New Mexico Carlsbad Caverns

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

It's early. The sun begins to peek over the horizon of a cloudless sky. Although it looks as though it will be a bright, beautiful day, it doesn't matter much whether it rains or shines because I'm going to descend nearly 1,000 feet into the earth's crust for a subterranean sojourn in a realm of gigantic crystalline rock formations never touched by the rays of the sun. Over 30 miles of caves have been discovered in the Carlsbad system, including a 14-acre room large enough for a professional baseball game. Incredibly, this enormous underground domain was formed by simple groundwater - drip after tiny drip.

The best thing about riding to Carlsbad on a Honda Gold Wing 1800 is the road to the cave entrance. Almost nine miles from the entrance of the park to the cave, the road winds, and curls through a dramatic canyon before climbing steeply to the rim. The asphalt is new, black, and smooth, and from the top I can see the sweeping curves I've just leaned into. Another few bends and I park right in front of the Visitor Center. The northwest view of the Chihuahuan Desert below is immense and flat. Although it's a lot of nothing at all, it is one of the most distant vistas I've ever gazed upon.

In the Permian Age, 250 million years ago, this landscape looked quite different. The inland Delaware Sea covered the entire area and a reef 400-miles long formed beneath the surface. Eventually, the sea dried out, and exposed the desert area it is today. A few million years ago, the reef, full of limestone, uplifted and eroded. Open to the elements, a dissolving process began. Rainwater slowly made its way into the cracks and licked at the limestone. Hydrogen sulfide gas migrated upward, dissolving in the rainwater, to create sulfuric acid - the same stuff in a motorcycle battery. The resulting ages of corrosion hollowed out the reef to form Carlsbad Caverns.

The serpentine trail entering the cave proceeds to the first major room, the Bat Cave. Migrating Mexican free-tailed bats arrive each summer to roost and raise their young in the deep recesses of the high-ceilinged chamber. In mid-May, the bats make a nightly exodus from the cave. As the sun disappears, they stream out in a swirling cloud of darkness, thousands upon thousands, in a display that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. It's said that the early explorer Jim White discovered the cave by mistaking this phenomenon for heavy smoke in the distance. Visitors can watch the nightly exhibition - one of nature's most extraordinary sights - from the amphitheater surrounding the cave entrance.

Below the Bat Cave, the trail is marked with numbered exhibits that correspond with the numbers detailed through the headphones distributed at the visitor's center. With soft lights illuminating the cavern's dramatic structure, I learn of the creation and features of the cave. Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, draperies, flowstone, popcorn, and helictites are but a few of the featured geologic formations. Drip by drip, they grew over 500,000 years into columns and spires of differing shapes, sizes, angles, and colors.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the November/December 2003 back issue.