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Underground wonders » Albuquerque Journal

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park includes a 1¼-mile trail that takes about 90 minutes to complete. (Susan Bryan Montoya/Associated Press)

Among the many wonders of Carlsbad Caverns National Park are drawings that date back some 12,000 years. In the 1400s, Mescalero Apaches claimed the area for their own for about 400 years until the U.S. Cavalry rode them out.

Cabeza de Vaca visited the caverns (nps.gov/cave/index.htm) in 1536, becoming the first of the Spanish explorers to do so. In the early 1900s, guano mining was a booming business at the caverns.

About 21 miles of the 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail pass through Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

In short, the expansive underground system in southeastern New Mexico has fascinated all those who encounter it.

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And today is no different and even in this COVID-19 era, Carlsbad Caverns continues to be a magnetic site, drawing visitors to explore its mysteries.

Between federal and wilderness designations, the park covers nearly 47,000 acres and contains 85 caves with more than 136 miles of passages and rooms.

Carlsbad Cavern itself is more than 1,000 feet deep with 30 miles of mapped passages. Its Big Room is the largest known underground chamber in the United States and contains an array of formations like towering stalagmites and stalactites, columns, flowstone, travertine and cave “popcorn.”

These days tickets to the caverns are only sold at the box office when it opens at 8 a.m. It closes at 1:45 p.m. and the last entry time is 2 p.m. Every 15 minutes, 25 visitors are permitted entry for a total of 575 daily. It is recommended to arrive early as tickets have been known to sell out by 9:30 a.m.

Massive formations can be found in the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Susan Bryan Montoya/Associated Press)

All visitor entry access will be via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep, 1¼-mile trail with many winding switchbacks, that drops 750 feet into the caverns. The trail is not recommended for those with heart conditions, but those who do brave its depths will pass by such formations as the looming and eerie Devil’s Spring, the gypsum-white Iceberg Rock, and narrow, crooked stalagmites known as Witch’s Fingers. Visitors then exit via the elevators.

There are no ranger-guided tours of the caverns, but the Big Room is the most popular to explore via a 1¼-mile, relatively flat trail that generally takes about 90 minutes to complete.

A trio of must-see formations at the back half of the Big Room are grouped together: the Chandelier, the Caveman and the Totem Pole. The Chandelier is massive collection of stalactites poised to ruin dinner. It takes some imagination to envision the Caveman sitting on a thrown and the Totem Pole is a floor-to-ceiling formation created by a single drip of water, dropping in the exact same spot for many years.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the only entry access to Carlsbad Caverns is via the 1¼-mile, winding Natural Entrance Trail. (Susan Bryan Montoya/Associated Press)

Usually one of the highlights of a visit to Carlsbad Caverns includes a viewing of the stunning, nightly bat flight. But the Bat Flight Amphitheater is closed from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. to protect the bats from the virus. However, the flight may be watched from the parking lot past the visitor center and a ranger-presented Bat Flight Program is available on the radio at 7:30 p.m. on 99.5 FM.

The Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains various formations like stalagmites and stalactites, columns, flowstone, travertine and cave “popcorn.”

This is the best time to see the bat flights as the baby bats that are born in early summer are along, as well as migrating, southbound bats from colonies farther north.

For those who want a truly spectacular experience the return flight from 4-6 a.m. – while not as dense – features bats making swooping dives from hundreds of feet high, at times reaching speeds of 25 mph or more.

Sitting amidst the rugged Guadalupe Mountains, there are numerous above-ground trails to explore, as well.

Among those, the 100-mile Guadalupe Ridge Trail starts atop the highest point in Texas, 8,750-foot Guadalupe Peak. It winds through the mountains and crosses through Carlsbad Caverns National Park for about 21 miles.


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