Published: December 21st 2012November 3rd 2011
A tiny portion of the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns, the fourth largest cave room in the world
I left Artesia this morning heading south across the Llano Estacado: flat, featureless, and profoundly empty.
I could be back in the rangeland of northern Wyoming [see The Sacred Tower
] (except that Wyoming has snow by now) with the same sapping effect on my sanity.
I drove into this seemingly empty void for the same reason everyone does, to experience one of the most compelling natural features in the United States.
Good thing it exists, because there’s almost nothing else for hours in all directions.
Old signs started appearing along the road.
They are a historic sight of a sort, because they have been there for over fifty years.
They look it too.
In glorious 1950s style graphics, the signs talk about various tourist facilities like food, motels, and gift shops.
All of them end with the same tagline “Visit White’s City
I finally did reach something other than empty plains, although I don’t consider it an improvement.
I passed through Carlsbad
It’s an even less appealing version of Alamogordo, a conglomeration of gas stations, highway hotels, strip malls, and fast food joints
See White's City!
The original national park tourist trap!
along the roadway.
One of the side roads has a large sign warning of a possible sinkhole!
This place is surprisingly large for somewhere so remote.
Whatever brings people out here must be incredibly popular.
The one thing I did do in central Carlsbad was stop and fill the tank.
My guidebook warns that Carlsbad is the last descent gas on the drive.
Only one station exists afterward, at the aforementioned White’s City, and its prices qualify as highway robbery.
After that the road crosses over a hundred miles of empty desert.
An official ‘next gas 100 miles’ sign sits at the city limits.
Beyond Carlsbad, the scenery starts to improve.
Low hills appear on the right.
They slowly grow larger, finally forming a wall along the roadway.
One thing makes them unusual; under the grass they are all white.
These hills are made of limestone, the first time I’ve seen it on this scale since central Kentucky [see Intruders in the Land of Eternal Night
They are the foothills of the Guadalupe Mountains
, a range that extends from southern New Mexico into west Texas.
Guadalupe Mountains and the Llano Estacado from the Carlsbad Cavern overlook
Millions of years ago, this area was a huge shallow ocean bay.
Coral colonized it, ultimately creating an enormous reef.
The reef compressed into limestone, with later uplifted to form the mountain range.
Like most limestone, these mountains should be filled with caves.
They are, on a truly epic scale.
The mountains hold one of the largest caves by volume in the United States, Carlsbad Caverns
The caverns entice many people make the trek to this otherwise empty part of the state.
About twenty minutes south of Carlsbad, I finally reached White’s City.
It’s not a real city at all, rather a privately owned complex of tourist tack.
It contains two hotels, an RV park, a restaurant, a T-shirt shop, and the almost required huge gift shop.
All of it is clothed in pseudo-western architecture that must be seen to be believed.
The two statues of green aliens in front complete the picture.
I still briefly stopped for some photos, because the place IS historic.
In 1926, one Charlie White heard about the planned creation of a National
The natural entrance to Carlsbad Caverns
Park around Carlsbad Caverns.
He shrewdly anticipated that it would become a huge tourist attraction, bought a large tract of land just outside the entrance, and built a huge tourist trap
, White’s City.
These sorts of places are now found near national parks across the southwest, such as the Ruby’s complex near Bryce Canyon [see Hoodoo: a Weird Name for Weird Rocks
], and Whites City was the inspiration for all of them.
Personally, I’m not very impressed by that.
At White’s City, a side road
branches into the mountains.
It enters a canyon composed of layers of white rock, and becomes quite curvy.
Bushes start appearing.
All of them are black, from a clearly recent forest fire.
The road follows the canyon a long way and then starts climbing the sides.
It tops out on a ridge and follows it.
Many more burned bushes appear on the sides.
The roadway finally ends at a huge parking lot with a vista to the east.
It shows white hills in the near distance, with featureless plains beyond stretching to the limit of perception.
The building on
Journey into the earth
The transition zone beyond the natural entrance
the other side of the parking lot holds the visitors’ center for Carlsbad Caverns.
Just inside the entrance is a huge ticket booth, with a long list of tours and times
People can walk into the main cave any time they want, but more interesting areas require guided tours.
Next to it is a huge warning sign about bats.
Carlsbad Caverns holds one of the largest bat colonies
in the southwest.
Bats occupy a very important place in the local ecosystem, because they eat their weight in insects every single night during the summer.
