Sitting at the mouth of the largest cave in North America, I watched thousands of bats swirl in a vortex and then shoot out into the night sky as I listened to coyotes howl in the moonlight. Whether down in the depths of the cave, sitting on the edge of the darkness or walking on a sunny trail, Carlsbad Caverns National Park amazes thousands of visitors each year.
The cave descends about 80 stories. On the way down, you hardly notice the distance as you stare at stalactites hanging above you and stalagmites surrounding the walkways. The way up leaves a slightly different impression, but the caverns are well worth the sweat and sore rear. I was impressed by the many elderly couples who ventured into the deep and slowly crawled back out after walking around at the bottom of the cave, following tour guides and shooting photos of the cave’s treasures.
While there, I hiked down into the cave a couple times. On the first day, I was turned back two-thirds of the way down because they start closing sections of the cave at 3:30 p.m. I made it further the second day when I joined a tour group. I recommend getting to the caverns early in the day, so that you have plenty of time to make the full descent and ascent.
I also recommend doing the King’s Palace Tour. For $8, you gain access to a gated cavern route that can only be seen on the tour, and you get a lot more information about the history of Carlsbad Caverns. I learned that a man named Jim White discovered the cave at 16 when he thought he saw a massive plume of smoke rising in the distance. When he ran toward the sight, he realized that it was not smoke swirling in the air, but rather thousands of bats flying out of a cave. Not long after this first sighting, White built a wire-and-wood ladder, lit a lantern and descended into the darkness alone. Years after White’s discovery, Carlsbad Caverns became a national park.
Rich with history and beauty, I highly recommend visiting Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The depths of the cavern are beautiful and the landscape above it. One of my favorite parts of the visit happened around 7:45 on the first night I visited. At that time, I watched thousands of bats circle the mouth of the cave and fly out into the night sky. I also got to hear coyotes yelping and hollering during what must have been their evening hunt. The timing was perfect. Right when we were all instructed to be quiet, so as not to disturb the bats, the coyotes started howling. We’d stepped into a scene from a classic western movie.
As you probably know, bats sleep during the day and come alive at night. At the caverns, they sleep in a hole about two miles from the surface, and when it’s time to wake up, they fly in a tornado-like fashion out of the cave and on to streams and various other water sources to hunt for insects. Each night, a park ranger meets with visitors at the Bat Amphitheater at 6:30 p.m. to answer questions and provide additional information while everyone waits to see the bats begin their evening flight.
Now, for all the educational information that I’ve given you thus far, I have to attribute the amazing guides, Alyssa and Toni, who did a wonderful job sharing it with the other tourists and I. You know it had to be good for me to actually remember it.
To be honest, Carlsbad Caverns just barely made the road-trip list. A change of plans and a Google search for top places to see in New Mexico sealed the deal, and I’m so glad it did. After my visit to the caverns, and to White Sands National Monument, another gem in this Land-of-Enchantment state, I can now heartily attest to Google’s accuracy in determining top traveler locations in New Mexico.
During my visit, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, along with all other U.S. national parks, celebrated the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. For the celebration, all national parks allowed visitors free entrance April 16-24. It was a welcomed surprise, although I had already bought the $80 Inter-agency Pass back at the Grand Tetons, so I have “free” access to all the parks through this September anyways.
I apologize for not telling you about the free, national-park week sooner! When I found out about the free week from my dad, I was deep in the heart of Texas with family where there was no Verizon service, Wi-Fi, or time to sit and write.
However, I do still have a tip for you! The National Park Service (NPS) grants free access to all national parks for one week in April every year. One of the Carlsbad Caverns’ rangers shared that insider secret with a group of us during our tour. So, I just set a calendar reminder in my phone for April 1, 2017, because next year we are all going to know about the free week in time to take advantage of it! (That is if my phone doesn’t somehow break or disappear).
Happy Adventuring, Friends!