Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the southeast corner of New Mexico is home to an incredible underground paradise. The list of biggest and best found at Carlsbad is astounding and includes the deepest limestone cave in the United States (1,567 feet), the fifth longest cave network in the world (Lechuguilla), and the largest cave room in the world (The Big Room). Research continues below the surface and new caverns continue to be discovered. On the surface the park covers over 46,000 acres of the Chihuahua Desert furrowed with deep canyons and high ridges crisscrossed with backcountry trails and ancient roads.
Carlsbad Caverns isn't one single network of caves; it is actually 85 different caves with Lechuguilla being the largest and deepest in the park. The cave's history goes back 250 million years when a 400 mile long reef was formed in a large, shallow inland sea. The reef, shaped roughly like a horseshoe was formed from the deposits left behind by sponges, shellfish, algae and even calcite that leeched out of the water. As the reef grew it cracked under its own weight. Eventually the sea evaporated and the ancient reef was buried under thick deposits of natural salt and forgotten.
About three to five million years ago the area began to uplift and erosion from great floods to the east and north began to uncover the now hard limestone reef. Acidic rainwater seeped through the cracks and ate the limestone remains of the life that died 245 million years ago. Sulfuric acid formed from hydrogen sulfide gas rising up from huge oil deposits deep in the earth. As the limestone was dissolved cracks became passages and chambers, chambers became caverns, and the steady trickle of acidic water formed a dizzying array of cave formations, Carlsbad Caverns was born. Meanwhile, on the surface of the earth, the tops of the exposed, rocky reef became the Guadalupe Mountains.
Naturally most visitors to the park plan their activity underground and for good reason. Carlsbad Caverns has two self-guided cave tours and six guided tours. Cave tours range from relatively easy underground strolls to down and dirty exploration that will require you to leave your claustrophobic tendencies at home.
The highlight of any visit to the park, even if you are a diehard caver who doesn't want to deal with crowds, is taking either the Natural Entrance Route or the Big Room Route. Either tour will bring you to the 14-acre Big Room, the largest single cavern in the world.
To get a better appreciation of the aptly named Big Room think about this. At 1,800 feet long, up to 1,100 feet wide and on average 225 feet high, the Big Room could hold 34 football fields, including room for the end zones! Of course the Big Room isn't filled with screaming football fans, it is filled with incredible cave formations, also called speleothems.
The Natural Entrance Tour starts at the historic entrance of Carlsbad Caverns. The one mile long path descends over 750 feet into the earth down steep and narrow trails. The somewhat difficult trail is not ideal for children or people in poor health. As you descend down the Main Corridor you enter into another world. The cave temperature is a comfortable 56 degrees, a welcome break from the 100-degree heat of the desert. Along the way a number of features can be seen including Bat Cave, Devil's Spring, the Baby Hippo, Green Lake Overlook and Iceberg Rock. Iceberg Rock is estimated to weigh 200,000 tons, and fell from the ceiling thousands of years ago. Another incredible feature along this route is the Boneyard. Here you can explore a maze of dissolved limestone peppered with holes, resembling a giant sponge or Swiss cheese. The trail ends at a bank of elevators back to the surface and also at the beginning of the Big Room Route.
The Big Room Route is the easier of the two paths. Accessed by elevator, this one-mile long trail goes around the other perimeter of the Big Room. It is amazing to think that you can spend an hour underground, and only see one cavern! This loop trail is flat, smooth and well lit, and ideal for families. Major features include Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Lion's Tale, The Dolls Theater, The Chandelier, Rock of Ages and the colorful Painted Grotto. The cavern is incredibly decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, columns, draperies, and flowstone, just to name a few of the features. Visitors who want to combine the two routes can take the Natural Entrance Tour to the elevators and then take the Big Room Tour.
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