Unfortunately, a mold called white nose syndrome
is currently killing bats in the northeast US.
It germinates on the bats during winter when they are hibernating; they wake up, use their energy stores, and die.
The mold is spreading cave to cave, and the park service is trying everything they can to stop it.
Part of those efforts involve cave visitors.
Scientists believe the mold spores can spread on clothing and equipment.
Thanks to my visit to Mammoth Cave six months ago, I’m considered contaminated.
I had to
Spring along the natural entrance route into Carlsbad Caverns
wipe my shoes and camera with bleach wipes supplied by a ranger in order to get my cave entrance ticket.
The museum covers this cave’s unique geology
The Guadalupe Mountains once sat above a large petroleum deposit.
Most caves are created by water containing carbonic acid.
It slowly dissolves the limestone, creating caves with huge networks of small rooms [see Places of Reverence
In the Guadalupe Mountains, that water reacted with sulfur impurities in the petroleum to form sulfuric acid.
This acid ate the limestone at a prodigious rate to form enormous chambers, the largest cave rooms in the US.
Afterwards, the slow drip of water went to work to form stalactites, flowstone, and other features.
One section mentions another cave within the park, Lechuguilla
It was discovered in 1986 when workers cleared rocks in a sinkhole.
The cave is one of the deepest in the world, and filled with stunning formations.
The park strictly limits access to expert cavers doing research.
It’s partly for practical reasons thanks to the difficulty of exploration, but also to keep the cave in as pristine condition as
A small piece of the unbelievably long and steep room that leads to the Big Room
Casual visitors can only drool over pictures.
Natural Entrance Trail
Visitors have two methods into Carlsbad Caverns.
The first is the elevator, which leads to the largest room of them all and the starting point of guided tours.
The other is a long walk down through the natural entrance
The trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The entrance has a big warning that this is a hike, not a walk, and quite strenuous even though it is all downhill.
I took the hike because it’s a rare opportunity to see a big cave outside a guided tour.
The hike starts at an enormous hole in a hillside.
A very steep slope leads downward to a vertical rock wall with a big dark opening.
The trail drops down through a series of long and steep switchbacks, with beautiful stonework.
I heard my footsteps during this part; the smooth rock walls mean the area has loud echoes.
Through the hole the trail continues to drop through switchbacks, down a long wide rocky tube.
The scenery quickly
The top of a five story tall chunk of limestone that fell from the ceiling
gets darker and darker.
The tube ends in a large long chamber with a shallow ceiling.
The floor is covered in fallen rocks, which clearly cracked off the limestone above.
Thin stalactites drop from cracks in the ceiling, and some stalagmites appear on the floor below, otherwise it’s surprisingly barren.
A sign mentions that this chamber is the transition zone, within the cave but still with some natural light.
That effects which critters live here.
It’s incredibly humid too, especially compared to the desert outside.
When the sun is at the right angle, shafts of light from the entrance illuminate the water droplets in the air, creating the feeling of a journey deep into the earth.
Thanks to the huge rooms, Carlsbad Cavern may be the only cave that claustrophobics can enter safely.
The trail weaves through the rocks to the center of the chamber and then makes a U turn.
Straight ahead from the entrance leads to the bat nesting sites, which are closed to the public.
Instead, the trail enters a big corridor heading gently downward.
Remnant of the original way people got around Carlsbad Caverns
afterward, the only available light is obviously artificial.
Formations start to appear in large numbers, stalactites, flow stone, and big towers that look like wedding cakes.
Signs appear asking people to report anyone who breaks a formation; apparently some people can’t resist an illicit souvenir.
After a while it passes a pool of water surrounded by flowstone columns, the Devil's Spring.
The passage finally widens out into a huge room that slopes steeply downward, the Main Corridor.
The path passes through seemingly endless switchbacks through a huge drape of flowstone and more wedding cakes.
It passes some nice examples of cave popcorn, poufy formations caused by water pooling.
One set of stalactites on the side wall has a light behind it that makes them look like the mouth of a shark.
The ceiling contains more stalactites and long thin formations called soda straws.
Down and down the path goes until it felt like the hike into Wall Street in Bryce Canyon underground.
The trail finally reaches an enormous chunk of limestone called the Iceberg.
It fell from the ceiling thousands of years
A diner and souvineer shop underground, which is just as strange as it sounds
The originally way into the cave involved climbing up and over it.
