We had low expectations of Carlsbad Caverns, but after a full day inside, we walked away completely impressed. Though we have lots of photos in this post, the beauty and scale is hard to capture - but we gave it our best shot.
We were staying at a state park outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico and this morning we drove the 40 miles to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Now, being from Kentucky, which is home to Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the world, and having been to many of the small but beautiful caves in "cave country" around Mammoth Cave, our expectations were tempered. Stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, flowstone, bats, total darkness, yada, yada, yada - we've heard it all many times.
But I'll just get it out of the way right now. Carlsbad Caverns - absolutely SPECTACULAR!! Go to Carlsbad and then lower your expectations for every other cave you go in.
Okay. Carlsbad is better than Mammoth Cave - by a lot. There. I said it.
Kentucky caves have a bit more color, because there are more minerals in the ground in some caves. But they don't have the awesome size of the rooms, or the size and variety of formations.
To demonstrate, this entry has over 40 photos, and it ain't easy getting photos in caves without a tripod. But they have the cave lighted so well in just the right spots, more photos turn out, and I'm glad they did.
At Carlsbad, there are basically three cave tours that most visitors to the park take. Two are self-guided, the Natural Entrance Tour & the Big Room Tour, and the third is ranger-guided, the King's Palace Tour.
There are several more ranger-guided tours, but most of those tend to require advance reservations or signing up early in the morning. The two we were interested in were booked during our remaining time here in Carlsbad.
Instead we signed up for the King's Palace Tour that was starting at 11:00 - $8 each.
The visitors center is currently being remodeled, so the ticket sales & information, the book store, the gift shop, the food services, and everything else are temporarily housed out in the parking lot in large gray trailers. But you still go into the visitors center to take the elevators the 750 feet down into the cave.
We had our tickets for the day and walked to the elevators. We had on our hiking gear and Linda had her new trekking poles. The ranger at the elevator said they discouraged walking sticks, etc. but she could keep take them if they were for medical purposes. We may have fudged on that - she kept them.
We met in the tour "corral" with about 30 other people before. We got our cave instructions for the day. Stay on the paved trails, DON'T TOUCH ANY FORMATIONS, keep voices to a whisper, and photo hounds at the back of the pack.
Off to a great start.
This part of the tour overlaps the Natural Entrance self-guided tour, so we didn't stop much.
Then we ventured onto a part of the paved trail that is only available to folks on the tour. Wow! I'm impressed so far.
Inside the King's Palace.
A long time ago, weddings and business meetings were held in this room.
Sometimes we went through low, narrow passages, but we never had to squeeze through any really tight spots.
Here we were in the Papoose Room which I thought was prettier than the King's Palace.
We then moved into the Queen's Chambers where there were huge drapery formations. Some of the largest in the world.
This is the Ice Cream Cone formation.
It's hard to show scale and perspective with these pictures, so every once in awhile I have to throw people into the mix to demonstrate how massive some of the rooms and formations are.
Now we are in the Green Lake Room.
And here is the Green Lake. More like a very small drip pool, but this one is about 8 feet deep. Nice.
Linda and I were both in awe of the caverns by the end of our little 1 1/2 hour tour.
We had lunch in the cave where there is a snack bar, rest area, souvenirs, and restrooms.
Then the plan was to go back up in the elevator and walk to the Natural Entrance. We would do the Natural Entrance Tour and once deep inside the cave, we would finish up with the 1 1/4 mile Big Room Tour.
On both of those tours, there are little signs with numbers 1 - 50. We rented this audio device - $3. At each numbered sign, you punch in the number and you get an audio message about what you are looking at. Pretty cool little deal.
We walked down to the natural entrance, where we were greeted by numerous signs warning of the steep, sometimes slippery paths. "Exhaustion and weak knees occur often". That 750 foot descent we did on the elevator we were now going to do on foot.
We were given the same instructions as before by another ranger. And she emphasized being quiet due to the echoes. The silence of the cave is a profound experience for many.
