuries in the traffic jam of bats, and if the bat is lucky and survives and gets a helping human hand, it may also get a treat of something else some bats prefer eating:
Surprisingly, with all the frenzy and activity and competition among so many thousands of bats saturating a region there are rarely any mid-air collisions. Then sometime before dawn the bats return to the caverns and prepare for a long day's sleep, their little tummies likely bulging.
The Nuances Of Bat Caves: Other than the dark interiors which bats prefer sleeping inside, bat caves serve as a warm weather abode (as a daytime refuge); also, favored as a protected maternity roost, that is once the bats migrate from Mexico back to the cavern to give birth and raise their young. Under cover of darkness, and away from predators or disturbances, the young are born in June. A female usually has just one offspring. Each birth occurs on the ceiling as the mother hangs by her toes and thumbs. Anatomically, the wing membrane is an extension of the skin of the body and these tiny critters really do have toes and thumbs. Bat wings also usually extend from the shoulder region to the ankle. The thin membrane (of their wings) evolved as a result of modifications to the forelimbs of their ancestors. Hence, the reference of thumbs as in a hand-wing physiology. This appendage sits along the leading edge of the wing and has claws (for climbing, food handling and fighting). Newborns also cling to the ceiling, or to its mother. For the next four to five weeks the youngster remains on the ceiling. During the day mother and young hang in clusters on the ceiling, resting, napping and nursing. As many as three hundred bats may crowd into one square foot! At night, the young are left in the cave, while the adults leave to feed. In July or August, each young bat takes its first flight, joining the adults on nightly feeding forays. Throughout their stay in Bat Cave the bats share their quarters with only a few insects and spiders. Finally, in late October or early November, adults and young leave the main congregation cave until next year for their wintering grounds in Mexico.
They Say Everythingʼs Big In Texas: Carlsbadʼs bat population has diminished over the years, yet it still has a considerable large number of bats in its colony. But it’s San Antonio, Texas that claims the largest bat population of Mexican Free-tails in the world. Their colony is found at Bracken Cave north of the city. The current census is some twenty million! When they depart their cave havens, the colony congregates at altitudes somewhere between 600 and 3,300 feet, and some go as high as 9,800 feet. Amazingly, with all the bats flying around there are no midair collisions! In that part of the country, the bats feed on migrating cotton bollworm moths, which Texas farmers cheer because they are considered severe agricultural pests. Of course, bats are not too particular when it comes to eating. Insects of any kind are always on the menu and therefore welcomed.
Famous Facet Rooms: Meanwhile, the main attraction visitors come to see are the numerous rooms below ground. The first visited is the Balloon Ballroom, which is located in the ceiling above the main entrance hall. This smaller solution cave was first accessed by tying a rope to a whole bunch of balloons and floating them up into the passage. From there, the tour of this underworld begins. Bat Cave is a spacious, unadorned rocky passage connected to the main entrance corridor. The majority of the cave's bat population also lives in this portion of the cave, which was mined for bat guano in the early-20th Century. The Bell Cord Room is named for a long, narrow stalactite coming through a hole in the ceiling, resembling the rope coming through a church steeple to ring the bell. This expanse is located at the end of the Left Hand Tunnel. The Bifrost Room was only discovered in 1982. Itʼs located in the ceiling above Lake of the Clouds. The name refers to a Norse myth about a world in the sky that was accessed from earth by a rainbow. The room was given this name because of its location above the Lake of the Clouds and its colorful oxide-stained formations. Big Room or The Hall of the Giants denote the largest chamber in Carlsbad Caverns, with a floor space of 357,469 square feet (33,210 square miles). Other popular rooms worth seeing are as follows: Chocolate High; Green Lake Room, which incidentally, was tested by the military in the 1940s and scrutinized for its potential feasibility of using Carlsbad Cavern as an emergency fallout shelter. This room was also used to look for ripples caused by a nuclear bomb test many miles away. None appeared. Continuing, Guadalupe Room; Hall of the White Giant; Kingʼs Palace; Mystery Room; New Mexico Room; New Section; Papoose Room, which is located between the King's Palace and Queen's Chamber. Queenʼs Chamber is widely regarded as the most beautiful and scenic area of the cave.
Here are more photo samples of this great and huge underground world (although the rooms are not mentioned (by the photographers) in the grouping sequence:
As a special note of interest, in the Queenʼs Chamber Jim White's lantern went out while he was exploring. He claimed he was in the dark for over half an hour. One assumes he must have pulled off a miracle by relighting the lantern; otherwise, he would have long since become a skeletal remains in the total darkness. Without a source of light one does not find an exit in such ebony blackness. Next, it’s the Spirit World and Talcum Passage, where the floor is coated with gypsum dust, followed by The Rookery. Finally, the Underground Lunchroom, which is located in the Big Room at the head of the Left Hand Tunnel. It contains a cafeteria that was built in the 1950s, and is where the elevators from the visitor center exit into the cave.
The man who folks once told a tall tale about a Jules Verne-like world:
More Facets Of The Park: Carlsbad Caverns contains over one hundred caves (116 to date). The only other cave open to the public is Slaughter Canyon Cave which also has striking rock formations. However, no paving or lighting has been installed. Visitors may enter only on specially guided tours with a ranger. Lechuguilla Cave, discovered in 1986, remains the focus of current cave exploration at the park. Itʼs the fifth longest cave known to exist in the world (126.1 miles). This cave is famous for its unusual geology, rare formations and pristine condition. Named for Agave lechugilla, a plant found near its entrance, it has been mapped to a depth of 1,600 feet, making it the deepest limestone cave in North America! The entrance is in an old mining pit called “Misery Hole” located in an obscure corner of the park. However, itʼs not accessible to the general public. However, the exact location of Misery Hole is also kept relatively secret in an attempt to preserve its secluded setting.
Although the park service is tight-lipped when comes to the whereabouts of Misery Hole, here's a sort of replica of another kind of misery hole, at least for some folks who can't stand her. . .
Declining Worldwide Bat Population Woes: It has been estimated that the population of Mexican Free-tailed bats once numbered in the hundreds of millions, but has declined drastically in modern times. The cause of this decline is generally unknown, though DDT, a common pesticide, is often listed as a primary cause. (DDT is also readily available in Mexico where these mats annually migrate.) The fairly good news is that populations of this species appear to be on the increase in recent years. Then again, the numbers are nowhere near the levels that may have been historically present. Many techniques have been used to estimate the bat population in the cave. The most recent and successful of these attempts involved the use of thermal imaging cameras to track and count the bats. A count from 2005 estimated a peak of 793,000 (though the average is much lower). The Mexican Free- tailed Bats are present from April or May to late October or early November.
Directions: NM Hwy. 7 and turn north from Hwy. 62/180 at Whites City (16 miles) southwest of Carlsbad, then 150 miles northeast of El Paso TX. Entrance follows a 7-mile route from the park gate at Whites City to the Visitor Center.
Contact Information: Carlsbad Caverns National Park 3225 National Parks Highway Carlsbad NM 88220. Phone (general park Information): 575-785.2232; for Bat Flight information: 785.3012; Fax: 785.2133. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.
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