Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico : “The Grand Canyon with a roof”

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Located about 27 miles south of the city of Carlsbad in the Chihuahuan Desert under the Guadalupe Mountains, lies Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The park may look unassuming from the outside, but once you descend down into the caverns you are greeted with a beautifully ornate labyrinth filled with magical stalagmites, stalactites, columns, flowstone, travertine, and cave ”popcorn.” If you have ever wanted to feel as if you were on another planet, a visit to Carlsbad Caverns will have the desired effect. Comedian and actor Will Rogers once described the caverns as, “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.”

Giant and Twin Domes, Carlsbad Caverns (Credit NPS-Peter Jones)

Two huge stalagmites, Giant and Twin Dome, at Carlsbad Caverns (NPS – Peter Jones)

About 250 million years ago, the Guadalupe Mountains region lay under an ancient sea, close to a growing limestone reef. About 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted and with the help of sulfuric acid dissolving the limestone rock, the chambers were created. The formations were built drop by drop from limestone-laden moisture. Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles of passages in the cavern, and as a visitor you  can tour three of those miles. Though the Native Americans who lived in the area knew about the cave, the person who is credited for first exploring the cave in 1898 is Jim White. Jim was a cowboy from Texas and discovered the caverns’ entrance when he saw a  cloud of bats spiraling out of the cave mouth.

When you arrive at the Carlsbad Caverns, you can choose to descend by one of two ways. You have the option of going down via the elevators or through the Natural Entrance. If you are able to, I would highly recommend using the Natural Entrance when you visit as you can observe the beautiful formations as you descend 750 feet down into the caverns. The biggest underground chamber in the United States is found at Carlsbad Caverns and is called the Big Room, it is also known as the Hall of Giants. The Big Room is about 3,800 feet long and 600 feet wide. There is also the King’s Palace, which is a series of four chambers containing unique rippled rock formations known as the Queen’s Draperies.

Visiting Carlsbad Caverns is not just an underground experience and a real highlight is watching a colony of about 400,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats spiraling out of the cave mouth at sunset as they depart on their nightly hunt for insects. The sight, arguably more fascinating than the cavern itself, occurs between the months of April or mid-May through October.

Bat Flight at Carlsbad (NPS: Nick Hristov)

Brazilian free-tailed bats leaving the caverns (NPS – Nick Hristov)

The Carlsbad Caverns National Park also hosts night sky events in the summer. Fully-equipped with high-powered telescopes. park rangers shed light on the nocturnal wildlife, cultural folklore, and astronomy of the region. If you can time your visit to Carlsbad Caverns to coincide with the full moon, even better!  

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