The drive to stop three on our 2008 summer vacation was a mere 42-mile hop across the New Mexico border, northeast to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It gets hot at Carlsbad, not inside the caverns but at the visitor center, the gift shop, and certainly on the black top parking lot. Because of the extreme heat the park has been forced to put its foot down and create laws to protect the pets of visiting tourists. Leave your cat or dog in your car and expect a steep fine. Instead, for a small fee park visitors can utilize the animal kennel at the visitor center. Here’s a snippet from my trip notes:
We were rushed at Carlsbad yet somehow still managed to see lots of good things. We took the general self guided tour that comes with admission into the park, and that in itself was simply amazing. To that we added a ranger-led tour through King’s Palace – approximately one and a half hours of deeper cave exploration jam packed with insightful information. I should mention that the cave was pretty cold (approximately 65° fahrenheit) compared to the current temperatures above ground (approximately 104° fahrenheit). Oh, and you know what stinks? Tons and tons of bat guano! Holy hell did that cave entrance reek of bat poop! If we had stayed for the night, we could have observed the “Bat Flight Program” where they leave en masse at dusk to feed and drink.
This (below) is the natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. There is also an elevator system for those who wish to skip the switchbacks that lead into the darkness. Air is constantly moving through the caverns, and here at the entrance the breeze is tainted by the smell of bat guano. The strenuous climbing makes breathing difficult, the sour stench of guano makes breathing sickening, and as you descend into the cave, the chill makes you second-guess your summer wardrobe. The average temperature within the cavern remains around 56° fahrenheit with about 90% relative humidity – cool and damp.
A placard at the entrance reads:
American Indians have known about the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns for untold years, but they may not have ventured very far into the cave. There is telling evidence, however, that they inhabited this area. Yucca sandals, arrowheads, stone tools, stone flakes, and brownware pottery have been found nearby.
The first Anglo settler to find the natural entrance or enter the cave is unknown. However, Jim White is widely recognized as the premier explorer. He most likely entered the cave in 1898 through the natural entrance by fashioning a ladder of sticks and wire.
I mentioned bat guano before, but I didn’t mention its significance. One of the first large rooms in the cave is the Bat Cave, named for the thousands of Mexican freetail bats that roost here from March to October. The bats hang upside down all day and hunt insects by night, consuming up to one half its weight in insects in one feeding. If the average man ate on the same scale, he would have to consume 95 pounds of food for dinner! According to park records, “bat guano has accumulated on the floor of Bat Cave to depths of more than 40 feet.” Mining of the excrement for fertilizer led to the discovery of Carlsbad Caverns in the 1900’s.
The next series of images were taken in an area of the cavern known as the Big Room. With over 600,000 square feet of floor space, the Big Room lives up to its name and is the largest known natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere. Try to imagine fourteen football fields, underground. The map below shows a 747 jetliner drawn to scale for comparison.
By the time the King’s Palace tour was done, it was time to head up to to ground level and begin our drive to Roswell, NM.