Pros: Bat watching, the Big Room, Cave tours, cave formations, underground lunch room.
We all sat there and waited for the miracle that we had been told would occur at sunset. We intently stared at the quiet dark hole in the ground while the sun was setting and the warm afternoon air turned cooler. The shadows grew longer as our anticipation grew stronger. Was it true? Would it really happen? A hungry hawk was circling high in the dimming blue sky above us, telling us; yes it was true, the miracle would really happen and it would happen soon, and very soon.
Then we saw them, first one, and then a few. The crowd was cheering until that moment when suddenly thousands upon thousands of bats rose as one black funnel cloud out of the ground. For one moment we were all silenced by our own awe. The black funnel cloud soon formed a black swirling worm shaped cloud that slithered across the sky like an Arrakian sandworm. It was silent, excepting the barely noticeable whisper emanating from thousands of fluttering bat wings.
The hungry hawk above us in the sky went in for the kill and dove straight into the black giant worm like bat cloud. The bats dispersed thus creating a ball of scattered bats around the worm shaped bat cloud, but the hawk did not get a bat. Now the crowd was no longer silent. The audience was furious and shouting with anger at the hungry Hawk, "meanie", "murderer", "boooh!", "boooh for the hawk". A few other members of the audience raised their voices and mockingly derided those who did not understand the way of nature.
As if there was a mysterious magnetic field surrounding the worm shaped bat cloud the ball of scattered bats soon shrunk back into the bat worm. The hawk dove into the swirling bats once again and the black ball of bats formed again just to shrink back into the worm like cloud one more time. The process repeated itself a few times until the Hawk got a bat. Many were those who mourned the unknown bat, but the worm like bat cloud continued stretching itself across the sky and into the horizon, as far as we could see, and the circle of life continued.
Bat watching is one of the many fabulous things that you can do at the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. You can also visit the worlds largest cave room, take self guided tours, go on ranger guided cave tours, eat in the underground lunch room, and go on nature hikes. We visited here the first time when I was temporarily working at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque New Mexico; however, we have been back with the kids, for example, in 2006. Carlsbad Caverns is in my opinion one of the top ten destinations in the United States that I have visited. However, it is a virtually unknown destination to most European and other overseas visitors.
About the Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns are located in the Guadalupe Mountains in southeastern New Mexico. This is a very large system of caves and cave rooms. The total length of the rooms and the passages is not known, however, the explored area of the main cavern is more than 30 miles long. The main attraction in the park is the "Big Cave" and the "Big Room" in the Big Cave. The Big Room is 357,469 square feet or 33,210 square meters (about 700 acres). The ceiling height in the Big Room is about 330 feet (100 meters) and there are many holes, or pits, in the Big Room, the deepest one them being the bottomless pit which is 140 feet deep. I can add that there are about one million stalagmites, stalactites, columns and soda straws in the Big Room. The Big Room is very large and astoundingly beautiful.
You can hike into the interior rooms on your own via the natural entrance, or take an elevator directly down into the centre of the so called show cave area. Here you can go on a self guided tour through the Big Room, and eat in the underground lunch room (750 feet below the surface). However, there are also many ranger guided tours offered. For example, the Kings Palace tour, and the Left Hand Tunnel tour, the Slaughter Canyon tour, the Lower Cave tour, the Hall of the White Giant tour, and the Spider Cave tour.
We took the White Giant tour, the Palace Tour and the Left Hand Tunnel tour. The White Giant tour is a four hour tour which involves some climbing and narrow tight passage ways. However, you will also see some awesome cave formations on this tour, for example, the white Giant. We took the White Giant tour before we had kids (my wife was pregnant though). The other tours we took in 2006. The Palace Tour is one mile long and takes about one and a half hour. There is a fair amount of descent and climbing involved. On this tour you can view a variety of cave formations including helictites, draperies, columns, and soda straws. They also turned off the lights so that we could get a feel for what absolute darkness means. The Left Hand Tunnel tour is a two hour tour which takes you through many passages and rooms and showcases the history of Carlsbad Caverns.
For your information I can add that the caverns were not formed by water eroding rock, or by a rift. Carlsbad Caverns were dissolved by sulfuric acid along faults and cracks in the limestone rock. The limestone is two hundred and fifty million years old and was part of a reef complex along the edge of an inland sea.
The main attraction is, as stated, the Big Room. This enormous room is filled with a multitude of the most incredible formations. It is not only awe inspiring because of its size, it is also incredibly beautiful. The lighting is, of course, not sufficient so you cannot see the entire room all at once (that would be a waste of electricity). However, despite the dim light you can get a good look at the entire Big Room as you walk around it. They have built a path with handles which you are required to stay on. I can add that you can buy an audio tour for three dollars, but the sound was not great but good enough. Everytime you passed by certain spots you could listen. Guiding myself around the trail, listening to the audio, and partaking in the kids games turned out to be great fun.
Since there are one million beautiful cave formations in the Big Room they do not all have names. So my kids took responsibility for the naming of the formations and made up hundreds maybe thousands of names for the various formations. The names usually had something to do with Star Wars, for example, the Ewoks spears, Chewbacca's head in snow, Princess Lea's drapery, the drone fingers, the Prince of insufficient light, Jabba the Huts hand stand, etc. If you let your imagination flow you can have a lot of fun with kids while walking around the Big Room. I can add that my kids found the bottomless pit to be both fascinating and scary.
The White Giant tour was challenging, however, the Palace Tour and the Left Hand Tunnel tour are fairly easy tours that anyone can join in on. During those tours you get to see many interesting and beautiful formations, cave rooms, large columns, and underwater lakes. I remember one stop where the special lights made an under water lake shine with a purplish light.
It was slightly cool in the caves (56 degrees) so a light jacket or a sweater is recommended for those who easily get cold. The entrance fee is $6.00 and kids under 15 go in free. The ticket is good for three days. The tours all have their own prices ranging from $7 to $20. The cave is open from 8AM to 7PM during the summer and from 8.00AM to 5:00PM during winter hours. The last entry into the cave via the elevator is 5:00PM in the summer and 3.30PM in winter. The last entry into the cave via the natural entrance is 3.30PM in the summer and 2:00PM in winter. Tours are available from 8.30AM to 5PM in summer and 8:30AM to 3.30PM in winter. I can add that there are restrooms down in the cave as well as a lunch room which provides different vendors (mostly fast food).
One time we stayed at the Whites City Resort. This is not the most luxurious hotel but it is not roach inn either. It is a decent hotel which is very close to the caves. One room for two adults or a family is about $100. However, you can also stay in Carlsbad about 18 miles from the caves. There are several hotels and motels in Carlsbad.
Carlsbad Caverns is an often forgotten but highly interesting tourist destination in the United States. I would say that Carlsbad Caverns is, for example, almost as interesting as the Grand Canyon and definitely a lot more interesting then, for example, the more well known Niagara Falls. If you visit New Mexico and have a few days you should visit the Carlsbad Caverns. If you are touring the United States and are planning to stop in ten places or more then you should make Carlsbad Caverns one of your stops. The Carlsbad Caverns are highly recommended for Families, groups of friends, couples, and lone visitors.