Forget about the Grand Canyon, Hawaii and even Disney. The next place to go is Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico.
It’s an immense space with minute details. The volume of “decorations” is overwhelming. They’re massive and delicate, tiny and forceful. They’re columns that are stories tall and formations that look like drippings on an upside-down sand castle.
The collection underground is so dense because the land above was once a rainforest that saturated the cavern ceiling. But unlike every other cavern I’ve visited, Carlsbad wasn’t formed from a river; it was dissolved away by the very toxins that make Texas rich with oil. It’s also the same thing that makes your soda fizz: sulphuric acid.
It takes a painstaking 1-3 years for the water to seep through the ground to the cavern ceiling. 95% of the cavern features are “inactive”—but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way… The precision of water dropping…exactly…there…repeatedly for hundreds of years is awesome.
With multiple “rooms” to explore, there’s a snack shop inside the cavern, 750 feet (75 building stories) below the earth. Of course there is. The souvenir shirts are covered in plastic to protect them from bat droppings as the creatures fly by every night except during winter hibernation. The plumbing for the toilets flows up.
The “Big Room” is 4,000 feet long and 625 feet wide. Yup. Underground. In fact, it’s so far underground that it’s unaffected by earthquakes! Voices echo for a quarter-mile, so visitors talk in hushed tones. Even the click of my pen echoed—and I’ve got to admit that I loved it!
Some say Carlsbad Caverns is the Eighth Wonder of the World. I agree. Plus, it’s one of 20 World Heritage Sites in the U.S. Seriously—you’ve GOT to visit here. And bring the kids: they will be entertained by characters seen in the rocks—a kindof Rorschach test. They can be junior rangers. Their imaginations will go wild. I promise that this is worth a family trip.
At 56 degrees year round, the 90% humidity is surprising, but not really felt. There is a breeze though—the cave recycles itself, which is proof of openings in multiple places. Walking in through the natural entrance, you leave the sun’s warmth and immediately feel the cave’s cool. You’re looking into darkness and hoping that it’s lit. It is, but dimly, which adds to the ambiance, reverence, and delight. Think of the discoverers and the first time they had light available to see all that there was. What a thrill. What a relief. What a fear of its destruction. What a desire to share it with the world.
Bats live here. When not hibernating, up to two million (!) will emerge nightly to each eat more than half their weight in bugs. They’re the fastest bats in the world, clocking 60 mph. The size of an adult human’s thumb, when they roost, their body heat raises the surrounding temperature to 92 degrees.
It’s concave and convex. You duck your head and turn your body to maneuver a passage. You look up at the glory and get dizzy. You look ahead and can’t believe that it goes that far. You peek through a hole in the rock to see what else awaits. You genuflect to the gargantuan boulders that fell from the ceiling and now lie precariously but with intent to stay put. Or so we hope.
The world above ground is beautiful. Carlsbad Caverns are stunning both in splendor and surprise.
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Have you ever been somewhere so incredible that you had to tell everyone to stop, drop, and go?
Disclosure: these photos are either from Flickr or the National Park Service. As discussed before, I don’t bother with pictures in caverns—there’s limited time on the tour and I want to take it all in, not take pictures.