Older National Parks have a certain amusement park character. When the parks were carved out of the land sensation over ruled preservation. The parks were administered more as attractions and less as nature preserves. All effort was taken to align the roads and paths so the most outlandish view of every spectacle could be easily visited by the masses. In the early era, the National Parks were America’s Disneyland. This was, I suppose, a good thing. It is the popularity of the original parks that propelled the National Park concept forward. Would we have any National Parks if the first ones had been dry and uninteresting duds?
Seven hundred and fifty feet below the surface, thirty plus miles of cave lie below the Guadalupe Mountains near Carlsbad. A small portion of these caverns is open to visitors. Miles of paved and hand railed paths take visitors through the attractively lit tourist sections of the cavern.
Once underground unimaginable cave formations appear in every direction. Over years water has mediated the deposit of minerals in clusters producing soda straws, cave popcorn, stalagmites, stalactites, cave draperies, and flowstone. Some of the formations are massive; others are small and fine. It all makes for a different, bizarre, and sometimes surreal world inside the cave.
There are two ways to enter into Carlsbad’s main caverns. The easiest way to visit is to take the elevator down from the visitor center on the surface. That’s right, there’s an elevator, actually two elevators, whisking visitors 750 feet below the surface. It doesn’t get much easier than this. The caverns can also be entered on foot. A paved path leads through the bat amphitheatre and into the Natural Entrance. From the edge of the sunlight, after a couple miles of trail and 750 feet or so of descending, the walkway reaches the underground lunchroom and curio shop. Near the cantina lifts take all of the cavern visitors back to the surface.
No headlamps or torches are necessary to see the surreal scene below ground. From the higher points, the cave’s lighting is sufficient to see long vistas across the massive cavern. Though it feels a bit like Disney, the effect is incomparable.
The cave, without artificial light, is utterly dark. That seems obvious but most of the time when we feel we are in darkness there are enough photons bouncing around for the eyes to register shades of black. This is not so deep in the cavern. We briefly experienced the disorientation of total blackness during a lights out moment on the King’s Palace guided tour. Against the pure dark our eyes strained to see nothing. It was a visit, thankfully brief, to the claustrophobia of total blindness.
Our blackout period reminded us that viewing the cavern was not always as easy as it is today. Jim White, a 16-year old cowboy, was the first person to explore deep into the cave. Using a wire ladder and kerosene lantern, both homemade, White found and named the areas that the tourist trails now cover. His discoveries include the Big Room, King’s Palace, and Queen’s Chamber. White discovered these chambers, all 750-feet below the surface, within 5 days of his first venture into the cave. At Carlsbad, narrow passages lead into massive chambers. At every turn of White’s lantern, a new spectacle appeared to lure him deeper underground.
White was drawn back compulsively into the cave; his explorations continued for years. After White’s death in 1946 spelunkers continue to find new passages and chambers.
One thing that Jim White could not possibly see on his explorations was the true enormity of the underground space. Carlsbad’s caverns are massive. The Big Room is the seventh largest subterranean chamber that has been found in the world. Imagine being inside several Louisiana Super Domes fused together and you can get some small sense of the scale of Carlsbad’s Big Room. The Big Room is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 350 feet high! Yet, until the lights were installed, no visitor to the caves could fully experience the feel of such a big underground chamber.
Underground sound suggests the sense of space nearly as much as light. The still moist air that does not belong to the outside world conveys sound across the cavern. Distant echoes reinforce the vast emptiness of the space.
While modern visitors can experience the vastness of the lit up Big Room they can’t, at least without special considerations, know the unraveling of the cave’s mysteries in the manner that Jim White did. Exploring the cave at the edges of a lantern’s light must have been a true adventure. Indeed, Jim White felt that the cavern should not be lit for the tourists. Visitors, he figured, should have a similar experience entering the cave as when he first did. He had a point.
No matter how Carlsbad Caverns are lit, visiting in person is a must. Pictures cannot and do not convey the sense of openness in an enclosed space. Indeed, the caverns were one of Ansel Adams’ least favorite places to photograph. He could not create a picture that does justice to the scene. A well framed picture might tell much of the story of Yosemite’s Half Dome but no picture of Carlsbad Cavern’s underground world comes close to recreating the sense of being inside the caves. It is a frustrating place to photograph. It is a frustrating place to convey the feeling of being there.
Carlsbad Caverns amazes. Old school National Parks are about the spectacle. Carlsbad’s caves do not disappoint. True it is always better to visit any park than to just view videos or page through pictures. Being there is always best. In the case of Carlsbad Caverns, a personal visit is essential. This National Park has to be experienced first hand to truly be appreciated.