It has been a while (7 months to be exact) since we spent any time under the depths of the earth, and even though no caving experience can possibly top Vietnam’s Son Doong Cave, we knew we would still be dazzled with amazement by New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns.
Situated in the Chihuahuan Desert, America’s second largest desert which straddles the U.S.-Mexican border, the limestone chambers of Carlsbad Caverns is the 5th largest chamber in the nation. We found a quiet, peaceful place to camp in the middle of the desert on BLM land about 20 miles outside of the park. Desert jewels such as these pricklies forced us to be wary of our surroundings.
Some hundreds of millions years ago when the oceans in the Southwest states eroded and carved the land into the vast national parks we know today, joints and cracks and natural gases beneath the earth formed the caverns at the same time. In the late 19th century, the cave was used for guano (bat crap) mining, but by 1920, the cave was established as a national monument. Since then hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world have visited every year, and new caves continue to be explored and discovered within the area.
The park contains over 119 caves, but only 3 are open to the public. Carlsbad Cavern is the most famous and developed with paved trails and lights. Self guided tours are possible there, with the option to enter via steep, natural entrance or even an elevator. The other 2 public caves, Slaughter Canyon and Spider Caves, are underdeveloped caves that require ranger-guided tours. During our time at the park, we spent our sunny, warm days beneath the dark ground with our first day self-guiding ourselves through Carlsbad Cavern, our second day touring the Lower Cave of Carlsbad Cavern, and our third day crawling through Spider Cave.
Day 1: Self-Guided Tour of Carlsbad Cavern
To my amusement and relief, there was not only a cafe/food area in the cave, but also bathrooms. Spacious, clean, tiled, flush-toilet bathrooms. In the cave.
Day 2: Ranger-Guided Tour of Lower Cave in Carlsbad Cavern
Once again we ventured down into Carlsbad Cavern, but with a couple rangers and 6 other visitors. There are multiple chambers within Carlsbad Cavern, Lower Cave being one of them.
Ranger-guided tours are generally finished by noon, so I had time for a quick, short bike ride from the entrance of the park to the visitor center after touring Lower Cave.
Day 3: Ranger-Guided Tour of Spider Cave
Because a good amount of time is spent crawling on your forearms through narrow tunnels, this authentic caving experience is not meant for the claustrophobic. With only a maximum of 8 visitors per tour and one tour per week, this tour sells out! Luckily on Monday we purchased the last 2 tickets for the Wednesday morning tour.
During our briefing, there was a model of the Spider Cave tunnels, allowing me to make sure I could crawl through.
Yay, I fit! (We had no doubt.)
Spider Cave is not attached to Carlsbad Cavern. At least, there has not been a discovery of a connection. We all hiked about a half mile to the entrance of the tunnel.
And then we descended into the tunnel via ladder.
Lots of crawling in tight spaces, as promised.
And hanging out in larger corridors:
By the time sunlight touched our skin again, we were sweaty and covered in cave dirt.
As I mentioned in our previous post, we were both so anxious to finally leave the cities and suburbs, reenter national park territory, and boondock again on remote lands. Our first three days in New Mexico was refreshing–waking up to the light of dawn, exploring the rugged land above and below the earth, and sleeping in complete darkness rekindled our souls and reconnected us of with our passion for the outdoors.
However, I’ll admit I’m not an avid caver. Like a cave pearl, the suffocating darkness and stagnant air start off as an insignificant nuisance I can easily ignore. And with time, with every additional minute I spend beneath the earth, with every step I take further away from light, this malleable nuisance grows and solidifies into the unpleasant realization that I’m enclosed in a world deprived of everything I love. At some point not long after exhausting everything there is to observe, I long for light, breeze, and every form of freedom once again. When I return to my world above the earth, my skin not only feels the warmth of the sun’s breath, but my heart is also filled with the warmth of happiness. Although I’m clearly not a cave lover, I’ll continue to visit these secrets beneath the earth just for a sample of mystery, beauty, and wonder.
Upon exiting the park, we tucked away our new cave experiences and trembled with anticipation for New Mexico’s next wonder, White Sand Dunes National Monument.