Once Jerico was secured in a kennel, The Man and I decided to take the Natural Entrance route down into the cave. We were both in fine health, able to walk a mile on “steep and narrow trails.” We thought it would be cool to follow “the traditional explorers’ route” in, rather than take an elevator down hundreds of feet into the earth.
I bought our tickets while The Man looked in the gift shop. (There’s no reason for us both to stand in line, I told him.) Tickets for the self-guided tours of both the Natural Entrance route and the Big Room Route were $10 for adults without any special passes. Once I procured our tickets, we followed signs to the Natural Entrance. Before we started in, a very cheerful park ranger went over the rules visitor are expected to follow.
Don’t touch any of the cave formations.
No smoking or tobacco use.
No eating. Drink only water.
Don’t throw anything into cave pools.
Talk in a whisper.
After the brief interaction with the ranger, we were on our way.
Just past the Bat Flight Amphitheater, visitors walk down toward the huge, dark opening of the Natural Entrance via a series of paved switchbacks. As one descends, the world becomes quieter and cooler. As the temperature in the cave is always 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celcius), visitors are advised to “take a jacket or a sweater.”
The cave wasn’t very crowded or noisy during our visit. Visitors are asked to keep their voices low to maintain a quiet atmosphere, but a large number of people whispering could be a noisy bunch. Even if a crowd was quiet, it might still be difficult to navigate around a lot of people. I prefer to visit attractions when I’m one of few visitors. To avoid crowds at any National Park or other popular place, I advise folks to visit before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, during the middle of the week, and as early in the morning as possible. We visited Carlsbad Cavern on a Thursday in early May and started our exploration before 10am. While we didn’t have the place to ourselves, the cave was quiet, and everyone had plenty of elbow room.
We hadn’t gotten very far into the Main Corridor when The Man said he felt very good, peaceful, even as if he had been to this place before. We wondered why we felt so calm in the cavern. Was it the cool temperature? The soft lighting? The quiet? The lack of electromagnetic radiation? We didn’t know, but we surely enjoyed our calm peacefulness.
The Natural Entrance route and the Big Room route are both highly developed areas. The trail is paved and most parts of it have handrails. Both the pavement and the handrails are safety features. In many places, the trail is steep and narrow and could be difficult to navigate if it were made of dirt or loose rock. The trail is often wet and slippery from the high levels of moisture in the air. The handrails help visitors make it safely through those treacherous areas. The trails are accessible to visitors with a range of physical abilities. “Portions of the Big Room are accessible to visitors in wheelchairs…Visitors in wheelchairs should only go into the Big Room with assistance.”
Both the Big Room route and the Natural Entrance route are lit with artificial light. The lighting is kept dim and is sort of yellow. The low light gives the cave a mysterious atmosphere. “The Natural Entrance route descends over 750 feet into the Earth…” and natural light can’t penetrate so deeply. Without artificial light, the dark zone of the cavern would be pitch black.
It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be in the cavern. It’s both huge, like the tallest cathedral imaginable, and womblike. The air is cool and thick with moisture; it’s hard to remember the Chihuahuan Desert is a few hundred feet above. Carlsbad Cavern is its own unique world.
The chambers are decorated with amazing, sometimes enormous rock formations that were created one drop of water at a time. Of course, the cavern is ancient. “The story of Carlsbad Cavern begins 250 million years ago with the creation of a 400-mile-long reef in an inland sea that covered this region.” How does a sea become a desert? I guess a lot can change in 250 million years.
“The decoration of Carlsbad Cavern with stalactites, stalagmites, and an incredible variety of other formations began over 500,000 years ago after much of the cavern had been carved out. It happened slowly–drop by drop–at a time when a wetter, cooler climate prevailed.”
To learn more about how Carlsbad Cavern and its fantastic decorations formed, go to https://www.nps.gov/cave/learn/nature/geologicformations.htm.
Soon after we passed Iceberg Rock, “a single 200,000-ton boulder that fell from the cave ceiling thousands of years ago,” we found ourselves near the elevator up and the beginning of the Big Room route.
This is as far as I went the other time I was here, I told The Man. When we got here, my ex said he was too tired to go on, so we took the elevator up and left.
The Man and I wanted to see every last bit of that cave, so we set out on the Big Room route.
The Big Room consists of “8.2 acres” and is “the largest room in the cave.” The paved trail is a mile long and goes in a loop around the perimeter of the Big Room. There’s a shortcut at about the halfway point for people who don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to walk the whole route. The Man and I were having nothing to do with a shortcut; we wanted to see it all!
You missed all of this? The Man whispered in bewilderment as we walked through the Big Room. This is the best part!
I had to agree. My ex’s foolishness had caused us both to miss the largest and most famous formations like Rock of Ages, Giant Dome, Twin Dome, and Crystal Spring Dome.
The Man took my hand and said, I’m glad we got to see this for the first time together.
Me too, I smiled.
My biggest frustration in Carlsbad Cavern was trying to get photos capturing the beauty and momentous nature of the formations I saw. I used my digital camera (not the one in my phone), and even with a flash
and a zoom, it wasn’t up to the task. I’m not a fan of flash photography, but the low light in the cave made it impossible to capture any image without using a flash. The Man got a few really nice photos using his phone, but even a nice photo is totally lacking. Like with so many natural wonders, the only way to begin to understand the majesty of Carlsbad Cavern is to actually visit it.
The Man said seeing the cave had totally been worth the time, money, and effort. He was glad we had visited and thanked me for suggesting/insisting we go. He’s been to some beautiful places–the Oregon Coast and Moab, UT among them–but he said Carlsbad Cavern is one of the most amazing places he’s ever visited.
Carlsbad Cavern is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Hours vary by season. For current information, contact the park at 575-785-2232 or see https://www.nps.gov/cave/planyourvisit/hours.htm.
All information in quotation marks comes from the Carlsbad Caverns information sheet and map I was given when I bought our tickes.
I took all of the (terribly disappointing) photos in this post.