Carlsbad Caverns National Park

On Monday, after a cold morning (low of 30f) and a couple pots of coffee, we headed out to explore Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It's about 50 miles from our camp at The Ranch, but an easy drive and it was a great sunny day.

This corner of New Mexico is desert -- Chihuahuan Desert to be precise. Of the four recognized deserts in the USA (Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan) the Chihuahuan Desert is higher in elevation and slightly wetter than the others (but still less than 10 inches of precipitation per year). Even now, during a relatively dry period, the desert is full of life and the drive to the Caverns was quite agreeable.

The tours available at Carlsbad Caverns range from easy (take the elevator, walk on hard surfaced pathways) to the challenging (hardhat, sliding and crawling on your belly through tight cramped spaces). We decided to forgo the challenging tours and take the basic self-guided Big Room tour, but instead of taking the elevator down, we made it a little tougher by walking into the cave from the original natural entrance on a series of switchbacks that decline 800 feet from the surface starting point. "Self-guided" means you're carrying a "plastic digital ranger", a device that provides an audio description of what you're seeing but allows you to proceed at your own pace -- sort of the best of both worlds. At the end of our descent and tour around the Big Room -- about a 4 hour tour -- we did take advantage of the luxury of the elevator ride 750 feet back to the surface.

We're not experienced cave-dwellers but prior to this have done Kartchner Caverns in Arizona and, recently, Lehman Caves in the Great Basin National Park. We're beginning to understand what the various cave structures are called and what to look for, what to expect. In all three of our caving experiences we've been in awe at the incredible beauty -- at what nature can do given enough time.

Of the three caves, Kartchner is the most natural, the most undisturbed and untouched. Both Lehman and Carlsbad were discovered in the late 1800's and were somewhat abused by curiosity seekers and tourist early on, before enough people realized the value of what these things were and started protecting them. Really, that's what National Parks do... protect natural wonders like these from us... the same people they're protected for. Hmmm.

Carlsbad Caverns are notable for their scale. The Big Room is 800 feet below the surface and is the second largest cave chamber in the world. It's 4,000 feet long, over 600 feet wide, and 350 feet high at it's highest point. It's so large that even people with a severe case of claustrophobia shouldn't be bothered. It's simply incredible... another of those great natural wonders of the USA.

As normal, we took far more pictures than we can use. Shooting in low-light environments like a cavern, and without a tripod to hold the camera still, many pics are blurry throw-aways. But we got enough for a good online album. In case you haven't checked them out, Dar has a few new albums uploaded to our online photo gallery from the Grand Canyon... and she's busy working on more every chance she gets.

Deep below the Chihuahuan Desert...
Thom Hoch


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