Underground Wonderland: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Below the arid mountain and desert landscape of the southeast corner of New Mexico lays an underground world of awe-inspiring and dazzling proportions. It’s a magical world of mysterious passageways, colossal rock formations, crystal-clear pools of water, and giant subterranean chambers. This is the renowned Carlsbad Cavern, one of the caves protected in the nearly 47,000 acres of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Welcome to Carlsbad Canyon National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enormous subterranean caverns, located 755 feet beneath the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico, provide a stunning glimpse into the geological evolution of a cave system that is more than 600,000 years old. Carlsbad Cavern’s painted grottos, giant domes, soda straws, helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, and other remarkable rock formations make it one of the most renowned cave systems in the world.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park preserves at least 113 separate limestone caves, including Carlsbad Cavern and Lechuguilla Cave—the deepest cave in North America.

Discovered by Native Americans over 1,000 years ago and rediscovered by settlers in the 1800s the caverns were extensively explored by Jim White, a local cowboy.

In December 1898, Jim White was mending fences on a section of range near the Guadalupe Mountains, southwest of the frontier town of Eddy, which a year later would change its name to Carlsbad. It was near sundown, and White was about to turn his horse for home when he was attracted by a distant funnel-shaped cloud rising from the desert floor.

All visitors to the park should tour the main section of the cave, the Big Room self-guided tour. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Riding closer to investigate the strange phenomenon, White was startled to find that the “cloud” was actually millions of bats streaming from a large circular opening in a hillside. In his memoirs, White wrote:

“I sat for perhaps an hour watching the bats fly out. I couldn’t estimate the number, but I knew that it must run into millions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that any hole in the ground which could house such a gigantic army of bats must be a whale of a big cave.

“I crept between cactus until I lay on the brink of the chasm and looked down…There was no bottom in sight. I shall never forget the feeling of awe it gave me.”

A few days later and with only a lantern to light his way, White cautiously descended into the cave. He describes his first venture into the subterranean darkness:

“I entered rooms filled with colossal wonders in gleaming onyx. Suspended from the ceilings were mammoth chandeliers—clusters of stalactites in every size and color. Walls that were frozen cascades of glittering flowstone, jutting rocks that held suspended, long, slender formations that rang when I touched them, like a key on the xylophone.

“Floors were lost under formations of every variety and shape. Through the gloom, I could see ghostlike totem poles, tall and graceful, reaching upward into the darkness. I encountered hundreds of pools filled with pure water as clear as glass, their sides lined with crystalline onyx marble.”

When Jim White reported his discovery of the rock wonderland beneath the desert floor, no one would believe him. His claims were dismissed as the over-active imagination of a man who had spent too much time alone on the range.

Jim White continued to work and explore in the cavern. He was the Park Service’s senior guide until 1929, when he retired because of failing health. He died in 1946.

Designated as a national monument in 1923, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park in 1930.

In 1995 the park was named a World Heritage Site.

Early visitors to the caves were lowered, in a bucket, 170 feet to the cave floor. Apart from the natural light that filtered into the mouth of the cave, the journey through the caves would have been in almost total darkness, with only the light cast from a small miner’s lamp to guide them.

Today, it is very different. There are two self-guided tours and six ranger-guided tours from which to choose.

How the Caverns Were Formed

Guided tours of varying difficulties in Carlsbad Cavern and other park caves are available. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rainwater, carrying weak carbonic acid, percolated down through reef fractures in the limestone and ate away at the rock. Hydrogen sulfide gas from deep oil and gas deposits rose to meet and mix with this water, which formed reef-eating sulfuric acid. This acid, in turn, created the huge chambers and corridors.

Dissolved calcium carbonate deposits have formed fantastic sculptured stalagmites that rise from the floor, mammoth stalactites hang from the ceilings and delicate twisting helictites protrude from the walls. The rate of water flow determines their size and shapes.

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Part 2: Grand Canyon with a Roof on It

Part 3: Beauty & Wonder

Worth Pondering…

Billions and billions of drops later, thousands of formations had taken place, and, oh, the shapes they were.

—a national park service geologist

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