Carlsbad Caverns: Nature’s Labyrinth
Author: Jake Martin-Wagner
A labyrinth with blind passageways of stalagmites and stalactites formed tens of thousands of millennia ago. Phenomenal and grotesque formations lead the eyes through a torturous maze, along meandering alternating paths, analogous to the winding Maeander River that effortlessly deludes the sight, flowing to and fro in its mercurial course, through the flowering meadows of Phrygia. The Carlsbad Caverns offer endless pathways of one of the world’s deepest, largest and most ostentatious caverns ever discovered. One of twenty World Heritage Sites in the United States, this national park encompasses more than 100 chambers that curve and twist through the cellular limestone reef of the Guadalupe Mountains.
The caverns formed over 20 million years ago when the sea that once covered this region retreated and the once submerged limestone reef raised up thousands of feet to form the Guadalupe Mountain Range. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid percolated through the porous limestone to form a honeycomb of chambers and swirling cave passages adorned by the preserved bodies of algae, snails, nautilus and more.
Once the chambers were hollowed out, nature took up hammer and chisel to meticulously embellish the caves with fantastic formations. Drop-by-drop, moisture from the surfaced limestone reef crept through the cavernous caves, disintegrating the many minerals along its path. Every drop of water gradually sculpted an outstanding array of shimmering formations in this subterraneous wonderland far beyond the limits of the imagination – from frozen waterfalls to radiating frost-like chandeliers, draping curtains to delicate flower-like crystals.
Although Native Americans had discovered the caverns centuries ago, with some excavated artifacts in the surrounding area dating back as far as 14,000 years, settlers did not uncover this magnificent subterranean world until the 1880’s, when local miners bore witness to a swirling plume of bats emerging from the cave at sunset, flying onwards into the twilight sky. Just prior to the turn of the 20th century, a local cowboy, James Larkin White, began to explore and document the intricate network of caves. Awestruck by the myriad formations in this tremendous schism, White shared his discovery of this labyrinth of caves, and soon word of this subterranean wonder spread, eventually earning national park status in 1930.
Today more than 30 miles of cavernous passageways have been charted, and exploration continues. Visitors can tour up to three of these miles on a paved trail sans guide primarily confined to the prominent Big Room, the largest single underground cavern on earth, boasting an area of 8.2 acres, a ceiling 25 stories high and a floor large enough to contain upwards of six football fields. However, more than a hundred additional caves are open to specialists and those with guides.
The caverns also house more than a quarter-million Mexican free-tailed bats over the course of the summer season. These extraordinary creatures constitute what many visitors believe to be the most spectacular sight at the park. As twilight dawns, an impressive colony of bats boil up from the vacuous darkness of the caves below in search of food, returning to their inverted perches again at dawn. Visitors can witness this flight display from mid-May through mid-October.
The park’s visitor center is open daily from 8AM to 7PM from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and daily from 8AM to 5PM after Labor Day through Memorial Day. Admission to the visitor center and 46,000 acres of pristine Chihuahuan Desert land is free. The cavern entry fee, which is valid for three days, is $6 for adults and free for children 16 and under. Reservations are required for all guided tours. For more information on fees, schedules and reservations, please visit nps.gov/cave.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park, 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM.