Saturday, July 25, 2009
Day number one of our family vacation was spent driving, setting up camp, swimming, and chasing bunnies. Day number two we spent at Carlsbad Caverns exploring the underworld. At the visitor's center we learned that there are two ways to get down into the caverns. The weanie way is to take an elevator straight down into the middle of the caverns where there are restrooms and even a small snack bar (which has been woefully mis-named the "Lunch Cafe'" even though it doesn't actually offer LUNCH). The Dirks way is to hike a half mile to the natural entrance, then hike 1.4 miles (about an hour and a half)into the interior of the cave where the main tours start. Never mind that there are no restrooms between the visitor's center and the center of the caves, we're tough. We loaded Haven into her kelty, strapped on our sensible shoes, equipped ourselves with water and peanut butter crackers, checked the batteries on our cameras, and set off for an underground adventure.
Even though we had seen photos of the entrance, we were all amazed at how HUGE the natural entrance is. As soon as we approached the giant hole in the earth, we heard and saw hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny birds. Turns out Carlsbad Caverns is home to the largest colony of cave swallows in the world! The temperature outside of the cave was a sweltering 90+ degrees, but inside the cave the temp holds at a steady 56 degrees, so we donned jackets shortly after exiting the sunlight. The caves are very dimly lit, especially toward the entrance, which keep the swallows and other creatures from going very far into the cave. Once my eyes adjusted, I was amazed at the sheer size of the cave. Hard to imagine something so enormous existing under your feet. As we hiked through the natural entrance route, we descended 750 feet underground. Other than a little bit of green algae growing on boulders near the entrance, there was no vegetation to be seen. Speleothems of every conceivable shape and size decorate the caverns. In order to remember which is which, we learned a couple of easy sayings: "stalactites hold 'tight' to the ceiling" and "you 'might' trip over a stalagmite." The variety was amazing, like God set out to decorate that cave just to wow visitors. Some of the formations look bubbly, like popcorn. Some of them are almost slimy in appearance, as if made of material that oozes instead of rock. Some of them (called "curtains") look like fabric. Some of them are jagged like crystals. One of my favorite features were the underground pools. The water is so clear that sometimes I wasn't sure it was actually there. Flash photography reveals a beautiful green tint to the water that actually comes from the rock beneath it.
The massive size, hush, lack of plant and animal life, and the strange "rock" formations lend themselves to an outer space feel.
When we reached the lunch room, we had a snack, a rest, and a potty break, then we set out to explore the big room. It was hard for me to imagine anything on a grander scale than what we'd already seen descending into the cavern, but the big room was definitely big. By the time we'd hiked the whole "Big Room" route, we had hiked for over four hours. Haven was asleep in the kelty, but Avery was pooped out! We opted to take the elevator up instead of hiking it (yes, we weanied out). After hours of hiking vigorously, we'd seen just over half of the cave! It was an amazing visit, something we all agreed we'd definitely do again, but next time (if the kids are old enough), we want to don helmets and do our own cave exploration. spelunking