A Journey to the Center of the Earth at Carlsbad Caverns

30 Mar
2012
Posted in: Hikes, New Mexico, Parks
By    4 Comments

The trip through the Mines of Moria was always my favorite part of the Lord of the Rings books. As a kid, I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth as if it were a factual account of a fantastical place I would visit someday. And now, standing 750 feet below the surface of the earth, I felt like I was in Moria or on my way to the center of the earth and the alternate universe I’d find there. But I was really in Carlsbad Caverns. I’ve wanted to go to Carlsbad as long as I can remember, but it’s in such an inconvenient location — in the southeastern corner of New Mexico near the Texas border — so it never fit into our plans.

The strangest part about Carlsbad Caverns is the elevator. Or wait, maybe it’s the bathroom.

We hiked in from the natural entrance, a big, gaping hole in the ground that removes all mystery about how the cave was discovered. As you slowly descend 750 feet below the surface, over a mile of paved walkway, you have time to adapt to the strange things you’re seeing and feeling. At first, the strength of the daylight makes it hard to see anything inside. Then you’re in the twilight zone — the area where the daylight filtering in has the effect of a full moon on a clear night. If you look up at the entrance, the light there is dazzling and unwelcome. Then it’s totally dark. Your eyes adjust so much that the spotlights illuminating certain features seem as bright as the sun. But a few clicks of the camera quickly dispel that notion. It’s so dark that Paul and I gave up on taking any good pictures by the time we were about a hundred feet below the surface (but we didn’t give up on taking crappy pictures). Instead we just tried to take it all in. The temperature and humidity are a constant — mid 50s and 90%, respectively. You have to keep reminding yourself where you are, because it is so strange and unreal.

After that mile descent, you’re in the Big Room, one of the largest (natural) underground spaces in the world. This is where you see the elevator, along with an increase in the number of visitors. The walk in from the natural entrance is difficult, but I recommend it if you’re physically able to stand it. Zipping down in an elevator removes your ability to truly appreciate how far underground this limestone paradise is located. The elevator looks like a subway station in the middle of the cave, its mid-century styling making it the ultimate definition of artificial. Buildings might look artificial in some places on the surface, but the human imposition in the cave looks so strange that it’s hard to even comprehend.

The loop walk around the Big Room is a little over a mile, over a mostly level surface. The stalactites and formations in this section are really amazing, even better than the things you see on the way down. The Big Room isn’t just a big open space, it has lots of nooks and crannies, but overall it covers an area of about 600,000 square feet. If there are other people down there with you, just try to walk slower than them. Wait until you’re alone, and try to be alone as much as possible. Look at everything. You’re probably never coming back here.

We took the elevator up, I am afraid to admit. They turn out the lights so you can see the shaft. Pretty cool.

After we came up, we felt incredibly peaceful. It’s hard to describe how awe-inducing Carlsbad Cavern is. It makes me happy that something so strange and unreal exists, and that so many people can see it so easily. I wanted to see other caves in the area, but Paul admitted to a mild claustrophobia that I didn’t realize he had. And for some reason, I’m not brave enough to do it alone.

The other famous feature of Carlsbad Caverns is the evening bat flight, when about 400,000 bats exit the cave in search of dinner. The bats probably weren’t back from their Mexican winter vacation yet, but even if they were, we weren’t planning to stick around to see them. I really do appreciate bats and all that they do. But I don’t like them, and the thought of seeing a few hundred thousand of them flying out towards my face was NOT appealing. We took our calmness on the road towards Oklahoma and put some miles behind us.

  • Renee

    The “weak knees” sign is a hoot!  The pictures are beautiful!  We visited Howe Caverns last year with the kids and it inspired the same amazement and wonder to us as adults as it did when we were kids.  What is really incredible is that folks explored these places with ladders and lanterns not being able to see beyond the ten feet of light fall cast.  Explorers are a perfect balance of courageous and crazy!!! 
     Love your posts!!!   Looking forward to more adventures.

    • Lisa

      Renee, somehow I’ve never been to Howe Caverns! It’s great fun to imagine the early explorers of these caves — I don’t think I would have been brave enough to do it.

  • http://twitter.com/scottsala Scott Sala

    wherever you settle, look up a local caving club at caves.org – they’re called grottos. Join one and do caving like you never imagined. Raw, real, wild, wet, nasty, etc. Learn rappelling, drop 400+ foot pits in Alabama, join research expeditions across the world just to carry gear, etc. No crowds.

    Renee mentioned Howe Caverns. There’s 100s of caves near there way better than a tourist cave. You just have to tag along with a group. But, just be lucky you don’t have to live/cave in the NE. NE caves are cold, wet, nasty, small, tight, muddy. Here in AZ and the SW, you can wear shorts and they are often dry.

    • Lisa

      Uh oh, Scott, looks like we might be headed for the NE! But there’s always vacations…long, long vacations. Caving clubs make a lot of sense for people whose significant others don’t share the same idea of fun!