Speleothems Of Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Photos can't capture what it feels like to stand hundreds of feet underground looking at the most implausible things you’ve probably ever seen in real life. Put Carlsbad Caverns National Park on your list of parks to visit!
Don’t be surprised to find yourself sounding like a broken record at every turn; just remember to “awe” in a whisper because sounds carry throughout the cave. And take all opportunities to savor the moments of silence and listen – those are the sounds that created these intricate giants surrounding you.
Natural Entrance Trail
The elevator was broken during our visit to Carlsbad Caverns. This wasn’t a big deal for us because we would’ve hiked into the cave via Natural Entrance Trail either way. But we do recommend taking the trail down into the Big Room rather than the elevator (you can always take the elevator back up). Walking down 1.25 miles will give you a better sense of the immensity of this cave and how deep in the belly of the Earth you are. Not to mention all the natural features you’d miss out on otherwise.
Walking down this trail when the elevator actually is working does mean the Big Room might be a bit more crowded by the time you get there, even first thing in the morning.
The Big Room is the crown jewel of Carlsbad Caverns and there’s no doubt why. This is a 1.25-mile long paved path that winds you around 600,000 square feet of floor space. There are stalagmites (they might one day touch the top) that tower 58 feet above the trail and stalactites (they hold on tightly to the ceiling) that are so long you have to duck walking by. Here you’ll see speleothems - cave decorations made mainly from deposits of calcite - with names like lily pad, popcorn, soda straw, and draperies.
Slaughter Canyon Cave
Slaughter Canyon Cave is one of several guided tours that Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers at an additional cost. And it’s worth every penny ($15/person). Slaughter Cave was left in its natural state, unlike the Big Room which has 19 miles of wire running throughout to light up the space. The only source of light in Slaughter was from our group of six’s headlamps. We got lucky with our small group. This tour usually maxes out at 20 people, but the park is planning to decrease the group size. A half-mile hike up a steep, rocky trail brought us to a locked bat-friendly metal gate at the entrance of the cave. The bars on the gate are spaced to allow bats to fly through to use the cave if desired, while keeping humans from getting lost or damaging the structures inside. We spent the next 3 hours weaving around the cave via a trail marked out by safety tape.
While our mere presence has a negative impact on the caves, the National Park Service puts effort in minimizing it. The Park Service requires visitors on these tours to wear provided gloves so that when we do have to touch the cave, from navigating through steep and slippery sections, we don’t leave behind oils or chemicals. The also provides helmets and a headlamp, but visitors are asked to provide three of their own AA batteries (we brought reusable batteries which worked fine).
Did you know that we all leave something behind in caves even without meaning to? Skin cells, hair, and lint from clothes. On average, national park volunteer “pickers” remove 16 pounds of lint a year!
It was in this cave that I experienced true darkness. Our lead ranger, Kelli, said the only two places on Earth you can experience absolute blackness are in a cave and the bottom of the ocean. I was surprised to find that my eyes hurt after staring into the space around me for a while. I eventually had to close them because that was less straining. We were told by the other ranger, Rick, that it’s the silence that breaks most people. He also said that if you put your hand in front of your face, your brain will trick you into thinking that you’re able to see an outline of it. It’s just survivor reflex, to prevent people from freaking out.
Carlsbad Caverns Guided Tours
Lower Cave was the other guided tour we really wanted to go on. This cave has great examples of cave pearls, which are supposedly not very common. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize the tours would fill up so quickly and didn’t buy tickets days in advance. All the Lower Cave Tours (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) were full for the week when we asked on a Monday. Unless someone calls and verbally cancels his/her ticket, people waiting, like us, aren’t able to buy a ticket the morning of even if there are no-shows. So please remember to call and cancel if you aren’t able to attend a tour after purchasing tickets. There are often people waiting to take your place! And if you’re interested in a guided tour, get your tickets a week or more in advance!
Dogs at Carlsbad Caverns
As with all national parks, dogs aren’t allowed, aside from in parking lots. But I was surprised to learn that Carlsbad Caverns actually has air-conditioned dog kennels for visitors to use (30 dogs max).
For $10, visitors are able to leave their dogs in one of these metal kennels for the entire day (8:30 AM - 4:30 PM). Dogs must have rabies vaccination proof (rabies tag or certificate).
The guy I spoke to at the concession stand (that’s who oversees the kennel) recommended bringing a dog bed because the floors are concrete. The dogs don’t leave the kennel until they get picked up at the end of the day – this means there aren’t any pee breaks.
So, forget saving your millions for a trip to Mars with Elon Musk. For a mere $12 you can get an otherworldly experience at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
We visited April 28 - 29, 2018.