For starters, Carlsbad Caverns is unlike any other national park I’ve been to. They’ve all been unique to the area that they’re located in, and because of that I’ve seen lots of tall mountains, and bountiful wildlife. But I’ve never before gone underground in a national park before.
In fact, aside from living in my basement every summer growing up, I’ve really never gone underground ANYWHERE before. But that was all about to change, and I was super excited about it.
Another thing I was kind of excited about was that my 28th birthday happened to fall on the same day as my day at Carlsbad Caverns. About a million times in my life I’ve said, on my birthday, something like, “I wish I could go hide in a cave instead of celebrating,” and this was my opportunity to actually make my birthday wish come true!
I was a little bit confused when I got there. I had gotten used to flashing my America the Beautiful pass at a friendly ranger, just past the park sign, and proceeding to hike my way around the place.
None of those things happened in Carlsbad. I did meet some really nice people who took some pictures for me in front of the park sign. Val and Bob, I know you don’t see your wonderful photography here. It’s nothing against your skills, instead its because when you left, and I looked at the photos, I thought to myself, “ugh. I look so tame.” And considering that it was my 28th birthday, I felt determined to prove to the world that I’m still not a grown up. So I climbed instead.
But after that, nothing went as expected. For one thing, every plant had a coat of ice on it. That might not be unusual for the area, but it was unusual to me. The next thing was, it took a decent amount of time to get to the Visitor’s Center. Once I found it though, it surprised me that I walked into a ticket queue. The auto plaza rangers were replaced by regular, behind the counter, ticket sellers. That isn’t a bad thing though, because you’re able to buy your tickets for ranger tours right when you buy your admission pass. But more on that in a bit.
I got my admission pass, (included with the America the Beautiful pass) inquired about ranger tours, and was told that there were none available, so slightly disappointed I scooted my way through to the doors to a more typical Visitor’s Center area. There were exhibits to check out, including the topographical map I’ve grown accustomed to admiring. Then, if you proceed through the back doors, you’ll find yourself on the pathway to take you into the caverns.
Through the Natural Entrance to the caverns, you’ll start by zigzagging your way downward, leaving the sunlight behind slowly. The further I got the more my anticipation rose. Would the caves feel stifling? I don’t ever like to feel trapped, and burying yourself underground is a great way to feel trapped. Would there be monsters hiding in the darkness? Nobody likes monsters that lurk in the dark.
That didn’t stop me from skipping forward though. Even if the experience was scary, I love to be scared.
Eventually I started to settle in. The caves were not stifling, in fact they were HUGE. Even Marlowe could have probably gone for a spin. I found that I did not feel trapped, instead I felt this urge to keep moving forward, to travel into the far reaches of the cave. As for monsters hiding in the darkness, I’m almost positive they might be there, but they didn’t bother me during my trip.
My eyes adjusted to the dimness fairly quickly, but the caves weren’t as dark as I thought they would be. There are LED lights illuminating nearly everything of interest on the self guided areas. They just recently switched to LEDs because in the past, incandescent lights were causing algae to grow on the rock formations. There are currently observations underway to see if the LEDs prevent that from happening.
The Native Americans believed that humans were created in the Carlsbad Caverns, and that as such, they should not return there. As someone who’s finds it difficult to have faith in nearly every religious story, I was surprised to realize that I could actually believe this. I knew inherently that it could not be true, for many people had entered and explored the caverns. And, well, there is the theory of evolution and all that. But looking into the Bottomless Pit made me feel a sense of foreboding, and having a story in the back of my mind that explain away that feeling helped me feel more comfortable. I think as humans we are generally terrified of the unknown, whether it be the outer reaches of space, customs and cultures of others that don’t make sense within our own, or the dark depths of a cave. By no means should these things be shied away from through, exploration is also an integral part of human nature, and I believe we should be exploring every single thing we can.
With a newfound feeling of making philosophical advancement, I wrapped up my self guided tour of Carlsbad Caverns.
The self guided tour brings you from the Main Corridor to the Big Room, and following them both start to finish would create a 2.5 mile trail. If that sounds like to much, you could take the elevator to the beginning of the Big Room path, eliminating the 1.25 miles of the Main Corridor. In my opinion, unless the steep descending path is too difficult for you, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Instead, if you need to cut the path short, it would be better to take the shortcut in the Big Room. You will still miss some things, but they will not be as integral to the experience.
After strolling my way through both paths, I took the elevator back to the Visitor’s Center. Part of me wanted to walk back out, but part of me is lazy and those steep switchbacks didn’t seem like much fun. That turned out to be a good thing that my laziness won out, because once back to the surface, I went to see if I could get a spot on a tour the next day. I had my heart set on learning, and I realized that I was having too much fun experimenting with low light photos to read most of the information that I had passed that day.
Luckily, I went to a different salesman at the counter, because he informed me that the first gentleman was actually wrong, and that there was a tour that day, starting in 10 minutes. At the time of my visit, Carlsbad Caverns offers six different Ranger guided tours. The one I found myself doing was the Left Hand Tunnel Tour. Some tours include the words, “crawl, belly crawl” or “crab-walking, and crouching” in their descriptions. Others include, “lit, paved trail” or “scenic beauty.” The Left Hand Tunnel does not use any of those words. It is not the most beautiful tour offered, nor is it particularly thrilling, instead it is a nod to the explorers of the past. Each member of the tour is equipped with a candle lantern, and we spent an hour and a half exploring the darkness as those who came before us did.
During that tour, we were able to explore parts of the caverns that weren’t quite so tainted by humans. There was a very visible trail, but it wasn’t paved and lined with railings. We brought our own lights, but the depths of the cave remained in complete darkness. We even got to experience the true darkness of the cave, which might have been the most magical part of the day.
As a way to gradually decrease the darkness, we were tasked with blowing out our candles by our birthday month. When we got to mine, I might have let it slip that it was my birthday, and I got to blow out my candle as a group of strangers singing Happy Birthday to me. As their voices echoed around the cave, I was excited that I got to retreat into a cave for my birthday, but also excited to surface and finally have service again so I could thank all the well-wishers who reached out to me that day. The absolute darkness of the cave didn’t feel so dark after that, since those strangers lit a light in my heart.
That concluded my time in Carlsbad Caverns, and I drove out of the park feeling invigorated by the day I had just experienced. And as one last birthday gift, I caught a whole herd of barbary sheep just chilling on the side of the road. (special thanks to Ranger Ross, pictured above, who helped me identify the sheep. He also writes comics and you should check them out.)