Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad National Park

Carlsbad, NM

February 22nd, 2001

Each State in this great country has its claim to fame in one area or another. It may be the biggest or the longest or have a space center or the biggest city, and so it is with New Mexico. This flat desert area is for the most part harsh and uninviting, yet it is home to one of the world's great natural wonders. Situated in the southwest corner of the state is the small town of Carlsbad (pop. 27,000) which has existed for over a century. Around 15 miles or so further south of the town is the famous Carlsbad Cavern, a gigantic hole in the ground filled with all sorts of interesting sights. It all started some 250 million years ago with the creation of a 400 mile long limestone reef in an inland sea that covered this region. This horseshoe-shaped reef was formed from the remains of sponges, algae and seashells and from calcite that precipitated directly from the water. Cracks developed in the reef as it grew seaward. Eventually the sea evaporated and the reef was buried under deposits of salts and gypsum. Then a few million years ago, uplift and erosion of the area began to uncover the buried rock reef. Rainwater, made slightly acidic from air and soil, seeped down into the cracks in the reef, slowly dissolving the limestone and beginning the process that would form large underground chambers. At the same time hydrogen sulfide gas was migrating upward from vast oil and gas deposits beneath the ancient reef. This gas dissolved in the percolating ground water to form sulfuric acid. The added power of this corrosive substance explains the size of the passageways. The exposed reef became part of the Guadeloupe Mountains and the underground chambers became the wonder of Carlsbad Caverns. There is evidence that the Indians of long ago entered the cave for mining or other reasons but their activity was limited and the contact lost in time. Then sometime in the 1800s local ranchers rediscovered the opening to the cave while searching for the source of thousands of bats that took flight each evening. This led to the mining operation of bat guano for fertilizer. The fascination with the cave grew as tours were given and in 1923 the U.S. Government named the Caverns a National Monument and then finally a National Park which it remains today.
The access to the parking lot is simple and a short walk put us in the information center. Ticket prices are reasonable. There are several programs offered each with its own price. We were again traveling with our good friends and editor Lynn and Sue Davis. Sue unfortunately couldn't make this adventure and so the three of us elected to take the self-guided walking tour which we found out was more than enough for everybody except the most dedicated spelunkers. After tickets we were ushered into a small theater for a 15 minutes video on the cave, its history and the dos and don'ts of the Caverns. Upon completion of the film, it was time for the only real decision we had to make. To walk into the cave through its natural entrance or take the elevator down the 750 feet to the main room.
The natural entrance is where the bats enter and leave each evening at dusk, and is 500 feet from the information center. For those who choose the elevator, by all means walk over to the entrance and look down into the mouth of the cave. It is quite spectacular and there is nothing to climb. We elected to take the one and a half mile walk down from the entrance. No matter which way you choose to enter the cave, all return by elevator. The massive opening that is the natural entrance was created when a portion of the ceiling fell leaving the hole.

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