So we were on our way. This is the Bat Flight amphitheater overlooking the main cave entrance. Thought I would go ahead and show you that, since cameras are not allowed at the Bat Flight.
Standing at the mouth of the cave as we stared down at that long, steep climb. The Cave Swallows were flying in and out all around us.
And since we couldn't take pictures at the Bat Flight later, we got one of this little guy hanging out at the entrance.
End this extra friendly Canyon Wren wouldn't be ignored as its loud song echoed through the cave.
Another look down before we ventured in. Linda was happy she had her sticks.
Looking back up at the mouth from inside.
Now we're farther into the cave. That hole sure looks a lot smaller at this point.
A massive stalagmite.
This is a formation called Whale's Mouth.
That was the close-up of the draperies and this is the more distant view that looks more like a whale's mouth.
The cave was so large and the rooms so magnificent on this steep route. It was impossible to get photos to show the breathtaking sight. Often, we just stopped and stared and appreciated.
We let others hurry on by. Many didn't abide by the "keep voices to a whisper" instructions. So we waited until folks were out of earshot and just took in the views while enjoying the silence. When we could here only drops of water building the formations, it was indeed profound if not spiritual.
It was hard to imagine the time it took for water drips to build these structures. Plus they were falling from such a height, it was amazing that they fell precisely enough to grow something so thin.
Ah, the top of the Green Lake Room. We were getting close to familiar territory.
The Natural Entrance Tour is not easy. There are railings and it is a paved trail. But it is hard on the knees due to the steepness. With that said, if you come to Carlsbad and you are physically able to do that tour, do it.
Next we transitioned into the Big Room Tour. Okay. I've been on lots of "big room" tours. They take you to the biggest room in the cave, turn on the lights, and you look around and go "Yep, this is a big room."
Well the Big Room at Carlsbad is actually a series of enormous rooms that total about 1400 yards in length. That tour HAS to be done as well.
This is not such a great photo, but it does provide a little perspective with the people on the lower right. Thanks for wearing a bright red shirt, sir.
This is the Lion's Tail formation - for obvious reasons.
And these are massive stalagmites in the Hall of Giants.
Jim White, the original explorer of these Caverns, called this area Fairyland.
I've run out of superlatives by this time.
The Painted Grotto.
We're nearing the end of the 1 1/4 mile loop.
Another shot for perspective. A lovely pool and in the lighter area at the top left center you can see a tiny hand rail that signifies the trail ... way on the other side of the cave.
And the last of our photos for the day.
Hope you enjoyed our little cave tour.
Needless to say, we were quite taken with the beauty and grandeur of this cave. There are only a little over 30 miles of explored area in this cave as compared to 365 miles in Mammoth Cave. But if this cave had been in Kentucky, we would have visited a lot more often.
We arrived about 10:30 and by the time we finished all three tours it was 5:30. We had considered two day-trips to the caverns, but since we packed a lot in, we decided to go ahead and stay for tonight's Bat Flight and leave Carlsbad Caverns completely satisfied with our one-day visit.
We killed time and got a bite to eat returning for the Bat Flight at 7:30.
We made it back in plenty of time for the ranger talk on the bats. Now had we not been to the Frio Bat Cave in Concan, Texas back in April, we probably would have been more excited and more impressed.
In Concan, we were much closer to the bats, we could walk around, take pictures, watch the hawks pick off a bat or two for a meal, and the bats came out much earlier so there was more time to watch them before dark.
At Carlsbad, there were a lot more rules and a lot more distractions as about 10% of the big crowd ignored the rules.
Should you attend a Bat Flight at Carlsbad? Absolutely! It is amazing to watch the bats leave the cave and watch them spiral out like a bat tornado until they get high enough to clear the rocks around the cave. But if you have the opportunity to watch a bat flight in Concan or maybe at Bracken Cave near Austin, Texas, you can skip it here.
So our day the National Park finally ended around 9:00. It was a full, comprehensive day, and we loved the caverns. I think most people would enjoy a visit, and Carlsbad Caverns certainly has a couple more really big fans.