After getting rained out by an intense thunderstorm during my first attempt at a national park trip (Great Smoky Mountains National Park), I was more than ready to get my nature on and wash the disappointing taste of Austin out of my mind. So after a ridiculous late night drive where my GPS took me on crazy back roads, I hit an armadillo (still feel really bad about this. I tried to avoid you, friend! I’m sorry!), and saw something like 50 deer over the course of two hours that forced me to drive at half the posted speed limit I finally got to Carlsbad. It’s a cave, so I just assumed there’d be basically nothing to see until I got underground, and that seemed to be the case all the way until the park entrance. Out of nowhere the road starts a twisting, casual ascent that is the perfect cure for the flat interminable highways that carve out most of Texas.
Pretty soon you’re at the cave entrance high above the roads you’ve been following. That’s when stuff gets really good. There’s two ways to get into Carlsbad Caverns, the natural entrance and the elevator entrance. The elevator will bring you down 800 feet in a few minutes, the natural entrance requires a steep walking descent that is about a mile and a half and requires a solid half hour of careful effort. But, if your body can take it, the natural entrance is easily the better choice. Going from an air conditioned building straight down to the depths of the cave doesn’t give the same perspective of just how far underground the descent actually takes you. Watching the sunlight fading to a dimmer and dimmer glow is really a bizarre, but awesome, experience and if you make it to Carlsbad you should really try to go for it. There are also countless sites to see on the walk down that prepare you for the majesty of Carlsbad’s final level (or at least the final level open to the public).
From here, I’m going to let the pictures take over a bit, because I simply don’t think I can describe exactly what it’s like down in The Big Room, as they call it (click on the pictures so you can see the full detail). I knew about stalagtites and stalagmites and columns and all that, so I thought that Carlsbad would, in some ways, be a rehash of the images I’d created in my mind. But in reality, it’s on an incomprehensible level. It’s not just some tites and some mites, it’s an otherworldly conglomeration of so many designs that I really didn’t believe my eyes. I was stunned into taking so many pictures that my camera battery died before I completed the tour of The Big Room and had to go up to Planet Earth to recharge for the guided tour I signed up for later that day.
In fact, maybe that’s the best way to describe it. When you’re down in the caverns you no longer feel like you’re on Earth, or at least not an Earth that you’re familiar with. The Big Room is quite big considering it’s a single hole someone holding itself open from 800 feet below the Earth’s crust, but on the modern human scale it isn’t absurdly large. Another mile or so takes you on a loop around the entire area, but it’s not the size of the room that is actually impressive. It’s the number of formations and their proximity to one another that makes Carlsbad one of a kind. I couldn’t take ten steps without seeing a formation that made me want to take pictures, write poems, and reach out to touch it (you can do those first two, but the last one is strictly off limits. Unless you want your gross oily hands to permanently disfigure everything).
Even more impressive is the fact that Carlsbad has more to offer than The Big Room and the natural entrance. I didn’t stay for it after having bats disappoint me in Austin, but the nightly exit of bats from the cave is supposed to be quite thrilling and provide the spectacle that Austin’s Congress bridge failed to. Then there are the guided tours which, at $6, are basically the best deal ever created. The only tour available during my visit was The Queen’s Chamber (though the staff made it sound like there were other tours available in the past and should be in the future) and it was magnificent. The formations in this area take on a fluid, gesticulating appearance that are still a little baffling to me. They really don’t seem like they should exist, but somehow they do and the only response I could muster was to stare at them, mouth agape, and let my mind go blank. There is also a fun little trick where the guide turns off all the artificial lighting and encourages the group to be silent. You can’t see your hand an inch in front of your face and the only thing that accompanies the ticking of your heart are the soft pops of water dripping from the cave’s ceiling.
I can’t recommend Carlsbad enough. It’s a great park with unbelievable sights and it is entirely affordable. The elevator entrance makes it accessible to those who aren’t in perfect health and the guided tours just increase the sense of awe that every second in this cave provides. If you ever find yourself within a five hour drive of Carlsbad, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t take the trip.