I first became really aware of Carlsbad Cavern when I was perhaps ten or twelve years old. Like most boys, I was fascinated by caves, and had seen a few small ones in the Wisconsin area; but nothing like Carlsbad. I recall reading about caves that were hundreds of feet high, and had floor space measured in acres. There were passages that went on for miles, multiple levels, and even an underground lake. Then there were the bats, hundreds of thousands of them. What more could a boy ask for?
One of the favorite movies of my youth, was Journey to the Center of the Earth. When I discovered, via the end titles, that portions of the movie were filmed at Carlsbad, I knew I would go some day. Well, it only took me forty years to get there. In point of fact, several movies were filmed at the park; but the Park Service is being much more protective, these days. It is also pretty ironic that Journey to the Center of the Earth, as well as Gargoyles, and several of the other movies filmed here, were all about venturing deep into the nether regions of the planet. The floor of the cavern is deep beneath the Guadalupe Mountains; but is still about 3600 feet above sea level. This puts my home town of Milwaukee about 3000 feet closer to the center of the Earth than Carlsbad. Still, no epic films of underground adventure were made in Milwaukee.
The main section of the cave, including the Big Room, is over 700 feet below the surface. Lower levels of the cave go down past 1000 feet, and are not accessible to casual visitors. The uppermost levels of the cavern are actually right near the surface, at the natural entrance. This is located under a huge ledge, set at the end of a bowl shaped depression. The Park Service has built paths, and a series of switchbacks, so that those who wish, may take the more difficult route down to the main caves below. For most visitors, though, they will enter the caves through the visitor center.
The visitor center is reached along Walnut Trail road, and is about seven miles inside of the park boundaries. There is a large parking lot, and all of the usual facilities; but there is no camp ground, or other place to stay within the park. What the visitor center does have is a shop, a restaurant, and some auditoriums for talks, as well as rest rooms, and some exhibits about the caves. This is also where you go to purchase tickets for special tours, and to pay for park admission.
The visitor center houses, among other things, elevators going down to the main level of the caves. There have been elevators going down to the caves since 1931, though all of today's shafts had not been blasted until 1954. Visitors will be relieved to hear that the elevators are upgraded ,periodically with the last cars being installed in 1998. The cars will hold up to 25 people, which is something that I can vouch for personally. These cars travel at 800 feet per minute, and make the 754 foot trip down in 57 seconds. This is pretty fast for an elevator; but if you do the math, you realize that it comes out to about ten miles per hour. An indicator at the front of the car, shows the present location of the car in feet below the surface.
The windows, in the elevator doors, permit you to see the rock walls going by, as the elevator descends. Occasionally, the operator will turn off the inside lights, and turn on a light mounted on top of the car, so that you can get a better view of the rock walls. Reaching the bottom, you pop your ears a couple of times, and then look around. The elevator empties out into square room, tiled like a subway station. It is noticeably cooler, and quite damp. A set of revolving doors leads out into the caves. The doors are put here to act as an airlock, and prevent the cave air from blowing up the shafts. Before this precaution was taken, geologists noticed that the cave was beginning to dry out.
Whatever you are expecting, you will be surprised. I had seen photographs of this place, and had read many books and webpages; they did not prepare me. Coming out of the revolving doors, you are hit by the coolness, and dampness of the air. Despite the low temperature, you will quickly feel yourself sweating, because of the humidity. Off to one side is the underground cafeteria style lunchroom, while the other direction leads off to the cave trails. There is also a little gift shop kiosk. There are even cave ceilinged rest rooms down there. The whole place is lit up like a city street at night.
A ranger told me that these lights are turned out, after the caves are closed for the day. It would be frightening to be caught down here with the lights out; but there is little chance of that happening. The caves are well patrolled, and rangers walk the entire length of the trail before shutting down for the night. Certain sections of the cave, like the left hand tunnel, have no lights installed, and are available to visitors on ranger led tours only. Ranger led tours are also available for the lower caverns, which are partially lit, but mostly wild, and for the decorated chambers. The decorated chambers are a special case, and are shown on what is called the King's Palace tour. These caves were the original open sections of the park, and are completely paved, and lit. They are closed to general admittance, and available only by guided tour, because visitors were breaking off formations and and taking them home. You are now accompanied by rangers, who are as much guards as guides. Lights are turned on as the group enters, and off as it exits. A ranger brings up the rear, and insures that no one is left behind.