Cave managers later blasted a passage around it, which the current trail follows.
The transition to the passage is quite extreme, from a huge formation filled room to an obviously artificial tunnel that is downright claustrophobic.
Thankfully, it’s over quickly.
The path reenters the room on the other side of the Iceberg, which is as tall as a five story building.
The switchbacks then resume, finally reaching the bottom of the rock.
From here, the huge size is fully apparent.
The path then continues down the room, past yet more formations.
I believe they are getting denser as the path drops.
Finally, the trail reaches the end of this absolutely huge room.
It reaches a junction where a short passage downward leads to a room absolutely filled with formations.
Stalactites and pillars appear to block the way there are so many.
A gate blocks off this passage.
Instead the trail heads to the left into another short passage, into a high narrow room filled with small fallen
The most decorated room in Carlsbad Cavern
The trail climbs the rocks through switchbacks, Appetite Hill (the first climb of the hike!)
Along the way, it passes a small passage on the left containing the remains of a wooden staircase, the original path through the cave.
At the top, the path passes a large slab covered in little black mounds.
These are lichen, which feed off lint from visitors’ clothes.
Simply by being in the cave, we are altering its environment.
The path then enters another passage with more boulders, the Boneyard.
It quickly enters another room, and one of the most surreal time trips available in the national park system.
The path enters the largest natural underground room I have ever seen.
It’s called the ‘Big Room’, the largest cave room in the United States and one of the ten largest in the world.
The path enters at one end, and the room stretches off as far as vision allows.
The more distant part of the room is filled with formations, but the part where the trail enters has none.
This part of the
Another view of this incredible room. Note the lack of stalagmites, due to generations of souvineer hunters.
cave floor is completely flat too, creating an environment that feels quite artificial.
Surprisingly, all of this section looks artificial because it was deliberately altered.
Carlsbad Caverns became incredibly popular in the 1950s, when automobile travel exploded.
At the time, the park service had a policy of building amenities for visitors.
They turned this part of the cave into visitors’ facilities.
The facilities are still here, a surreal travel flashback in this incredible natural environment.
This is what park travel looked like in older times.
The path ends at a big junction.
One branch heads further into the room.
A second heads into a passage to the elevator banks, looking quite surreal.
Even more surreal is third path to the restrooms.
It passes through a narrow cave passage directly into a concrete rest room area with a tile floor.
The most surreal of all is the path to a side room called the Underground Lunch Room
It was built as a full cafeteria far underground, with the natural ceiling and wall of the cave surrounding it.
The breathtaking beauty of the Queen's Chamber
all, all those visitors deserved to eat well.
In the 1970s, scientists discovered that food crumbs dropped by visitors, plus fumes released by cooking, were accumulating on the walls.
The organic waste encouraged the growth of bacteria that was ruining the cave.
The park service then removed all hot food and replaced it with fruit and yogurt.
The equally surreal gift shop next to the former cafeteria still exists, although it has been remodeled.
A series of posts with circular 1970s style florescent lights covers the front of the room, with things like sweatshirts sitting around them.
Think about this for a second, Carlsbad Cavern souvenirs sitting in a room deep within the cave.
Welcome to what post-war travelers considered normal.
Kings Palace Tour
The blocked off path I saw on the way down goes through an area called the Kings Palace, one of the most formation dense sections of the entire cave.
The main trail used to pass right through it; until souvenir seeking vandals caused so much damage the park service closed it to casual visitors.
People can only see it
More unbelievable formations in the Queen's Chamber
now on guided tours
The section is spectacular, so I signed up for one.
The tour starts by heading down a steep side corridor from Appetite Hill.
The corridor has big stalactites hanging from the ceiling, big enough to block part of the view.
As it descends a flat area lit by white lights comes into view.
This area is absolutely filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and columns of all widths, so many they appear to sit on top of each other.
Looking back shows a huge wall of flowstone.
The formations go on and on along the narrow corridor, until it finally widens out into a large low ceiling room, the Kings Palace itself.
The ceiling and walls of this room contain uncountable formations, packed as tight as will fit.
Some of the stalactites are so large they reach to the floor.
A large mound sits on the left near the entrance, the King’s Throne.
Curiously, the floor has no formations at all and is completely flat.
The lack of formations is a sad legacy of previous vandals, who took away everything
More cave beauty in the King's Palace
they could reach.
