Back in the early part of the 1900's a young cowboy named Jim White made a discovery that changed the world of caving and spelunking forever. One day at dusk, he spotted what he thought was smoke pouring out of a wide cave entrance in the Guadalupe Mountains. It turned out to be bats...millions of bats...leaving home for their nightly feasting on tons of insects.
Today we know that cave as Carlsbad Caverns...a New Mexico landmark that draws 600,000 visitors a year and offers you a look into a world beyond belief.
There are two self-guided tours available to visitors...one is to just take elevators down from the visitors center 750 feet and explore the largest underground chamber in the western hemisphere. If you're a little more energetic take the Blue Tour...a fairly long hike down over 800 feet...then back up to the same big room the other folks visit. This trip is one that starts at the natural entrance to the cave. This tour shows you all that is open to the public. Starting at the switchbacks...there is a formation you can touch..the last formation you can touch. The oil on your skin will waterproof and stain the rock formations...so don't touch anything else.
Bill Justice is a Park Ranger. “Well, the process of forming the cave began 260 million years ago when this area was a reef on the edge of a shallow inland sea. That reef ultimately was exposed when the sea dried up and became the mountain that this cave is in now. All of the cave...almost all of the cave exists within that reef. The cave has been...has formed for the last five million years and actually continues to form and change even right now.”
For a nominal fee...rent a radio receiver...and listen to recorded information as you wander along. You are in another world here..an ethereal journey into an unreal world decorated by time.
“The area we are in right now,” says Bill,“ is the Twilight Zone. This is the intermediary area between the sunlight area on the surface and the total darkness; the natural total darkness of the cave.”
The total explored cave length of Carlsbad Caverns to this point is about 25 miles. We walk through three to four miles of that, which is about 70% of the explored passages.
The bats are still here...only about half a million these days...but...visitors aren't allowed any closer than about a-quarter-mile from where they spend their days doing...oh, bat things. So you don't have to worry about any unexpected encounters.
It's 56-degrees down here year round. The trail is fairly well lighted, although subtle enough not to take away from the natural beauty. But the mind boggles at trying to imagine the early explorations of this century's discoverer Jim White.
“I have seen some of the sections of the cave that he traversed with cowboy boots and I wouldn't do it with that.” Bill Justice shakes his head. “He did most of it alone, although he did take friends with him. He is extremely lucky to have survived it. Cowboy boots and kerosene lanterns. The amazing part about this room is that until Jim White actually saw it lit up with electric lights, once the Park Service had done that, he had no idea how large this room was. Because he could only light one corner of it at a given time. One little area, the area he happened to be in.”
The Big Room is one of the big drawing cards for this cave...14 acres of space topped with over 200-feet high ceilings in some places...you could put a whole football stadium in here if you were so inclined...although your time would be better spent viewing the natural artistry of a mother nature painting in rocks and water.
There are, of course, quaint descriptive names for some of the formations.. the Lion's Tails. The Bone Yard...and the Rock of Ages once inspired rangers and visitors to join in singing the hymn of the same name.
This cave is still growing, but...you must ignore your concept of time.
“We think about time in human lifetimes," says Bill, "about 80 years or 100 years. The cave formations that you're looking at around here are in many cases a million years old and have seen several ice ages. So the amount of time to form these to their present condition and to change them significantly is so great that you just have to forget how we normally think about time and think of it in terms of the way the earth has evolved over time.
"A human lifetime is insignificant in that amount of time. In a human lifetime, the cave formations behind me will probably grow less than 1/8th of an inch. The thickness of your fingernail."
Now if you do want to those bats we were talking about...every evening from may to late october, visitors and park rangers gather for an evening program explaining things you've always wanted to know about bats.
Another anger, not Bill Justice, explains. "In Carlsbad Caverns at the turn of the century we probably had eight or nine million bats inhabiting this cave."
And some things you didn't. Some kid in the audience asks if there's really such a thing called a Vampire Bat.
"Yes," the ranger replies.
"Where do they Live?"
Finally, the bats begin their nightly flight....these are mexican Free Tail bats and they migrate to Mexico for the winter...starting usually in late October or early November...but now...each night flight out they will eat at least two or three times their own weight.
It's been a hot summer for New Mexico...so the bats kind of..oh, dribble out in a frenzied speck here and several groups of rapid wing movements there. But during a good rainfall year..with the conditions just right...well...imagine hundreds of thousands of bats streaming out at once. Jim white's notion of smoke pouring out doesn't seem quite so far-fetched.
Carlsbad Caverns National PArk is located about 20 miles SW of the town of Carlsbad, NM, just off US 60/182. It's 150 miles from El paso on Highway 62. The Park is about 7 miles from White's City, which is kind of the last commercial center before entering the Park. There is a large motel there, restaurants and plenty of opportunities to buy the typical tourist stuff.
Numbers for the park are: (505)785-2232 or (505)887-6516. Their website is: www.nps.gov/cave. However, as of 1-12-02, all National Park websites are shut down as the result of a lawsuit.
There are about a dozen motels in the nearby town of Carlsbad.
If you like hiking with incredible views, visit Gaudalupe National Park just a few more miles SW of the Caverns and just as you come into the state of Texas. Guadalupe Peak is the highest in Texas (which is not saying a lot, but you could say you climbed the highest mountain in Texas).