Carlsbad Caverns: Wild Places to Know and Love

The evening before heading to Carlsbad was a windy one. Ryan and I lay shrouded in blankets as the wind tore through the tent. With each pull of one of the eight guy-lines, I was startled awake. In my half sleep state, I knew, without a doubt, with all the certainly I had, that a rock was inevitably going to come hurling through the tent and hit me in the head. Ryan’s head was protected by his suitcase (to keep the tent weighted), but mine was free, ready to be hit in the head by a wind catapulted rock. I awoke hours later with my head under a pillow, surprised at the intactness of my skull.

We got in the car and headed toward Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

As we winded up the side of a mountain in dense fog, I realized that there would still be plenty of time for me to be struck unconscious as we were heading into a giant cave with thousands of stalactites. Was it a premonition? If so, death by speleothem isn’t the worst way to go.

See how I dropped that cave language? Yes, I am a spelunker now. A speleothem is a cave decoration, but I’ll tell you a little bit more about them later.

We decided to walk down to the caverns through their Natural Entrance, rather than take their elevator 800 feet into the center of the earth. At the beginning of the descent, we saw a very foreboding hole come into view through the fog. Swallows circled the opening, chirping and dive-bombing. We entered, with slight trepidation.

The walk down was steep; so steep in fact, that it almost seemed like you were descending 800 feet underground. We saw some incredible formations as we walked, knowing that only more lay ahead.

I booked us a Ranger led tour of the “King’s Palace,” so we waited for our guide in an underground cafe. “Yeah, it’s weird,” the Ranger who gave us our map told us.

We met Ranger Katie and the rest of our group and learned about the creation myth of these caverns before entering. She also told us to keep our sense of exploration and adventure open; rangers and adventurers continue to find new rooms and chambers even today.

We entered the King’s Palace and were struck with wonder- if only photos could do justice to such an awe-inspiring place.

We moved on to the Papoose room and learned about some of the formations.

Stalactites- giant icicles hanging from the ceiling created by dripping water

Soda straws- baby stalactites, more dripping water

Stalagmites- floor icicles, drip drip, build a mound

Drapes- created by flowing water
Drape exhibit A

Drape exhibit B

Columns- stalactites and stalagmites, after millions of years of “will they or won’t they,” finally touch

Popcorn- seeping or splashing water; not edible, made of limestone

Helictite- changing axis (make up your mind little weird nest thing!)

Cave bacon- drapes with different colors caused by minerals, making it look like…bacon

We entered different rooms, stooping to keep our heads from hitting limestone or formations. We got to a large room and Ranger Katie had us all sit on a stone railing. She shut the lights. I held up my hand in front of me, but couldn’t see it. Slowly, our other senses sharpened, and we could hear the sound of water dripping throughout the cavern. Only 5% of the formations at Carlsbad are living, so it was beautiful music to our ears.

Then Katie’s voice rose up from the darkness. She began to sing a song about Carlsbad. We think she wrote it herself; there was a lot of heart in her voice. “Desert above / caverns below / wild places to know and love.”

When the dim cave lights turned on, we were awakened to the cavern’s charms again; we saw formations with new eyes.

After lunch, we hit up the “Big Room.” Like its name states, the “Big Room” is really big: eight football fields big. We took the mile walk around the room, stopping to awe at different formations (Anyone see an emperor in the formation below or is it just me?).

It felt like being in one of those planetarium domes; every inch you moved your neck, you saw something new. We shined Ryan’s flashlight into holes and caverns and illuminated the darkness. We saw ropes and ladders, signs of spelunking past and present.

Carlsbad Caverns is its own world. It will enchant you, and make you feel small. It will alarm you, and make you feel powerful. It will confuse you and make you feel grateful to be alive.

After our 800 feet ascent to the surface, we reassessed our short term plan. The consistent 56 degrees in the caverns felt tropical compared to the 20 degree arctic vortex outside. We drove to Guadalupe, took down our perfectly constructed tent, and headed for warmer climates. Were we disappointed? Maybe a bit because we really wanted to hike Guadalupe peak, the highest in Texas. But you can’t feel so bad after witnessing a wonder of the world. Or spotting a wild hog with her six babies on your drive.

Or the fact that nothing fell on your head.

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