An Up and Down Day

We rested well last night for the Carlsbad Caverns adventure, got an early start (for us) and had an OK breakfast on the way at Happy’s. (the actress’s name was Carol Renee Modrall, and she was in ‘Young Guns’).

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is about a thirty mile straight drive from Carlsbad across the desert flatlands to White’s City; hang a right, then a beautiful winding drive up a 715 foot mesa through cactus-filled canyons.





At the top is the Visitors Center that’s under construction (due for completion in June) so our “Visitors Center” was a series of grey windowless trailers in the parking lot labeled Tickets, Book Store, Gift Shop, and Restrooms.

The caverns can be entered from the surface via the Natural Entrance, a huge hole in the ground with a serpentine walkway which takes about an hour and a half, or via the elevator which drops you 750 in a minute. Given the condition of our limbs, we chose the elevator.

We did an hour and a half self-guided-walk around the perimeter of the ‘Big Room’ (equivalent to 14 football fields) and then took the elevator back up for a snack and to use the restrooms. We elevatored back down for a 2:00 Ranger-led tour of separate rooms called the Kings’ Palace, and other fancifully-named extraordinary spaces, named by Jim White, a sixteen-year-old fence mender, who, in the 1800s, was the first person to have the courage to go down into the dark and explore using just a wood-and-wire, self-fabricated ladder and a coffee pot filled with kerosene and a rope wick in the spout. He’d discovered the cave when he saw what he thought was smoke at the top of the mesa that turned out to be millions of bats leaving at dusk for their nightly feed.

In the huge room, ingeniously crafted walkways and handrails weave through a space difficult to comprehend. The stalactites, stalagmites, and gypsum blocks were dimly but dramatically and effectively lit with theatrical lighting connected with over two miles of nearly invisible wiring.


Two young Rangers provided narration and answered questions. At one point they made sure we were all seated and turned the lights out so we could experience the velvety, zero-light darkness experience by White. Profound!

Rooms and entire cave systems are still being discovered and mapped in the Carlsbad Park. In fact, there are entire rooms below the areas open to the public extending down over 1,000 feet.

We came back up in the elevator to the restrooms again, then drove down the 715 foot mountain to Whites City, to the Velvet Garter Saloon (not as glamorous as it sounds), filled mostly with other cavern tourists who were planning to go back up to see the mass exit of bats at seven.

We went back up the mountain and gathered in an amphitheater to watch the nightly bat flight from the bat cave. In a build-up to the big event, the ranger gave a good talk and we learned a lot more about Mexican Free-tail bats. The bats winter in Mexico and return to Carlsbad in the Spring to breed. The big return begins in mid-May, so we were a bit early, but on the night before, thousands were seen. We waited until dark, but saw only a few dozen. Oh, well, no bats, but it was a beautiful, still night to sit in the desert and watch the cave swallows hunting under the near-full moon.

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