Beauty & Wonder: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Above Ground

Above ground throughout the summer, you can see hundreds of cave swallows at the mouth of the cavern.

Though there are scattered woodlands in the higher elevations, the park is primarily a variety of grassland and desert shrubland habitats. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Walnut Canyon Loop Road is an interesting 9.5-mile drive that affords views of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation, wildlife, ancient reef and lagoon deposits, and the distant Guadalupe Mountains. At the time of our last visit in November the road was still closed as a result washout conditions from heavy monsoon rains.

Bat Flight

Beneath the natural entrance is a Bat Cave that is used by nearly 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats for about seven months a year. At dusk, these bats come spiraling up out of the natural entrance in breathtaking numbers. Flying to places as much as 50 miles away, they spread out over the countryside to feed on insects.

After leaving their cave, the bats descend on the nearby Pecos River Valley to feast on insects. To find their prey, they employ a unique radar system which scientists call echolocation. As they fly, the bats emit ultra-high-frequency sounds. When these signals strike an object, they are reflected back and heard by the bats. This enables them to hone in on the smallest insects as well as avoid any object in their flight path.

Caves are fragile environments that are affected by human activities and natural processes occurring both underground and on the surface. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a night of feasting, the bats return to the cavern at dawn.

The bat flight is a very impressive sight, and many park visitors gather at dusk to watch it and be amazed. A seated viewing area, the Bat Flight Amphitheater, has been constructed near the entrance. Evening bat-focused programs and interpretive services are provided. The exodus can take over two hours!

In late October, the bats leave the cavern for their wintering grounds in Mexico. In the spring, they return to renew their nightly spectacle.

Did You Know?
Nearly 400,000 Brazilian (more commonly called Mexican) free-tail bats call Carlsbad Cavern home in the summer… and all they want to do each night is eat bugs… several tons of them each night!

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: $6-20 for cave tours; all federal lands passes accepted

Elevation: 3,595-6,520 feet

Park size: 46,766 acres or 73 square miles

2010 visitation: 428,524

Location: From Carlsbad, 16 miles southwest on Highways 62/180 to White’s City, 7 miles west via paved park entrance road.

Camping: No camping facilities, but there are several campgrounds in nearby Whites City and Carlsbad

The main cavern is located 754 feet below the Visitor Center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 3225 National Parks Highway, Carlsbad, NM 88220

Contact: (575) 785-2232

Web site: nps.gov/cave

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

Part 1: Underground Wonderland

Part 2: Grand Canyon with a Roof on It

Worth Pondering…

I came to more and more stalagmites-each seemingly larger and more beautifully formed than the ones I’d passed. 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.

—Jim White’s Own Story

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