Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns

Posted by Scot

Getting ready to descend into the depths.
The drive across Texas from Dallas to the New Mexico border satisfied more of our preconceptions.  Flat, flat, flat, with little to break the horizon other than oil donkeys pumping away.  It looked a lot like our drive across North Dakota, heading in the other direction last summer.

An oil well donkey, making Texas look legit.
After an overnight in Abilene (does it get any more Texan than Abilene?) we crossed into New Mexico.  It was a short drive to Carlsbad, which is a rough and ready town that seems to be busy with oilfield workers.  It kind of reminded me of a southern Fort McMurray.

The next morning, we headed south of town to see the world famous Carlsbad Caverns.  For the first time since we left Florida, we actually had to drive up a few hills.

The first hills of any significance that we have seen since Florida.  The south east US is flat.
We had little idea what to expect from the caverns.  After paying for a park pass, we walked through the main building.  We passed some elevator signs without noticing them, and walked out the door.  A Park Ranger standing on the path warned us of the hour long hike down into the caves that lay ahead.

A short way along, we approached the gaping, dark hole in the side of the mountain called the “Natural Entrance.”  There were benches set outside the entrance where you could sit to watch the stream of bats flying out in the evening.  In fact, apparently that is how the caves were first discovered (at least by European settlers).  A cowboy saw what he thought was black smoke filling the air in the distance.  When he went closer to investigate, he realized it was thousands and thousands of bats winging their way into the darkening sky.

The Natural Entrance.  Still too early for bats.
The path wound down and down into the massive cavern.  In about half an hour, we hit the “twilight zone”, where the last of the outside light penetrated the cave.  Without the artificial light the park service has installed, it would have been pitch black.

Coming into the twilight zone.  Say goodbye to any light from above.
We continued on down, marvelling at the immensity of the cavern, and the unbelievable formations.  Stalagmites and stalactites of all shapes and sizes abounded.  We also saw “draperies”, “cave popcorn”, “cave pearls”, “soda straws” and “flowstone”, all formed over centuries by the erosive forces of water and runoff on the limestone of the caverns.

The Whale's Mouth.
Awesome stalagmites and stalactites.
Once we reached the bottom, we finally figured out how the elevators worked.  Sure enough, there were two of them that went 750 feet straight down from the visitor’s centre to a rest area in the middle of the caverns.  We took advantage of their presence, and went back up to the surface for lunch.

Hanging out in the visitor's centre to warm up before heading down into the caves again.
After topping up on Vitamin D, we headed back down into the darkness and explored the “Big Room” which is a massive cavern, again with all sorts of unreal features, including a “bottomless pit”, and a couple of lakes.  Being the nerds that we are, we couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like if Dwarves, Orcs and Balrocs were wandering around with us.

Watching out for Orcs.

We wandered along the paths in the big room for about an hour, then went on a tour of the “King’s Palace”, so named because of the extremely detailed formations and draperies of stone.  The highlight of the tour was the couple of minutes when the ranger turned out all the lights, so we could fully appreciate the depths of the darkness that the early explorers faced.  After a couple minutes of impenetrable blackness, she lit a lighter, which, remarkably, cast a glow further than you would have expected.  Still, the first cowboys to venture into this place must have been incredibly brave.  I couldn’t believe they ever found their way out, but the ranger told me she had never heard of anyone being lost permanently in the cave system.

In The King's Palace, getting ready for the blackout.  It was about 13 degrees in the caves, which is the coldest we have been for a long time.
Formations in the King's Palace.
More of the incredible ceiling formations.

If you ever happen to be in Southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns are definitely a must see.  Particularly because I don’t think there is much else to see in Southern New Mexico.  But, seriously, the caves blew us all away, and are definitely worth the visit.

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