Carlsbad Caverns National Park: The Natural Entrance and The Big Room

After finally coming together the day before as a group of eight for my birthday trip, on the morning of Friday, November 16, we split up with John watching the two children at the Carlsbad Caverns National Park Visitor Center while the rest of us went on the ranger-led King’s Palace Tour. After the tour, we collected the three who had stayed above ground and assembled in the cafeteria for lunch. Our plan for the afternoon was for all of us to descend into the cave, since children of any age could go in via the Natural Entrance (with adult supervision).

I continued my trip-long love affair with green chiles and lunched on green chile stew a torta.

The two tow-headed toddlers finished lunch before the grown-ups.

Image: John Cawood

We decided that we would regroup at 1:05pm near the visitor center entrance for our adventure into the cave. The two families with children prepared, while Sean and I browsed the tchotchkes. Carlsbad Caverns is an old National Park with a tradition that borders on tourist trap. That was evident in the cafeteria area where Carlsbad Caverns Trading Co., the Park’s concessionaire, had an array of t-shirts, dreamcatchers, lantern helmets, crystals, and Christmas tree ornaments for sale. But the renovated visitor center is also gorgeous, presenting science with an artist’s eye. It’s a good place to see a 20th and 21st century approach to Park visitation smashed up against each other.

John had an Osprey pack for Mariana to ride in. I think she was way more excited than he was about it.

Maybe not.

I love the photo above because it captures all of our wonderful friends with us on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. John is posing against his imposing frame. Mariana is bemused. Catherine is helping. Adam is the auteur. Sylvan is death dropping, And Phil is making sure nothing is too awry. You’re all wonderful!

Meanwhile, Sean Santos was posing as an over-clad spelunker.

National Park Service housing

By 1:20pm, all eight of us had made it out of the visitor center and were walking along the path to the cave’s natural entrance. Across a shallow canyon were the supremely impressive NPS offices and housing for the Park.

We crossed a bridge and walked up to Ranger Chris, who was checking tickets and orienting visitors to their descent into Carlsbad Caverns. He gave us the 411 and then released us to walk at our own leisure and pace over and into the cave.

Access to the switchbacks into the natural entrance was on the other side of a large amphitheater, which in the summer provided visitor seating for the nightly swarm of Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats flying from the cave out across the desert to hunt for insects. In November, the bats were down in Mexico for the winter. We’d just have to come back to experience them.

But happily what we were about to experience was an incredible walk down into the earth. The other caves administered by the National Park Service that Sean and I had visited required a ranger-led tour to visit. This was the first time we’d be walking into a cave unaccompanied.

Image: John Cawood

Well, unaccompanied save by good friends.

Bats or no, the descent into Carlsbad Caverns is rightly famous.

I was lagging behind my companions because I was taking photos. But that allowed me opportunities to get some fun shots of the rest of the crew as they dropped down closer to the black chasm.

Somewhere in here, John’s shoe fell apart. The sole fell off. We had really only just begun, but we didn’t want to turn around, so Catherine helped John secure the sole of his shoe by tying it all together with a shoelace ponytail holder.

(This trip really was gently cursed.)

Shortly the switchbacks led us more insistently into the darkness.

Bat Cave

Near the entrance, we passed the Bat Cave, home to the thousands of Brazilian Free-Tailed Bats that inhabit the cave in late fall, summer, and early autumn.

Stalactites

We continued on into the Twilight Zone, where there was still enough light for algae to grow on the walls of the cave.

Stalactites

Column

As we descended further, the atmosphere resolved to a steady fifty-six degrees, which is the temperature inside the cave year-round.

Flowstone

Below us the sinuous switchbacks continued pulling us down, down, down.

Stalactites and stalagmites

Whale Mouth

We passed a formation named the Whale Mouth because its flowing draperies resembled the mouth of a baleen whale.

The kids were doing just fine except that Sylvan needed to have his diaper changed. So what could Adam and Phil do except oblige? They found a wide switchback so as not to be in the way of other visitors and got it done. I said that they would have to return someday when Sylvan was at the height of teenage mortification and show him where his poopie diaper had been changed inside a huge cave.

As we continued, we began to come upon some tight passages in what was otherwise a massive, high-ceilinged chamber. These passages were what John had been dreading. At 6’7″, John has a big frame, and although his nervousness doesn’t rise to the definition of claustrophobia, just his size with the added contraption of Mariana’s carrier made him nervous. Helping him through some of the tight spots without touching the walls while also making sure Mariana didn’t bump her head was a four-person job.

Adam’s anxiety, meanwhile, was that Sylvan would accidentally drop his beloved stuffed giraffe, whom he was clutching for comfort, into an unreachable abyss along the walkway.

Cave popcorn

The wall beyond the cave popcorn in the image above features joints, fractures in the limestone, which allow water to begin to seep through and slowly dissolve the surrounding rock. At Carlsbad Caverns, unlike at many other caves, the formation of the caves was greatly accelerated by the presence of sulphuric acid from hydrogen sulfide bubbling up from the water table.

Flowstone and cave popcorn on a stalagmite

Cave popcorn

Stalagmite

Iceberg Rock

As we neared the bottom of the vast entrance chamber, we passed the top of Iceberg Rock, a 200,000-pound boulder that had fallen from the ceiling.

Iceberg Rock

Iceberg Rock

Stalactites

Suddenly, the surroundings began to look familiar as we arrived in the Green Lake Room, where our morning’s King’s Palace Tour had concluded.

