My last stop on this trip was unexpected and awesome. I've never been a huge fan of caves, but learning about their formation made this a spectacular natural wonder to behold. I was especially moved by the knowledge that I was walking through something which had been forming for 265 million years and was continuously changing every second.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is just north of the New Mexico border, half an hour northeast of the Guadalupe Mountains. The entrance to the park is a few miles off the highway. On the drive, you'll pass through Whites City, a small town with a gas station, inn, RV park, restaurant, and a couple of shops. The scenic seven-mile drive to the Visitors Center takes you up a steady incline to about 1,000 feet from the bottom. At the summit, you can see the valley for miles and miles.
You need to reserve a time slot to enter the cavern, even for a self-guided tour. I was lucky to get the last window for a self-guided Big Room Trail tour, as all the professionally guided ones were already being booked for the next day. There are two ways to get into the cavern: a Natural Entrance that is down a series of switchbacks or an elevator in the Visitor’s Center. The Natural Entrance Trail is a steep 1.25-mile trek down 750 feet in elevation that takes around an hour for the average person to complete. I opted for the elevator to save time.
The first thing you notice entering Carlsbad Caverns is the temperature drop. It is a consistent 56°F in the cavern, so although it was too hot outside for a sweatshirt, I put it on almost immediately upon entering the cave. The cavern is damp and smells it. It is intentionally dimly lit (for the bats), but it also allows tourists to feel close to nature. You are allowed to bring a headlamp, but unless you actually need it, I recommend braving the dark. Especially since the first exploration of the cavern happened in 1898 with only candle-lit ‘torches,’ you can imagine how surreal an experience it is without your phone’s flashlight to guide you.
The limestone cave system is massive and diverse in terms of its structure. The biggest open ‘chamber,’ aptly called the Big Room, is the largest in North America. It's 255 feet tall at its highest point, and it's stunning in contrast to other parts of the cavern that are tight squeezes past massive formations. The walking paths were formed naturally by early explorers finding the easiest way forward, so on your tour, you'll snake around formations and get dripped on by the moisture overhead.
The difference between a cavern and a cave? A cavern is a type of cave. Caves are grouped by how they form, (like those eroded by glaciers, the ocean, lava, coral, or wind, for example) and caverns are formed by the breakdown of a soluble rock. In the case of Carlsbad, the limestone rock was worn down over time by acidic groundwater, and the addition of air into these pockets formed the stalactites that grow down from the ceiling and stalagmites that grow up from the floor. There are ribbons of thin, translucent rock cheekily called “cave bacon” and pools of water so clear you can see the cave reflected in what looks like a miniature Atlantis.
With no sunlight, there are no plants that grow in Carlsbad Caverns or any other cave, for that matter. Bats and other cave-dwellers are the only living things here, and they all have to venture out of the cavern for food. They sleep and hibernate in the cave for shelter since it has a stable temperature and few disturbances. It was almost extra-terrestrial to see a space completely void of plant life, and it was amazing to discover this whole rock world hiding under the surface of a beautiful but elusive mountain.