Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns: Adventure 750 Feet Underground

Last year, I had the kids in my class do a research project on a National Park.  The Peanut selected Carlsbad Caverns as her park, and enjoyed learning all sorts of intriguing bits of information about this fascinating park.

So when we began planning our cross-country driving vacation, her one big request was that we stop at Carlsbad and go down into the cave and explore.  She wanted to see in person a number of things that she'd read about.

How can you say no to a child who wants to learn more about what she's already researched, right?

Even if it does involve spending an entire day 750 feet below the surface of the Earth, and leave you coming outside at dusk smelling like musty, damp cave.  Let me tell you:  the whole thing was amazing and I would go again in a heartbeat, especially because she was completely fascinated from start to finish, and got to talk with some wonderful National Park Service rangers along the way.

One thing we did that I highly recommend is to get a "self-guided tour" electronic guide stick:  it is triggered by a series of numbered electronic keys that you find all along the path, and it gives a pre-recorded informational tour of each one.  For The Peanut, it was a great boost to what she had already learned about the cave, and it gave a lot of historical background on discoveries and scientific information all along the initial cave entrance pathways as well as all along the Big Room walking tour that we did on our own. 

We also booked a ranger-guided tour of the King's Palace that we loved.  If you are going to book a guided tour, I recommend doing so online well before you get to the caverns -- several were sold out completely the day we toured, and we would have missed out had we waited.  I booked ours several weeks ahead of our trip, and I am very glad that I did.

We decided to enter the cave via the natural entrance trail, rather than just taking the elevator down into the heart of the caves.  It was a risk for us, because the trail is a steep one, full of some seriously challenging switchbacks that can put a strain on your knees in a day where there is a lot of walking around to still be accomplished once you get down to cave level, but we felt that entering that way was an opportunity we just could not miss.

The cave's entrance is pretty large, and surrounded by ampitheater seating that we enjoyed later in the day when we watched the bat flight at dusk.  In the daytime, you can see cave swallows flitting in and out of the cave, from the darkness inside to the bright light of day outside, hunting moths and bugs.  The cave's entrance has bird nests all over the initial entry area.  Once you get up to the lip and look over the edge, you really get a sense of how steep your entry climb is going to be:

You can just get a glimpse of the safety railing and pathways here, because it got awfully dark very quickly as we were going downward.  The park service tries to keep the lighting dim so that you get a real feel for the fact that you are entering a seriously large cavern, but that didn't make for a good photography environment going down.  You can see a bit of the steepness, though, of the switchback trails leading into the cave.  This next shot, looking upward at our last glimpse of natural light at the midway point on the initial entry descent, really gives a sense of the size of the cave, I think:

We were only about a third of the way down (if that) into the heart of the cave at the point that I took this shot.  There was a lot more descent to come once we got away from this entry area as well, and all of it was just fascinating.  Just on the inside of this initial entry were some petroglyphs, from some long lost Stone Age or slightly later ancestor seeking shelter here.  How they would have climbed down and back up again is an amazing question.

We saw a lot of gorgeous cave formations, including these gorgeous "soda straw" formations:

This formation, called the Fairy Stage:

These amazing drapery formations, that looked so much like folds of stiff cloth that it was breathtaking:

Lots of pillars, stalactites and stalagmites like these:

And pools surrounded by some gorgeous formations:

One of the most amazing things that we got to see was the ladder that was still hanging in the cave from the National Geographic expedition there in the 1920s.  I cannot imagine the amount of sheer bravery it would have taken to climb down on such a rickety looking ladder, even in its prime, into the pitch black depths of the cave:

We also got to see an adorable little formation that has been dubbed "The Shy Elephant," which really does look a lot like its namesake:

Pictures were tough to get in the dim lighting, so apologies to everyone for the sometimes slightly blurred focus.  I had to use a darkness setting to even get a shot, which carries its own movement risks since the aperture is open for so much longer to get the image.

It really was amazing what we saw underground, given how few clues to its whereabouts would have been visible in the landscape above the cave.

It was a fantastic day of exploration.  We ended the day sitting in the ampitheater that rings the natural entrance where we had started.  We got to watch a whirlwind of bats emerge from the cave at dusk, coming out in a sort of mini-tornado formation initially, and then heading in a fairly straight line toward a nearby river and farming fields where they hunt for small moths each evening.

We were exhausted, but it was well worth it.  An amazing day.

(Photos by Christy Hardin Smith.  Copyright and all rights reserved.)

1 comment:

Mom said...

I, your Mom, (Peanut's Grandmother) also ENJOYED the two tours prior to your excursion. An EXCELLENT article, MY DEAR DAUGHTER!! Touring beneath the surface of the Chihuahuan Desert & Gudalupe Mountans was ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!!!!I'm so-o PROUD of our Peanut for choosing such an interesting topic. MOM