The main event, Carlsbad Caverns, is why we took this detour, about 800 miles out of our “as the bird flies” route. After hearing all our lives about the famous Caverns, we took the plunge figuring we had no way to guarantee we’d ever do it again. We also have friends, Joe and Barbara, who have a second home in Santa Fe, and they had advised us “if you are ever in Santa Fe come by and visit”. When we got our schedule all finalized, and all our reservations made, we called them to set a date, and they weren’t scheduled to be in Santa Fe that weekend. At least we tried.
Partly as a result of the pandemic, the Caverns now requires a reservation in advance that specifies a time window (one hour long) during which you can purchase your ticket and enter the caves. That can only be done 30 days or less in advance but must be done before you arrive. We decided on the earliest start time we could get, 8:30AM, to both beat the crowds and the heat, not remembering that the year-round temperature inside the caves is 62F. Period. Anyway, writer’s hours get us up early. Our planning paid off, we got there early, flashed our Senior Pass, and rode the elevator 800 feet down to the start point of the self-guided tour.
You get 2 options to enter the caves. The “hike” which enters through the Natural Entrance and continues 80 stories down steep ramps and stairs to the bottom of the same cave chambers that the bats live in, although they live much farther back into the cave complex than the public is allowed. You can tour a few of these chambers until your path joins up with the Big Room tour path, which is reached easily by your second entrance option, the Elevators. The photo above is where the elevators let out. It is also where the restrooms are, a very important factor for a couple of septuagenarians.
Our first impression was how dark and how quiet it was. The darkness was partly a result of riding in the very well-lit elevator, and our eyes gradually got accustomed to the dim lighting as we strode off onto the tour path. The quiet was because we had the cavern nearly all to ourselves; there were maybe a dozen people in there at the time we arrived. It was like a church inside, and we highly recommend an early start if you ever make the trip.
There is a lot of lighting inside the complex, all of it muted and very focused on features. Professional photographers have published many long-exposure shots online that lead you to believe the interior is very colorful. But that just isn’t so. These long-exposure photos came off the web:
Our photos are very different, and much closer to what we actually saw with naked eyes, because your naked eye doesn’t have a long-exposure mode.
And this selfie gives you a much better impression of what it’s really like with all the muted and directed lighting.
The over-riding impression we’re left with is the VASTNESS of it all. The birth of the caverns stretches 150 million years back when the area was a shallow sea, and the Capitan Reef was formed in it by trillions of small animals (not corals) that died and fused to form a long calcium rich ridge/reef that got buried over time by hundreds of feet of sediment. When the sea receded, geologic forces broke the reef in half underground, and the large fissure resulted in the cave structure. Millions of years of water seeping through all the calcium derivatives, enhanced by all the acidic chemical reactions, leaves us standing and staring at the result. It makes a body feel small and leaves a very strong feeling that there are forces at work much, much larger than us.
We made the loop, about 1 ½ miles, and ended back at the tour start and elevators. We had asked about the bats. Where are the bats? We were told that we could walk over to the hike start point, about 5 minutes, and see the Natural Entrance, where the bats exit and enter the complex. The Mexican bats migrate up in the early spring to use the cave as a daytime shelter so they can fly out to feed over the Pecos River at night. In the late spring and summer, there is seating at dusk to wait for the giant cloud to emerge, but there isn’t any guarantee it will happen on any given night. We opted for a YouTube video.
We left after 3 hours with an overall sense of the vastness and age of the caverns, and the smallness of our lives in comparison. It’s a trip worth making at least once in your life!
Next up: Wagon’s Ho to Abilene, and Banking on the Run
Tippy keeps it all in perspective regardless of size. And that’s coming from an elephant.