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Carlsbad Caverns - Carlsbad, New Mexico

May 2008

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the Guadalupe Mountains in SE New Mexico. Carlsbad Cavern is actually only one of over 300 limestone caves located in the area.

It is believed that the first explorers of the cave were Native Americans. Pictographs have been found at the cave entrance. The most famous explorer was Jim White, who first entered the cave in 1898 after seeing a huge group of bats fly out of it.

In 1903, a claim was filed for the cave's bat guano. The guano made excellent fertilizer because of its high nitrate content. Jim White worked for these fertilizer companies and continued to explore the cave in his spare time. Eventually, the expense and difficulty of transporting the fertilizer became unprofitable and the operation ceased.

In 1924 the National Geographic Society sponsored extensive exploration of the cave, assisted by Jim White. As stories of the magnificent cave reached Washington DC and the rest of the country, publicity increased and in 1930 the government declared Carlsbad Caverns a National Park.

A new visitor's center was being built while we were there so, temporarily, the ticket office, gift shop, animal kennel (yes, you can bring your pets and they will kennel them for $5) and other services were housed in trailers. The new visitor center looks like it will be very nice when completed.
New visitor center

There are two main ways to enter the cave for the self-guided tour. You can hike in through the Natural Entrance or take an elevator straight down to the Big Room. (Note that there are also guided tours that range in difficulty from walking on paved trails to crawling through narrow cave passages.) We chose to take the self-guided tour by entering through the Natural Entrance.

After purchasing our tickets, we walked a few hundred yard down a paved trail, past the bat flight amphitheater where you can watch the bats leave the cave each evening, to the check station where the guides make sure you know your in for quite a walk. They also make sure you don't bring any food or drink into the cave (except for water). After the brief introduction, the guide sent us on our way to the cave entrance.

As we started walking on the asphalt-paved switchback trail that took us into the cave, the first thing we noticed was the somewhat unpleasant smell of bat guano. Natural Entrance to Carlsbad CavernLuckily, the smell faded after a while. The paved trail is wide and has handrails the whole way. There is backlighting on interesting formations and although the cave is dark, there is no need for a flashlight or lantern. We also noticed that as we descended deeper into the entrance that the temperature dropped from 104 degrees to closer to the 56 degrees we were told to expect.

Lion's Tail formation Periodically along the trail are information markers that describe a formation or give more information about the cave or its history. If you choose, you can pay a few dollars extra and they will provide you with a handheld audio device to carry along your journey. You simply punch in the number found on the information markers and the audio device starts talking quietly and you can hold it up to your ear to hear more information.

It took us nearly an hour to an hour and a half to make it down to the Big Room. Along the way we saw many very interesting formations. The trail is downhill most of the way, so wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for a long descent. Until you make it down to the Big Room, you will be going downhill the entire time and holding yourself back takes a toll on your legs. Our thighs did became a little tired after a period of time. Periodically, there are stone benches off to the side of the trail where you can rest without disturbing people on the trail behind you.

Once in the Big Room, you can choose to continue hiking or walk a short distance to the elevators to return to the surface (you are not allowed to hike back out of the cave). There is also a nice snack area where you can purchase food and drinks as well as gifts and souvenirs. There are plenty of picnic tables to sit at while you're snacking.
If you choose to continue walking, there is a trail that takes you around the Big Room. The trail has a shorter loop and a longer loop. It's well worth exploring the Big Room if you have the time. "The Lion's Tail" (photo seen above) and the columns can both be found on this loop, as well as many other spectacular formations.

As mentioned, the cave is fairly dark, so if you wish to bring your camera and take pictures, you will probably need a special "night mode" or the ability to take photos with low light. In some instances, using a flash works well (like the lion's tail photos above). However, in many situation, a flash will illuminate very near objects and leave everything else beyond that in darkness. It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with your camera manual's low light techniques before you get down in the cave.

KCNM sectional The Carlsbad airport (Cavern City Air Terminal - KCNM) can be found on the Albuquerque sectional. Surprisingly, it has four fairly large runways. We figured it must be a heavily trafficked airport, but when we arrived on a Friday, we found it to be very quiet. It's a non-towered airport and nobody else was on the CTAF. From what we were able to discern, it appears this airport was used as a military base during World War II. At the time of our landing there were only three airplanes in the parking area and one was a Caravan that is apparently used for transporting priority mail (when we were getting ready to leave on Saturday morning it had just landed and parked and a DHL van was backed up to it transferring packages out of it). The airport does have one commercial airline, New Mexico Airlines, that serves the city.

After parking, we were met by a nice gentleman in a golf cart who transported us to the terminal building to pick up our car rental. Enterprise Rent-A-Car seems to be the only game in town. Luckily, they are nice enough to drop off the rentals at the airport and let you sign papers with the FBO. They Cavern City Air Terminal, Carlsbad, New Mexico, KCNM also allow you to leave the car at the airport when you're finished with it.

The town of Carlsbad is only a few miles north of the airport. There are quite a few motels on both sides of the street. It's just a matter of choosing your price and quality. I like the website for motel reviews. I've found them to be helpful and accurate. Carlsbad Caverns is about 15 miles south of the airport (on the same highway). It's easy to find just by following road signs.

Fly safe!

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