The Big Room tour is what most people see, when they come to this park. This is where the elevators go, and is the most highly developed part of the cave. The big room itself encompasses 8.2 acres, and is only one of a number of rooms, and tunnels which are a part of the Big Room tour. The tour is self guided, which is to say, you watch the signs and follow the paths. There are audio guides available, for a few dollars, which will tell you what you are seeing, if you press the appropriate number, marked on the trail. The Big Room route is marked, lit, and paved, being little more difficult to travel than a path through a city park. Parts of the Big Room route are wheelchair accessible; the other tours are more challenging.
Other tours offered include the King's palace, which is lit up, and paved like the Big Room Route, as well as the Left Hand tunnel, and the Lower Cavern, both of which are wild caves. A wild cave is unpaved, and unlit. There are a few lights in Lower Cavern; but these are placed to light certain sections, which are visible from the main caves above. Lower Cavern, Left Hand tunnel, and King's Palace are all reached through the main cave. There are other tours, including Slaughter Cave, which are seperate from the main caves, though some day a connection may be found. I have photos of all of the connected caverns, except for the Lower Cavern. This was a mistake on my part; but I heard the the Lower Cavern was challenging, and that a camera would only be in the way, and might be damaged. Next time I will know better.
The caves were first explored by Jim White, in 1901. He noticed some smoke in the sky. Upon closer investigation, he saw that it was erupting from a hole in the ground, which he took to be a volcano. Well, volcanos had no part in the formation of Carlsbad Cavern, and the "smoke" turned out to be a huge cloud of bats, coming out of their roosts to feed. A sensible man might have left, possibly after shaking his head in wonder. Fortunately, Jim White was not a sensible man. He climbed down into the cave, and in a series of visits, often alone, sometimes with fellow explorers, he mapped out about two thirds of today's known passages. The cave entrance had been known to the local cowboys, and had been known to the native inhabitants for hundred, if not thousands, of years; but White was the first man to methodically explore them.
The cave was mined for bat guano, essentially dried bat droppings, for years. There is still an estimated forty foot deep layer of the fertilizer deposited in the the section of the caverns, known as the Bat Cave; but mining operation ceased after the cave attained protected status. Jim White was a mining foreman, and became the first tour guide, for people who wished to see the caves. He would take early visitors down in guano buckets. The site was declared a National monument in 1923, after years of promoting by White. Unfortunately, though he was made chief guide, White's exploring days were over, as soon as the park took possession of the cavern. Geologists, and other "experts" would be brought in to finish the work that White had started.
When you look at the photographs on the following pages, please keep a few things in mind. First, the Park Service emphasizes that they use no colored lights in the caverns. All of the colors, hues, and shadings are those of the rocks themselves. Second, some of my photos may make the caves appear to be very brightly lit. In truth, they are not. Lighting in the caves ranges from that of a nightclub, to that of a bedroom, with night lights lit. For the msot part, it has the feel of a lit city street at night. Your eyes adapt quickly, though, and a camera, with a long enough exposure can make things stand out pretty clearly. Third, there is no natural light in any sections of the cave, except the first hundred feet or so of the natural entrance. It is, in it's natural state, pitch black down in the caves. Fourth, everything you see in these photos is down there right now. So make a plan to go and visit! Though I have organized the photos by tour, and in order, I am unable to name the majority of the features. Many have no names, so large is their number; but in many cases I was just overwhelmed, and could not remember, or make adequate notes. If you are looking for a catalogue of structures, then you are out of luck here. On the other hand, if you want to see what the cave looks like, and get a feel for the place, this is what I have tried to do.
Some Photographic Tours