2006 Carlsbad Caverns
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In 2000 and again in 2002, we did the visit to Carlbad Caverns as the main end-of-week activity.  This year, because we flew into Albuquerque Friday night and thus had all day Saturday to make our way down to Las Cruces, we thought we'd come through Carlsbad and visit the caverns at the beginning of the week.  Along the way, we stopped in Artesia to have lunch at a brewpub we had first visited in back in '02.
 
 
In the 1940s, it was "Carlsbad Cavern" singular.   In the 1960s, it was "Carlsbad Caverns" plural.
 
Carlsbad Caverns is well worth the visit.  The Natural Entrance tour has you walking at your own pace down into the cavern on a very comfortable, easy to navigate trail to the "bottom," where you can take the approximately mile-long hike around the perimeter of the Big Room.  When you're done, you don't have to climb out.  Rather, you simply take an elevator to reverse the 750 foot vertical drop to the top.  There's even a place to get a bite to eat at the bottom.  One can only imagine what the original discoverers of the caverns must have thought when they first reached the bottom only to discover restrooms, a restaurant, and an elevator to save them the trouble of climbing back out! 

Although their existence has undoubtedly been known for many hundreds and perhaps thousands of years by local indigenous peoples, the "Caverns at Carlsbad" were first explored systematically beginning in 1898 by a man named Jim White, who noticed "sky-blackening clouds of bats" coming out of what is now the natural entrance.  They were made the "Carlsbad Cave National Monument" by President Calvin Coolidge on October 25, 1923, and the Caverns officially became Carlsbad Caverns National Park on May 14, 1930.  Construction of the elevator system began in January 1931, and it opened in January 1932 with one shaft.  A second shaft was installed in the early 1950s.

Prior to 1967, all tours through the Caverns were guided.  Beginning that year, the park allowed people to take self-guided tours of the Big Room.  Beginning in 1972, walking self-guided through the entire Caverns was allowed.  There are currently about 110 miles of passageways in the entirety of Caverns.

 

 

 
For comparison, below is a receipt from our visit in 2000.  No change in admission price in six years.

 

This isn't Carlsbad Caverns at all.  Rather, it's Jeff and Bob standing in front of an abandoned something-or-other (store?) across the street from a gas station we stopped at in Encino, New Mexico along US 285 on our way to Carlsbad.
 
This isn't Carlsbad Caverns at all, either.  It's Dr. Ridgway's hat on the center of the dash as we drove across the New Mexico countryside.  The view out the window gives you a good idea of what the landscape is like.
 
Nope, this is still not Carlsbad Caverns.  Rather, it's the Wellhead Restaurant and Brewpub in Artesia, New Mexico.  We had lunch here before going the last 50 miles or so to the Caverns.
 
Okay, this photo actually IS of the headquarters building at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  You go into the building to pay, and then you go back out of the building to actually enter the Caverns.
 
Below is a postcard from the mid-1960s showing the visitor center in a view from the other direction.
Note the tall structure in the rear of the two photos above.  It houses the elevators that bring you back from the cavern bottom.  Below is a photo from the early 1950s showing the "elevator building" at Carlsbad Caverns.  The visitor center was completed in 1959, and prior to that, there was only the elevator building itself built over the caverns.
 
In case there was any doubt as to where you are.  As you can see, the cavern floor is about 750 feet lower in elevation than the cave entrance.  Fortunately, it's all down hill to get there, and then you take an elevator to get back.
 
Map in the Visitor Center showing the descent to the bottom (trail shown starting at the middle and going to the right past the clock and back around to the middle again) followed by the trail to the left side taking you around the Big Room.  The clock on the right shows the latest time (2 p.m.) that anyone is allowed to begin the Natural Entrance descent to the Big Room and still have time to do the Big Room hike.  The descent takes about 45 minutes.  The clock on the left shows the latest time (3:30 p.m.) that anyone can take the elevator down to the Big Room to do just the Big Room hike.  Give yourself at least an hour for that.
 