The flat floor is due to the park service allowing Henry Levin to film scenes from the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth
here in 1959; he wanted a flat floor for the movie cameras.
On the far side of the room, we passed into a truly tight passage, one of the few natural ones I’ve seen in the cave.
The walls initially look barren, until the guide pointed out delicate wet flowstone formations.
They look remarkably like vanilla ice cream.
Little drops of water appear in some spots.
Our guide also warned about the importance of not touching it; the oil in fingerprints will prevent the limestone from precipitating from the water.
We then entered the Queen’s Chamber room, smaller area wise than the King’s Palace but much taller.
More stalactites, pillars, and flowstone cover every inch of space.
A group of large stalagmites sits near the center.
The beauty took my breath away.
Careful observation of the delicate drapery formations near where the trail enters shows they are quite different to most.
A cave rarity: a colored pool caused by minerals instead of lights
The bottoms of all have unusually sharp edges; most cave formations are rounded from the water drips.
They also have columns of little dots on the sides.
These formations show visitor damage, and how park managers quantified that damage.
The sharp edges are from some vandal breaking the bottom of the drapery.
Park managers marked them, and then counted the markers through time.
Through this method, they discovered that souvenir hunters and vandals were breaking over a thousand formations a year!
The Queen’s Chamber marks the furthest point of the tour, so we headed back to the King’s Palace afterward.
The room is so large that we entered on the far side from where we were before, and had a completely different view.
Stalactites and stalagmites are often found in pairs; the water dripping from the former builds the latter.
The trail passed the Frustrated Lovers, a pair separated by less than the width of a water drop.
Cave formations grow so slowly that they have looked like this since the room was first explored.
We also passed a crack above the trail hiding a precious
Hall of the Giants
Carlsbad Cavern's largest formations, within the Big Room
formation, a yard long soda straw.
These formations grow around dripping water, and are as thin and fragile as their name implies.
This one has survived thanks to the solid rock around it.
The tour ended in an unusual room called the Green Lake Room.
Many caves contain pools of standing water, which reflect whatever is above them like a mirror.
Commercial caves love to put colored lights above and in these pools, usually named something after fairies.
The Green Lake Room contains a pool with a greenish tint.
Very rarely, the color comes from the rocks on the pool bottom; the lights are all white.
The rest of room contained yet more formations and flowstone.
Big Room Trail
I ended my day with a walk in the Big Room
Unlike the hike in, this path is nearly level.
It’s also made of concrete, with railings to keep people away from the formations.
Away from the Underground Lunchroom, the entire room is filled with features.
The floor contains pits, big mounds, and tall stalagmites.
The ceiling is covered in
Rare formation along the Big Room Trail
The walls contain endless flowstone draperies.
Huge flowstone covered pillars appear in places, looking like freaky wedding cakes.
The formations go on and on, all in one unimaginably huge room.
Its 8.2 acres big!
The path passes by some special formations.
A group of three huge stalagmites nearly reach to the ceiling, covered in flowstone draperies.
They are the largest in the entire cave, the Hall of Giants.
One long thin stalactite has spikes bursting from the end, the Lion’s Tail.
The spikes are helictites, composed of the mineral calcite.
They are some of the rarest cave formations in the world, and this is one of the few examples in Carlsbad Caverns.
The path also passes water pools surrounded by stalagmites.
Somewhat surprisingly, no part of the room appears dark from the trail at any point.
It’s all lit by carefully hidden yellow lights, which bring out the color of the formations.
That sadly doesn’t eliminate the tiny flashes of white seen on occasion, from people using flash cameras.
They can’t possibly light this space!
More formations along the Big Room Trail
took my own photos using my camera’s night mode, which can handle low light without using flash.
The day ended with the park’s only major disappointment.
Underground, light and access depend on humans, not the sun.
At this time of the year, the park service closes the cave early.
I had to move pretty quickly to fit in everything I wanted to see.
Rangers then herded everyone into the elevators and up we went.
As noted on the way in, Carlsbad Caverns is a long way from almost everywhere.
I have no desire to eat or sleep in the tourist trap of White’s City tonight, so I ultimately went back to Carlsbad.
At least it has more variety and lower prices.
I finally had dinner at the No Whiner Diner
It’s another diner serving comfort food, which was pretty good.
The menu noted that whining will cost a 20% surcharge, although I’m not sure they ever apply it :)