Veiled Statue

The paved path leveled out, although to John’s chagrin there were more tight spots as we made our way into the Green Lake Room. By this point, Mariana had fallen asleep in the carrier.

The Boneyard

The Big Room

Soon we emerged into The Big Room, the largest natural limestone chamber in the Western Hemisphere. According to the informational signs, The Big Room is 600,000 square feet, equivalent to fourteen football fields. Adam, Phil, and Sylvan had continued on ahead of us. John and I sat on the low wall near the sign and waited for Catherine and Sean to use the restroom in the nearby rest area, the same rest area at the bottom of the elevators where we had assembled for the tour that morning.

Once Sean and Catherine returned, we five, along with now-awake Mariana in her carrier, set off down the paved path clockwise around The Big Room.

The pathway, which largely hugged the perimeter of the room, lent a false sense of evenness to the room. Although there was little elevation change, the floor of the room was anything but even with occasional deep pits, as in the image above.

Stalactite and Stalagmite

Lion’s Tail

We soon reached John’s favorite speleothem, the Lion’s Tail (above), which he remembered from his teenage visit to Carlsbad Caverns.

Image: John Cawood

Hall of Giants

We passed the Hall of Giants, boasting the largest speleothems in the cave. The column at right is sixty-two feet high.

Hall of Giants

Drapery and stalagmites

Hall of Giants

Fairyland

After the Hall of Giants, we entered Fairyland, an area of low stalagmites covered in cave popcorn, which made them resemble little gnomes or other fanciful creatures.

Fairyland

Fairyland

Temple of the Sun

It’s difficult to discern, but the image above is actually of a cave pool. There is crystal clear water there beneath what appears to be a crusty edge or rock.

After having the route down from the Natural Entrance largely to ourselves, The Big Room felt much busier with visitors, including couples, families, and small groups. One man, likely in his mid-sixties, became a “John friend.” A “John friend” is a stranger who feels compelled to interact with John in some borderline inappropriate way because he (usually, although also occasionally she) is attracted like moth to flame to John’s height and friendly demeanor. The CTA Red Line back home in Chicago is a breeding ground for “John friends.” This particular John friend reminded us of many colleagues of a certain age in conservation back home who feel compelled to demonstrate their knowledge. This guy tried to engage John in conversation. Actually that’s not quite right. He accosted John, sort of referenced his height and Mariana in his pack, and then sort of explained some formations without having been asked to.

Nipple Rock

A short while later, John and I chuckled as we saw the same guy staring…just staring intently…at Nipple Rock. Later on the surface, we overheard him telling the clerk in the bookstore about how he was a geologist for an oil company: “I spend all day drilling through this stuff.” Gross all around.

We continued on, past many fanciful speleothems.

This one, which looks like a corpulent monster, was my favorite.

The Chandelier and the Totem Pole

The Chandelier

Draperies

Drapery stalactites?

We reached a portion of The Big Room from which the Lower Cave was visible below.

Ladder from 1924

A wire and wood ladder built by Jim White in 1924 still hung, lit so that visitors could see how treacherous early exploration was. White built it for a National Geographic expedition the year after Carlsbad Caverns was protected as a National Monument and six years before it would be upgraded to National Park status in 1930.

Lower Cave

Image: Sean M. Santos

Cave bacon

We continued on. By now Adam and Phil and Sylvan were far ahead. But John, Catherine, Mariana, Sean, and I were taking our time a bit.

Stalagmite

Cave popcorn

Mirror Lake

Flowstone

Bottomless Pit

Near the far end of The Big Room we came to the Bottomless Pit, which is 140 feet deep from where we were standing.

Liberty Dome

From the bottom of the pit to the top of Liberty Dome above it is a distance of 370 feet.

Stalagmite

This speleothem, which looks like a shark, was a close second to the monster for my affections.

Stalagmite

Stalagmites with flowstone

Cave popcorn, stalagmites, and stalactites

Flowstone

Flowstone

Draperies

Stalagmites with flowstone

As we made our way back along the loop path from the far end of The Big Room, Mariana had finally had enough of riding. John and Catherine helped her out of her carrier, and she spent some time walking along the path holding her mother’s hand.

Rock of Ages

Draperies

Draperies

Stalagmite with flowstone

Cave pool

Cave pool

Draperies and stalagmites

Painted Grotto

Painted Grotto

We peered into the Painted Grotto at the hollow soda straw formations formed by slowly seeping calcite.

Dolls Theater

There were more soda straws in the Doll’s Theater.

Chinese Theater

And just before we arrived back at the start of the path we arrived at the Chinese Theater, with a stalagmite that sort of resembled a figure from Imperial China.

Chinese Theater

Sean and I were the last of our group to make it back to the elevators, and we looked around for the others for a few minutes before realizing that they’d gone topside.

We joined them. The elevator exited through the gift shop. Or at least it exited through the bookstore.

We all spent a fair bit of time in the bookstore. John purchased a National Parks Passport for Mariana and stamped it. It would be a lifetime passport for her. Adam followed suit with Sylvan, and he resolved to return to Guadalupe Mountains National Park at some point over the next couple days to get a stamp from that Park.

In all, our walk into the Natural Entrance and through The Big Room had taken about two and a quarter hours. It was now ten to four, and we had a little bit of daylight left to see a bit of the aboveground portion of the Park.

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