A "map" of the caverns showing the path down from the surface and the relative positions of the visitor center, natural entrance, lunch room at the bottom, the "Big Room" that you can walk around at the bottom, and the elevation changes along the way.  Note the 1962 World's Fair space needle at the far right for comparison to the depth of the caverns.  This map is from 1965.
 
Here's another map of the caverns, only this one has you looking down from above with the surface buildings and so forth superimposed over the caverns.  The natural entrance is at the far right, and the squiggles give you a sense of how much "switchbacking" you do on the way down.  You also get a sense of how much the caverns are spread out horizontally as well as vertically.  This map dates from the 1940s.
 
Russ indicates the various caution signs one passes on the way out of the Visitor Center to the Natural Entrance.
 
The paved path out the Visitor Center to the Natural Entrance.  Along the way, you are met by a kindly park ranger who explains the various rules and cautions about the hike.
 
Information about the Natural Entrance when it was first discovered along with a photo showing the appearance of the entrance before a trail down into it had been cut and paved.
 
Carlsbad Caverns is famous for the once a year emergence of the bats who live there.  We were not there at the right time of year to see the flight.
 
 
The images above and below are from the front and back of an old Carlsbad Caverns postcard I found in an antique store in Logan, Ohio.  The bat flight is depicted.
 
 
Jeff stands in front of the amphitheater set up in front of the Natural Entrance.  I believe it's there primarily as a place to sit to watch the bats.
 
The next three photos show good views of the now terraced, walled, and paved trail leading down into the caverns.  In spite of the warning signs at the top, the hike down is really not that terribly strenuous.  As these photos suggest, the path is wide and of relatively shallow grade, and while it's not paved all the way down, it is smooth and comfortable to walk on.  The only real precaution is to realize that there's no bailing out once you start down.  Either you hike all the way to the bottom and ride the elevator out or you turn around wherever you are and hike out the way you came in.  Generally, given the nature of gravity, down is better than up, so the hike to the bottom is the way to go once you start.
Not surprisingly, the best photos are taken as you enter the caverns while the light is still good!
Below are the front and back of a postcard from 1945 showing a similar view.  Note the December 5, 1945 postmark and the 1-cent postcard stamp.
 
Good advice to heed.  There are several locations along the trail where just off of it is a relatively steep drop or a bottomless-looking pit.
 
Russ leads the way through a narrow passage along the trail.  Of course, just as was Jacques Cousteau in his heyday, Russ was preceded by the cameraman!
 
Diagram and description of The Big Room (imaginative name, huh?).  There were little displays like this all along the trail both down to and within the Big Room describing what you were standing in front of.
 
 
The images above and below are from another old Carlsbad Caverns postcard I found in that same antique store in Logan, Ohio.
 
 
Russ, Darin, and Jeff dwarfed by a stalagtite/stalagmite pair.
 
One of the bottomless-looking pits is actually called Bottomless Pit.  Bottomless in this case is 140 feet deep.  But hey, if you can't see the bottom, it's as good as bottomless!
 
After finishing the Big Room hike, this is what you see heading to the elevator/restaurant area.  Restrooms are a welcome sight!
 
Back out the caverns, Bob is in the scrub just off the parking lot signaling a touchdown.
 
Ben, Kim, Bob, Jeff, Russ, and Kate pose outside the Visitor Center.
 
Darin and Dan work on getting the golf clubs back onto the roof of one of the Grand Cherokees while Jeff poses for the camera and is of no help at all.
 
Quick stop at a tourist-trappy place in Whites City just before getting back on the main highway to El Paso.
 
Had to show it because we passed it.  This is part of Guadelupe Mountains National Park in Texas.  The outcropping is called El Capitan.  One passes this on the road between Carlsbad and El Paso, which is about the only way to go straight west from Carlsbad.  This would be a fun park to visit, but it's so out of the way (as the best ones usually are) that you would really have to make an effort to make this your destination.